Empathy for the Struggling Learner

Over the holiday break, my husband, David, and I visited my in-laws in Switzerland. On the trip, his parents generously bought ski passes for everyone so we could experience a common bucket-list item: skiing in the Swiss Alps.

First, a little background on my skiing history: I never skied as a kid; nor did I engage in any other winter sport, unless you count sledding down suburban driveways or ice skating at the occasional friend’s birthday party. I was 21 years old the first time I put on a pair of skis and learned the very basics, spending a single afternoon on the bunny hill on a small, man-made ski slope in southeast Indiana. My bunny hill experience was crash-course training for a skiing vacation in Colorado with my husband’s family at the Vail Ski Resort, one of the most premiere skiing locations in the world. My husband’s family are all excellent skiers, having all grown up attending Ski Club in school, etc. Feeling pretty insecure about my basically nonexistent ski skills, I expressed my nerves to David before embarking on our trip to Colorado.

    “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m not a very good skier either.”

    “Really??” I felt a surge of hope that I wouldn’t be the only one who didn’t know what the heck I was doing. ‘Misery loves company’ and what not.

    “Yeah.” He shrugged ruefully. “But that’s why I’ll be snowboarding the entire time.”

    My heart sank. David was a superb snowboarder.

At Vail, we spent three days skiing on very real, very large mountains. Each day, I skied entirely on the easiest “green” routes, and each day I struggled to gain control over boots, skis and poles that felt awkward, to tackle slopes that felt too steep and too long, and to apply ski skills and maneuvers that I hadn’t coordinated or mastered yet.

By the third day, I broke down in tears. I was exhausted and weary from continual failure (and the added physical pain of wiping out frequently didn’t help). I spent our last day at Vail sulking back at the cabin while the others enjoyed a final day of carefree skiing and snowboarding in the gorgeous Colorado mountains. I felt like a loser, incompetent and ungainly. I was ashamed that I couldn’t keep up with the others. I convinced myself that skiing wasn’t for me.

Fast forward 5 years. I hadn’t skied a single day since Colorado. And now I stood holding a shiny ski pass in the Swiss Alps. The. Swiss. Alps.

    Gulp.

    True confessions: I was afraid. I’d basically forgotten everything I’d ever learned about skiing, as my last skiing experience was a distant memory (and not a very fond memory at that). And now, here I was, standing at the top of Mt. Engelberg, professional European skiers zipping by, not a “green” route available. The bleak thoughts circling in my brain mostly consisted of: What the heck am I doing here??? and You can’t do this! and Everyone’s going to judge you again, except THIS time they’ll be doing it in French and Swiss-German! This panicky diatribe was also peppered with, well, paralyzing fear. It’s hard to describe exactly how terrifyingly steep and treacherous it is in the Swiss Alps. I guess you’d have to be there. And strapped to two skinny, plastic slats on top of freezing snow and ice.

As you might expect, it was pretty much all downhill from there.

Yes, my Switzerland skiing experience is not a story of personal triumph and miraculous feats of athleticism, although I did learn how to say “I’m so sorry for crashing into you” in several languages. Yes, this is a story of a young woman who was in over her head. I yet again attempted to ski at a level for which I had not trained or prepared. I needed skills I didn’t have. I needed confidence I never built. All this made for yet another day of nonstop anxiety, strain, and a lot of falling on my face (literally). You can only take so much falling on your face before it starts to really hurt (and I don’t just mean physically). I spent the entire day gritting my teeth and fighting tears--the tears only successfully checked because, I figured, 26 was too old to have another tearful meltdown over skiing (I’m saving my allotted adult meltdowns for parenthood).

 
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External bliss, internal turmoil. (#livingthegoodlife #notsomuch #fallacygram)

Reader, I chose to share this disheartening story because I recognized a fascinating parallel during my experience. That’s right, my sad skiing tale is the tale of the struggling learner! I am blessed with an academic proclivity, and as such, never faced the kind of constant adversity that accompanies struggling learners. However, skiing in the Swiss Alps opened my eyes to the emotional state I see in my students daily…

Cognitive overload? Check. Cognitive fatigue? Check. Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task? Check. Frustration and tears? Check. Wanting to quit? Feeling inadequate? Negative attitude? Low self-esteem? Fear and anxiety? Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.

Having spent most of the day on Mt. Engelberg feeling sorry for myself, I didn’t recognize the incredible parallel to the plight of the struggling learner until my father-in-law attempted to encourage me as I munched miserably on lunch.

“You know, Moira,” he said kindly, “I know you don’t feel like a very good skier, but I actually think you’re quite gifted. This is only your 3rd time skiing, and you’re doing great. These mountains are really above your level, so you should feel proud that you’re managing them at all!”

As he spoke I just thought, Thanks. You’re obviously lying, but thanks. His words felt condescending instead of complimentary (as they were intended). I had internalized my failure so completely by that point, I was prepared to instantly dismiss any encouragement and praise that came my way.   

With the struggling learner, praise is a double-edged sword. It can easily fall on deaf ears after a lifetime of negative self-talk. Or it can be perceived as insulting and inauthentic. In order to stop the flashing, neon YOU SUCK sign in my mind, not to mention the chorus of “you’re a failure, after all” playing on loop to the tune of It’s a Small World in my head, I needed serious damage control. I needed to experience success. And lots of it.

But that wasn’t going to happen in the Swiss Alps. The Swiss Alps were too hard for me. My skiing skills couldn’t contend with the mountainous task. I was working above my level, and practicing bad habits in order to compensate. And as such, I was met with constant failure.

 
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Sometimes the school day looks like nothing but mountains.

We tell parents and teachers to teach to a level of success. This is an important concept because, if nothing else, it teaches kids that they can do it. When learning is successful, you’re encouraged to continue. You feel competent. And, most importantly, you retain what you’ve learned and gain skills upon which to build. When you are prepared for a task, the outcome improves. Therefore, lots of individual skill training is necessary before putting skills together to complete a more complex whole. This applies to schooling, to skiing, and to life.

When skiing in the mountains of Colorado and Switzerland, I was a struggling learner. But I didn’t have to be. I could have been a supported learner, working at a comfortable pace, practicing individual skills repeatedly until they became more automatic, allowing me to slowly ski more advanced routes. Instead, I leapt straight from the bunny hill to the high altitude mountains...and I fell.