On being a human teacher – Part 3: The peace and quiet to try new things

Over the last holidays I did something rare and disruptive in my specialised adult existence. I did something I’d never done before. Something entirely new. And it was (unsurprisingly, yet horrifyingly) challenging to persevere through the uncomfortable experience of being a “no-good” novice.

What did I do? A group of teaching friends decided it would be fun (for them) to make and decorate eggs the Ukrainian way. For those of you who were previously unaware of Pysanka – and I was too until that fateful morning – it involves using wax and dyes to build up layers of colour and pattern on fragile eggshells. The finished eggs are intricate and beautiful. See below.

Growing up I never liked Art and I languished through years of clay, painting and drawing. I’m not spatially gifted, visual or good with my hands and so I always felt at a disadvantage in the Art room. My preferred mode of communication – words, writing them, reading them, analysing them, retaining them – was of no help to me.

But back to making Pysanka. The process works by mapping out your design in pencil on the egg and then dyeing the egg the lightest colour you want to use first, often yellow. You then use wax to trace over the section of pattern you want to remain yellow so that this layer of dye is protected by the wax from future, darker dyes. The process of dyeing using different, increasingly darker colours and drawing in wax is then repeated until the darkest dye is administered, often black, or dark red or green. The abstruseness of the process still confuses me and trying to explain it now reminds me of how counterintuitive it felt on the day. (Read more about it here.)

My first and second eggs cracked under my inexperienced hands when I tried to blow out the egg white and yolk. Any remaining optimism I had for the task quickly dwindled when I realised, to my chagrin, that no one else’s eggs had suffered the way mine had.

Instead of being a grown up, trying my best and generally getting on with decorating my first/third egg, I regressed and began to misbehave something chronic. I procrastinated. I avoided. I invited distraction. I was slooowww and I didn’t try as hard as I should have. In short, I was the embodiment of the student in a class who doesn’t want, or have the courage, to try.

What was stopping me? Why was I scared?

I love being a specialist and feeling like I’m good at things. Who doesn’t? No matter your age or experience being bad at something, or feeling like you’re most unskilled out of a group, can be a really uncomfortable experience.

My friends (who are all teachers – M&M if you’re reading this you know who you are) didn’t let me get away with behaving badly or not trying (nor should they have). They cajoled and encouraged me through the decoration stage. See below for our finished products.

M1’s first egg

M2’s first egg

My first attempt

In order to learn something new you have to be vulnerable. (More on vulnerability and learning here at the 20 minute mark). And in being vulnerable, your skills and sense of self are challenged. Needless to say I felt uncomfortable and vulnerable learning something new that day.

In the adult world, it can be quite rare for us to attempt something we don’t know the first thing about. The clichéd and obvious connection in this reflection is that my discomfort gave me renewed empathy for my students. We as teachers and adults expect children to be prepared to operate, learn and grow in this state of perpetually stretched discomfort, or Zone of Proximal Development, day in, day out, for years on end.

But I don’t want to end on this simple reflective point, as something more interesting happened later on in the day. There was a moment in the afternoon when everyone had left and I was alone in the house with only a softly sleeping baby and cat for company. On strict instructions from my friends, I was to attempt decorating a second egg as they had all managed to decorate two to my one.

The first/fourth egg cracked (again), but I was less embarrassed this time as there was no one watching. And, even better, the second/fifth one didn’t, which I quietly celebrated as a win.

In the peace and quiet of the dwindling afternoon light I began to decorate, with the resignation of a perfectionist who hopes that her second attempt won’t be quite the uncharted disaster of the first, whilst equally accepting that it won’t be the virtuosic masterpiece she dreams of either.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many of my own students feel the way I felt without an audience. Classrooms are such public spaces for success and failure, mastery and novitiate. How many of my students, like me, would prefer to quietly experiment with new skills on their own?

Peace and quiet can work wonders for students. Away from the hubbub of the classroom I’ve seen how they find it easier to become absorbed in a task, be it in homework club, completing a redemption task for an incomplete assessment, or in detention. We only learn in an environment that is safe, predictable and when we feel supported. And there is a safety to be derived from nobody watching as you figure things out for yourself.

Maybe students who avoid tasks and work, as I did that day, need more privacy. Maybe what is missing for them is the space for them to quietly do their work, to just focus on making progress for themselves, with no possibility of comparisons being made with over, or underachieving others.

My second egg was still rough around the edges. But it was better than my first.

My second attempt

And so with the Term 2 holidays upon me I’m wondering if I will be brave enough – or foolhardy enough – to choose to be as uncomfortable as I was last holidays again.

Anyone up for more arts & crafts?

– EC

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