Tough Lessons From My Teacher: Learning to Value Our Learning
Recently I heard the sad news that one of my high school teachers passed away. I was fifteen when I started her Honors U.S. History course, and it was not long after that I started fantasizing about creating a dart board with her picture on it or park benching her - just once.
I didn’t really wish her ill. I just dreaded her class and thought she was mean, though she wasn’t. She made herself available to answer questions and gave substantive and encouraging feedback, like any effective coach.
Also like any effective coach, she was clear about her expectations and our responsibilities: the stated purpose of the course was to teach us about pre-Civil War U.S. history. Another equally important purpose was to teach us critical thinking - how to formulate thesis statements about historical events and support our arguments with credible evidence.
Therein lay the problem: I could not do this, and my initial foray into learning how was about as enjoyable as food poisoning.
Even today, I get anxious when I think about that course. Up until then, I’d had smooth sailing in school, with lots of smiley-face stickers, check-pluses, and 100 percents. This course was one of the first times I had to face the fact that the level of hard work and intelligence I had employed were not going to get me where I needed to go. I was going to have to step it up or die in the water, and I wasn’t sure if I had what it took. Later on, I would recognize this dynamic in my athletic endeavors.
"I discovered I was able to meet the academic demands of college. In graduate school, the written assignments came more easily to me than they seemed to for some of my peers."
Some of my classmates and I keened and wailed about how impossible the work was and how frustrating our teacher was. With the benefit of hindsight and, I hope, some accumulated wisdom, I have learned that I did not like her or her course because they stretched me beyond my comfort zone. They made me question myself. Like my best coaches and my toughest athletic pursuits, they exposed my weaknesses and forced me to address them, when I would rather have continued thinking I was doing fine.
But then I would not have grown as a student and a person. I would not have been able to handle subsequent academic and professional demands nearly as well. Don’t get me wrong. I still make plenty of mistakes, have plenty left to learn, and feel plenty of fear and doubt. But the skills I learned in that course created the foundation for the intellectual work I have gone on to do since.
But creating that foundation was not easy; it took effort, mistakes, practice, patience, stick-to-itiveness, humility, and an appreciation for the small victories. All the things it takes to do anything worth doing, including anything athletic. All the things I hate.
Frustration Leads to Insight
During class periods, many of the other students and I had sat, sullen, staring daggers at our teacher. It was not until years later, long after I had put the significance of the Mayflower Compact and the Articles of Confederation out of my mind, that I started to realize what a gift that course had been, and what a gift my teacher had given me by insisting on more from me than I thought I could give and supporting me in giving it.
I discovered I was able to meet the academic demands of college. In graduate school, the written assignments came more easily to me than they seemed to for some of my peers. I started to notice my writing was considered strong and my ability to support my arguments with evidence solid, both in academic and professional settings. I had been well prepared. And I recognized this dynamic as I took on more athletic challenges as well: frustration with self and coach followed by breakthroughs.
"She gave her students spinach when they wanted candy, and they were healthier for it, even though they didn’t yet appreciate the value of health."
Now I see things much more from my teacher’s perspective. Over time, I have morphed into a professor, an instructor, a coach. A teacher. I care about my students and how I am supporting their learning, whether it is in a classroom or on the mat. I understand it is my job to hold students to expectations and that this will cause frustration. But I also believe I am able to give students enough of what they need to get them to the next step. We are not perfect. But I do what I think is right, and I am confident in that.
Usually. Especially on the mat, there are those days when I am confronted with a sea of inscrutable faces, when the expressions on them could indicate anything from concentration to disgust to constipation. It is during those times, when my confidence is at low tide, that I must trust I am doing right by my students - based on experience and best practice, I am providing the right tools, asking the right questions, and making the right demands. I realize now how challenging it must have been for my teacher to encounter my and my classmates’ reactions - and lack thereof - day after day. Maybe she got used to teaching in a vacuum. I still have not.
The Tables Turn
Probably ten years later, I ran into this teacher. I made a beeline for her, and once I reminded her who I was, I talked so fast I stumbled over my words, wanting to tell her I had learned the importance of what she had taught us. I apologized for being a brat and said that I knew better now.
She laughed, saying she appreciated me approaching her. She said she believed in how she taught, even though she knew it could be painful for her students, because she knew, as I eventually realized, that it created a solid foundation for what came next. And she believed in us. But since most of her students sat through her course in a perpetual snit, like I had, and did not fully appreciate the value of the lessons until years later, like I had not, she did not often get to see transformations like the one I was able to share with her.
Now that I am the one making the instructional and coaching demands, I have become more able to appreciate the challenges she faced. Who doesn’t want to be liked? But that wasn’t her job. If it happened, that was nice. But if it didn’t, that was the price she paid for shepherding people who didn’t know what they didn’t know toward knowing more. She gave her students spinach when they wanted candy, and they were healthier for it, even though they didn’t yet appreciate the value of health. As coaches, we may find ourselves paying a similar price.
Tell Them about It
If there is a coach or teacher from your past whom you now know had a particularly positive influence on you, consider telling that person. She or he probably already knows. But I’m sure I speak for coaches and teachers everywhere when I say it is always nice to hear.
And if you are a coach or a teacher who gets down sometimes about whether you are getting through, keep on keeping on. The frustrated sighs and blank stares may actually signal that we have learning liftoff. Even if all that is registering for the student is panic, you can work with that.
"Now I see things much more from my teacher’s perspective. Over time, I have morphed into a professor, an instructor, a coach."
Mrs. Anderson, this one’s for you. I’m grateful I got the chance to thank you for all you did for me - all you still do - once I figured out how to value it. (That last part was something I had to teach myself.)
Rest in peace.
Check out these related articles:
- Learning Sucks, But You Should Do It Anyway
- How to Learn From Both Success and Failure
- Don't Always Take the Green Run: 5 Lessons From the Slopes
- What's New On Breaking Muscle Today
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