Appreciating the Bad

If you’re going to be good at teaching, you’d better be bad at something.

Over the last few months, I’ve started teaching myself how to play the guitar (a far cry from the acoustically punitive experience of having to play the accordion in my youth).  Despite what I think is progress, I continue to butcher Stairway to Heaven and in the process kill any interest my son may have had in Led Zeppelin (“make him stop, mom!”). It’s with an appreciative smile then, that I reread and innately connected with an old  “Back to School” blog post: “Mr. Martin’s Oopses: the Best Educators Have Struggled to Learn, Then Succeeded.”

The author, Mitch Martin, while also learning to play the guitar, puts forward the premise that an educator must be bad at something to be good at teaching.  He writes about the difficulties he had with his first two guitar teachers until he found “Mike”: 

Mike was the third bear in my Goldilocks’, guitar-teacher equation.

Martin’s point is this: teachers are invariably skilled in their discipline but, paradoxically, they spend their lives with people who “often aren’t nearly as good – or as interested in – the subject [they] love.”  Level of engagement will always be based on interest, the relationships we forge, the initial classroom ‘hook’ we put forward (the P.T. Barnum aspect of our jobs as educators) and of course, our timely and constructive feedback. No degree of autonomy, ownership or self-direction will keep a student engaged if they cannot move from bad to good, what (to use a time honoured phrase) we call “getting it”.

Getting it. For the English teacher who thrived within the confines of his/her Contemporary American Fiction course while at University, getting it has never been a problem. The problem will be in “selling” a room of 17 year old boys on the merit of engaging with a Jodi Picoult novel!

Martin argues that we need to put ourselves in the shoes of these struggling students. And to make his point, he argues that colleges of education should attach a simple requirement to their respective foundation methods class:

All students [should] be required to take a class in something they aren’t good at, preferably something at which they stink.

Now, as I struggle with my own self-paced guitar lesson #27, with its rapid demand of “clean” eighth notes and the sliding up to the A,B,C of the fifth string, I find personal and professional ‘enlightenment’ in Martin’s conclusion:

It is in these moments that I gain a new understanding of what it’s like to read Julius Caesar when you have no clue what is going on.  I have actually looked out into the classroom and recognized the scrunched-up, frustrated look on my students’ faces precisely because I’ve felt the same look come over my face as I mangle a Richard Thompson guitar lick.

I still haven’t mastered the guitar; however, upon reflection I appreciate that I’m on Lesson 27. I’ve made it through 26 lessons and really, I should be reframing failure as an enlightened path towards success (boy, sounds like maybe too much Led Zeppelin).  At times I have been frustrated, angry and felt the urge to go Peter Townsend on my guitar. The upside to all of this? Like Mitch Martin, I draw on these feelings when I deal with students, always trying to see the learning experience through their eyes, always remembering that frustration is a process towards real learning and not a static state of being.

My role as an educator is to help students realize that frustration and initially being bad at something is ok if you learn from it and accept that it is a key component in developing a growth mind set.  It is a support emotionally braced by what George Couros rightfully claims is the biggest “game-changer”: making connections with our learners. The connection though, if we are to move from bad to good, must find its origin within each respective student’s skill set.

Every student, like every aspiring guitar player, will be endowed with their own unique skill set, their own personalized starting point. Some will be bad and others, unfortunately, will be worse. Regardless, we cannot ‘lose’ them: their future engagement, as David Truss asserts, will be predicated on our ability to help them create meaningful work that matters. We have to be like Mike, that third guitar teacher. We have to become that Goldilocks Teacher who consistently and passionately facilitates student experiences that prove to be just right.

One Comment
  1. Hello Mr Bondi,

    Yes, I think it’s a valuable and necessary experience for teachers to be often learning something new and out of our comfort zones. We should always be working on something that humbles us.

    My latest foray into this is trying to teach myself the concepts around Computer Coding well enough so that I can start teaching it to children. There were so many concepts that took me 3 or 4 full lessons before the light started to dawn. Every experience was valuable as it was a gradual shaping towards me “getting it”. At the time, it didn’t seem valuable. It just seemed too hard and too confusing. During my learning curve, I felt like I was a child all over again.

    Teachers usually chose a specialty that they excel in. My area of weakness growing up was anything P.E. related. My P.E. teachers couldn’t have related to what it felt like to always be the slowest, the last one across the finish line, the last one picked for the baseball teams. You can guess that I dropped PE as soon as I could (in grade 11).

    As an adult, I recently took up running (wanted to overcome something that made me feel bad my entire life as a student). With my GPS watch, I could measure my improvements. I made my own goals for myself and they were meaningful goals to run a little further or a little longer each time. (My old goals were to do whatever possible to avoid humiliation.)

    If I ran a little faster or further that day, I felt SO good about myself. The improvements make me feel good and feeling good gave me motivation to keep on persevering. Feeling good is the reward for hard work. If not, why would anyone want to work? The improvements were minuscule and I only know of them because I have an instrument that detects small improvements. I’m quite sure I would not have kept on running if I had no idea how far I was running each time.

    This is a great argument for the importance of students being able to make their own goals and having instruments that measure and show their success towards those goals in small increments.

    The running instructors at Running Room also made sure one of the instructors ran behind us. The effect was that none of us had to worry about finishing last as we never did. (Take from this illustration what you will!)

    I ended up running in a 10K race last fall. My only goal was to finish the race without having to stop and walk to catch my breath. I did it! I wasn’t fast, but I finished (wasn’t last either 🙂 )

    For many students, their only instrument to measure whether they are improving each day are their teachers’ attitudes about them and their approval. (Are their teachers’ eyes shining?)

    Music is one of my strengths and I’ve been a music teacher (piano is my main instrument) but 2.5 years ago, I took up Viola to accompany my kids’ playing. In doing so, I learned how incredibly hard the bowed string family is. My kids play violin or cello and before I started viola, I was always correcting them about “this or that” and not understanding how difficult it was for them to “fix it”. I am in their shoes now. There are SO many times that I want to tell my Viola teacher that my head understands what you want but my arms just can’t do it!.

    I heard of an elementary principal that would take up a new instrument every September and show his students during assemblies that year how he was progressing. Apparently the bagpipes was a bad year…

    I hope your family learns to be proud of your efforts. (If not, take up violin and they’ll soon fall in love with your guitar playing 😉 ) In 10 years, we’ll have aged 10 years and that’s enough time to learn an instrument. We can end up on the other side of those 10 years with an added skill if we don’t give up. Either way, those 10 years will pass by. That’s the way I look at it. So, I keep persevering with my Viola one baby step at a time… I hope you won’t give up on your guitar playing.

    I leave you with a favourite Ted talk of mine:

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