Good teachers understand what it’s like to be a student. That’s what a middle school principal told me years ago, when I described my humbling experience while taking a hot glass course. I learned that sticking a metal rod into a 2400 degree Fahrenheit furnace, pulling out a blob of molten material and keeping the blob in constant motion, until I could shape it into something useful was not a good match for my strength or coordination. And I hated the heat. The paper weight and bowl I fashioned only came about thanks to the intervention of the teacher and his aide. The principal said, “When we become ‘expert’ we forget our experiences as learners. It’s good for teachers to take classes outside their fields, so they can re-experience what school feels like from the perspective of a beginner.”
But what about the rest of us? Does studying something new benefit us even if we fail? I believe it does. When we age our worlds shrink. I saw that in the lives of my mother and father-in-law. When they were young, the entire world was their territory. When they became elderly their worlds shrank to the size of their neighborhoods and finally their homes. Trying something new can expand our worlds even if our geography doesn’t change. Some researchers say that new learning might delay the onset of cognitive “decline” in the elderly. Others speak of taking courses as a way of expanding social networks.
But here’s a benefit that nobody talks about: when we are beginners in any field, whether we succeed or fail, we come to a greater appreciation for the work of those who are experts. When you watch them work they make it look easy, but you appreciate how long it took to reach that point. Now I look at a beautiful piece of handcrafted glass and understand that it took many years for the artist to study and practice before he or she acquired the skill to create it, and that the price tag probably represents a wage of $2.50 an hour, given the time invested in learning the craft.
I had the same admiration for teachers’ expertise while volunteering in elementary school classes for nineteen years. I worked with kids who struggled academically, socially and emotionally. I would watch the teachers respond to a roomful of children who all wanted help and attention at the same time, while still maintaining order and making every child feel important. They made it look so easy, but I knew differently based on my struggles to find the key to helping just one child at a time.