Teaching your Shitty First Draft

I saw a post by Brene Brown recently in which she showed a screenshot of a text between one of her friends who is a teacher and that friend’s husband.  I can’t find it again, or I would post it here, but essentially the teacher was saying that things weren’t going well; she really wanted to be able to individualize everything etc., but she couldn’t.  Her husband replied something to the effect of, “You’re just learning.  You can’t do it all at once.”  And she said, “Yeah, I know, but I want to be able to.”  He responded with a reference to a term author Anne Lamott made popular, “It’s your shitty first draft.” (SFD for short.)  I thought this was a brilliant application of that idea. 

Anne Lamott used the idea of the shitty first draft to inspire writers to just get going, not to let perfectionism keep them from writing. 

For teachers it’s a bit different.  We generally don’t have a problem showing up to teach, but where we often do have trouble is in giving ourselves some room to learn, to try, to mess up, accepting our own imperfections, our faltering first steps.

Though there may be occasional exceptions, shitty first drafts are the way of life. 

Few, if any, children learn to walk without falling down…A LOT.  And we don’t chastise them for falling we cheer them on!  We praise them for being brave and trying.  We dust of their knees and kiss their boo boos.  We hold their hands. 

But rarely do we offer that same kind of compassion to ourselves as teachers, and rarely do we gather for ourselves that kind of support. 

Many of you are used to being the person who doesn’t make mistakes in school, the star student, the teacher’s pet, the good kid.  You want to be perfect and in school some of you have been able to come close.  That feels safe.  Others of you may have come to teaching because school sucked for you. For you, failure may have different triggers.  It may remind you of those past failures and frustrations.

In either case, as a rule we human beings are not fans of failure.  We are not fans of being out of control.  We aren't fans of falling down.

But teaching of any kind is not safe.  And you can’t do it well without a whole lot of shitty first drafts.  You have to get used to failing and failing in front of people—especially if you want to teach in a community in which the culture differs significantly from your own.

There’s no way to learn how to walk without falling, or to talk without saying things “wrong.”

But here’s the thing.  Teaching (and learning to teach) can also be fun – and funny!

Think about that little toddler stumbling around like a drunken sailor, think of the joy on her face as she takes those faltering steps.  You can choose to have that kind of joy too as you stumble your way along.  You can choose to tell yourself, “I’m just a toddler.  Look at me!  I’m learning!”

Think of how her mother or father or brother or cousin gathers her up in their arms when she falls and starts crying.  You can choose to surround yourself with that kind of support too.  You might be your own inner mother  telling yourself, “Oops, you fell down.  That’s okay.  You’re okay.  Here let me kiss it.” Or you might gather a couple friends around you who you know you can call to pick you up when you fall.  You might join a program for new teachers (or hire a life coach like me!) 

You don’t have a choice about making mistakes and failing from time to time.  There have to be shitty first drafts.

But you do have a choice about how much you enjoy the journey.  

Today I encourage you to start by giving yourself a pat on the back for having the courage to try and gathering a cheering section. 

You can do this, but you can’t do it alone and you can’t do it perfectly.  And that’s not just okay, it’s part of the fun of the journey.

I look forward to hearing about the joyful first wobbly steps and the comforting kisses you experience along the way.

Much love and thriving!



Some books to check out if you want more:

Brene Brown The Gifts of Imperfection

Parker Palmer The Courage to Teach

Anne Lamott Bird by Bird and Traveling Mercies