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What About You? (It’s not)

“Dr. Marvin, guess what?

Ahoy, I sail!  I’m a sailor, I sail!”

Bob Wiley (as played by Bill Murray in What About Bob)

For Bob Wiley in the movie “What About Bob” life was a series of ‘baby steps’ toward leaving his insecurities behind and developing a new identity through positive self image. This movie could be an analogy for the first few years of teaching. In the movie, Bob Wiley is trying to literally adhere to the book “Baby Steps” written by his psychologist.  In doing so, he eventually comes to the realization that life is just not that prescriptive – that you have to make it work for you and with others in order to be productive.

We spent a great deal of time in class last week discussing teacher evaluations and student attitudes.  As I drove home that evening, I spent time in reflection of my years as a teacher and remembered the moment I first realized ‘it’s not about you.’  As a teacher, you take great responsibility for your content, it can consume you.  You think that everyone else (especially your students) also feel your content is the most important thing to them and that no one else could deliver it as well as you.  This is Dr. Marvin syndrome.  Dr. Marvin is Bob’s psychologist in the movie.  He believes his book (which would be your curriculum and content) is the best thing ever and that only he (which would be you) matters because he wrote it and that everyone (which would be your class) should just do everything his book says.

What Dr. Marvin failed to focus on was Bob.  Bob’s mantra throughout the movie is ‘what about MY needs?”  Teachers ‘hear’ this every day, but do they listen?  The article for class reading this week is entitled:  Bad Apple:  The Social Production and Subsequent Reeducation of a Bad Teacher by Mark Gohan. In this article, Gohan talks about his first students being ‘enigmas’ to him – that he “didn’t know how to deal with the varying levels of interest, commitment and ability they brought to my class.”  He goes on to discuss how he came to the classroom as a ‘critic’ – “a harsh instructor because his primary mode was judgment.  He had the virtue of high expectations, but he lacked the compassion, patience, and power necessary to help students meet those expectations.  As his student, the message you received most consistently was, ‘You’re not measuring up’.”  Gohan had Dr. Marvin syndrome.

But then something happened to Gohan – he had a transformative learning experience of his own paired with developing a personal relationship with a student in which he discovered that students are real people, with real lives and real life issues.  They come to your classroom with the baggage of their lives.  Often that is more important than your lesson.  Really.  Even if you don’t believe it, it’s true. Gohan states his lesson in all this:

“that good students are not those who display the trappings of studiousness (perfect attendance, rapt attention, meticulous work).  Good students are those who learn.  Whatever their preconceptions, barriers, or deficits – whatever their story (or their baggage) – they take new information and new experiences and, to the best of their ability, make them tools for transforming themselves and their world.”

Bob felt he was a sailor because he took a risk, tied himself to a boat mast, and ‘sailed.’  But Bob wasn’t really a sailor – yet.  The same is true for teaching.  Many people take the risk, go into a classroom and ‘teach.’  But teaching alone doesn’t make you a teacher – yet.


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