Being Safe to Make Mistakes

I’ve just got back from a weekend noho with my class, as part of our TWOA course. During the weekend, I was thinking a little about how important it is to have a class where you feel “safe”. Its hard to really define what is meant by “safe” in this context, but basically its a class where you really feel comfortable. It’s also one of those things where you might feel “safe” in a class, but then later you have another class where you feel it even more and you realise your previous class wasn’t really getting there. I think that although a lot of it is obviously about the other people in the class, it’s also a bit about yourself.

There are a lot of times where I’ve had classes which were perfectly fine, but they didn’t reach the same level of comfort as this one. And I can see also that there is a way to go beyond this comfort level before I got to the ultimate level of perfect comfort (probably unobtainable, like most perfection). So there are degrees of comfort/safety.

But in this class, I feel much less reluctance to do things that I normally wouldn’t want to do. I might not want to do some particular speaking task in front of the class, or participate in a skit to illustrate a whakatauki (proverb), but I don’t feel the same fear and anxiety as I would normally.  Its like – I don’t want to do it but its not bad. It doesn’t make me feel bad or scared or upset. It doesn’t come back to haunt me when I’m trying to get to sleep. Instead, it’s generally positive.

There are multiple reasons for this. One is that everyone is always really supportive. And not in the half-assed, reserved British way we seem to have inherited. Properly. Everyone claps, cheers, thanks people – and it’s all genuine. Another is that laughter is never mean-spirited. Teasing and ribbing always seems to go to those able to receive it and respond to it. I’ve also never heard a bad word spoken about anyone.

But I think the biggest one for me is actually that people are allowed to do a bad job. If your group skit is a pretty poor effort, or your 1 minute impromptu speech is mostly umms, then no one comments or probably even cares. The point is that you did it. The point of the whole class is to try, and to speak te reo Māori. If you do that then everything else is ok (and if you don’t try, then you are your own judge and jury). So it is ok to do a bad job. It is ok to be so nervous you forget everything. It is ok to do something embarrassing. Literally no one cares. Everyone will still clap and cheer. You get socially rewarded for trying. Why be nervous or avoid something if you know that the result is everyone being positive towards you because you gave it a go?

So for me, what I noticed is that the class is “safe” to make mistakes in. I have been in other environments where people say that, but it doesn’t feel like it. I think this safety is the biggest factor in encouraging participation from the class – and in a language class, participation is probably the biggest factor in successful learning.




Te Karaehe Tuatahi – the First Class

This week I started a new (full immersion) Māori course at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. It was really great, although I did feel awful throughout almost the whole class.

Wait, what?

Let me explain then. First the part about how I felt awful. The class was great, but my anxiety and introvertism made it quite difficult. I felt like I wanted to cry for most of the first half, interspersed by wanting to throw up. Then I was distracted for a while by food. Then we had to introduce ourselves to a person, have a wee chat, then do it all again with the next person, about 8 times. I stopped being able to do small talk and facial expressions, and became so exhausted I was nearly crying again. Problems seemed insurmountable. I was nearly panicking. I cried as soon as I made it to the car, and at home. For the next 2 days, I was exhausted and my body was sore all over, and I think it was just from the stress.

Why mention all this? Well, I think that many people don’t understand the kind of toll an intense class like a language immersion class can have on some people, especially with strangers and an unknown teacher. Granted, this was a 3-hour class, but I only just managed to make it out of the building before bursting into tears, and I have no idea what kind of crazy person I sounded like at the end when I was trying to talk to the teacher about not having a skirt to wear to the powhiri on Friday. My brain had entirely stopped working by that point and I was kind of irrational. I felt bad. I felt like an idiot. I’m glad I wrote “anxiety” under medical conditions, and I hope the kaiako (teacher) reads that.

But… the class was GREAT! O-M-G. Just being in a class where most of the people are more-or-less the same level as me was amazing – rather than having half or more of the students already fully conversant or fluent. There were only a couple of significantly better speakers, and they were at opposite sides of the room (not talking to each other) so every conversation around me was in the same halting, grammatically incorrect Māori that I speak and understand. Not only that, there were 1 or 2 people who were potentially even less experienced than I am – I was confusing THEM. I’ll have to practice being a more understanding conversational partner because I’m not used to that!

The exercise I found ridiculously exhausting was also actually great too. We had to all line up and ask the person opposite us – where they are from, what their job is and what is their favourite food. Then, after a bit, we move along and repeat with another partner. With a bit of Māori under our belts we were able to accomplish these basic tasks quite easily – which meant we could then expand on them and have a real conversation. So the questions got us started, and were within everyone’s grasp so nobody was left completely floundering, but we could challenge ourselves by asking questions or elaborating. It was really great practice at speaking, let us get to know each other a bit more, and ended up being at just the right level.

So those are the main highlights of my first class. It seems weird to say that something that made you cry was great, but really the quality and experience of the class is separate from my stress reaction. It’s just a shame that I couldn’t have experienced it without that, because how awesome would that have been!? But overall I feel positive about the class, and it will be a lot easier when everyone isn’t a stranger. Now, I just have to get through the noho rūmaki this weekend – an immersion stay on the marae from Friday evening through to Sunday lunchtime. Auē! Wish me luck!