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Teaching Thoughts (part 3)

So… I’ve covered the explanations, and the hunt for words – that is one of the challenges when teaching, and it relates to the mind part of the task, the understanding only.

The things I am teaching, though, are crafts. Which means that there is not only theory (understanding how things work, and how the process should look at every stage of the work and why, and how to check if it is correct) but also practice. Which, in turn, means fine motor skills – getting your hands to do exactly what they need to do to turn those tablets, spin that spindle, control these fibres, tighten the thread, hold and swap those loops.

Motor skills of that kind are not as easy to confer to someone else. Once you’ve found the right words and gotten that concept across, it’s there (and hopefully there to stay), but you can show someone a movement, a motion, a way of holding the body or parts of it, and it might just be so uncomfortable or new or hard to do that it is not really happening for that student. Even worse, there might be issues that prevent someone from successfully doing something – a finger that once was broken, latent tendonitis in a hand, arthritic joints, limited range of motion in a shoulder. The human body is astonishingly strong and resilient in some ways, and astonishingly ill-designed and prone to failure in others.

Even when there are no illnesses or accidents or other things that have left their traces, some folks will get there quicker, and some will need more time to learn that motion. It has to do with what one is used to doing – having mastered other, similar movements for something else before will be helpful, and having never done anything of the sort of motion needed will make itself felt. So some students, naturally, will be faster and some will be slower.

And also naturally, the slower ones will tend to be frustrated, and look at the others who are quicker and start to doubt themselves and think they will never get it. This, for me, is the hardest thing to deal with when teaching crafts – because I would so love to help them be just as fast as the fastest student in the class, and spare them the frustration. I would love to transfer them my own muscle memory, my own experience of how to grip, how to loosen, how something feels when you have to let go just a little more, or hold on a tiny bit harder. Of how the fibre should feel when it is running through your distaff hand, how that stack of tablets resists a bit and then you loosen your grip in one way and turn a little more and there it is.

But this, alas, is not possible. Everyone has to find these little treasures of practical knowledge for themselves. Experience cannot be transferred directly. There is no quick fix for the muscles not getting it as fast as the brain did.

It’s frustrating when you know exactly what you want to do, and your body just refuses to do it. It’s also frustrating when other people do just the same task with an apparent effortlessness that makes you doubt yourself. Believe me – I know that feeling very well. Not from textile crafts (where I have been doing so many things over the years that I usually get the new motion very quickly). I know it all too well from bouldering, where I regularly have fits of frustration over not being able to do a problem that others just dance up – or so it seems to me. I am still not very strong, so some moves are right out (pull my body up with one arm? Oh forget it!), and I’m still not very tall, so sometimes my angles are different and it makes things very different indeed, and sometimes my hands are too small for a specific grip on a hold. But sometimes, all these things cannot serve as an excuse, or an explanation why something is harder for me. Sometimes I only lack the strength, or the muscle knowledge of how a motion is done, or both – and consequently, I  fall off. Again and again and again, while other people (including other women, and sometimes other women who are a similar height) just… you know… float up.

There’s only one solution to this problem: Keep trying. Keep practicing. Even if it is hard, even if it is frustrating, every time of trying and failing means one more time exploring possibilities, making new connections between muscles and neurons, learning something. Eventually, it will click, and the motor part of the brain will realise that oh, this is how the movement should feel, and this is how the muscles here and there and there have to work together, and suddenly it works, not all the time at first, but the seed is laid and with some more practice, it will grow.

There’s no shortcut here – but if you have a hard time getting your muscles to do just what they are supposed to do, you can at least have this consolation: The next time you try to learn motor skills similar to the one you are struggling with now, it will be easier, and even easier the next time, and at one point you will be floating along, effortlessly. Don’t give up. Keep practising. Be gentle with yourself – you will get there.

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