Life-long Learning as Sensitivity Training

Some years ago, I decided to learn to kayak. I had rowed during my university years, and I’ve always been something of a water rat, so I had no fear about learning a new water sport. But within five minutes of being on the water, I mistakenly transferred what I knew about taking a stroke in rowing to kayaking, and promptly capsized. As if the capsize itself wasn’t a big enough slice of humble pie for the day, I also struggled to release the skirt around the opening to the kayak. So there I hung for a moment, upside down in the water, experiencing real terror. When I came to the surface, I was scared and embarrassed, and all I wanted to do was say, ‘Who wants to learn this stupid sport anyway?’ and skulk home. I didn’t, because I had sufficient emotional intelligence and maturity to process the situation. My larger lesson for the day was how important it is as an instructor to be constantly learning myself so that I never forget how vulnerable an activity learning is.

And then I remembered. I remembered a student in her late twenties who was in tears at the prospect of not having access to a bilingual dictionary in an ESL class. I remembered a friend whose dreams of being a journalist were crushed when a teacher stated, “You have difficulty writing.” I remembered a colleague who was scorned for being so inept as to not have learned how to use chopsticks before venturing to teach in Japan.

For some students, learning is a breeze – it’s an adventure, it’s fun, and they’re good at it. Such was the experience for many instructors, which may be partially why they entered academia as a profession. For other students, learning is a path fraught with pitfalls – crevices to fall into with faulty logic, rocks to stumble over while struggling to articulate questions, and roots to make them trip and fall in the absence of sufficient background in a subject. As instructors, I feel it behooves us all to undertake activities that are beyond our comfort zone from time to time if only to keep us humble and to remind us to be sensitive when dealing with students. And I would paraphrase Yeats to remind us to tread softly, for we tread on their dreams.

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