Need More Empathy For Your Student’s Learning? Take This Month To Learn Something Challenging Yourself.
It began as my administrator’s clever idea to help staff members gain more empathy for our middle school students while we learned what a typical day felt like for them.
Several of us in this experiment arrived at school almost giddy that we had substitutes covering our own classes, a little sad for those who wouldn’t be participating in the pushing and shoving through hallways.
After checking in at the front office to pick up our tailor made schedules, we navigated our way through wings and classes we rarely visited throughout the year because we were usually locked away inside our own rooms for most of it. Equipped with our lunch money, backpack, and comfortable shoes, we embarked on the “first-day-at-school” journey we hadn’t taken in decades.
I gained a few insights this day.
I discovered how hard it is to sit in our desk-chair combination seats that are torturous for even one class period, let alone a whole day of tailbone twitching trying to get comfortable.
I developed a tremendous amount of empathy for students who ask to use the bathroom during class. I now realize this is less about, perhaps, wanting to avoid a grammar lesson, and more the case that there is simply not enough time to negotiate this necessity in the mere three minutes we have to pass between classes.
The most powerful lesson I learned today is this: I only know what I know. After sitting in on other subjects taught by my middle school colleagues, I found that with all of my education behind me, I have really only mastered the subject I teach.
So I have done some thinking about how I will ward off Alzheimer’s since they say the best way to do so is to exercise the brain by learning something new. A language at this point seems like more school work, outside of my regular school work. A sport is out of my comfort zone. An expansion in my culinary and baking skills will be more play time, and not the challenge I am seeking.
So, I think back to my childhood to recall the passions I had a full minute to explore before I abandoned them for increased homework loads, adolescent angst, college commitments, corporate ladder climbing, and overachieving adulthood ambitions.
I remember that I once went to horse camp as a sixth grader in the Girl Scouts. I was taught how to brush a horse, and pat his caboose when I walked behind him, lest he be surprised and kick me. I got my first pair of Roper boots that my mom said would stretch out the more I wore them, so I slept in them. Every day for one whole glorious week, I got to see my horse Butterfly. Riding at a slow trot was not half as much fun as galloping.
Years later, I took any chance I had to ride with friends on the coast, or in the valley, because I wanted to gallop again. I considered myself a real horsewoman throughout my high school years because I had ridden the beach alone…twice.
Let me tell you, there is a lot more to becoming a horsewoman than what I learned at horse camp. I have been taking Dressage lessons for five months now—the English riding style that will eventually teach me how to jump. Around month two, I started to feel inadequate that as an aspiring horsewoman, I still relied on one of the ranch hands to tack up my horse for me, so I said I wanted to learn.
This has been the most challenging subject to master. There are about seventeen steps to girding up your horse before you can get your giddy-up on. All of the leather straps that need to be laced around your horse’s head, properly linking the chain behind his throat, while getting him to take the bit the first time, have given me nightmares. Don’t even get me started on the layers of saddling, and boot wrapping that need to be done. For a long time, brushing was still my favorite part.
But, this experience has finally given me one more great story in the arsenal I rely upon to build confidence among my seventh-graders. I love the student who tells me they’ve never been good at school, and learning is hard. I understand completely.
Now, I will tell them that I know exactly what it’s like to learn something new. I will tell them that when I didn’t understand the instructions the first time, I was overwhelmed. When I still hadn’t mastered the routine after the second time, I felt frustrated. After the fourth time, I felt embarrassed. After the seventh time, I thought I was in over my head and I would never get it. But, like Shania Twain’s song says, “I ain’t no quitter.”
Today, I am 85% Proficient, which means I am nearly Advanced. I know I can lick this, and I can see the improvements I have made.
The ranch hands all know me by name and tell me I am besting my time from when I last tacked up my horse—not that it’s a race, but they are building my confidence. I can even see the growing approval in my patient horse. He knows I know what I’m doing now.
When your own kids say “it’s too hard”—it only means they are afraid of looking stupid because everybody else seems to be getting it faster.
Take this month to challenge yourself—let your kids see the kind of learner you are. Show them that the road to mastery isn’t about age, it’s about skill—and gaining some is quite gratifying in the end.
Blog question: When did you last learn something challenging and what was it?