On Feeling Stupid

It is summer and I have been enjoying a little light reading. I love mystery stories. However, I don’t like violent mysteries with lots of swearing, sex and gunfire. I prefer the quieter, thinking kind that reveals a bit about human nature from time to time. One of my favorite mystery series is the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. The series is set in Botswana and the protagonist is a woman named Precious Ramotswe who runs a detective agency. The books have been made into a television series on HBO, also. The book I completed this morning was The Kalahari Typing School for Men. In this installment, Mma Ramotswe’s assistant Mma Makutsi opens a typing school for men so that they may learn the keyboarding skills they desire for modern life. An unnamed student sums up his description of his typing teacher with this statement. “She is a good teacher, that woman, ” he said. “She does not make me feel stupid. She is good at her job.”

Book Cover

At our school, stupid is sort of a curse word.  No one would call anyone that.  Children get a stricken look on their faces if it creeps into a library book.  But that doesn’t stop feelings of inadequacy and frustration.   A teacher doe not have to be overtly disrespectful or condescending for students to feel badly about themselves during a course of study.  Those feelings may stem from a student’s past failures with the subject, the derision of peers, a more sensitive personality, or lower beginning ability level.  While no one can or should save young people from every case of negative emotion, it certainly can be a barrier to learning.  I have often thought that if learning to read had been as much of a struggle for me as learning any sport involving hitting a small ball has been, I am not sure I would have done it. I feel stupid when I play tennis, racquetball, billiards etc. I am sort of sports learning challenged.  Based on past experiences, it would take a very good teacher to overcome my wish to defend against feeling  stupid and try one of these endeavors again. This willingness to acknowledge  a student’s  fear of failure and embarrassment and provide strategies to overcome it should be a part of any good teacher’s game plan.

Sometimes we are very sensitive to this with young children but we expect our adult peers to never have this barrier.  I suspect many people do not fully engage with professional development because they fear that they will feel stupid.   It is easier to reject, make fun of or tune out a new program, idea or way of doing things than to go through the “Oh, no! This makes me feel stupid.” moment.  Of course, as adult reflective learners we should be able to take down the barriers, swallow our pride and move forward with courage.  But if we find ourselves as teachers of adults, we must face the truth of human nature and include strategies to open our learners’ hearts to the risk of change.

How do you make sure your students of any level don’t feel stupid?  What aspects and procedures in your school could be changed to help learners feel more confident and respected.?  How do you share  your passionate beliefs  with your extended circle of colleagues on Twitter and other social media without making new members and dissenters feel stupid or disrespected?

Would anyone like to teach me to play tennis?


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