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  • Starlene Justice

Learning is Hard. Do it Anyway.

I had an interesting realization precisely one day before the end of 2020. I realized, not merely, that the year I was about to lie to rest had been one of the most profoundly challenging of my life—I also realized one of the major reasons WHY.


Hear me out for a second.


I mean, sure, there was the pandemic which carried with it the various fears—not necessarily for myself (not necessarily NOT, either)—about who might contract it, and what that would look like. My mother is 88 years old, and her getting COVID-19 was my worst fear this year.


(For the record: she got it. And she ended up surviving).


I worried about anyone close to me getting it. I worried that the same worry I carried with me was magnified 39 million times across the population of California, and 320 million times across the population of the United States.


I worried that there were those who couldn’t NOT go to work. I worried that there were those who NEEDED to go to work and COULDN’T.


And all those things were a reality. Kids couldn’t go to school, which meant parents had to stay home; which meant SOME parents couldn’t show up to their jobs. No daycare, no school, no work. Businesses were shuttered, or they worked at half-capacity. No restaurants, no hair salons, no churches, no schools, no “unnecessary” transactions, or trips, or services. And then all those “no’s” turned into no money, no food, no home, and so on.


So, for the record, I realize that what I faced was NOTHING compared to what many people faced. And I can’t even begin to comment on their challenges.


But maybe what I faced is something a lot of people faced, or something many people MAY YET FACE because of how things will change as a result of this virus.


I faced a learning curve.


Ummmm… that’s right. A learning curve. I had to learn a whole lot of new shit in order to keep working, and in order to survive.


And you know what? Learning new shit—especially when it’s REQUIRED—is really damn stressful.


I noticed the effects long before I knew the cause.


Low energy, low enthusiasm, high levels of frustration. Fear, doubt, uncertainty, low self-esteem. Anger, depression, sadness. A sense of loss, a sense of futility, a sense of hopelessness.


Maybe this rings a bell for some of you, as well. In Carol Dweck’s brilliant book, “Mindset,” she details the difference between a “fixed mindset”—the belief that our aptitudes are, essentially, fixed and unchangeable—and a “growth mindset”—the belief that they are NOT fixed but that, with effort, we can learn, improve, and grow. What she also details is why so many of us develop fixed mindsets in certain areas: GROWTH IS HARD. The struggle to learn new things, or to get better at something is fraught with pain and uncertainty. Thus, we have a tendency to avoid these things and to believe, instead, that it’s just not possible to change.


And then a frikkin’ pandemic comes along and forces it.


So why this huge learning curve for me, and all this frustration just because I was suddenly required to work from home?


Ahem.


Excuse me. It’s not like I could just do exactly what I’ve always done as a teacher—ONLY FROM HOME. Noooooooooooooooooooooo! Working from home meant that I had to convert all my face-to-face classes to online classes. And this meant that I had to master the technology required to do such a thing. And just the mention of the word “technology” causes me to break out in an all-over body rash and start hyperventilating.


I mean, mother of God. This was tantamount to a death sentence. There is no question that when it comes to learning how to use technology, I tend to have a fixed mindset.


And the reality is, everything I consider myself “good” at as a teacher is expressed most eloquently in a face-to-face setting: my ability to “calm the crowd” with my sense of humor and my welcoming vibe; my ability to engage my audience by telling stories, drawing diagrams on a board, asking questions; my open availability; my non-threatening persona; my hands-on assistance with anyone who is struggling; my tangible ENERGY in the classroom. All of these things I saw as my strengths and appropriately relied on them as such.


When we switched to online learning, I felt as if they evaporated like warm water in the heat of summer. Not only was I faced with learning a whole new set of skills that I already thought I sucked at; I was also faced with losing the things about my job that I loved and was good at.


To add insult to injury (or something like that), I was also teaching two classes at the prison, and THOSE classes couldn’t be switched to online. There is no internet access for prisoners. Instead, all of us who taught classes at the prison had to switch to correspondence courses.


How many correspondence courses do you suppose I’ve taught in my lifetime?


That’s right: ZERO.


Another thing I had to learn how to do. (And, again, without all the strengths and talents I had relied on in the face-to-face situation).


And there was no question of NOT learning it. THAT was not an option. I was going to learn how to teach online courses and correspondence courses NO MATTER WHAT.


In…you know…about a week.


Long story short, I made it through the rest of that semester. And then I made it through the NEXT semester where it was expected that we would have created REAL online courses— and not just those slapdash entities that got us through the previous semester.


But it came at a cost.


The cost was in significantly heightened anxiety. In the feeling of not being able to separate work from home because of how many hours I had to work just to keep my head above water. In the feeling that if I could not manage the technology, I would let my students down, as well as the institution I worked for. The feelings of inadequacy, stupidity, and utter failure that seemed part-and-parcel of learning new skills.


It didn’t occur to me until much, MUCH later, that those feelings are not unusual among the general population. And, good God, that is PRECISELY why so many of us will NEVER take on anything new at all.


It’s HARD!


It’s frikkin’ traumatic!


And yet….hear me now….I did it. I persevered and prevailed. Through necessity. Through will-power. Through just not giving up. Through caring about the results (my students!) more than I cared about myself and my inadequacies. As psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote: “If you know your WHY, you can endure any HOW.”


Or, to bring us back to the topic of Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, she encouraged the idea that “BECOMING is better than BEING.” In order for “becoming” to continually take place, we must continually challenge ourselves and keep learning.


And think of the skills I have now! This bit is not lost on me. Think of the things I will never have to worry about again.


Read that last line once more: think of the things I will never have to worry about again.


But, when I look back on 2020 and it feels HEAVY AS HELL, I know why.


But I didn’t know it until I really thought through what I had been called upon to accomplish, and that my own mindset had become a hindrance.


I didn’t know that learning so many new things all at once when you’re older than 5 is hell on Earth. And that’s why we tend to avoid it. To our own detriment. To our own stagnation.


So, do it anyway, friends. Do it anyway.

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