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.