A couple of months ago I took on the role of Interim Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning, for a six-month term. It has been an exciting time, with lots to learn and many new people to meet. I have been eager, but have learned already that some days there is a fine line between eagerness and exhaustion.
I have taken time to connect with leaders and administrators who have more experience in similar positions, to have coffee and ask for advice on how to succeed in the role. Without exception, their advice has included having a way to release stress and focus on something besides work.
This weekend I took their advice to heart, and in doing so, brought a decades-old dream come to life. When I was a child, like many of my classmates, I had the option to take music lessons. I immediately knew which instrument I wanted to study: the cello. My mother’s response was, “No, it’s too big and you’re too clumsy. I can’t afford to replace it if you break it. You can play the violin.”
So, for the next three or four years, I played the violin. I didn’t really like it. The neighbours didn’t appreciate it. The family cat certainly didn’t enjoy it. I puttered along for a few years, until my violin teacher discovered that, unlike my classmates, I had never learned how to read music. I learned by watching and listening. I learned to turn the pages of the music when everyone else did, but I had no idea what the notes on the page actually meant. In other words, I faked it. And I got away with it. To a point. I played well enough, learned mostly be ear and by watching others, but I never really excelled. After about four years, we started getting into symphony music and I crumbled. I just couldn’t keep up. When my teacher discovered my lack of literacy skills when it came to reading music and scolded me, I felt so embarrassed and ashamed that I gave up entirely. I handed in my violin and never took music lessons again.
Until now. Almost forty years later, I have returned to that childhood dream of learning to play the cello. This weekend, I rented a cello and signed myself up for regular weekly lessons. I have taken the cello out of its case to try it and see if any of the skills I had as a mediocre childhood violinist would transfer. As far as I can see, the answer is: hardly at all. I feel comfortable with the instrument, but it does not feel natural. I have tried bowing the strings a bit and it sounds bad. Interestingly, it does not sound as horrendous as I expected, but perhaps that is because I have memories of the high-pitched e-string on the violin. The deeper notes of the cello somehow seem less offensive.
I have decided to start my school year with Beginner’s Mind. This is a Zen concept which “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Beginners must also be patient with themselves as they learn and to accept where they are, while they strive to build mastery.
I will endeavour to practice my work as a new administrator and my learning as a novice student of music with a Beginner’s Mind. After over two decades as a teacher, it is easy for me to fall into the pattern of thinking and acting like an expert with my students. By putting myself in the position of being a novice learner, I will be reminded of what it is like not to know; to be excited one moment and frustrated the next; to be disciplined enough to practice even after a long day; to breathe and to learn to relax in order to learn better.
This time, I will not fake it. I will be humble enough to tell my teacher that I do not know how to read music and I will try, little by little, to learn in earnest, rather than merely cope. I will admit when I do not know something, rather than try to mask my lack of knowledge in order to fit in.
My goal for this academic year is to relish in the delights and drawbacks of being a beginner, and allow that mindset to help me become a better teacher. And yes, this time I intend to actually learn how to read music, too.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.