Why My Favorite Students are the Most Difficult

challenge self-growth teaching

 We Need Challenge to Grow

Nobody likes dealing with obstacles, but ask yourself what will help you grow: the easy job you know you can handle, or the frustrating, impossible task that is full of obnoxious roadblocks that nobody else wants to deal with? The things we love to hate more often than not are the things that make us better at our craft and better human beings.

With this attitude, it becomes really easy to love the frustrations, to embrace them and even to be grateful for them.

Another Lesson from Teaching

Employers can also be a source of frustration. I recently re-watched The Devil Wears Prada, and while on the surface it is a movie about a hellish boss whose ridiculous requests make for great comedy, it also teaches a lesson about the value of being held to unreasonable standards.

The main character at first feels like her boss has no right to demand so much of her, asking her to do menial tasks with no appreciation for a job well done. She complains to her mentor Nigel that her tiniest mistakes are rubbed in her face and when she does a good job, it goes unacknowledged. Nigel basically tells her to stop expecting a pat on the head for every little thing. By the end of the movie, the main character has decided to hold herself to her boss's expectations and has become a formidable, capable human being, productive, efficient, and sharp. She has grown and developed new skills, but she was only able to do that once she accepted the call to step up, instead of defending herself and her current inability to perform.

My work environment has it’s share of unreasonable expectations. We’ve recently been restricted to 10 minutes out of the office to get dinner, and have been scolded for having to run back to our teachers’ office to get forgotten supplies.

At first, we were pretty upset about these nit-picky things. After all, we’re all good teachers, and working with the kids is what matters, right? Why should our boss pick on such little things?

But I realized that being held to unreasonable expectations of professionalism is the only way we will become really professional at our job.

After our initial reaction, I thought about my response from an outsider's perspective. Then, it seemed kind of silly to think I should defend my right to forget class materials. I mean, wouldn’t it just be better to expect myself to always be prepared? Viewed from that angle, it seems like a minimum level of performance, not a high standard at all. In a way, it shows a certain level of respect that our boss expects us to be capable of better.

And why should good performance be praised? After all, I think of myself as a capable person, so if I’m going to do a job, it’s going to be done well. Doing a ‘good job’ is the basic minimum I’d expect from myself. That’s the norm. You don’t praise the norm. That’s what you pay for, and what you expect to get without coaxing.

In fact, I’d go so far to say that ‘exceptional’ should be the norm. There ought to be no praise at all on a regular basis. The reward for a good job is your basic salary or pay. The reward for an exceptional job is trust and loyalty and a sense of fulfillment (if you don't get that, I'd say you're in the wrong line of work).

And criticism of minor shortcomings seems justified, since they are small, easily-avoided mistakes.

All of a sudden, I felt a strange appreciation for my boss and her critical complaints. Instead of being resentful, I really felt good about being on time and prepared. Winning the respect of someone with higher standards is a challenge worth rising to, because in the end, it benefits everyone involved.

Overcoming the Inner Complacency

In reality, most of us think we are awesome, as we are, right now.

Which means: most of us don’t think we have much improving to do. So when we get criticized, we become defensive instead of looking at the criticism as a way to grow. We think that it is us being criticized, not our performance, and so where we might normally want to better ourselves, now we hold on to our mistakes and faults, defending them as a way to assert ourselves and defy those who might attack any part of us, good or bad.

But in order to become better people, we have to accept that we have space to grow and skills to learn. It's great to expect great things from yourself, so why do we resent it when others expect great things from us too?

We are afraid of letting them down.

When we are criticized, we are given another chance (otherwise, we'd just be fired) but instead we think we've already failed.

I’ll admit that if my boss had never scolded us for forgetting class materials, I would have continued to do it. Sure I felt bad every time I had to run back to get something, but I wouldn’t have made the effort to improve if I never had to.

I’m going to take a leap (not a big one) and say most people are like that. Humans don’t change their habits, even to improve, until they really have to. And we prefer to do it at our own pace, which is usually very, very slow (I'll get around to it next week, when I have more energy/feel better about myself/have more money/get more sleep/have more friends).

 Don't Waste Time with 'Easy'

Getting a totally unconcerned problem-child to be interested in English when you have to run an entire class is unreasonable, but doing it will make you a better teacher. It is unreasonable to expect that you will never, ever forget a single piece of paper you need for a class, but doing it will make you a better teacher as well (if forgetting classwork is an issue, you've got a lot of growing to do as a teacher anyway). Being able to take only 10 minutes for dinner will make you better at getting work done, or at least more efficient about getting food.

It's not easy, but Warriors don't bother with mastering the easy. There is no potential for growth there, and no promise to make a difference.

For more unreasonable things that will make your awesome, check out Seth Godin’s list.

So, be grateful for unreasonable expectations. After all, if all we every did were the reasonable things, we wouldn’t be very exceptional people.