Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Value of Equal Ineptitude

On a beautiful fall Sunday, our school’s outdoor programs guru sacrificed of his personal free time, his expertise, and the use of expensive school equipment and invited employees an opportunity to explore the fine art of paddleboarding.

The five of us who took him up on his offer were a mixed breed with a wide range of age and life experience: one married man in his late 50s, my wife and I at the crux of our supposed midlife, and two single women on the bookends of their 20s. My wife and I are about as at home in the wild outdoors as Toy Poodles, but the others in the group had experience with a variety of outdoorsy activities, from biking to hiking to climbing to rowing.

None of us, however, had ever paddleboarded.

If that’s what the past-tense verb of “paddleboard” is. If there’s even a verb for “paddleboard.”

I’d fallen twice in the first five minutes. The oldest guy in the group couldn’t quite figure out how to get to a standing position at all. Although all three of the ladies had less difficulty standing and balancing, two struggled to power themselves forward in the water with their oar.

We were, collectively, a sitcom pilot or a humorous reality TV show waiting to happen. Thirty minutes after we’d entered the water, we’d gone a combined distance of 50 yards. Maybe. We were a disgrace to the serene experience that is supposed to be paddleboarding... yet we were OK with it. We were in it cluelessly together.

If our outdoor programs director had invited me to join his paddleboarding club for a speedy jaunt down the river, I would have politely but quickly declined. What adult wants to go out and be the clueless inept loser in a pack of studs?

As I lay on the couch that evening, reflecting on my experience, I thought of my daily environment of work and school.

New teachers in our environment, often young and with little exprience, walk into our faculty meetings, into our dining hall. Often they sit together, at least two or three of them huddled as a unit. Could there be anything more intimidating and less welcoming to someone worried about their own ineptitude or green-ness than sitting amidst veterans whose complaints involve needy parents or lazy students while the newbie worries whether his lesson will go the entire class and whether he can remember the damn password to get onto the PC connected to the smartboard?

Many new teachers have no classroom experience and no education major. Their first weeks in an independent school classroom are painfully raw. No dress rehearsals. No preseason. The kids -- the proverbial inmates -- know more about asylum than the teacher.

Or what about veteran teachers who started their careers on mimeograph machines and typewritten memos but must sit in a professional development workshop on technology next to a gang of youngsters who were practically breastfed through an Ethernet cable? Those tech-savvy teachers make jokes about idiots who couldn’t program a VCR, and that veteran teacher remembers that night, 25 years ago, spending 30 minutes reading the manual to learn how to program his God-forsaken VCR.

Students curious about swimming or guitar ensemble, lacrosse or debate, anything that’s new to them but old hat to others in his potential group, must overcome the fear of being unequally inept, a fear with far more gravitas than the monster under your bed.

The value of equal ineptitude is often overlooked or forgotten by people my age, even those of us who truly consider ourselves lifelong learners, who are eager to experience and try and master new things.

If we can be cognizant of this value in those moments when we are the experts or the comfortable ones, and if we can make a conscious effort to minimize the feelings or fears of inequality or outsider-ness, we could no doubt make a significant improvement in the learning experience.


rodle said...

I've long considered you a wise man, Billy, but this post takes the cake. You looked beyond the raw humor of the paddle-boarding to find the life-lesson that all of us should remember. Nicely done.

Billy said...

Thank you. I'm particularly guilty of being insensitive to this reality, so I hope a heightened awareness/appreciation can translate into changed/improved behavior.

troutking said...

I agree with Randy. Great post! I also agree with Billy. Just kidding, but I will remind you of this post when I come over there and use that Mac...