How being clumsy made me a better teacher

And how my experience can help you.

Yep, this would be me.

I’ve always been a little clumsy.

It’s why I’ve never ever been great at sports — any sport. Not that I was outrightly terrible, mind you: I did achieve passable competence at football and table tennis (with a lot of practice, but who’s asking?). Wondering what I mean by “passable competence”? In soccer, I was that player who got asked on when the guys needed to even up the teams, who sometimes passed to the opponent, and who was known on occasion to actually tackle myself. In table tennis, I could serve and (mostly) keep the ball in play, and when I really concentrated (and the other person wasn’t blisteringly fast), I could sometimes keep up maybe four or five back-and-forth passes across the table.

Okay, maybe I was terrible.

Everything has its flip side, though, including this degree of clumsiness. If nothing else, it’s helped me better appreciate something I think many of us take for granted.

I had to wait until medical school, though, to even be able to put a name to my problem. Apparently, my proprioception sucked.

Propo-what?

Proprioception. It’s basically our ability to sense where the various parts of our body, as well as to figure out how much strength we need to apply to do stuff. Proprioception is the sense behind why you can touch your nose. It works with a visuospatial ability (the ability to know understand and use the way things relate to one another), it’s a vital part of sports skill. The two are what some footballers have that makes you say they’re “football intelligent.” Or why a basketballer can throw the ball just right for a three-pointer, or an archer hit a bullseye. And it’s why people know just how hard to hit the ball, or the racket, or move their body.

And yours truly apparently didn’t come equipped with a ton of it.

(I know, I have unending gratitude, believe me, that we don’t live — for now! — in a world where survival depended on proprioceptive abilities.)

You will recall that I did mention at the start that I achieved passable competence. I’ll admit I exaggerated a little: I wasn’t as bad as I made myself out to be. I did have my moments of near-brilliance, even if they were few and far between.

It was from these moments that I really learned, and even more important, learned how to learn. And they’re the things I use in my teaching to this day. What I want to share is why those moments happened, and how they can help you too be a better student — and teacher. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.

It’s not about intelligence

This is something I struggled with for a long time. When everyone naturally does things right the first time, and you can’t, it’s easy to assume maybe you’re dumb. Plus, people tend to assume that your inability to do something everyone else considers easy must be due to stupidity on your part. (I’ll be honest, I myself thought kids in my primary classes who couldn’t draw were probably dumb.) But it’s not quite that simple, is it?

Understand that everything is learnable

A major problem with people making these things about intelligence (or you if you’re the one teaching) is, that carries an underlying implication is that one either has it or one doesn’t. Everything can be learned. Yes, there will always be those with far more natural talent than you, but you can learn it enough to be good enough.

Accept that you can’t learn like everyone

Once you’re know you can learn anything, you’re ready for the next thing: accepting that you can’t learn like everyone. Think of it like if you had a bad leg: it doesn’t mean you can’t walk, it just means you can’t walk as fast. And you may need a crutch. Not perfect, but it works, and you get where you want to go. The biggest thing holding many people back is wanting to learn it like everyone else is, and then giving up when they can’t. Don’t be that person. If it’s important to you, find your own way.

You need the right teacher

This is everything. See, you don’t merely need someone who knows the skill: you need someone willing to work with you to understand where you’re getting stuck. (And if you’re the teacher, that’s what you need to focus on.) The sad truth about this part is, sometimes you really have to do it on your own because there’s no one to teach you. And while that is totally doable, it takes far longer. Sorry if that’s you, but the good part is, you get to help those like you. But don’t give up quickly: your teacher might be out there.

Don’t let what you don’t have distract you from what you do

It was easy growing up to get caught up in my lack of useful sports ability, and there were long periods when I let it distract me from my strengths, which are more conceptual. (I didn’t even come to terms with that until adulthood.) Don’t be like me. Accept the things you lack, but don’t stop there: focus on the ones you have. And if you don’t know them, be open to those around you who point out what they value about you. And be super careful of those who define you by your deficits.

As for me, I’m still clumsy. But it’s okay. I’m other things, too.

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