“Put your weight on your right foot!” my date yelled.
I was teetering on a windsurfing board, trying to make it turn. I may as well have been trying to turn the Titanic.
“I AM!” I wailed, as the board continued straight ahead.
My date yelled louder. “Put your weight on your right foot!”
He repeated that a few more times, his voice fading in the distance as I picked up speed toward the far shore of the Potomac. Finally, I put my left foot clear in the air to prove, once and for, all that my weight WAS on my right foot. The board kept going straight.
Lousy teaching? Lousy learning? Maybe both: I have an astounding lack of talent when it comes to standing on moving boards (skateboards, snowboards, surfboards; it doesn’t matter which).
The point is not whether I ever learned to windsurf (I did not) nor whether my date was or wasn’t a good teacher. (He was not.) And forget about the relationship. What I’m pondering is the importance of experiencing failure as we journey through life.
When we’re young, we spend most of our time learning, and a lot of that time is spent failing. We try to walk a hundred times before we toddle across the room to mommy or daddy. We sing the alphabet song a thousand timers wrong before we sing it right. But as time goes on, that balance changes. As adults, days may go by when we don’t step outside our comfort zone. We may not fail at something for weeks.
I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, not only when I’m learning, but also when I’m teaching.
Most of us, when we teach, are sharing our knowledge of something we are good at. We forget what it’s like to not know how to step on a windsurfer and shift three mysterious hidden muscles somewhere in our core, and have the board turn.
Failure reminds us.
A few months ago, I decided to try to sing a song in semi-public after weeks of practicing to an audience of my cats. I must have rehearsed the song 500 times.
The venue was a a small musicale with a small group who met a key requirements: they are astonishingly non-critical, willing to find something to praise in even the most earsplittingly bad performance. As I started, my voice wobbled in an unsettling way, then I fell off pitch — kind of like the sound a train makes as it moves, unstoppably, away from you. And I forgot the words. “I did this better at home,” I wanted to mutter — which is exactly what my students tell me day in and day out.
There is knowing what a student is going through. And then there is KNOWING. As I slunk off the make-shift stage, I KNEW what it felt like for an insecure beginner to get it (sort of kind of) right at home, then fall apart on stage. My days of being a beginning piano player are long behind me, but my days of being a beginning singer are painfully present.
When my students complain “it’s HAAAAAARD!” what are they really telling me? It might be that they don’t understand what I’ve asked them to do. Or that they haven’t yet developed the skills to break a task into manageable pieces. Maybe they don’t yet know how to make intuitive adjustments until some secret neural pathway figures out how to put it all together. Or they may not enjoy tussling outside of their comfort zone.
Failing is a route to understanding the learning process. My inability to balance on a surf board while putting weigh on one foot and trying to change direction is not all that different from a student’s inability to relax the wrist, support the bridge of the hand, and turn one finger under the other while moving to a different place on the keyboard. In recent months, I’ve tried to rock climb, ski moguls, sing into a microphone, build a better website, speak Italian, and play the bass.
Each time, my success, or lack of it, has taught me something about teaching, even if it’s only to remind me, once again of this:
The most important part of being a teacher is creating a space where it is okay to fail.
Right now, I’m taking an art class. We’re supposed to draw things — so far, I’ve tried lots of vases and flowers, some seashells, a few faces, a cow bone, a gourd, a seed pod, and a skull. My first skull looked like a wax model that had melted in the heat.
The seed pod presented a whole universe of challenges: its delicacy and translucence, the shadows, the lights and darks, the edges, the angles and dimensions. I didn’t get it right; I may not have even gotten it recognizable (I’ve stared at it so long I can’t tell any more). “This is hard!” I found myself saying as I started a third attempt to make the seed pod three-dimensional.
But I was laughing as I said it. Maybe this is the lesson you learn about learning when you fail: Hard is good. Failing is on the road to succeeding. And the whole process means there are whole new worlds ahead to explore — one wobbly attempt at a time.