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Four Essential Questions for the Teacher

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

My hope is that anyone in any "teaching" position will find value in this article, whether you are teaching in a homeschool setting, a more traditional classroom setting, or anywhere in between. I also believe that this will have value for any teacher in any type of educational system, because these four questions (and perhaps more importantly, the daily practice of contemplating and working with them) have universal benefit.

Before I go any further, let me be clear that I am not the author of these questions. I have adapted these questions for teaching from a similar set of questions presented to me and a group of people in a different context. So, if you happen to recognize a certain thought pattern, a certain logic, a certain process within the questions as I shall share them, please know that I am not in any way attempting to take credit for their origin. Indeed, I do not see any value in "taking credit" for the questions at all. The only value, in my humble opinion, is in how the individual uses them. I found them enormously valuable in my own practice and I share them in the hopes that others my find them to be helpful as well.

Before I share the four questions, I want to approach them from a bigger picture perspective. If you really need to read the questions, then skip to the end of the article, read them, and return here.

Welcome back to those who skipped ahead!

So what just happened? Some of you, maybe all of you, have now read the four questions. You know what they are. It might be tempting to stop there. If you are still reading, though, you have the sense that there is more to the process than just knowing the questions. If that were all that mattered, I could have just listed the four questions and stopped writing there too.

We are continuing to explore this subject together because we sense that there is value in the journey, in the exploration of ideas. From my perspective, I want to present more context and more meaning to the contemplations and practice of working with the questions. I imagine you might be seeking some of that outside perspective because the thoughts and feelings of others sometimes help us in our own processing of things. Just knowing the end, the questions themselves, is not quite enough. There is an exploration that really brings value to the questions.

So, in a similar way, I now invite you to another "end". I invite you to imagine the future you, particularly the future you as teacher, that version of you who is wise, who is calm, who is sure, who is enthusiastic, who is interested, who is fun, who is insightful, who in inquisitive, who is honest, who is loving, who is good, who is intuitive, who is wonderful in every imaginable way! You are already many of these things, perhaps all of these things to various degrees. I want you to imagine the "perfect" version of you as teacher, the you who perfectly embodies these qualities in the fullest possible ways. The more clearly you can see this person, allowing this version of you to exist as a reality in your mind, the better!

Understand that this is not an exercise of egotism. I would hope this is self-evident and fully understood. The "perfect teacher" is by definition a leader-servant. The perfect teacher guides and is guided, teaches and learns. There is no playing too big or too small by the perfect teacher. She does not do what she does for praise or recognition. He does not do what he does in order to aggrandize himself. They do not seek power or knowledge for its own purpose, but only in order to serve the greater good. The perfect teacher is the perfect balance of interests for self and interests for the other. Rather than these interests and intentions being exclusive, for the perfect teacher, these are absolutely complementary.

If you recall, I have written before about the path of the teacher in a similar sense. If you are going to guide a painting, for example, it is important that you embody two qualities for the student. These are qualities that we must be at all times as teachers. It is vital that I strive with all my being for perfection in that painting process. According to all of my experiences, I will most likely not achieve absolute perfection, nor will the student. So, as I earnestly strive for perfection, I simultaneously allow for imperfections. I can notice them. I can work to improve on them. However, I do not allow these imperfections to limit my enjoyment of painting or my pursuit of perfection each time I paint. Each time, I strive for perfection! And I enjoy the imperfections of the process and even the imperfections of the results. We do this because our children learn more from who we are than what we think we are teaching them. If we can embody this balance, then they will be more likely to embody this balance within themselves. This puts them in the best possible place to learn, to attempt, to venture, to strive, and even to achieve--in school and in life.

So, now we must see ourselves as the painting. You are the art form. You must have a vision of yourself in the most perfect state you can possibly imagine. And each day, each hour, each moment, you must strive for this perfect version of you as teacher. Simultaneously, you must have the grace to accept all the "imperfections", all the "mistakes". If you are like me, there will be many opportunities each day to practice this balance of striving and accepting.

So, as you take on this practice, these questions may provide a simple practice of processing your days, with the moments of "perfection" and moments of "imperfection".

Here are the questions:

  1. What did I do well today?

  2. How did this serve anyone?

  3. What can I do even better in the future?

  4. How will this serve anyone?

Now, let's look at each question individually.

  1. What did I do well today?

Again, there is no need to be overly humble. We can healthily recognize our fine moments because our truly fine moments serve the other as well. Typically we can find a few of these to identify. What I find when I am asked to observe newer teachers is that they struggle to answer these first two questions. In my experience, it is because we often have a habit of analytical thinking. It is actually far easier to criticize ourselves. Indeed it is all too easy to spot "mistakes". This is why we must start with this question first. We must develop a healthy balance. We must develop the ability to see our fine moments. And they exist. I am always able to provide dozens of these when I observe such teachers. It's just a matter of changing one's attitude a little bit.

As you work with this first question, you are recognizing the many and myriad ways in which you are already embodying the perfect version of yourself as teacher. It is important to do this each day so that the perfect you does not seem like such a foreign being who could scarcely be achieved. So much of the perfect you exists! See it and celebrate it.

2. How did this serve anyone?

Notice that our fine moments or fine deeds can serve the other as well as the self, as well as those who may not have been present or may not even yet exist. When we answer this question, we bring our awareness to the positive ripples that our actions can create in the world. However, it is helpful to also be specific. I will give an example. I remember a moment when a student in fourth grade was struggling with a math problem. I knew that she was very close to either breaking through and having a big learning moment or crumbling in frustration. She was in a real struggle. I trusted my intuition that said I should give it one more minute. I quietly walked away from her desk for a moment. I did not say anything, not even an encouragement. I watched her from the back of the room, and then I could see her shoulders relax. I came over and she had the most pleasant look of relief on her face. She had worked out the problem, yes. More importantly, she had pushed through a moment of struggle in which a part of her wanted to give up. My review of this, as the teacher, was the I served her by not doing anything, by giving her the space and time to push through. I served myself by trusting a moment of intuition and learning that sometimes, the teacher must step back and not actively provide the "solutions" or even the "solution process". I served the world by helping this student learn the value of sustaining effort even when it is so tempting to give up. These are not arrogant answers, these are the realities of the the teacher's impact in the world.

As you work with the second question, you are fearlessly recognizing why you are so important to others. It does no one any good to sell yourself short. We must be willing to see that we are having incredible impact on the lives of others. Seeing it any other way is hiding one's head in the sand.

3. What can I do even better in the future?

It is important to word the question in this way. This is not asking how I "messed up" or "made mistakes". The questions acknowledges that some things can be done even better, with that very important distinction of looking forward rather than backward. Maybe I forgot to let Jane be first out the door when I had told her she could be on this day. Maybe I misspelled a word on the board. Maybe I became frustrated when a student would not come to quiet when needed. Whatever the nature of the "mistakes" we can certainly notice them and then turn our focus toward the future. We are basically turning toward that perfect version of ourselves and remembering how that being does things. Once again, we strive to be that perfect version of ourselves, we recognize and lovingly accept any "shortcomings" and then refocus on how to strive again in the future. This is the path. We must ever return to our striving. Day after day, hour after hour, moment after moment.

4. How will this serve anyone?

With this question, we remember why we continue to strive and why we lovingly accept our "mistakes". We are serving the good. This striving serves everyone. The most obvious answers will be seeing how our striving serves the student directly. And we can always be sure that we are also serving our own path of development and serving the world at large. The lovely part of genuine striving for good is that the benefits are not exclusive. They apply to all. Remembering this on a daily basis can serve to lift us up, rejuvenate our energies, and enthuse us for another day.

When I am painting, I strive for perfection and I learn to accept the "imperfections", while still enjoying the process of painting. When I am becoming the perfect teacher, I strive for perfection and I learn to accept the "imperfections", while still enjoying the process of teaching. When I am living, I strive to embody my higher self, accepting my "imperfections", while still enjoying the process of becoming.

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