I was queuing up in the staff canteen, perusing the culinary delights before me like a dog peering through a butcher’s shop window. The line of tired teachers shuffled forward with their trays and cutlery like a factory production line, each of us waiting solemnly for a subsidised hot meal and a small glass of tap water. I reached the front of the line where a young apprentice caterer was grappling with a pair of tongues. His matronly supervisor was standing next to him, like a Jedi master guiding her naïve young warrior. ‘Remember,’ she said, ‘You control the chicken burger, not the other way round’. This masterclass in psychology has stayed with me, many years later.
This young man was learning the ways of the kitchen and I didn’t hang around long enough to know whether he ever mastered his art. Perhaps he is now a dab hand with a turkey dinosaur and can scoop chips like Gordon Ramsey. Perhaps he’s head chef at the Savoy Grill. What he was doing in that moment was struggling, the most important and underrated stage in the learning process. That is where real growth happens, when it’s all going wrong and we can’t see a way forward. Accept this and you’ll be a better student, embrace it and you’ll really learn something. You may even find that you enjoy it.
We all struggle every day of our lives and often resent it. Struggling can be painful and I understand, because who enjoys pain? Actually, some people do but let’s not dwell on that, I’m not a psychologist and I’d be out of my depth. Talking about depth, when learning to swim there has to be a moment when your feet can’t touch the bottom. It might be scary but that’s just the way it is. The alternative is forever splashing around in the paddling pool, dodging faeces.
We all need good teachers, positive role models to learn from. The best teachers I had, pushed me hard and sometimes left me frustrated. They weren’t always fair and often said things that were uncomfortable for me to hear. Sometimes, they were wrong. When I became a teacher, I hadn’t considered that learning was a two-way street, that I’d learn as much from them as they would from me. We all have moments when we feel like an imposter, and now I realise that my old teachers must have had moments like this too.
When I am out of control, I get a little anxious. When I get a little anxious, I get irritable. When that happens, I become the worst version of me. For a moment I forget that struggle is important if we want to keep learning. I try to pull myself together and to recall the voice of my sensei. I remember the mantra.
No matter how bad things get, I control the chicken burger, not the other way round.