Taking a Lifetime

This weekend, I went to see the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, with my wife and daughter. The movie follows Ginsburg’s life as she starts law school at Harvard through her oral arguments for the Moritz v. Commissioner” case at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. For fans of the Supreme Court Justice, the movie is an inspiring and gripping story. I think my daughter held her breath through the last five minutes of the movie.

Early in the movie, one of Ginsburg’s Harvard classmates asks their professor if he had corrected their papers. In his most pretentious tone, the professor answers:

I have graded your papers, but it will take a lifetime for you to correct them.”

To be honest, when I heard the professor say this, I groaned. Literally.

The movie goes to great lengths to portrays the Harvard professors as uptight, stoic and condescending. While this may be an accurate portrayal of these individuals, I kept thinking, “What educator would say that?” I’m certain we’ve all had those high and mighty, self-absorbed individuals who felt the need to use the authority of their teaching role to convey how little their students knew. And that’s how this Harvard law professor is portrayed in the movie. He lords his experience and expertise over his students.

While the quote plays a minor part of the movie, it has resonated with me for the last few days. I’ve found myself repeating the words in my head and ruminating on the meaning.

Flash forward to a conversation I had with a group of preservice teachers yesterday. I was explaining to them how becoming a teacher involved reflective practice and how they should plan to work on their craft over many years. I jumped into a mini-speech on the value of Ten Thousand Hours and how the truly great teachers I knew were the ones who had spent a lifetime reworking lessons and revising their approaches.

Later in the day, I met with a doctoral student who had sent me a draft of one of the chapters of his dissertation.  Despite this being the third (or fourth) revision of this chapter, I still gave him lots of detailed feedback for improvement. While I tried to convey my feedback really positively, I could tell that he was getting frustrated with my assessment of his work. I explained that his writing was definitely improving but, like any skill, he’d need to continue to work on it to develop. Things take time, I explained.

As I reflected on my conversations with these students on my drive home last night, I was reminded of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg movie and the snarky remark from the Harvard professor. Was the feedback I gave to my students any different than that of the fictional professor? Sure, the packaging and presentation were starkly different (I hope that I’m not that condescending) but the sentiments were the same.

Learning is hard and it may take a lifetime until you get it right.

So, while I originally thought “What educator would say that?” I’m now thinking about it completely differently.

What educator would say that? The ones who want to realistically convey the commitment required to be a lifelong learner.


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