Osu, or, Cultivating Empathy for My Students

My nephew has what the sensei calls strong spirit.

My nephew has what the sensei calls strong spirit.

Last year I signed my nephew up for beginning karate and started carting him to lessons twice weekly.  And I watched a bit in between grading papers.  It looked interesting.  And kind of difficult.  The sensei was very patient, however, and the nephew responded to instruction and caught on well.  He moved up half a rank (to “white belt with yellow stripe”), and we were suitably impressed.  He moved up to the intermediate class.  And that is when I enrolled for beginning karate.

As a teacher, I’ve always felt that it is important to maintain a strong connection to my role as a learner.  And I’ve completed college courses, but that sort of learning is deep inside my comfort zone.  So I’ve tried to find learning opportunities that push me in different ways.  A few years ago I started playing video games, and while there are always new places to go with that, I’m not regularly pushed into cognitive dissonance at this point.  So I’ve spent the last four months taking karate.  And it is freaking hard for me.

I do not have the natural coordination of many other students.  I am out of shape, sweaty and out of breath with alarming frequency.  The instructors do not cut me slack because I am the old lady in a group of kids.  The kids do not cut me slack, although they are encouraging.  Just when I get the hand motions under control, I am told my stance is all wrong.  I fix that,  then my shoulders are telegraphing the punches.  I fix that, and my feet are pointing the wrong way.  I fix that, and now my hand motions are going wild–again.  Did I mention how freaking hard this is for me?

I think about quitting.  I think about my students–that kid who just can’t seem to remember how to round numbers.  That other kid who hates reading aloud, because she knows (she KNOWS) that she’s the slowest and makes lots of errors.  I so get that, I really do.  And karate is the latest pursuit that keeps the learner’s struggle front and center within me.  I watch the instructors cycle through the class, correcting errors, observing, giving encouragement.

And when I get that hand motion right, and the sensei tells me so, I feel that little rush of victory.  I hang onto that.  I say, “Osu.”  Depending on how you translate, this means different things.  One sensei described osu as perseverance.   I read another interpretation–push and suffer.  In teaching, we might frame it as productive frustration.  I want to teach my students like this.  Push, struggle, make a small victory, use it to fuel that next push.

My first belt test is coming up in a week or two, and I am nervous.  Deeply nervous.  I have tried to be the best learner I know how to be, but it may not be enough to pass.  What if I fail?  Yes, I know–if you give it your best shot, you can be proud of yourself regardless of the results.  You can try again.  (But don’t we all want to get it right the first time through?)  Being a learner sometimes means coaching yourself to the occasional hard truth.

So I need to go practice my kata instead of blogging about it.  Maybe next year I”ll take up knitting or learn to write HTML or something.  The task isn’t necessarily important–it is the benefit of feeling all the horror and glory–push and suffer–that is my true goal.  When I stop being a learner, I stop being an effective teacher. Osu!


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michele Corbat
    Feb 05, 2013 @ 22:11:20

    AMEN SISTER! Osu! I have been attending painting classes/parties over the last few months and have created 3 masterpieces (well, they are to me). I have never taken an art class and these painting classes definitely put me in the role of the learner. I am still afraid to touch my brush to the canvas for fear of making a mistake especially since the paint is permanent. The teacher is wonderful at the gradual release of responsibility. She shows us a model of a finished product and then paints a new painting along side us, showing us what to do step-by-step. After she demonstrates one part of the painting, she tells us to try and then walks around to check for understanding. She has even held my hand and helped me angle my brush the correct way or adjust the amount of pressure I am applying. I have been frustrated at times because I demand perfection of myself and I my paintings look nothing like some of the art by the ‘gifted’ people in the class. The teacher is always so encouraging to all of us, despite our differences as artists. Thank you for sharing your reflections on the importance of being a learner in order to be an effective teacher. If you take up knitting, I need to join you!


    • hloney
      Feb 07, 2013 @ 00:16:37

      Painting! That is so great–I’ve been thinking about something artish for my next learning project. I think you should frame up some of your stuff for your space at school. It could be a great way to connect w/ struggling learners (and by that I mean the classroom teachers like me:O).


  2. Tonya Brownfield
    Feb 05, 2013 @ 22:17:54

    Push and suffer, fail and celebrate.


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