Frustration, thy name is microtome

Bonus post because I’m feeling thoughtful.

I talked in my last post about how well my curriculum writing has gone.  This wasn’t a big surprise for me.  I really like writing curriculum, and it generally comes easy to me.  What has surprised me is how well the hands on lab stuff has gone.  Labs have never been my strong suit.  My first college chemistry professor told me that I didn’t have “lab hands” and that thought has always really stuck with me.  I do not, in any circumstances, consider myself a paragon of grace.  So, it has been a pleasant surprise to find that I was able to manage the techniques I needed relatively easily.

Until today.

Today, we determined, I was going to do some histology work.  Histology, for those who are unfamiliar, means “working with terrifyingly small samples in very precise ways.”  At least that’s how I define it.  Someone else might tell you that it involves taking tissue samples, preserving and dehydrating them, embedding them into wax, slicing the wax into extremely thin slices with a microtome, then mounting them on slides for staining.

Things started off well.  A machine prepares the samples, and embedding them in the wax is actually fun.  Then we got to the slicing part.  This was the part that was going to require those lab hands I don’t have.  I will spare you the litany of things that went wrong, but suffice it to say it did not go well.  After lots and lots of trial and error and frustration, I ended up making one slide that was okay, sort of.  I would be thrilled to never see the microtome again, but today was just practice.  On Monday I have to make slides that actually matter.

It’s been an hour since we stopped for lunch, and I’m still physically tense from it.  But, I’m not writing this to complain.  Actually, this was a great learning experience for me as a teacher.  Because, of course, my students have this same experience all the time.  They try to do a task that someone else makes look easy (my teacher is a pro sectioner) and they just. can’t. do it.  So, rather than just wallow in my frustration, I’m going to try to take some lessons away from this.

  1. When students get frustrated, teachers need to stay calm.  My teacher today was a great model for this.  She never showed any frustration, even when I did EXACTLY WHAT SHE JUST TOLD ME NOT TO DO.
  2. Give lots of opportunities for low stakes practice.  I was stressed when my slices wouldn’t come out smooth, but it would have been exponentially worse if I hadn’t know that it was just practice.
  3. Know as much about your student’s background and abilities as possible.  At one point, I complained about how I was having trouble keeping one hand moving steadily while the other did something totally different.  My teacher mentioned that there is also an option to use a foot pedal to replace the job of one hand, much like a sewing machine.  She didn’t know, of course, that I had been using a sewing machine for many years, and would likely have found that option a lot simpler.
  4. Know when to take a break, but don’t give up.  I really (really really really) like to get things right, so it would have been tempting for me to say that I wasn’t quitting until I mastered the machine, or that I was walking away and never trying again.  Instead, we decided it was lunchtime and quit for the day, knowing that we’ll be back to try again on Monday.

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