After graduating from McGill University many years ago, I moved to Vancouver to begin a teacher-training program at Simon Fraser University. My first week was spent in what could best be described as survival training. Being a big city girl from Montreal, unfamiliar with west coast ways, I was confused by this new form of learning. What did building huge fires, climbing trees, swinging on ropes and orienteering have to do with teaching school, I wondered? Well, as it turned out, a lot.
Most of us had never tried to belly our way from one tree to another by inching along a coarse rope several feet above the ground. Suddenly it became clear what we were here to do. We were being thrust into situations not unlike those of our future students, where the challenge of learning something new, the fear of failure and the risk of embarrassment would strip us of our usual defenses and force us to find whatever resources we had to make it happen. If we could remember the experience, we might be able to help the struggling student overcome whatever hurdles might come along. We might be able to inspire confidence with words of encouragement and praise as our instructors and teammates did for us. We might be able to transfer that wonderful feeling of accomplishment that we felt as a result of our determination and effort.
Years later, while working as a remediation specialist, I attended a workshop in which participants were exposed to the simulated world of the exceptional learner. I remember feelings of disorientation, frustration and discouragement when I found myself unable to perform simple tasks as seen through the eyes of someone who sees the world differently from me. I had read the books and knew the techniques, but I had never truly understood the feeling that the individual with learning problems probably experiences on a daily basis. And it became clear to me how patience, kindness and acceptance of a different way of doing things were so important in nurturing learning.
These lessons have stayed with me as I have moved from special education to corporate training, consulting, coaching and counselling. I have seen how motivating, encouraging and accepting can be very helpful in promoting learning and change. But I have also come to appreciate the importance of the learner’s thoughts about the self. That how we view ourselves, the value we place on our ability to learn can make or break the learning experience. Certainly, there are varying levels of skill, differing degrees of interest, and responses of parents and teachers that might influence the learning, but so much depends on how we see ourselves.
I have come to realize that if we view ourselves as competent, then we enter into a new learning situation with an optimistic attitude and a sense of self that can remain intact whether or not we succeed. If, on the other hand, one of our core beliefs is that we are incompetent, then we will expect to fail and will either withdraw from the learning or be self critical at the first sign of difficulty. Until we learn to challenge these flawed beliefs about ourselves, we continue to perpetuate our resistance to the learning.
If you are struggling with feelings of incompetence, know that you can change the way you think about yourself. Allow me to show you how.
Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
“Helping Your Life Work”
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