No Room for Ego in Teaching or Learning

A MiddleWeb Blog

Today my skirt fell off.

In the lunchroom.

The lunchroom was full of 4th graders.

Now, before anyone’s imagination gets away from them, I’ll set the record straight. I was wearing leggings and no one saw my undies or anything.

But, they did see me standing there, full lunch tray in hands, skirt around my ankles. They saw me look around to check if anyone saw (more on that later), and they saw me bend all the way over, grab my skirt and pull it back up.

Let that sink in. If you dare, put yourself in my shoes and imagine how it felt. Wow, right?!

Ego? Leave It at the Classroom (or Cafeteria) Door

There was a time when something like this would have felt mortifying. But, thanks to my two decades in the teaching trenches, it felt more funny than horrifying. Why? Because I learned a long time ago, there is no room for ego in teaching and learning.

There is no place where this is truer than in a middle school or junior high. Every day at this level is filled with small humiliations and other tests to our fragile adult egos. And, for kids at this age? Oh the awkwardness, the self-consciousness, the near constant crush of social worry that some of our children face!

If we are to survive teaching and learning in the middle grades, we’ve got to learn to laugh at ourselves and to not let our ego rule our emotions or responses. I often tell my students (and myself) that the folks who have the most fun in life are those who are the least self-conscious, who don’t worry about what other people see or say about them, and who are able to laugh at themselves.

Tricks to Letting It Go

Me, after the fall.

Some people seem to be born capable of letting go of their egos; others, like me, have to practice and cultivate the skill. Below are some tips to help you learn to keep the old ego in check because someday your skirt might fall off (or some equally ridiculous thing might happen). Or it might happen to a student and that student might need your counsel.

1. Act as if. This is one of my favorite strategies for harnessing my emotions. I previously shared it in a Heart of the School post. It’s the idea of creating a culture of joy in your classroom. The strategy is really simple: you just “act as if” you’re feeling the way you want to feel.

So, for example, when my skirt fell off, I wanted to not be embarrassed and to enjoy the moment as super funny, and so I acted as if I felt just that way. Amazingly, our thoughts really can shift our emotions, and it was just seconds before I was laughing so hard in the cafeteria that I could barely breathe, and tears of hilarity (rather than of embarrassment) were running down my cheeks.

2. Be honest. When we’re embarrassed or hurt, it can feel like a good idea to ignore the entire situation that caused those emotions. But, if it’s at all possible, confront both your feelings and the situation.

When I was standing in the cafeteria skirtless, my first instinct was to hope no one saw me but a quick look around assured me that my wardrobe malfunction hadn’t gone unnoticed.

In fact, the custodian, who I’ve known as a coworker and friend for more than eight years, looked at me with a wry smile, pointed to the cameras that record lunchroom activity, and said, “I’m marking down the date and time. You’ll be seeing this footage at your retirement party” (which, by the way, won’t be for at least another 15 or 20 years). Instead of acting like nothing happened, I laughed and said, “I’ll look forward to seeing it!” And I kind of do look forward to it (kind of.)

3. Use the experience for good. There is something to be learned or otherwise gained from almost every experience. Now, truth be told, I’m not happy my skirt fell off and I wish I had been more mindful of its whereabouts. But it did. I laughed and then, as you’ll see below, I used the experience to help others laugh too.

Community Building at Every Opportunity

I believe that an essential component of successful schools is a warm, open, collaborative relationship between all stakeholders. When a community embraces the school, the school has the support it needs to make great things happen.

In my community, most parents use Facebook to share, celebrate, and communicate with one another. That means I use Facebook too. I use it to bond with the community through learning about their lives and allowing them into mine.

The incident in the cafeteria seemed like a great opportunity to laugh with the parents I serve and to make our sense of community stronger. So I posted the comment and picture you see above. It caused a flurry of responses that showed not only were people happy to laugh with me but that similar things had happened to many.

Through a Wider Lens

There are few professions as challenging as teaching, and there is a tendency for new teachers (and plenty of veterans) to think they have to do it by themselves. We don’t have to and shouldn’t treat education as a do-it-yourself endeavor. Let it go, teachers, and reach out when you need to.

Can’t seem to manage all of the grading? Having trouble with a student or two? Don’t know how to respond to a parent? Wondering how another teacher seems to make it all look so easy? Classroom management problems? Let go the ego and ask for help! There is no room for ego in teaching.

Similarly, students and teachers alike must learn that “failure” is a part of almost any growth experience, and every single day should be full of growth experiences in our schools. We need to learn to not be embarrassed by learning and to embrace our struggles as part of the process.

This sentiment is often echoed in the two memes shared below. Share both with your students and remind yourself of them frequently too. There is no room for ego in learning.

Who knows, maybe you’ll make it through your entire teaching career without anything falling off. Honestly, I hope you do! However, there is no way for a teacher to make it through their career or a student to make it through the middle grades without any insults to the ego. So we might as well get used to the idea of letting it go – and even turning it into something positive.

P.S. I still laugh when I think of bending over to pick up my skirt, and my Facebook friends had lots of funny stories to share as well. Give letting go of your ego a try and share a time you were (or could have been) embarrassed in the comments! Come on, teachers! Let’s laugh together!

Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a National Board Certified Teacher and a self-proclaimed #edudork with master’s degrees in reading, library, and leadership. Her experience includes teaching learners in remote Alaskan villages, inner cities, and rural communities. She currently is a school principal, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute and writes for We Teach We Learn. Rita's first book,Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Culture of Effort and Joy in the Classroom (Routledge/MiddleWeb), was published in July 2019.

2 Responses

  1. Tara says:

    Exactly! Egos are not something we need to carry with us all day. We are all humans and if we want our students to act as true learners, we need to check our own ego at the door and show them the raw side. Too many teachers close their door and don’t let anyone in and it’s a shame since there are so many great things going on behind those closed doors!
    By the way, we recently sang “Let it go!” to a student who was stuck on an error he made. We all had a chuckle and seemed to move past the hardship he was feeling. Laughter is the best medicine!

  2. Rita Platt says:

    Thanks for the comment, Tara! I LOVE singing songs to kids. Having fun makes the world go round. BIG HUGS!

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