Less fear means more love

Today’s lunchtime post typed in between bites of a rice bowl is inspired in part by my summer school students, by the current political news, and by a question my mom asked me.

I just wrapped up my last class of this summer school cycle. It was an emotional hour and a half, with students reflecting on what they learned during the past six weeks about writing but also about themselves, their learning, and their relationships with each other.

I always save the last class for reflection and evaluation. I think it’s important to pause and reflect when we finish a great undertaking. Usually, most of my students are happy with the course, but today was different. The air in the room was electrified. The students were sharing reflections about themselves that I’d never heard students share before. They were being honest and vulnerable, sharing deep wisdom, and they were attributing their growth to the way I showed up as a teacher. (I of course turned it back on them and reminded them how much their growth had to do with the way they showed up as students!)

I think this was the first semester that I showed up as a teacher in a way that aligned my outer performance with my inner values. It was a completely authentic version of myself, which I’ve never been able to do as a teacher before because I was so afraid of being judged. My actions were always tied to some uncertain-but-yearned-for outcome. I never just allowed myself to be. 

It’s hard being a female instructor. We know from studies that students generally deem their male professors competent from the start and wait for them to reveal incompetence, whereas students assume a female instructor is incompetent from the start and wait for her to reveal competence. My female colleagues and I feel the weight of this bias every semester in our interactions with students. Students ask how old we are, wanting to know if we actually have the authority and credentials to teach them. Students argue with us about their grades, coming to our offices and questioning our every move. They don’t do this with male professors nearly to the same extent they do it with us.

So there’s a lot of pressure to perform. To be perfect and unflappable. I’ve often thought to myself, “I’ve read the statistics. I know what you all think of me.” Then I’ve shut down any opportunity for real connection before I’ve even started. I find myself inflating grades just to avoid the inevitable “But are you sure?” conversation. See countless articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education about this practice among professors of all genders.

This semester, I let all that fall away. I showed up as me, results be damned. I let myself be vulnerable. I shared stories with them about who I am, where I come from, my college journey, my professional journey, and my mistakes and misconceptions along the way. But not in a preachy, “you should do this and avoid that” sort of way. More just like: you guys should know you’re not alone in feeling totally alone and impostor-y. I have felt that way, too. But I survived. And you will, too.

I found that we had more meaningful conversations in class and in my office hours. They did better work. And they really began to think about how they wanted to show up on the first “real” day of college this fall as well as in their lives right now.

I know we female instructors do more emotional labor with students than our male colleagues do. I’ve had a lot of students cry on my shoulder in particularly vulnerable moments. But I find emotional connection to be the most rewarding part of teaching. So what’s a girl to do? I can teach them a million writing techniques, but technique is useless without confidence to apply it.

Here was the lesson for me: dogged persistence in being me, in having the courage to love who I am and show up every day, flaws and all. I wasn’t obsessing over how students would perceive me or what I could do to make them think I was smarter or scarier or more likeable. I just went plodding along, day by day, taking in the small wins, making choices in each moment: what feels right here? What would Mallory do here? Not “what would a such-and-such kind of teacher do here?” Because I was able to put my own bullshit aside, I was able to be more of a champion for my students.

And the outcomes were unexpected. I knew they were enjoying the class, but I had no idea what it meant to them until today. They said I gave them the courage to take risks and show up vulnerably and let go of perfection, which then enabled them to relax and write more freely.

It was the most rewarding teaching semester I’ve ever had. Not because I got a lot of validation today. That was a nice cherry on top, but because every day I left the classroom feeling right with what had just happened. Feeling like I didn’t hide anything or compromise or pretend.  And the outcome aligned with that: we had created a community of trust and equitably distributed power.

What if we could all put our own bullshit aside as often as possible with everyone we know and love? How much better friends, teachers, lovers, and colleagues would we be? If we could all take responsibility for our own hang-ups and not let them poison our relationships, perhaps our relationships could become conduits for change and empowerment. If we could stop putting pressure on other people to make us feel better and just find ways to feel good ourselves, thus enabling us to ask others, “What can I do for you?” instead of “What can you do for me?”

I’ve always felt like teaching is my greatest contribution. It’s something I do that produces real value. For me, real value is seeing another person feel better or make better decisions because of something I did to empower them or celebrate them. I want to be an “enabler” of success. We feel “less than” so often in our lives, sometimes of our own making and sometimes by the making of people we know or even don’t know. But if someone can feel at ease and capable because of something I did for them, that, to me, is worth all the work.

This semester helped me see more than ever that how I show up every day matters. If we can bring our whole selves to the table and if we can lift others up instead of making them feel small, then we will be succeeding every day. This mean we have to be aware enough of our own fears to put them aside so we don’t put others down as a defense mechanism, whether those others are our students or our loved ones. Putting our own insecurities aside means we can be conduits for the success of others. And what could be more rewarding?

This is only my opinion, but I felt the power of it today and I wanted to share. If the news has been hurting you lately, remember this: we have the power to put our fears and insecurities about ourselves aside and empower our friends and community, but we also have the power to let our fears and insecurities trash our relationships by keeping each other down so as not to feel low ourselves. What will your choice be?


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