Living With Guilt
Written by Jim Knight.

To teach is to feel guilty.  Not that the job isn’t astonishingly important. In fact, it’s the very importance of the job that easily brings guilt. How do we calculate what it means to teach a child to read? How do we measure the power of inspiring a love of learning?

And not that it isn’t incredibly rewarding.  When things go great, there are fewer things more joyous than teaching.  After a great day in the classroom, we sometimes leave the school as high as kites.  We know we are doing what we are here for, and we know we are doing it well.  We feel, to paraphrase Bernard Shaw, totally used up by incredibly important work.

But the trouble is that if you are a radical learner, when you look at your students, your goal is to reach every one of them, every day.  Nothing less will do!  Your goal is to make sure that every student learns. While that is an almost impossible goal, it’s the only goal worth having.

And that brings us to the paradox faced by radical learners.  On the one hand, we want to reach every student, often an impossible goal, and we feel guilty when someone falls between the cracks. Blaming ourselves will burn us out since the guilt we feel can be overwhelming. And blaming the student, parents, or the system to avoid the guilt doesn’t help either, in the long run.  Although externalizing blame relieves the guilt, it stops us from learning since we no longer explore what we could have done differently. Blaming ourselves will burn us out since the guilt we feel can be overwhelming.  So what do we do?

Roger Martin, in The Opposable Mind, wrote that a defining characteristic of great leaders is “integrative thinking,” which he defines as, “the predisposition and capacity to hold two opposing ideas in [our heads] and then produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.”  This is an old idea stretching back to Heraclitus, and Coleridge, and, more recently, Faulkner. But I think the idea applies here.

Radical learners always ask, “What could I have done to keep this student with me, inspired, learning, and growing?” But radical learners don’t destroy themselves over the disappointments if they fail to meet their goals. We are imperfect.  To do our best work, we need to recognize our imperfections, recognize we will likely never reach every student, and recognize that we can’t stop holding fast to the goal of trying to do just that.


  1. Jodi Henderson

    WOW!! I’m not a teacher, but I am an educator (school psychologist) and this hits the nail on the head and it is a feeling I face every day. I wake up feeling like I didn’t get up early enough to do work, I go to bed feeling like I didn’t work late enough, what an endless cycle!! I tend to be a system and a self blamer. Thanks for this post as a reminder that I am human!!

  2. Maria F.

    Interesting post! The idea of those opposing ideas living side by side in our brains describes our daily struggle well. Even when we are flying high as kites, that opposing idea reminds us that perhaps we didn’t reach every single student. Now that I have taught for a good number of years, I’ve learned to live with that opposition – or contradiction. It took my creative daughter to see things differently. Once, she described to me, she would feel uncomfortable with these contradictions, now she says she lets them be. What is interesting is that when she sees this in others, she no longer feels the urge to point out the contradictions. So now I too just observe that contradiction as a possible creative impulse – something that can lead to new ideas. Or as you suggest, “a synthesis that is superior”. A huge paradigm shift.

  3. Rebecca Williams

    For the first time in many years, I have a class that continues to challenge me. Every night I go home and try to figure out how to reach them and wonder if it’s time for me to leave education. I always said to myself, “If I get to the point where I cannot reach children, it’s time to leave”. I’m not ready to leave mind you, thanks for the reminder it’s okay to be human. I’ve truly enjoyed your posts Jim! Keep coaching through your postings….

  4. Jenny

    Encouraging and thoughtful.

  5. jalex

    This very complexity is what keeps people in the education business….or not. Those that stay keep thinking they will find an answer, a compromise, a balance…..

  6. M. Pruett

    Thank you for naming that feeling I have so often. It is relieving to hear that yes it is guilt and yes others feel it. I suppose this is a part of the reason why our work can be so emotionally demanding. Just naming it as such will help me to release the guilt as a natural and healthy part of our practice.



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