On Vulnerability, Teaching, and Doing Hard Things
Almost exactly a year ago, I celebrated my adult Bat Mitzvah, as I never had a chance to celebrate it as a teenager. The preparation involved learning to lead the congregation in prayer and chant the week's reading from the Torah, all done in Hebrew. It also involved enough study to prepare the week's sermon. I found the whole thing rather difficult, not least because I have never felt comfortable singing in public. Singing in front of 150 people for two hours was nerve-wracking, but I was so proud at the end!
Anyway, I tell this story, because our rabbi made a very interesting point that day. She pointed out that we often treat doing hard things as the province of the young, and rarely take on similar challenges. In the Jewish world, we routinely expect twelve- and thirteen-year-olds to do everything I did and more, right at that incredibly awkward stage between childhood and young adulthood, yet adults rarely take on similar challenges, and we don't insist they do.
As I’ve pondered this idea, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an important point for adults who spend their days with children. Among those of us who guide Montessori classrooms for the 6-12ish set, we have a saying that "the guide must be the oldest child in the room." That doesn't mean the guide should be immature! Instead it means that the guide should act as a model child, following classroom norms, showing enthusiasm, and sometimes doing the activities we wish the children would do so that they can see us doing it.
But I think this should also include doing hard things. We want the children to do hard things ("You can do hard things" was an unofficial motto in our classroom), and so we need to do them ourselves. Hard things aren't necessarily the big, spectacular things—though elementary kids love to do those—but the scary, vulnerable, this-is-uncomfortable-for-me stuff. Giving a presentation to your classmates, climbing a tree, writing a poem, drawing, or standing up to another child can all be hard things depending on the person. What’s hard for one person isn’t hard for another, but as we get older, it becomes easier to just ignore these things: “I don’t ski” or “I’m not a math person”, in a way that we don’t allow children to do.
As an adult who spends a good deal of time with children, I’ve come around to the belief that one of my responsibilities is to let the children see me struggle with hard things. Whether it’s learning something difficult for me, telling them about something I’m struggling with, or acknowledging when I screw up, letting them see me do hard things lets them know that “you can do hard things” isn’t just another way of saying “do what I tell you”. Grownups do hard things, too. I think that’s even more important when children are constantly hearing, “when you’re older you’ll have to...” or “If you don’t do this now, you won’t be able to handle real responsibility later...” Those are pretty hypocritical sounding claims if children see adults breezing through life.
Since doing hard things frequently means being vulnerable, I’ll honestly admit that I haven’t been very good at this. Sometimes I manage, for example, forcing myself to write fiction with the children (I write a lot, but almost never fiction), or sketching an ecosystem on the whiteboard (the children almost immediately went and fixed my animal sketches!). But frequently I find ways to avoid doing the difficult or unpleasant things and fib that it should be the children’s responsibility.
One of the things that is hard for me, and that I’m trying to tackle right now, is drawing. I’m not very good at it, and I’m a bit afraid of it. I want to learn to draw well, and I’ve read enough to know that realistic drawing is a skill, not an innate talent, and I can learn how, and yet, I avoid actually sitting down and drawing, because it’s scary for me. I know my drawings will probably be terrible. I also know that they won’t start getting good until I’ve made many, many terrible drawings, and that’s okay. And yet, it’s much easier to read about learning to draw, to study other people’s stories of learning to draw, to go to the art supply store and buy aspiration materials for drawing, than it is to actually sit down and draw. It’s hard, but by paying attention to those feelings, and by actually forcing myself to draw and then paying attention to those feelings, the fear and avoidance become less overwhelming, and I feel hugely satisfied at having taken on the challenge.
I am taking on drawing for my own satisfaction and confidence (I don’t have classroom to struggle in front of right now anyway), but I will also hold the challenge and the pride in my heart for the next time I encounter a struggling child. It will be one more experience to share and one more way to inspire them.