64: On Being Bad

64: On Being Bad

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

On Being Bad

Sandwich every bit of criticism between two layers of praise.

~Mary Kay Ash

I’m an English teacher because I love to read, write, and analyze the heck out of things. I’m confident that I can tackle tough works and come to some level of understanding. I’m confident that I can say something intelligent about the literature, or at least ask the right question so that one of my brilliant students can.

In this arena — English — I can become smug. I can get cranky over people being unable to distinguish “then” from “than.” I can forget that the students in the hard, plastic seats in front of me are trying, or at least they’ll try unless I overdo the red pen and squelch their enthusiasm.

All public schools require teachers to do hours of continuing education to maintain their credentials. Sometimes, what is allowed seems odd to people. I teach English, and my time volunteering as a violinist in the American River College Orchestra counts for continuing education.

And here’s why it should count: because I’m really bad at it.

I can’t count. I have no ear. I don’t really understand key signatures. But I’m trying. I’m trying because my fellow musicians are kind. They always patiently answer questions I have about notation. Even if I’ve asked before. They don’t judge. They are just happy that I’m giving it my best effort.

This can happen in the classroom, too. Students can love and support one another, and they usually do if the environment allows it. The environment is my responsibility. The most important thing to me is respect, and somehow I have to grow that respect in the classroom. The only way I have figured how to do that is to model it myself. That is easy when the students are brilliant, and many of them are. But when they are in need of remediation, it can be hard.

In the orchestra, the culture is controlled by conductors. They can be prima donnas, flapping around like some bird of paradise and squawking at the musicians. Or not. They can be patient, kind, and generous. They can let the love of the music hold the ensemble together. When you go into their office, crying because your pride is broken and the music is hard and your fingers are old and you’re not getting any younger and you don’t really get how all the B’s can be flat, they accept you for who you are. You learn something about teaching from that.

I learn that my students, too, are trying. That the love of words can be sustaining. That we all know they meant “then,” and the communication hasn’t been lost. I learn that it has always been about love, and that the greatest gift I can give them is patience.

Maybe I have just come from a rehearsal where we’re playing Brahms Symphony No. 1. Maybe of the 28 million notes, I can hit 139. That is a lot of awkward faking going on. There are times when I just feel exposed in my inability.

I often remind myself that this is what it feels like to suck at English. There are reminders everywhere that you aren’t getting it, and you can see everyone around you happily discussing the underlying metaphors in Camus’s The Stranger. You know if you open your mouth, you’ll be discovered, like when I pull my bow across the string and the guy in front of me realizes that I don’t know I’m flat.

Pulling the bow takes courage. Asking questions in class takes courage. Offering an opinion takes courage. I learn to honor the grit of the “bad” student.

And I learn how to be a better teacher.

~Kate Wells

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