The Learning Curve
Welcome to The Learning Curve - insightful educational commentary from Dr. Bob Bowman, Assistant Head of School for Upper School.
The Wisdom of a Metal Shop Teacher
I read an intriguing article at the start of the summer, Resilience is the New Happiness by Ephrat Livni, on the Quartz website. This article has stayed with me, particularly the following quote:
We can’t always be happy. Pleasure is a relative state, contrasted by discomfort and pain. In between fleeting, pleasing moments are many challenging ones that make happiness a relief. So, to be happy, you have to first learn how to be strong; to pick yourself up after a fall, detach from sadness when you don’t succeed, and find the will to persist instead of getting depressed when things go awry, which they often will.
I was struck by the wisdom and simplicity of this concept; I had never heard this stated so succinctly. Clearly, on some basic level, I understood this, but how had I become resilient (or was I just assuming I was)? Distant memories of my youth recall phrases we use in jest now, such as “rub some dirt on it” or “suck it up, buttercup.” I guess we now call that the tough love approach. This article resonated with an indelible memory from my high school years.
My 11th grade metal shop teacher, Mr. Ski - I never knew his actual last name - was a card carrying professional in the tough part of tough love. He was a tall, highly intimidating man who scared me more than any teacher I ever had. To say that I was a poor shop student is an insult to all former poor shop students - I was atrocious. Our projects for the semester were to design and fabricate a coping saw, a tool bit for a milling machine, a pick hammer, and a dust bin. I only completed the coping saw; you should now be getting the picture of my level of ineptitude. Actually, I completed more than a dozen coping saws. I’ll explain.
Our class procedure was that once you completed a project, you brought your mechanical drawing with the appropriate piece to Mr. Ski. He had three responses, the best of which was a grunt - that was high-level work. Then there was the snort/laugh - you did just well enough to move to the next project. I spent the entire semester craving either of those non-verbal passing grades. Instead I got the dreaded “Holy crap Bowman” screamed at high volume. Mr. Ski would speak (well, yell) so the whole class could hear over the din of the machinery as he explained in great detail the flaws in my project culminating with the complete mismatch of my coping saw to my sub-par mechanical drawing. It was nothing short of a public shaming. It got to the point that the other boys (it was the 1970s - girls took Home Economics) would ask me how soon I would be going to see Mr. Ski again. They enjoyed the spectacle.
While I was aware that I was being made fun of and that I was certainly the target of ridicule, I never, ever considered stopping. (I firmly believed Mr. Ski would kill me!) I just kept starting from scratch. A couple of the really strong students offered to do it for me, but I never acquiesced. There were many tears and gargantuan amounts of frustration and self-pity at school and at home on my part. My parents were completely fine with this. Shop was required and it was a skill that might come in handy in the future. Suck it up, buttercup!
On the second to last class of the semester, I approached Mr. Ski for what I knew was going to be my final opportunity. If I fell short, I would get an F and have to take the course again. You had to complete at least one project satisfactorily to pass. The thrill of my classmates watching his reaction to my “work” had faded by this time, so no one really noticed when I walked up to Mr. Ski. He took my piece and my drawing, snorted, put it in the pile and told me to tag it with my name. I was flabbergasted; I walked away speechless not really knowing what to do. This is not a movie, so there was no triumphant music or cheering from my classmates or inspirational words from Mr. Ski. The only real acknowledgement was from my benchmate Paul who, without looking up from his work, said, “About time.” He actually added some colorful language between “about” and “time” but this is a family-friendly blog. I felt a little let down. My heartbeat slowed to something near normal, a rarity for me in metal shop. But as I thought about that snort, a huge smile slowly grew on my peach-fuzzed face. I am sure that smile stayed there until bedtime.
When I finished the final class, I retrieved my coping saw and took it home - yes we walked the halls with saws and hammers; again, it was the ‘70s. I took my saw and put it in the utility room of our house with the other assorted tools my less-than-handy father had. I even used it a couple of times through the years. But the thing that really sticks with was my report card from that semester. I received a hard-earned D in metal shop; I was glad it was not a D-. What surprised me was the number by my grade indicating that Mr. Ski had added a comment. It wasn’t even a complete sentence, but to this day it means as much to me as any accolade I received from grade to graduate school: “Never gave up.”
The Mr. Skis of the world have gone the way of the dinosaur, and I am not advocating a return to his approach of fear and intimidation. There is an abundance of research that shows praising effort and focus over getting the right answer has a great deal of long-term benefit for developing confidence and resilience in students. In the Wardlaw+Hartridge Upper School, we often spend time as a faculty in small groups discussing how best to help our students develop the ability to bounce back from failure.
An approach I advocate for the adults in our community to use is to share stories and examples of when you failed, how you felt when it happened, and how you found the will and the way to recover. I have shared this story countless times with students and while I think they get the message, I usually get a response that includes, “What’s Metal Shop?” or “You got a D and still got into college?” or “So you still kind of failed.” But with some patience and a little cajoling, I usually get my students to understand the importance of finishing and that sometimes your best is not going to earn a good grade and that is okay.
I encourage any and all parents to take a moment to share your struggles with your children. They need to know it is okay and that it is part of the cycle that Livni refers to as the need to experience failure to truly understand the meaning of happiness. So in our lifelong search to become ever more resilient, I hope we follow the words of Mr. Ski:
Never give up.
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