Not to Compare, I Remind Myself

I compare myself a lot to other people. That was the environment I grew up in. In Malaysia,  rankings of students after a big strings of exams were posted on the board for all to see. You, your friends, your peers, your teachers, your parents, and everyone in the school WILL know where you rank among your fellow peers in the same class or cohort. To make myself be better, and feel better, I constantly compare to my peers. Yeah, so comparison is a fabric of my life. Everything I have been doing, I will compare it with how someone else does it. Sometimes without contexts, and sometimes without rationales.

Teaching, a favorite part of my life, does not escape such trap of constant need for meeting “standards” or “norms” or “ways of teaching” or “best practices” or “the very popular and amazing teacher who teaches math on Monday and Wednesday!” In my mind, comparison is my go-to in terms of how I perform, how I convey, how I talk, how I care, and how I assess. Whenever one drops in the conversation saying “that person is an amazing teacher”, I will probe on the topic, asking about how, why, and what about that “amazing teacher”. I will then compare (you get the gist!) and re-evaluate how I do, based on, eventually, how that “amazing teacher” does.

So why am I having this soapbox about comparisons and how I tend to operate in this blogpost? Well, because last year, when I came across Sarah Deel’s article, especially this quote: “I embraced the idea that there are many ways to be an effective teacher…My encounter with Parker’s ideas freed me to try to become a teacher true to my own qualities of self,” an epiphany hit me. It hit me particularly hard, and I realized why. I never really had an authentic teaching self. Granted,  I have never really taught in official capacities, but I have been GTAs for classes, tutors for many of my peers, and graders for my instructors. While taking on these responsibilities, instead of reflecting and looking inward, I constantly looked outward and strived to be another “amazing teacher.” Yes, I compare, always. Never did the thought of me sitting down, without screens or anything, and reflect upon myself ever cross my mind, until I read Deel’s article and others.

I embarked upon that journey of self-reflection since then, and constantly remind myself not to compare. Yes, it is essential to always improve yourself with great ideas. When a teacher does something I think that would be great for my students, I plan to research on it. When publications recommend certain pedagogical and assessment approaches, I plan to do my due diligence to make sure it fits the context of the class I am teaching. But I will constantly remind myself this: never compare. You are not that “amazing teacher,” and an “amazing teacher” does not exist, because every teacher has their own voices, their own ways to engage with students, their own ways of caring about their students, their own ways to convey knowledge, their own ways to assess their students, and their own ways to design and facilitate learning in a classroom. Be authentic to yourself so that you would feel comfortable in your classroom, and your students would feel the genuine you while they learn. As Sarah Deel says: “I will not spend my teaching life striving to be the one perfect teacher; I know that there are many ways to be a good teacher, and I will enjoy the freedom to explore them as I choose.”

12 Replies to “Not to Compare, I Remind Myself”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts ! Yes, every comparison presupposes a unique standard and I find it being extremely against the ethics of difference and diversity. This also puts a lot of students in pressure and performance anxiety. In India, where I am from, this has been a social illness, if I put it that way. One cannot engage in a educational process creatively with such a pressure mounted on her by parents, institutional requirements and so on. Teaching can best be enjoyed when it is unique, without any place for comparison.

    1. Hi,

      Thank you for your comment! I agree with your stance. The idea of such comparison may lead to “norming” of teaching experiences, instead of empowering individual teachers to chart their own path as a teacher.

  2. KJ– thanks for sharing your experiences! I think it’s really difficult to not compare, especially when we are in a society that is built on comparison and competition. One thing that struck me as I was reading your post is about the educators who I look up to– I regard them all as being fantastic people and I learned a lot from them, but each one of them had a completely different style of teaching. Though maybe each one of these people brought the same level of compassion for their students, the way they were in the classroom was completely different. Often times, I think being compassionate is what many teachers are missing, even the teachers we consider to be effective.

    1. Hi Malle,

      Thank you for your comments! I agree with you. It is extremely difficult to not compare because, in my opinion, that’s how I think society is structured currently. But I do like your reflection on your past teachers, and how they all had different styles. I think this is definitely one source we can leverage to continue discovering our authentic self. Ditto on compassion too! Teaching, in many situations, seem to be a way to authoritatively impart knowledge instead of getting students comfortable to be themselves while learning.

  3. Hey KJ, I have heard stories about that kind of student-ranking system and I sympathize with having to face that. I don’t have personal experience, but it sounds like a lot of pressure.

    Do you think there are healthy ways to compare yourself to others? If it’s practiced with the intent of checking in and understanding? Or maybe reflecting on different ways to teach–like comparing methodologies? Not intended for placing value on a person or teaching ability, though. I realize that reading your post and writing this reply that there is a lot to unpack when it comes to “comparison.” Either way, your experiences inform what kind of a professor you are/can be/will be and I am confident that you will find your own way, one that is both authentic and genuine.

    1. Hi Sara,

      Thank you for your comment! I got used to it but in retrospect, I realized how damaging it can be to some students.

      Your question does make me think a bit. I do think there is a healthy way to compare. I think the appropriate mindset should anchor such comparison. Many times, I think comparison tends to imply that one has to meet a standard or a norm. I do not think that should be the case. I think healthy comparison may be part of reflection to be a better teacher. After all, comparing implies that there are differences and similarities, and I think identifying those can facilitate us to be better teachers.

  4. I feel good knowing about how education system work in different parts of the world. I am from India and after reading your post I am able to chalk out correlation between the Malaysian, American and Indian education systems. I am happy that you were able to break the bonds of traditional teaching practices and move on to discovering your inner self.

    As you mentioned in your post, even I feel that each one of us should devote time to reflect upon our teaching practices, not in the light of how others teach, but whether we are doing justice to the subject or not. I also agree that the concept of “amazing teacher” is very subjective and one should worry about being someone else.

    Great Work!

    Good Luck!

    1. Hi Sahil,

      Thank you for your comment! I am glad to hear that you are learning a bit about the Malaysian education system.

      Also, the idea of “amazing teacher” can look so different from one person to another, and I think we should always strive to be an amazing teacher, but on our own terms!

  5. Great remark! Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I am from Turkey where student rankings are very important as well. I completely agree with your statement about how rankings make people compete with each other and bring social comparison. The subject of the comparison is also very important: while student rankings are not very harmful to use in the university entrance exam where one million students compete with each other to get the 10,000 spots at the best schools, this might be very harmful when one compares their qualities with other people’s. There are no ways to objectively measure the teaching quality, and even people who we see as “perfect teachers” might not be good for others or their practices might not be a good fit for every individual. Also, It is scientifically proven that social comparison is detrimental to mental health. Therefore, I believe that one should not do social comparisons in teaching and strive for absolute perfection.

    1. Hi Derya,

      Thank you for your comment! I am glad to learn a bit about the system in Turkey! It still gives me a bit of anxiety when we talk about ranking students.

      It is an interesting thought you mentioned about ranking in the university exam with millions of students. It’s definitely another context that warrants more thoughts about ranking students. I am of the opinion that ranking in general may not be an appropriate way to assess students, but I would like to think more about it!

  6. Thanks for sharing KJ! I love how you reflected on your own experiences as a student and how they have impacted you as an instructor. I had a similar epiphany and it was tough to realize that there aren’t concrete traits or steps that make a great teacher. I also appreciated how you outlined some great suggestions for how to adapt other’s activities or teaching styles to fit your own authentic brand. I’m excited to see you continue to teach and mentor students because you have such a great attitude towards teaching and learning.

    1. Hi Sophia,

      Thank you for your comment! I am glad to hear that you appreciate the suggestions. I do love teaching, and I must say I really take joy out of my experience while working with students. I guess that’s why it’s important for me to stand by them and do right by them by constantly reflecting to be an effective teacher on my own terms!

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