“If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?” has always been my motto. In my opinion, it’s easier to put yourself down before someone else does. “Beat them to the punch,” as I like to say. This strategy, for the most part, worked for me in professional settings when I’d made minor mistakes in front of my teaching colleagues, or I was surrounded with intellectuals who I felt were stellar in their field. Comments like, “I know this might sound stupid but, …” or “Call me dumb. but I think …” helped soften the blow if my responses weren’t well received or accurate.
While some might consider this a backward approach to covering up an insecurity, I thought this would allow me to shake off my insecurities and if I exposed them before anyone else, than I could avoid the uncomfortable awkwardness of not knowing something or being called out on deficiencies. My biggest fear was that my colleagues would view me as insufficient. Little did I know, that was about to change.
As a teacher, I don’t work in a typical high school. I serve students in an early college setting where kids are dual enrolled in the local junior college while also completing their high-school courses. In the past few years, we have been ranked by US News World and Report as one of the top schools in the country, ranking 16 in the state of California, 38 in charter schools, and 147 in the nation. So our reputation is impressive. I’m very proud of where I work, but being at the top is not easy. Unlike my students, I can’t relate to that idea of perfection. When I was a student, I never enrolled in honors classes or even got straight As. I was your typical C student. I never failed, but I never reached the top or had that desire to feel like I had to get an A. I was content with a C. I wish I could have gotten better grades, but some topics came a little tougher for me.
Flipping the role as a teacher, I try to let students know it’s okay to not be perfect. As mentioned earlier, my approach was to let others know I wasn’t perfect. I felt people were more forgiving if they knew I didn’t know everything, trying to take the pressure off unachievable measures. Students who typically attend our school have their own personal expectations of perfection. While I (and my colleagues) try to reduce this stress and the “perfection climate,” it often falls short when kids put their own expectations of perfection on themselves. Rather than pointing out their mistakes, my students do the opposite approach. They don’t speak unless they are certain their answers are correct for fear they might be wrong. Surrounded by other students trying to achieve the same goals, the last thing they want is to look as if they know nothing.
So as a teacher I try to use humor to shrug off imperfection in the classroom. “It’s okay to make mistakes” is the common refrain. My school tries to model to students that we learn by our lack of success and grow as learners if we don’t get it right the first time. Yet as I share these ideas with my students a professional, I did not follow these same standards. It was common for me to overly make fun of myself in the presence of my colleagues for fear that I would be exposed as inferior. Surrounded by individuals with high levels of education including masters degrees & doctorates in education and law, various credentials, and fluency in languages, I no longer wanted to be the C student among elite minds.
Yet I did not think I was worthy of being here and I just happen to be a lucky person with an amazing job. One day they would figure out I wasn’t that special and the gig would be up. Yet here I was, participating in department meetings and giving input on classroom instruction. I was unsure of what I knew to be true was good enough, always doubting if my ideas had any value. So any time I had an idea I tried to cover it up with charm and jokes just in case no one like it so I wouldn’t be taken too seriously.
But there was one afternoon in a particular where my self-reflection came to a peak. During a staff meeting my colleagues and I were working on a curriculum project and the intellectual jargon was high and scholarly inquiry was booming. I was trying to get involved and had good ideas but wasn’t sure if they would be well received. If someone disagreed with me, that would be devastating! I valued their opinions so much I never doubted if they were wrong. So I kept saying opening sentences such as “I know I’ll probably look dumb saying this, but …” and “Correct me before I mess this mess up but. …” I’d say them with humor and wittiness so it would mask my real feelings. For all my good ideas, I also wanted it to be clear that if made a mistake I had an “ opt out” in case I was wrong before they figured it out.
What I didn’t realize was I was doing this way too much. Finally one of my colleagues turned to me and with a gentle and quiet voice said, “Stop putting yourself down.” The irony in that statement was that I was fully exposed for what I had dreaded most: being insufficient. I hadn’t realized that I was looking more stupid to avoid looking stupid. I looked around the room and realized I was the only one who didn’t have confidence in me. My colleagues they believed in me and they believed I was worthy. They had confidence in my abilities.
“Stop putting yourself down” rang in my ears and I realized I needed to stop being my own worst critic. They believed in me more than I did yet I didn’t. I had always thought I wasn’t enough or didn’t know as much. But I realized that my worth was being hindered and my talents and abilities could have been used better if I got out of my own way. In hindsight, my tactic was way different than my students’. They were good at hiding and being perfect, while I was trying to expose myself to avoid being ridiculed. Yet we were both insecure about measuring up. I guess how we differed were the expectations. My students had high expectations of measuring up, and I had never been expected to have high expectations, yet there was this insecurity that both of us would be judged.
When my college said, “Stop putting yourself down,” I realized that I needed to start believing in myself. I needed to realize that I deserved to be a teacher, an educator. I needed to believe that I was good enough through my own value of me.
Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:6)
I still assure my students that it’s okay to make mistakes, but what I’ve learned is that knowing my worth and value is more important than trying to create a perception of perfection (or imperfection in my case). We have to be confident in ourselves and be okay with the abilities or lack of abilities God gives us. We also need to we aware that we can’t look to others to measure our success. The only one who can judge us is God. Are we measuring His success? God made us in His image, and if we have a flaw then that’s saying God makes mistakes. So the lesson is not about how perfect or imperfect you are, it’s about knowing your worth and knowing God loves you. There are times I still have doubt in my own abilities, but I have recognized that I am a daughter of God and I have worth.
We all have worth and God knows that. Do you know that too?
Copyright 2019 Andrea Bear