Living with the tension of “Can I really do this?”


Teaching | Thursday, August 7, 2014

Living with the tension of “Can I really do this?”

Living with the tension of "Can I really do this?"

A tension exists between where we are and where we’d like to be. In education and in life, we must embrace that tension. (Flickr / mahalie stackpole)

In a couple weeks, my fourth-year Spanish students are going to have their lives turned upside down.

School starts at my school next Tuesday.

The first week has a lot to do with setting the climate of the class and teaching some necessary tools for the rest of the year.

The second week is where English goes out the door. Starting then, it’s all Spanish all the time. If my students are going to be prepared to take the Advanced Placement Spanish Language and Culture exam by the end of the year, we have to do it this way.

They sign agreements to only speak Spanish in class. As soon as their signatures are on the papers, it’s total immersion Spanish.

It’s not easy for them.

It may be worse for me, though.

It’s not because I don’t want to practice Spanish with my students, and it’s not because I can’t do it.

It’s hard. And it’s uncomfortable.

It’s uncomfortable to walk the tight rope between being understood easily and pushing their language abilities forward.

It’s uncomfortable to maintain relationships with students when it’s so easy for them to turn off a language they haven’t spoken their whole life.

And sometimes, when we reach discomfort when we’re pushing for change, it’s easy to slip back to what we always did before and just accept it as good enough.

We’ll tell ourselves, “It’s unattainable.” “It’s unrealistic.”

“I might fail.”

And we’re back to where we were before.

We have to embrace the tension that comes with saying, “I don’t know if I can do it.” Click here to tweet this!

I often face this tension in writing this blog.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: sometimes I struggle to come up with good topics for these blog posts. I know that they show up on your screen pretty easily, but I often go through a lot of internal turmoil before I can click the “Publish” button. (Today was one of those days, actually!)

The voices creep into my head while I try to decide on a subject.

“This topic isn’t good enough.” “Your readers aren’t going to like it.” “What if you run out of ideas and can’t keep producing Ditch That Textbook?”

Then I start writing and they’re back.

“Those first few paragraphs won’t hold anyone’s attention.” “Nobody’s going to want to read that.”

That tension of “What will I write?” and “Is it good enough?” was almost enough to drive me away from my blog for good.

But after a while, I started to come to terms with the conflict.

Sure, it was uncomfortable. It still is uncomfortable. It has been all this morning.

But I’m at my best when I confront this tension. I grow as a person and a writer. It does get easier even though it’s still there.

Back to my AP Spanish class.

Last year, I tried to help my students navigate that tension of “Can I really speak in Spanish all year?” One student (we’ll call her Brooke) struggled and got frustrated on a very regular basis.

I did my best to encourage her. I kept coming back a regular line of mine: “That’s why we practice.”

She did great. Her Spanish wasn’t precise, but she could ask and answer questions pretty fluently and express her ideas in class.

She had a skill, and it was all because she was willing to live with the tension of “Can I really do this?”

In the end, she could. (I just wish I could have told Brooke in September about Brooke in May to encourage her!)

What tensions do you confront, and what is your reaction to them?

Get comfortable with that discomfort, and you may be shocked at who you — and your students — become and what you achieve.

What are your tensions? What have been your results with living with the tension — or how do you hope it will turn out? Share with us in a comment below!

(For notifications of new Ditch That Textbook content and helpful links, “like” Ditch That Textbook on Facebook and follow @jmattmiller on Twitter!)

Interested in having Matt present at your event or school? Contact him by e-mail!

FREE teaching ideas and templates in your inbox every week!
Subscribe to Ditch That Textbook
Love this? Don’t forget to share
  • Very well written! You adress a Foreign Language teacher’s dilemma well. I struggle With this each year, especially in what we in Norway Call Level 1 (beginners). Your blog gave me a boost to keep speaking Spanish in class, adding body-Language instead of Norwegian. I’ll share this With my fellow Foreign Language colleagues. I

  • Martha Mason says:

    Good thoughts, Mark! Your students are fortunate to live that linguistic tension but an hour a day. My students are refugees, trying to navigate high school with beginning level of English, and struggle all day to find the courage to express themselves. I really appreciate the way you express our discomfort as teachers, between making it comfortable for them, and pushing their limits just enough to move them forward. I’ll take that idea into the school year.

  • Mark Kearney says:

    Hi Matt,

    First off you have an awesome blog, don’t ever doubt yourself there! Thanks for all the info it is really useful.

    I am in South Africa and our school is changing up the junior curriculum to become cross curricular. Integrating real life skills and tackling real world problems. I’m heading it up and I can tell you that while I am super excited I am out of my comfort zone! So I appreciated the article thanks!

    • Matt Miller says:

      Hey Mark — Thanks for the comments! So great to hear from you … I’m always amazed when I hear of people outside of the U.S. that read my blog! It’s good to hear that others have the same struggles as I do … and best of luck to you in the midst of exciting changes!

  • My biggest tension in class is trying something new, when I’m not sure that it will be a success. After reading Teach Like a Pirate, that seems like a constant tension, just about every day, taking a risk. How do I live with it? I’m still learning that- For now, I celebrate what works, sigh and pick myself up when something doesn’t work, and rephrase failures as not a FAIL but First Attempt, I’m (Still) Learning. I also enjoy my prep period and a healthy (usually) snack halfway through my day to destress, turning off my lights and warming up the lava lamp in soothing blue. My students live with this tension too- like Matt’s story, it’s stressful for kids to take risk with their learning too. But sometimes out of that tension in the classroom can come delightful gains and surprises- sort of like Willy Wonka’s approach to suspense, I think he said “I hope it lasts”.

    • Matt Miller says:

      I LOVE your approach to FAIL (which I learned differently — First attempt in learning). I’ve found that if you attempt new things that, even if they blow up in your face, students are usually pretty forgiving and appreciate that you try different stuff. Thanks for the comment, Kari!

  • >