I’ve watched you trying to teach and you are really not very good at what you do

This is from an essay by Kim Stafford about success and failure:

Some years ago, during a graduate-level writing workshop on a cold November night, a student asked me at the break if she could talk with me after class. “Of course,” I said. After the second half of the workshop, which I felt it went pretty well, the others melted away into the rain and she sat down to face me.

“I have been watching you trying to teach,” she said, “and I have to say, you are really not very good at what you do. People come to a class like this to make structured progress on their writing, and all you really have to offer is exercises to make new beginnings. I thought someone should tell you this, in case you have other options for a career.”

As she spoke, I felt my heart rattle, heard my mind fill with the sounds of clank and clunk as her words shifted the gears of despair. Yes, said a voice within me, you are probably right. My teaching is bad, and I am bad. Far from being a surprise, your assessment finds companion thoughts buried deep in my own mind. I have long known what you are saying.

Several weeks later, this student asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her. I got out a crisp sheet of bond with my college’s letterhead, and produced a glowing assessment of her skills and prospects. She got into the MFA program of her choice and now seems to have a thriving career. My failure and her success are both by-products of what is truly at work in each of our life episodes: survival, learning, forgiveness, and change.

Kim makes a list of his respectable accomplishments and then describes how they’re also failures. I do this, too, and I don’t have nearly as many accomplishments.

Isn’t that like your worst fear as a teacher? It would be mine. But in general, it’s like a constant general fear that someone is just going to call you out as not very good at anything.

6 thoughts on “I’ve watched you trying to teach and you are really not very good at what you do

  1. Oh man. I was really hoping that story was going to turn around somehow . . . Yes–I keep waiting for one of the youth to actually confess to me that they think I’m not very good at being a youth leader. In my head, I’m already there.

  2. Good for you for taking the high road! The person who told you what she did, has a lot to learn about communication. Communication should include compassion and sensitivity to the affect what you say may have on someone else. It was kind of you to wish her well and help her along the way. Maybe she will learn something from your example and do the same for others in the future.

  3. The paradigm of success and failure is certainly life lived on the razor’s edge. Too often we lived perceived failures, as Nouwen would say, under the curse, rather than seeing such brokenness as a way to deepen the blessing that already rests upon us. Thanks for the Stafford quote (am looking up that essay) and your thoughts. It’s good to have you back blogging with more regularity!

  4. I find it interesting that the student who thought that Kim was not good at teaching writing would then come to him to write a letter of recomendation. The must have at least thought he was good at writing.

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