Return to the Invisible


A few weeks ago, with some trepidation, I wrote about what I called “The Invisible 10%.” This was my way of describing that something extra that happens - in the best of circumstances - in a classroom. Those electric moments when everything comes together, and both the teacher and their students know it.

I say I wrote that newsletter with some trepidation because although I have thought I was describing a real thing, I was not sure. Sometimes, I think I am crazy when I talk about it with colleagues. To be honest, I have had colleagues scoff at my descriptions of the 10%, and I probably let that undermine my confidence in the concept.

But I was heartened by your responses to that newsletter. I had a number of privately supportive emails, which were helpful and gratifying. But I will keep those private. Today, I want to bring forward two public comments that were posted online, after the letter was sent out.

Cliff Zimmerman wrote that vulnerability is the key, and that vulnerability requires courage. The vulnerability is found in being willing to constantly challenge ourselves to be better. Because, of course, if we are making changes to something that works OK, but we have a hunch is not likely to get into the 10%, then we risk doing something that doesn’t work. That falls flat. Cliff gave the example of revising a syllabus “that has been tried and true for 10 years.”

The other kind of vulnerability Cliff is talking about is that pushing students sometimes garners push back, or “complaints” as he calls them. Sometimes that push back from students “forces [us] to explain, defend, or find new ways to reach understanding...” That does require vulnerability. These comments from Cliff reminded me of something my father (for a time, also a teacher) wrote to me in a letter years ago. He said that teaching excellence requires

A kind of crazy courage - the courage it takes to meet classes and put your whole being into meeting new groups of (maybe dubious) students and working hard to have a beneficent effect on their brains and lives.

In another comment to the original 10% letter, Joel Neff wrote: “When I have tried to describe why I find teaching so simultaneously rewarding and exhausting, I’ve often defaulted to the performative aspects of the job.” And this is true, and where Cliff’s and Joel’s comments overlap. Because that performative aspect requires vulnerability. As Joel says, “putting your energy out for others’ consumption for 50 hours a week is a much harder thing to do than people realize.” This aspect of the job, and the vulnerability it requires, is why I think many teachers - particularly over time - pull back or never reach for it.

But they miss much when they do not, because the rewards can be so great. As Cliff described it “...when you see the student expressing that understanding [that they got from you] to others, when a student comes back, sometimes years later - to share how much your teaching has influenced their approach to life and career.” Joel also described the reward of reaching for the 10%, which we receive from our students when we do:

...[F]or me, it’s that little light in students’ eyes when a concept clicks. That’s the moment when everything becomes worth it, when the connection you have with your student overtakes the everyday roles you both occupy and experience a brief moment of transcendence. That’s my ten percent.”

I ended that letter with some preliminary ideas about how to intentionally reach for the “invisible 10%.” I suggested it required a combination of experience, deep class preparation, abiding agape love for our students, and our own centeredness.

By way of further explanation, by “experience” I mean it is hard to do this your first year teaching a subject or at a particular school or a particular age group you haven’t taught before. Knowing the subject deeply, and most importantly how students learn it, is a foundation. Knowing the intangibles of an age group or school environment - those are important to have behind you as well. By “deep class preparation” I might just be talking about myself. But I once heard an interview of Billy Crystal in which he was asked how he prepared to give the opening monologue at the Academy Awards.

He described how each joke or bit is something he has packed in a suitcase - and he visualizes a rolled up pair of red socks, and then the blue polo shirt, etc., and as he is giving the monologue, he unpacks the suitcase. Watching him do this again in the video above, I also saw echoes of Joel’s reference to the “performative aspects of the job.”

Of course, a class should not be a monologue, but I find the suitcase metaphor helpful for class preparation. If I have packed the suitcase well, some of those rolled up socks are intentional class discussions, and of course there should remain room for spontaneity between each item in the suitcase. But the intentionality of the overall planning for nearly every minute of precious class time - that is what I mean when I refer to “deep class preparation.” I have found over the years that students notice this, and usually respond with deeper engagement.

As for “abiding agape love for our students” - see this newsletter; I explained that concept fully there. Finally, I said our own centeredness is important, and admitted this is the area I fail in the most. By centeredness, I mean... unflappability, preternatural calm, fully in control (but not overbearing either), smiling throughout. This might be something we can cultivate, or perhaps it’s just something some people have and others do not.

That was my preliminary draft about how to reach the elusive 10%. I am grateful to Cliff and Joel, who have helped us to see that we also need vulnerability and courage to reach the 10%. And to remind us that there are great rewards when we do. Please include a comment below with more ideas for the draft we are all working on here!

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Letters of Recommendation

In going through my CDs recently, I was reminded of my love for the Modern Jazz Quartet, and particularly the work of Milt Jackson on Vibraphone. That’s 10% right there - with no need for words to describe it.

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is another Quote from John Steinbeck about teaching:

I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.