Happy Star Wars Day! Here’s a reflection about Yoda, teaching, and the deeply human element of being a teacher.
Why Yoda Was a Bad Teacher
- A Fixed Mindset: Yoda took one look at Anakin Skywalker and determined that he had no future. He believed that Anakin’s current character would define who Anakin had to become. This is the kind of fatalistic staff lounge rhetoric that makes me sick. “He’s a bad kid.” Right. He’s bad right now. But if you believe in paradigm changes and mentoring and guidance, you’ll see that transformation can happen. Yoda was essentially that teacher who said, “Just kick the kid out of class and let someone else deal with it.”
- Results-Only: Yoda is famous for saying, “Do or do not do. There is not try.” That sounds great on a fortune cookie. That might even sound good in a #chat or in a conference. But it’s not true. As a teacher and as a parent, I want to see effort. I want to see mistakes and learning from mistakes.
- Elitism: Yoda’s desire to work only with the greatest and most gifted reminds me of certain teachers who believe that the most talented teachers should only work with those destined for greatness. But if the Star Wars trilogy demonstrates anything, it’s that the underdog often surprises people. I’ll take the grit of Hans Solo over the giftedness of Luke Skywalker any day. Yoda reminds me of that teacher that boasts about the amazing projects (one in particular with “hair on fire”) who doesn’t want to make accommodations for special education students.
- Self-righteousness: Yoda makes pithy sayings about death, like, “Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.” There might be an element of truth in this. But if a kid is facing a tragedy, the answer is to listen and weep with the child.
- Detachment: Another famous Yoda line is, “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” Not true. Find the things you fear to lose and do whatever you can to fight for those things. Seriously. If it’s family or freedom or whatever – don’t disengage. Engage like crazy. Stick up for those things and embrace the people you love. Detached teachers are the kind that phone it in each day, because they no longer feel a connection with their students.
- Lack of Nuance: Teachers will be hypocrites, but Yoda places ideas over people and “truths” over nuance. Yoda’s pearls of wisdom read like fortune cookies. For someone who has spent years gaining wisdom, I’d like to think that he has developed more nuanced positions.
- His Syntax: Totally confusing for ELL students. Confused, they are.
- Lack of Creativity: The Jedi way is very prescriptive and rules-bound. There’s not a lot of room to deviate and create something new.
So, it’s easy, at this point, to say, “Maybe Yoda was actually just a really bad teacher.” However, when you start listing out the great qualities, you see a different side of him.
Why Yoda Was a Great Teacher
- Compassion: Yoda would do anything for a student. When you see the entire trajectory of the series, you see a Yoda who seems motivated by compassion for his students, even when it costs him personally.
- Humility: Yoda was humble throughout the entire series. True, there were moments where his judgment seemed off, but he was always willing to sacrifice fame and fortune in order to help others. Great teachers have this sense of humility when they teach.
- Discovery: Watch how Yoda trains Luke and you get a sense that it’s about the journey and the discovery. He doesn’t lay out a systematic framework. He doesn’t bust out rigid lesson plans. He allows Luke to discover his identity and grow in his wisdom.
- Character: Instead of seeing education as merely the acquisition of a skill set, Yoda was able to focus on the character of a Jedi instead. For all the talk of reaching the “whole child,” I often find this mindset missing in schools – the notion that education has the potential to make us better people.
- Perseverance: Yoda understood that students need to struggle, work hard and keep going. Although I disagree with the “do or do not do” axiom, I love the attitude of sticking with it until you get it right.
- Just Enough Help: Yoda could have defeated Darth Vader, but he let Luke do it instead. Great teachers know when to step out of the way and allow their students to thrive.
- Potential: Yoda saw potential in Luke when others didn’t. So, even if he held a fixed mindset with Anakin, he saw something in Luke that others had missed. I think there’s a real value in teachers being able to see something in students that even the students don’t yet believe.
- Simplicity: I’m not crazy about Yoda’s fortune cookie advice, but the truth is that sometimes wisdom is simple. Sometimes proverbs are profound.
- Mindfulness: Yoda worked with action-oriented people and helped them to slow down and calm their minds through his use of simplicity.
- Experiential Learning: Yoda helped create the experiences that would allow Luke to thrive.
To my core, I believe that we are all beautiful and broken. And I believe that teaching will show you the most beautiful and broken parts in yourselves. You will yell at kids. It’s awful. You might think you won’t do it, but you will. You will shame a kid without realizing it. But the key thing is this: when you are humble enough to admit you screwed up, then you are able to grow.
It has me thinking about Yoda. When I look at the first list, some of those describe me in my worst moments of teaching. The beauty of teaching is this: despite our mistakes, kids still learn. The Force still works. Darkness is still overcome. So, even if Yoda had some flaws as a teacher, I’d totally keep him on staff, because we are ultimately more than the sum total of our faults – not just because of the second list but simply because of his heart. If you get that right, you’ll eventually get the pedagogy right.
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