Searching for a sense of accomplishment

One of the more frustrating things about learning a language is that it that sometimes it takes time to see the results of your labors… sometimes many, many years.

As a teacher of languages sometimes you only see the tip of the iceberg in terms of your students’ learning and growth, and then the semester ends and you move on to the next group.

I cherish messages such as this one that came from a former student one day.

Like my students, I sometimes grow impatient with how long language learning takes… Many students come to my class with a desire for “fluency” or “accuracy” or perfecting an accent for a particular region and want to do it 16 weeks or less.

I personally believe fluency in a language is something that we are always striving for but will never fully attain.  I include myself in there too.  Even though I have been speaking a second language for longer than some of my students have been on this planet, I still have things I need to improve.   Progress is always possible,  and it is happening, but sometimes it is invisible and doesn’t happen on schedule.

Learning languages is like this: the more you know the more you realize there’s still more to know…and it is daunting. And exhausting.

Working in higher ed can feel this way too.  There is always another committee meeting, another review, another report that needs to be prepared.  As one project ends… another begins. And so on and so on…


Last winter it started to get to me.  I knew I needed to feel like I had finished SOMETHING.  I started envying carpenters and tradespeople for the fact that they could see the results of their work each day.

I needed to do something with my hands.  I didn’t have to be particularly good at whatever that something was, in fact, struggling at something new and different seemed sort of appealing. I just wanted to see, eventually, a finished product..somehow, somewhere.

I enrolled in a couple of pottery classes at our local art center. I took a hand building class and then I ventured into a wheel throwing class. I loved the hand building class…it reminded my of the hours I spent with my kids playing with Play-Doh. It felt really good to take big blobs of clay and roll, pinch, coil, stamp, slice, and twist them into little objects.  And then we learned about bisque firing, glazing, and trying not to make things explode in the kiln. I have one hand sculpted plate that I call the Cheerios Plate that I made during this hand building class. It holds stuff on my desk at work. It makes me smile.


My pottery teacher often talks about how pottery teaches you patience. You can’t force the clay to do what you want and the minute you do, bad things happen. Like learning languages, nothing in pottery happens quickly… you can’t make the clay dry on your schedule and you have to wait until there are enough objects to fill the kiln for a firing. You also can’t expect perfection. Sometimes you can’t expect anything. Clay shrinks when it dries.  The glazes don’t come out the way you think they will. Sometimes your clay had an air bubble so that thing you worked on for three weeks will go kaboom in the kiln.

Patience. Aaargh.

Wheel throwing is more of a challenge and I am now 8 mos into this and still at the “make it ’til you break it” stage.. but the blobs of clay have started come out looking somewhat round or cylindrical. And I now have more things to hold things on my desk.


Before firing

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I’ve ventured into some other artistic, edible pursuits this year with the goal of saying “this thing here? I finished that.”  I have had some spectacular failures that only the birds in my lab or my dog could fully appreciate.   But it has helped give me a better perspective on teaching and learning and work in higher ed. And the importance of, sigggh, patience.

And yes, it’s true: everyone on my list is getting teeny paperclip bowls for the holidays this year 🙂

I welcome your comments!


Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

1 Comment

  1. Listening Journals | Language Lab Unleashed · October 8, 2015 Reply

    […] process. In a 16 week semester it sometimes feels as if nothing of any merit is happening.  I understand this feeling far too well, and created some assignments in the class that would help to make them more aware of the progress […]

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