7/11/18: Calculating Self vs. Central Self

I care way too much about what people think about me. It hurts when I try my best to make my math class a positive experience and find out that a student or two hates me or the class. But I read a book that really changed my view.

But before I go into that, here’s a story:

I was in my second semester of student teaching. Just like most student teaching experiences, I observed for a couple weeks, then I taught. The very first day I taught this class (Algebra 2) I did a review, and then the next day they took a test. This student did poorly on the test and talked to both myself and the master teacher. This student said “I did poorly because he’s a bad teacher.” Like, literally 2 feet away from me looking at me. That absolutely KILLED me and right then, I knew that this was going to be a long semester. In my head, I was saying “Uhh…I only taught one day and it was a review session so…if you’re going to blame it on anyone, it’s not me.” Later, the master teacher and I found out that this is her 3rd time taking Algebra 2 and she needs to pass this class to graduate (she’s a senior) so then I realized that she’s just trying to find a scapegoat. But still, trying to get into a profession and a student looking me in the eye saying that I’m a bad teacher isn’t easy.

The book that changed my view

I’m reading “The Art of Possibility” by Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander and it talks about how we have two selves: our calculating self and our central self.

Our calculating self is basically us in survival mode. It holds our ego and it is selfish. It thinks about everything as an attack on us. 

For example, if we dislike a class or a subject, our calculating self might take over because we’re just in survival mode. All we want is to pass the class. Our calculating self would often say “I need a ___ to pass the class” or “I need to know ____ to pass the class.” I definitely showed my calculating self in one math class during my undergrad. It was considered the hardest math class to pass in undergrad, and only 6 of the 20 students passed. I had the 5th highest score with a whopping 69.6%. It was the worst. I literally cried tears of joy when I saw that I got a C.

Our central self is considered our “true” self, the self that the best people in our lives bring out of us. Think about how you are with your best friend, your spouse, maybe your family. That would be considered your central self. Our central self comes out when we are with our loved ones or when we don’t have high stakes. Our central self would say “I want to learn ___ because I really want to/it interests me.” 

The problem is that we don’t really see our students’ central selves if we make our classes high stakes. All we are doing is bringing out their calculating selves. Just like my story of my student teaching experience, that student showed her calculating self the entire time because she wasn’t in an environment where she felt safe. She was in survival mode because this was her 3rd time taking the class and she felt like she was bad at math. Also as a student, I was showing my calculating self in that hard math class because I knew it was a hard one to pass and the professor would make it known that it is hard to pass.

What I changed in my classroom:

We all show a different version of ourselves depending on our environment. We just need to provide the right environment for them to thrive in to show their central selves. To that end, I emphasized two things in my classroom:

  1. This class is a safe space. I will not find any questions dumb. I am aware that there are inequities in education and sometimes, it’s not your fault that you do not know something and I am here to help you.
  2. I am completely open to feedback. If something is not working out, if I’m going too quickly, or if you learn better another way, please let me know.

What I changed in my mindset:

I read somewhere online that said something along the lines of “You can lie on the ground for people to walk on you and they’ll still complain that you’re not flat enough.” Teaching 190 students a semester, it’s ridiculous to think ALL students will like me. I generally have the majority that like me, but there’s 1-2 each semester that I know I’m not reaching. Come to think of it…I don’t even know if students liking me should be a goal. The main goal should be that I’m providing a learning environment for students to thrive in.

I also read somewhere that people’s opinions of you are not your business. It’s hard to accept, but we can’t live our lives the way we want to if we’re always worried about what people think about us. I often think about who I think are the best people on Earth and I see that even they get criticized. You can’t please everyone.

If you had the type of student that I had, remember that there are dozens of OTHER students that are there, and to not focus on that one. Don’t let one student bring you down!

I am nowhere near perfect in bringing students’ central selves to the classroom but I’m getting better at it. I’m changing my thoughts “I hope they like me” to “How can I bring their central selves, not their calculating selves, into the classroom?” and I believe that they’ll have a positive experience as a result. 

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “7/11/18: Calculating Self vs. Central Self

  1. Lorri

    Thank you for this – I am in this exact space right now, questioning every aspect of my teaching and my spirit after a traumatic school year. I am ordering this book right now! Thank you so much for sharing and helping others.

    1. howiehua Post author

      I wish more educators talked about their struggles like this so I’m glad this helped you. The book is considered a “Business” book, but I think it’s more of a philosophy book. One of the authors is a music teacher and the other is a psychotherapist so it’s nice getting two different perspectives.


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