Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why it's better to be worser

Years ago, I had the extraordinary good fortune to participate in one of NCCAT's enrichment seminars. It was awesome, and if I could ever persuade any North Carolina teacher to do anything, it would be DO THIS!!! 

The seminars are intended to reinvigorate teachers with a healthy dose of fun may be noticing a theme in my writing. Sometimes the seminars are specifically related to pedagogy. This season, for example, one offering is "Catching Up With Your Students: Navigating Technology for 21st Century Classrooms." Many of the seminars though are strictly pleasure-learning. Science aficionados might participate in "Climbing the Double Helix: Is DNA Destiny?" Teacher-writers might try out "Writing from Sound to Sea: Awakening Creativity by the Shore."

When I went, I participated in a seminar on Nature Writing and Watercolor Painting. The first part was a breeze for me. I love nature, and I love writing, so naturally, writing about nature was something that I'd already practiced on my own for years. When I first began the seminar, I wasn't too stressed about using watercolors either. After all, I'd taken art courses in high school, and I wasn't too bad at it. I like to consider myself a fairly artistic sort.

I remember that first session when the artist who was leading the workshop quickly dashed off a beautiful mountain landscape complete with fallen logs and winging crows. It looked simple enough, and I went back to my little table eager to get started. It's just a line here and a couple of splotches there, after all. Nothing too challenging.

After only a few moments I realized that my teacher had made the act look much simpler than it really was, and I could feel my frustration mounting as I fumbled with my brush, clumsily smearing black tree trunks and blobs of orange leaves that looked at best like a kinder-gardener's nightmare. I walked around the classroom to see how my peers were doing, envious of those who had quickly picked up the skill and reassured by the rest of the crew who were as sorry as I was.

By the end of the week, I was a little better. A little. But I'd learned a really valuable lesson that I took back with me to school. Sometimes teachers need to be worser to be better.

What I mean is this: sometimes, because we're so dang good at what we do, we forget that it's not easy for everybody else. We don't always respect the learning curves of our students. I've been guilty of it when teaching writing and technology. I've found myself growing impatient and thinking, "Gah! It's so easy! Just do xyz..."

When we get to that point in our careers, it's important to do something that we're not good at. This is why I've said before and will (I hope) continue to say: A teacher who refuses to learn should retire. Because if we push our students to stretch themselves, to risk failure, then we have to remember what it's like to stretch, to risk, and yes, to fail. If we stay in our comfort zones, it's easy to get so comfortable that we forget the anxiety of learning something new. 

A good teacher should be a dilettante, not just an expert in one field. Experts forget what it's like to struggle with understanding, they forget that they once had a learning curve. A good teacher should be really terrible at a lot of things and she should strive to improve in the face of frustration and embarrassment so that she is always capable of empathizing with her students.

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