The Invisible 10%

Or, I'm just crazy

This is a difficult subject to write about, because sometimes I think I’m crazy. I think this is because most people can’t see it, and so when I speak of it to them, they look at me strangely. They think it is “woo woo” or something, and perhaps it is. Indeed, I am not even sure how to write about it, but I have found with this newsletter that the weekly writing discipline has helped me to sharpen my thinking, so maybe that will happen with this topic. And maybe I just won’t publish it. But Parker Palmer reminds me that I should just go ahead:

Teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart - and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able….[I]f we want to grow as teachers, we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives - risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.

OK, Parker… here is my thesis: I believe there is an invisible 10% to teaching, and most teachers can not see it, and thus do not strive to reach it. Students can see it, but they rarely experience it, because well... their teachers are not striving for it because they can’t see it. And it is hard - it makes the job even harder than it already is.

What is that 10%? I can’t define it exactly, but let me try anyway: It is the extra extra effort in an already long and difficult day. The part that is beyond your physical and mental capacity to give. That’s one form of it. But it is also in just being an exemplar for others - day in, and day out. Steady. Funny. Kind. Calm. Forgiving. Unfailingly respectful of every student.

And it is about inspiration - inspiring students to engage deeply in a topic, but also to be a better person than they thought they could be. Being able to see that better person in each student and helping them to find and be that person.

Perhaps what I am trying to describe is captured in this quote from the mid-20th Century author John Steinbeck.

School is not so easy and for the most part is not very fun, but then if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher. Three real teachers in a lifetime is the very best of luck. My three had these things in common. They all loved what they were doing. They did not tell, they catalyzed a burning desire to know. Under their influence, the horizons sprung wide open and fear went away and the unknown became knowable. But most important of all, the truth, that dangerous stuff, became beautiful and precious.

This is a description not of who I am, but what I aspire to be. I was not lucky enough to have had three such teachers, but I did have two. And they both showed me that 10% - and I haven’t forgotten it. Both of them are with me every day I walk into the classroom. They were both exemplars for me in everything they did. They lived in that 10% at least a part of every day. It was just who they were, and what they stood for.

I think the reason we resist going there is not just basic exhaustion, but also that it requires a certain kind of vulnerability. Not just to be able to admit when you are wrong or don’t know something - which all good teachers must do - but also to be willing to do a modest thing and be the butt of jokes behind your back and not be bothered by that. To have high expectations of students, but never to talk them down when they fall short, but rather use every interaction to build them up.

It is intangible. Ephemeral. And I risk destroying it by trying to explain it. As E.B. White said about the futility of analyzing humor:

It is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested. And the frog dies.

But here I am anyway. I think another aspect of the invisible 10% is that it is rarely obvious to the student at the time, but often understood by them months and years later. The ability to live even part of our teaching lives in the 10% comes from years of experience, typically, and a deep and abiding (agape) love of the job and of those placed in our care for the brief periods of time we are given with them.

Oh, come on, right? It’s a job, you should treat it like a job. Students are a pain in the ass, and grading is sheer hell. Administrators not only can’t see this 10% thing, they actively don’t want to. We’re making sausage here. Students are widgets.

But I will likely go to my grave believing that in teaching there is an element beyond pedagogy, beyond “best practices,” beyond precise description. It has an element of alchemy. Rich moments in time, where our students are fully alive and we are too. Have you ever had a moment in class when you are explaining something and you had everyone’s complete attention, and you just - briefly - blew their minds? Your students took a leap in understanding with you? Did the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Right - that’s a 10% moment.

If you believe with me that there is such a thing, the question then becomes how to cultivate it, how to intentionally go there. I will probably come back to this subject, but tentatively - for now - I think opening the door to that 10% requires a combination of experience, deep class preparation, abiding agape love for our students, and our own centeredness. Most days, I feel as though I have some of the first, work on the second, try for the third, and come up way short on the latter. How about you?

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Letters of Recommendation

My recommendation this week is a book: Draft No. 4, by John McPhee. A long-time staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, McPhee was also a teacher of writing at Princeton. He has numerous books, all of which are great, but this one is about his writing method. It is a book that came out of his teaching, and wonderfully captures the kind of teacher he was. (As a bonus recommendation, McPhee has a recent piece in the The New Yorker about articles he thought about writing but never did. Also wonderful.)

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Question:

If you agree it is a thing, when have you felt that 10% moment?

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