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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Mr. Martin's Oopses: The Best Educators Have Struggled to Learn, Then Succeeded

A teacher must be bad at something to be good at teaching.
By Mitch Martin
Credit: Indigo Flores

I am the worst guitarist in North America. I am also a solid and ever-improving high school English teacher. The two are related. Although some college educational programs appear lost on the point, a good teacher must be skilled in the subject he or she is teaching.

This is essential for the student -- but for the teacher, it creates a life that is conflicted, if not paradoxical. You must be very good at what you teach, therefore, you spend your life with people who often aren't nearly as good -- or as interested in -- the subject you love.

If I were put in charge of a college of education, I would attach a simple requirement to the foundation methods class: All students would be required to take a class in something they aren't good at, preferably something at which they stink.

Think about it: Many of the most skilled professional athletes make the worst coaches. Magic Johnson, for instance, was a rather infamous failure as a coach -- he couldn't relate to the lackadaisical attitude and poor execution of his charges. Many educators experience the same thing: "Why won't they simply do their work?" "I've explained this fifty times!" "What's wrong with these kids?" are familiar teachers' lounge refrains.

I have said the same things about my students; I've even said worse. But once a week, the shoe is on the other foot -- which is firmly planted on the wah-wah pedal. I always imagine Mike, my guitar teacher, somewhere in the middle of his 11:30 A.M. Saturday lesson, looking down at his watch and realizing there is nothing he can do to escape his noon lesson. The incompetence! The drudgery! The English teacher with the fumbling hands!

Mike is the best guitar teacher I've ever had.

My first guitar teacher was the opposite of me: a wonderful guitarist and a poor teacher. "Do this," he'd say. His fingers would blur up and down the fret board. I'd stare at him. He'd stare back. "You want me to play it again?" Sure, I'd say. Another blur. I lasted about six lessons, then, deeply embarrassed, quit playing for ten years.

My second guitar teacher was a fair instructor, but burned out and a little sad. He'd spend half the lesson talking about the guitar he planned to purchase, or the studio he wanted to set up in his basement. It was a little hard to blame him; I was quite a challenge.

Mike is the third bear in my Goldilocks guitar-teacher equation. In his guitar studio, a faded 1986 Stevie Ray Vaughan concert poster looks up at his secondary education diploma from Roosevelt University. He knows what he's teaching, and he knows how to teach. He breaks things down. He takes Eagles songs (the ones with the easier chords) and plays them at "therapy" tempo, or what a high school counselor might call "skills" tempo -- really, really slowly.

I do have just a smidgen of talent. After two years of lessons, I can sometimes hear a note in a song and reproduce it on my guitar -- a simple thing, but for the pitch-challenged such as myself, a revelation. I can play a few serious numbers and sing them at the same time -- "Old Smokey" and "Lyin' Eyes" for instance. This is a wonder to me.

Still, I have considered quitting at least three times this year. I have an eighteen-month-old son, a two-hour commute, and a pile of essays that is self-regenerating. I go weeks without practicing. I remind myself of the kid who shows up late with no pen four out of five days, a weary look on his face. (I am not advocating leniency here as much as understanding.)

Sometimes, I give up television for a week, hide out after my son goes to sleep, and actually practice what I was supposed to practice. I show up on Saturday ready to rock, and my guitar teacher doesn't even ask if I'm ready to play what we went over last week. No doubt he fails to do this because the chances of me having actually practiced my assignment are one in five. Nonetheless, I feel a bit like screaming.

It is in these moments that I gain a new understanding of what it's like to read Julius Caesar when you have no clue what is going on. I have actually looked out into the classroom and recognized the scrunched-up, frustrated look on my students' faces precisely because I've felt the same look come over my face as I mangle a Richard Thompson guitar lick.

They say failure is the best teacher, but I know better. The best teachers are the ones who have struggled and succeeded.

Credit: Indigo Flores
Mitch Martin is a high school English teacher who lives in Naperville, Illinois. He is also a journalist whose articles have appeared in Naperville Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the New York Times.

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