Be Gretchen: The First Commandment of Methods

I didn’t intend for Gretchen Rubin to become the patron saint of my Methods course for Secondary English Ed majors, but the first of her twelve commandments, Be Gretchen, has become something of a mantra for us.

Being Gretchen means knowing and accepting your likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and making decisions accordingly. It means figuring out who you are and being that person to the best of your ability. It also means accepting your limitations and not trying to be someone you aren’t–or feeling bad or guilty because you’re not someone else with different likes and strengths.

I like the idea of being a social butterfly, but in reality, I’m a homebody. I would like to be the kind of person who watches artsy movies and then has deep thoughts about them, but in reality, I like to put my brain on autopilot when I’m watching movies. I aspire to spend hours baking elaborate yet wholesome desserts for my family, but in reality, I rely on Ghirardelli brownie mixes for 90% of my dessert-making. I love the idea of seeing the world, but in reality, I hate the inconvenience, unreliable plumbing, and sometimes weird food of travel.

When I let myself be Elisabeth, when I let go of my wish to be other than I am, I am happiest.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t try to improve and be a better person. Being Elisabeth doesn’t mean being lazy and complacent. But it does mean trying to understand and accept my nature.

I first urged my students to “Be Gretchen” after we read the first chapter of Donalyn Miller’s wise book, The Book Whisperer. Miller describes how she spent the summer before her first teaching job constructing an elaborate unit on E.L. Konigsburg’s Newbery-winning novel, The View from Saturday, one of Miller’s very favorite books. Although she brought her own enthusiasm and expertise to the teaching of this book as well as a host of engaging activities, the unit was a dismal failure. She did everything she had been taught to do in her Methods courses, yet her students hated the book and weren’t engaged by any of the activities. Her quest to figure out what went wrong eventually led her to reading workshop and a complete transformation of her classroom.

It’s a story I relate to, as my own first year teaching English was really a series of one flop after another as I tried to create engaging and meaningful units on the canonical texts I thought we were supposed to read.

I also relate to Miller’s second story of failure: how she tried to ape the “master teachers” of reading and writing workshop (Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, and others) and found her own classroom practices constantly falling short of their ideal (or her imagined version of their ideal).

Donalyn Miller didn’t find happiness in her classroom until she learned how to Be Donalyn.

Just as I had to learn how to Be Elisabeth.

Just as I am still learning how to Be Elisabeth.

Because one additional wrinkle in the first commandment is that it’s a paradox: even though we know we’re happiest when we live according to our nature, most of us struggle to accept our limitations. Most of us wish we were different in some way.

I wish it were easier for my students to figure out who they’re going to be in the classroom and work on being that person right now. But I think for most of us, our teaching self takes time to develop as well as plenty of trial and error (read: FAILURE). 

That’s why I like to share stories in Methods of how teachers learn to be themselves. Next up for us will be Nancie Atwell’s first two chapters of the second edition of In the Middle. More mucking about in failure to discover the first commandment of teaching happiness: Be {Insert Your Own Name Here}.

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