On New Year’s Eve, I met a woman who had wanted to write a book all her life but could never get past a certain point. She hadn’t written for years because she was so frustrated by her failed attempts.
Everyone wants to learn the same thing from painful situations: how to avoid repeating them. ~Gary Zukav
Outside my window, our roosters are learning to crow. I never realized that they couldn’t crow until they reached a certain age, or that they had to practice.
They began uncertainly. At first I thought they were ill, or choking on a bug. They wobbled between notes. The closest comparison I can think of is that of a nearly dead car battery trying to turn over.
They made me think of the practice sessions I used to attend at The Teaching Company. One day I was watching a professor deliver a lecture for the first time in the studio.
After five minutes, I turned to the team and said, “All the usual things.” Then I left, without another word. But they knew exactly what I meant.
The compressor for our well guzzles oil like a camel that’s just crossed the Sahara. Down the hatch in one frantic gulp but with no impact on the thirst.
Put another way, we have water challenges at our farm, and it’s not just because of the drought in California. The pump is a cantankerous old hen, and it rarely coughs up the golden egg—that is, enough water for something as glorious as a shower.
There’s nothing like sponge baths for weeks on end to make you truly appreciate water that runs when you turn a tap.
The other day, as I was trying to wash my hair from a pot of hot water (not easy, I can attest), I realized that until the past year, I had taken a shower nearly every day of my adult life.
I blithely assumed that I would get up in the morning, turn on the water, and be able to soap up without turning off the water for fear of running out while still covered with suds. And that I would be able to do this for the rest of my life.
I took running water for granted. There it is, my confession.
For years I had tried to be conservative with water, turning it off while brushing my teeth and doing other things we’re told to do to save water. (Except for my showers, of course.)
I knew that there was a drought in California and much of the world. But heck, I was on the East coast where water is as available as…well, rain. All that changed when I moved to the West.
My point here isn’t to make you feel guilty for however much water you use, or to make you feel virtuous for however much water you save.
My point is that getting used to something makes us less aware of it, in all its uses, subtleties, challenges, and integrations into our lives.
We all know mindfulness is important, yada yada, and we take even that for granted. But when we are teaching, mindfulness is essential—yet as hard to attain as it is essential.
For one thing, we often take for granted what we know about the subject. That is to say—we already know the subject, and we forget that our students don’t.
Depending on your subject area or how long it has been since you learned something, you might, for instance, take for granted such things as how you multiply, what happened in the Battle of Gettysburg, how to network, or why the Impressionists were rebels even though now they seem like a part of art history that always existed.
We forget that for our students there is always a moment when they hear the material for the first time.
Think about that.
Can you remember what it was like to not know what you know now?
For my part—while I’m confessing things—I hardly remember what it’s like to not know how to write, how to organize content, how to deliver in front of a camera. But I force myself whenever I teach these things to unpack them, break them down, find metaphors that help convey their challenging nature.
I’m always surprised at how much there is to unpack and how difficult it is to dig down to the very bottom of my knowledge, to the starting point. I can do it—but only if I bring my teaching to that beginning point, to the foundation, to the point at which I stop taking for granted what I already know.
Whether you are teaching 1 + 1 or astrophysics or how to make crème brulée, your students need you to be mindful of what it’s like to be clueless about what you’re learning.
Your students need you to don beginner’s mind and stop taking for granted all the things you already know. And to get creative about how to teach from the ground up, once you see what you’re actually building—not only the end point of knowledge attained, but all the steps in between.
When my son returned home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, he had been traveling for four days straight and out in the field for a solid month before that. His uniform was stiff with mud. He peeled out of his boots and padded upstairs in socks that were blackened and sweat-soaked.
Twenty minutes later I heard him shout from the bathroom. “Ma! You have hot running water! It’s AMAZING!”
That’s the reaction you want from your students when you connect them to the wellspring of your knowledge. All it takes is seeing with fresh eyes.
Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).
If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.” ~François de La Rochefoucauld
When I was handed my first course to review for The Teaching Company, I got out my red pen and bled it dry.
What a mess that professor was, and I let him know it by rewriting, reorganizing, and reinventing every paragraph. I felt very impressed with myself for being so much smarter and such a better writer than this award-winning (ha!) professor.
She said something like, “You clearly have a strong background in editing. This professor won’t have time to make all these changes, so it will be more effective to tell him the 2 or 3 things that will have the biggest impact on how well this teaches, and delete the rest of your notes. I really appreciate how hard you worked on this.”
I just got handed my first criticism sandwich.