Why is it so difficult to take our own advice? I have high expectations for my high school English students. I have even higher expectations for myself. Perfectionism is the antagonist in my story that can swoop in and either push me forward or become a stone wall appearing too impossible to climb. Take a risk on being wrong? Never.
Well, sometimes. Over the last year, I have put myself into uncomfortable situations. Besides writing for public consumption – hi everyone, good to be back blogging here – I also have begun learning how to play the guitar. Both of these creative pursuits were years in the making, but I always found a reason to delay diving into the process of learning.
Fear of failure can be the beast that frightens even the most confident of humans. The other day I talked to one of my sophomore English classes about the importance of taking the initiative to share ideas aloud. I have a quiet group and, oftentimes, their expressions shout, “do not call on me.” I heard myself explaining that in order to improve critical learning skills, we have to be willing to take risks and learn from our mistakes.
Ironically, later that afternoon when practicing the guitar, I was being excruciatingly hard on myself for the fact that I had yet to master the C chord. I grew impatient that I could not switch fast enough from the G to the C. Of course, I refused to remind myself that I am still at the beginning of the guitar strumming business.
Learning how to play guitar has been humbling. I started taking group lessons through the park district last spring and then decided to try private lessons this fall. I have always had high expectations of myself, often feeling as if I should learn something right away, as if I do not need the practice to improve.
Taking guitar and putting in the practice has made me even more empathetic towards my students as they push past the discomfort of learning how to improve their ability to actively read challenging texts and then write analytically.
My sophomores recently produced their first literary analysis essay. The work leading up to the final product was tough, with me at the helm reminding them to stay the course, to learn how to approach the often stormy process of writing with curiosity without letting fear drive them away from improvement and achievement.
I think I am finally tuning in to what I was telling them. I am learning to let myself struggle through the learning process. Playing the guitar is changing the way I hear music. When I listen to some of my favorite songs or those that are new to my ears, I notice that I can hear the guitar riffs more clearly. The learning is happening, and I am full of joy.
Learning a new skill also is changing the way I teach young people. I have always been mindful of how challenging it can be to really actively read a book one has not chosen to read. I also am sensitive to how challenging it can be to be an adolescent.
There is no doubt that it is because I am a teacher that I have finally started to learn that which I always wanted to learn: how to rock and roll on a six string. I have watched students rise to the expectations I set for them and now I am inspired to learn, to enjoy the process of something that is new to me.
At my first one-on-one guitar lesson a month ago, my guitar teacher asked me what I hope to gain out of learning the guitar. Without hesitation, I responded that I want to be in a rock band. He didn’t flinch. I chuckled and then said, “I mean, why not?”
Why not, indeed. Now, if I can only keep perfectionism at bay and stay focused on the process. I will continue looking to my students for inspiration.