On Being “Not Yet” and Embracing Our Unfinishedness

“I am what I am not yet.” Maxine Greene taught us that. She spoke those words and put forth those ideas to guide us away from fixedness, from definitive ways of being and doing. The promotion and understanding of such growth then, as learning, is particularly important in education. So, what does it mean to be a teacher not yet? Certainly, it asks us to consider ourselves as always becoming teachers and necessarily challenges the notion that all newly minted teachers be “learner ready,” an all too popular requisite among schools hiring teachers fresh out of teacher preparation.

What does it mean to be learner ready, anyway? Ready for what? Ready for whom? Is there really such a thing? The implication that novice teachers are ready to hit the ground running, fully equipped to “add value” in ways that are “result-oriented” rather than authentically positioned relative to the social, cultural and cognitive needs of the learner is counter to understanding the power of “not yet.” We know more about good teaching today than ever before. But too often, education reform hobbles the work of teachers, new and experienced alike, with demands for “no excuses” teaching rooted in “grit” ideology. There is finality—a fixedness—associated with standardized and measured teaching. I tire at the use of student and teacher performance data to whip up a false sense of urgency. Such tactics prohibit patient problem-solving necessary for teachers to read her students, learn what they need, who they are, who they hope to become and how to connect their loves and lives to the curriculum. This practice easily cripples growth and the perpetual newness associated with teaching. It is unrealistic, unreasonable and antithetical to the idea of being “not yet” teacher. I believe the idea of our unfinishedness as teachers is rarely celebrated and seldom, if ever, held in anticipation of good things to come.

The idea of “not yet” being teacher resonated with a group of graduate teacher education students I recently met with. They knew. Here are some excepts:

I am not deep, differentiated, enthusiastic, serious, flowing, whole. Even though I am not these things yet, the fact that I have identified them means that I am! In a way, I have a part of these things inside me. Just having a tiny bit means that I am not just that, but that I have the chance to become them wholly. (Teacher, 2 years)

So I am just plain—that’s what I am right now—a new struggling teacher, nearly drowning at times, managing a household of six children (one with disabilities), and somehow learning to become a teacher to the 21 other kids I have now and trying so hard to become that teacher I envision who has everything together and inspires all those around her—but I’m not there just yet—always aiming to become better than before, not there yet. (Teacher, 1st year)

I constantly observe. I will always accept feedback. I will always find a new level to rise to. I’ll always be present in my own teachable moments and never stop looking for that teachable moment with others. Teaching is an art. And I am an artist. (Teacher, 6 years)

I am a teaching student who is learning the ropes from other teachers. I am becoming better thanks to teachers in my classes as well as cooperating teachers. It would be very hard to convince me to change my career path. (Pre-service teacher)

These poetic voices of teachers embrace and welcome their unfinishedness. We should listen.

On Being Endlessly Curious and Why It Matters


How are you taking what you are learning everyday and using it to inform your work as a teacher? This question challenges me, every day.

One of the things I enjoy doing is birding. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just drawn to them. I enjoy their beauty and song and can spend a good amount of time observing their antics.  I’ve learned to focus in on flashes of movement, tune into sounds and linger longer in spaces in order to catch a glimpse of them and learn something new. I’m not alone here.dawn light

In Dawn Light (2009), Diane Ackerman’s skilled eye and poetic writing style captures the fulfilling tug of birding in her description of doves in flight:

“I like to watch doves throttle their flutter speed–from polite fanning (think gloved women in drawing rooms) to frantic dippy correctives. Their relatives, the mourning doves, zigzag more and sometimes whistle as they fly, but also like to camp out with humans. To enough of us, the informal naming committee, their oh-woo-woo-woo sounds like the melancholy lament of pallbearers, and so we condemn them to endless mourning” ( p. 11).  (Personally, I think their call sounds like, “I like to poo,” but I digress.)

So, as part of my curiosity and desire to attract birds, I wondered how hard it would be to grow millet sprays for them to feed on. After a quick Google search I found a video of a young boy demonstrating how to grow your own millet.

In what appears to be a bedroom in his house, this youngster clearly, carefully and confidently guides the viewer in a how-to-grow-millet demonstration that without question demonstrates his understanding of several skills and concepts:

  • Organized ideas and sequencing of steps in a logical order
  • Effective use of the “academic” language of materials and technology
  • Explanation of rationale related to purpose and design
  • Confidence in the power of his ideas
  • Authentic audience appeal and purpose

It is not clear why he produced this video. Maybe it was done at the request of a teacher, friend or family member. Or, perhaps he was simply compelled to capture his engaged curious self doing what he loves. It is striking to me how unlikely this type of knowledge demonstration would be considered a measure of understanding in today’s public schools given current high-stakes testing education policy. To be clear, such metrics will never capture his brilliance, his patient video construction, his time spent editing and his off-camera preparation. Nor, will they ever be aware of the fruits of his work, that is, his ability to teach, me and others.

Through social media time/space my own curiosity intersected with his, and the lines between teacher and learner blend and blur in necessarily important ways. To be endlessly curious demands we become both teacher and learner. Too often students are asked to exist in schools rather than live in them as naturally curious human beings. On my millet-growing quest I came upon how to grow millet and discovered an example of authentic learning that standardized testing cannot/will not value in the process.

How well do schools support or hinder a child’s natural inquisitiveness and endless curiosity? We can see a school’s aversion to and dismissal of such curiosity and creativity when it is embodied in a young Muslim boy and his homemade clock. While for others, creativity and curiosity are expected, embraced and celebrated without question.

RadicalThinkersThe degree to which we engage in endless curiosity is a direct reflection of our ability to thoughtfully pay attention, both in terms of what we are learning, what we need to unlearn and whom we are learning from. Fostering endless curiosity is radical and the society we need/desire hinges on our ability to help all students become their best human selves and thrive in schools. Make no mistake about it, there are consequences for our neglect, and our democracy is weakened when we test schools rather than test the limits of endless curiosity within them.

So, how are you taking those things you are curious and passionate about and using them to inform the work you do?