Let's talk about how I felt doing Zumba--awkward, gangly, uncool, the exact opposite of sexy. It was so hard for me!
I'm a fairly coordinated person. As a child, I did a type of dance called "clogging," so I have some sort of dance-ish background. I'm athletic. I'm a fast learner. I can't understand why I find Zumba so challenging.
This feeling of intense struggle while trying while trying to accomplish a skill isn't one that I'm very familiar with. Academics have always come fairly easily to me--I credit my mom who read to me in the womb. I tend to pick up sports without too much difficulty. I even have some musical ability (I mastered both the bucket drum and the oboe in school). But ask me to copy a Zumba instructor as she fluidly moves parts of her body I didn't know were mobile, simultaneously does some fancy footwork, swings her arms with the suave of an ocean wave and you may as well have asked me to turn mud into oatmeal.
Even though taking a Zumba class brought up all kinds of insecurities, I'm glad I did it. Why? One simple reason: it helped me to relate to my students. In the district where I currently work there are a lot of struggling students. There is a high population of English Language Learners and Special Education students. Many children in my classroom come from language-deficient backgrounds. Learning to read and write is difficult for them.
During Zumba, I felt frustrated. I was trying so hard and I still wasn't getting it. It seemed unnatural, foreign to me. I wanted to stop. Zumba doesn't really interest me, and I'm not good at it. What if I was somehow required to take Zumba? I would probably start to resent going. Now, I can't imagine if someone was constantly nagging me to keep going, to practice at home. Or accused me of being lazy because I didn't want to keep trying to get better at Zumba.
That's when I made the connection from how I felt doing Zumba, to how my students feel doing English Language Arts. After one of my big, don't-you-want-to -give-everything-your-best-effort-pep-talks, a student said something heartbreaking, "Why try when you never succeed." I am sure that he meant it. He is a Special Education student. He rarely turns any work in. I knew there had to be a deeper reason for that kind of behavior, but I just couldn't relate to that! I want to do my best in everything that I do. But admittedly, most things come pretty easily to me. Doing something that felt so unnatural gave me empathy for my struggling learners. If I continuously tried at Zumba and never felt like I was making any progress, I wouldn't want to keep giving it my best effort either.
It gives me a new perspective. What would I need in order to keep practicing Zumba and grow in it? I would need lots of you-can-do-its and I-believe-in-yous. I would need to know that it was okay to fail, and that I didn't need to do it perfectly. I would need to not feel compared to the others around me to whom Zumba seems to be second-nature. I would need reminders of the benefits of doing Zumba. I would need an overall atmosphere of a striving not for excellence, but for progress, for having fun, for doing the best that we can and that being good enough.
I suppose that these are the same things that my struggling readers need. They definitely don't need to be met with anger or frustration at their mistakes. They don't need an attitude of "you're just not trying hard enough." My students need grace. They need constant reminders that it's okay to be where they are. That they are doing well. That they are improving. That I am proud of them. That all their hard work will be worth it in the end.
As much as I hated Zumba, it gave me a gift: the gift of knowing what it feels like to really struggle with something. And I am a better teacher for it.