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'
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
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
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
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.