Be an Insecure Teacher and Then Do the Work

Two ideas are rhyming in my head this morning. Both are about the difficulty of communicating, and both suggest that a humble, curious approach can help to fuel the necessary work.

The first one comes from a conversation between Reshan Richards, Monsignor Paul Tighe, and me:

While teaching I learned that I was responsible not only for transmission, but also for reception. It doesn’t matter how well you teach or what you’re saying; the real vindication and judgment to be made about the quality of your teaching is when you interact with your students and listen to understand, or correct examinations in order to understand what they’ve understood. Specifically in secondary school, I learned that you’re responsible not just for what you’re saying, but for what the other person is understanding.

A lot of that is about understanding the other person’s culture, their vocabulary, realizing what’s working or not working in the way you’re teaching. For all my subsequent work, I feel that good communication comes from being an insecure teacher. Even if I’m preaching, to this day, I don’t use a text. I watch people’s faces. I can see if they’re lost or if they’re following me, and I think it’s my responsibility to complete the communication cycle at some level.

The second one comes from Aric Jenkins‘ farewell note at the bottom of the January 30, 2021 Race Ahead newsletter. (The Ellen that he mentions is Ellen McGirt.)

Communication is so important in a hyper-online world. Things so easily get taken out of context. Seemingly good intentions get warped into performative reactions. You may recall my piece on Juneteenth over the summer, and how that worked out for some companies putting out vague statements (read: not great). It’s not enough to just write. You have to communicate. With your peers, your colleagues, your employees. And sometimes that means taking a step back, listening and learning, before you proceed.

For some writers, this might just sound like permission to procrastinate. But for most among us, I’d consider it an exercise in curiosity. In line with what Ellen has recently been writing about in regards to “candid conversations,” think deeply about what you want to communicate, and how might to be the best way to do it.

When you actually, genuinely, think about what you want to say, you have something to say—and that’s the difference between great writing and all the rest. Coherent typing is not enough to write well. Communicating an idea, a story, can be. It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you want to say at the beginning. Embrace your ignorance. And then do the work.

A simple formula for communicating that is actually really hard? Be an insecure teacher and then do the work.

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