Modeling Imperfection

Do you remember back to a time when you thought a teacher or a mentor was absolutely perfect, and you were a mere peon at the bottom rungs of the ladder of perfectionism? Maybe you don’t, but I was definitely that kid, that college student, that grad student, at least initially, with most of my teachers. I remember being somewhat disillusioned in eventually discovering my teachers’ flaws, but ultimately, I learned to trust teachers more and more whose own learning process and inevitable imperfections were revealed as an essential part of their success and effectiveness. Especially in struggling with my own personal challenges, I have learned to trust people that I see as “real” learners who are comfortable in sharing their struggles as well as their successes. As a teacher, I’ve been determined not to foster the illusion of perfection in myself in relationships with my students. I really try to create an environment of “scientific” skepticism and experimentation in which we are both/all participants in a process of discovery.

Until recently, however, it never occurred to me that I could be coming across as anything but flawed, well aware of daily trial and error that I experience myself in working with the individual marvels and idiosyncrasies of each student or group that I clinic, and certainly in working on the challenges I face in my own learning. For me, the struggle is also where the fascination lies–it’s also part of the fun.

The idea of intentionally modeling my own imperfection, and pointing it out, came to the surface this last week in working with a long time student who has been struggling with a lot of self doubt to the point of some serious emotional changes and changes in her learning. In the last couple of years my student has been coming to lessons with a mountain of worries about what other people think of her. She is afraid to play anything if she thinks someone is outside the door listening, or possibly able to hear any mistake she makes. She has an older sibling who is a whiz a math, and she comes from a family who seems to pressure her to achieve at the same rate as her brother. Historically, she has been a much more creative type who used to come to lessons full of questions and unique ideas and an avid reader and discoverer. Recently, however, there has been a lot of pressure from home, she says, to drop activities that “don’t matter” (for college admissions) and pick up the slack she’s created in math/science by being too involved in other “frivolous” pursuits. She also told me of a number of horrifying incidents where a math teacher of whom her brother has always been a favorite has been criticizing her and openly comparing her to her brother in front of the other students in her class.

My heart breaks in hearing about this treatment, as I have seen her go from a bubbly and creative middle schooler to an increasingly introverted teenager who seems to be hiding her most important tools of learning in fear of judgment and criticism…failure, mistakes, taking chances, experimentation, questioning, etc. My one hope has been that her lessons could be a place that she could continue to be herself, to let go, to be comfortable making mistakes and experimenting because, after all, her teacher is as flawed as the best of them!

But here’s where I had some learning to do myself, because in her lesson two weeks ago, my student was too paralyzed to play in front of me. Even after weeks of talking the talk of flaws and vulnerability and what learning was all about, I finally started to see that it was just talk, because she didn’t see me in the same light. After much coaxing I got her to begin to play part of an assignment for the week–one which I thought I knew backwards and forwards after many years of teaching. We came to a point in our work on it when I demonstrated a technique using a phrase from her etude. As I played her eyes got big and she froze again. I asked her if she would give it a try if she understood, but after a bit more staring at me, I asked her what was wrong. She finally, timidly said, “Do you think my music might be wrong? …Because mine says that’s an F-natural, and I think you played an F-sharp.” I laughed and said, “Oh wow…good catch! I thought I knew that passage, but I got it wrong!” It wasn’t a big deal to me, but to her, it was pivotal in the lesson, as she started playing again with increased confidence and didn’t stop until she got to the end. I was kind of dumbstruck that the simple act of admitting my mistake would be so powerful in this relationship. For the rest of the lesson, I made a point of articulating my mistakes as I made them, not making any with intention, but mildly commenting on them as if they were no big deal…and believe me, there were plenty, even just articulating an idea I might have had for her and allowing her to join into the discussion of what made sense or worked and what was not quite accurate. The change in her for that lesson was noticeable.

The next week, she arrived in better spirits, quite possibly due to many other factors. In the small talk at the beginning of her lesson, however, I still made a point to share an experience from earlier that day–I was doing a clinic with middle schoolers using a silly bow exercise, and I kept teasing them that if they dropped the bow they were out! Guess who was the first to have her bow go flying…me! She thought this was funny. Five minutes later, when she was playing a scale, another student walked into the room, and for the first time EVER she kept playing! Afterwards, she said, “Did you see that? That kid came in, and I made a decision not to stop and not to care what he thought.”

It was and continues to be a huge lesson for me. In this world of increasing competition and emphasis on getting the right answer, we need more than ever to be guides to what real learning is, not just in our language, but by sharing our own ongoing processes and revealing our own powerful vulnerability.

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