a big beautiful mess

Getting Good

It’s funny how mile markers make a difference.

that's me!I teach Spanish to four-year-olds at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. When I started this job a year ago, and even four, five, six months in, I had Imposter Syndrome like the dickens. My Spanish wasn’t good enough, I sucked at marketing, I didn’t know how to work with little kids, heck I didn’t even like little kids really, what on earth was I doing working in the Children’s Department?

Now that I can say I’ve been doing this for a year it feels much more substantial. Never mind that my average number of hours per week is still about five. Never mind that I still don’t have any certification or institutionalized qualification to do this work. I’ve been doing it for a year, and that is qualification enough.

What’s interesting to me is how much better at it I am now than I was last October. In the past, my work was school, and school was something I’d gotten good at before I had to think about getting good at things; in my mind-world, being good at school was just a part of who I was. It wasn’t work, it wasn’t something I had to improve on or think about, it just came naturally. So one of the hardest–and yet, most obvious– things about entering the real world is realizing that I have to work at work now.

Sure, in school there were challenges. I remember being challenged in school for the first time, when I went to my first day of ninth grade biology and realized I would have to actually pay attention in this class. And I remember making 40 flashcards a day for five weeks when I got to the Summer Language Institute at Pitt and realized that my one year of Russian didn’t quite measure up to the one year of Russian the Pitt students had.

But the fact is that those challenges were just different ways of doing school. In the “real world,” I’ve found myself doing work that I’m not already good at, and for which I have no context of goodness.

The first thing I did when I got my job at the library was to make it as much like school as possible. I immediately bought myself a Mead notebook and wrote “Spanish @ CLP” on the cover; having a notebook for each separate class or endeavor is something I’ve been doing for years. I wrote down notes as I skimmed the Youth Services Training Manual and every time anyone told me anything important. But, most importantly, I stole an idea from another Smithie’s blog, about keeping a “work diary.”

Mine isn’t quite as detailed as hers, but before every Spanish program, I write out a thorough outline of how I plan the lesson to go:

  • Introductory small-talk questions to warm the kids up (chit-chatting with 4-year-olds terrifies me–they’re so damn honest!).
  • Target vocabulary.
  • The book or story to read.
  • Follow-up discussion questions to tie the book into the target vocabulary.
  • Activity or craft to reinforce and practice the language.

Then, after the program is over, I write another mini-outline, detailing how it actually went– what got sidetracked, what took too long, what the kids enjoyed and what bored them. Stars and exclamation points and arrows remind me visually as I flip back through which programs were particularly good.

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At the time, it just seemed like something I ought to do. But the unforeseen result of this has been that it’s made it much easier for me to learn from my mistakes and adapt. Because of my mini self-evaluations, I learned that abstract poems about colors are not interesting to four-year-olds.

The competence I feel now, one year in, is not something I expected when I was four months in and still in full-on Imposter Syndrome mode. When I exited the academic world and found myself washed ashore on the beaches of the so-called real world, I felt betrayed, unprepared, and lost. How could the education that I had treasured so much have left me so unprepared for this? But, like many things, I’m finding, being unprepared for something doesn’t mean you don’t still have to do it. I wasn’t ready to not be good at something, but I got good at it anyway.

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