Muscle memory and beginners mind

MarcyI began the first round of testing with students today. It is a pre test (an optional test) that is suppose to help teachers track students learning and also give our third graders a chance to know what the spring tests will be like. All well and good.

BUT – I was think about how much time we spent today and in the next few days on testing. As I watched these third graders I wanted to be writing with them. I wanted to be helping them blog, or write fiction or using a picture book as a mentor text. I wanted to be deep in learning and understanding not skimming the surface of what do you know through testing. I wanted to just teach!

I know the purpose for this testing and I agreed to this job. It is just that there are times when I really miss the in-depth working that happens in a classroom with a group of students. My brain is always building curriculum, always spotting the teachable moment. When a student asks a questions or is confused by a word or phrase it is so hard for me to not just slide into teacher mode.

I have been struggling for three years now on how to let go of the “teacher mode” and embrace a new way of being. How do I become just a writer? or just a gardener?  Old patterns lay deep in my bones and surface whenever I walk through a school door or sit down with a group of young children. Muscle memory and mental memory are so strong after 40 years of teaching.

The new ways of working for me are in an infant stage. They are hard and feel awkward. I know parts of those tasks. I understand some. I can grow veggies and flowers but can’t call them by Latin names or design a garden like a professional. I can write my weekly blog posts but the deep workings of novel writing are out of my reach at this moment.images-1

It is like those first years of teaching – you know a little bit. You can run a classroom – sort of but not enough to ride on muscle memory. You are constantly working to sort out the needs of your students and how to put the pieces together. It is called beginners mind.

Today I sat before a group of 3rd graders and slide back into that comfort zone of teaching, my old muscle memory took over. I knew what I needed to do without deep planning and thinking. It was like a well oiled machine working away. I miss those smooth easy moments.

I am not saying I want to return to full time teaching but for a few moments it felt good to know something really well. It felt good to not be at the struggling beginners stage – where everything is about learning. Beginners mind is exciting but hard work. You have to be on our toes all the time – reading, listening and learning. Just once in awhile it feels good to really know what you are doing and trust in your muscle memory.

With that thought I also think of our students who are working so hard each day in that beginners mind – that new place of learning. They also need time to step back and work on a task that they know well and can feel at ease with.

Do we provided them with that time each day or week?   A time to complete a task that is easier and feels great to complete. A task that lets them connect with their own deep knowledge.

An interesting thought! What do you think? Does that happen in your classroom?  Does it happen for you?


Taking time to work on muscle memory – feeling good about the skills they know well! (also working on science standards)



About Joanne Toft

I am a retired Minneapolis Public School teacher. I walk, garden, care for my Grandson and write. Life is good!
This entry was posted in Reflection, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Muscle memory and beginners mind

  1. mgminer says:

    This resonated with me! I’m reminded of Marie Clay’s imperative to allow students to read familiar text over and over again. Her phrase was that “the brain learns on easy.” It also reminds me of the goal in my yoga class – to find the place between effort and ease, to let go of striving. I agree that this is a permission desperately needed in our schools today. We seem to think no one is learning unless there is struggle.
    Thank you for helping me articulate this for myself.

  2. vanessaw2007 says:

    Beautiful post and well said… I love repeated readings and watching students gain confidence and fluency without the struggle.

  3. carwilc says:

    So right there with you. We are giving more reading tests every year in my district. As a literacy coach/reading interventionist, I am required to give a lot of them. Like you, I find myself missing teaching, missing reading with kids, missing writing, missing deep engagement, missing joy…

  4. Terje says:

    You had many thoughts that tickled my brain – the testing and teaching, the beginner’s mind and the experienced mind, the nudge for new and time to do what we know the best. Most of all I thought what it would be like if I didn’t teach. Hard to imagine.

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