I never came close to being an elite athlete. I never swam in a meet that required qualifying times. I occasionally scored points for my team—usually because the lanes weren’t full for distance or butterfly events. (What can I say? I’m stubborn and like a little bit of pain.) Nonetheless, my first formal teaching experience came as a swim-lesson instructor, and this experience has shaped the way I have approached teaching ever since.
When I taught swim lessons, I had to break strokes down into their component parts (gliding, kicking, pulling, breathing) and assign drills to allow these skills to be practiced in isolation. After all, if you can’t do dolphin kick correctly on its own, what hope do you have of pulling off proper butterfly? The need for such drills, however, was counterbalanced by the fact that doing drills repeatedly without ever getting the chance to swim is demoralizing and likely to lead to learners to give up. I had to give my students the opportunity to swim full strokes even if they hadn’t yet perfected the components.
When it comes to composition, students need to have opportunities to practice writing (and correcting) different kinds of sentences as well as opportunities to write full-fledged papers, blog posts, or other pieces. This is not a unique way to teach writing. (See, for example, Dr. Lee Skallerup’s posts about the similarities between writing and sports and teaching as coaching) However, I also use this approach when teaching discussion-based tutorials. If a class struggles to maintain a conversation without heavy guidance from me, then I step back observe them in the same way I would observe the strokes of a struggling swimmer, before assigning specific activities designed to help them improve specific discussion skills. For example, with a recent class that was very good at supporting each other but generally did not build on what other students said, I provided a list of types of statements they could make in relation to what other students have said. Then, I had them practice discussing specific questions practicing each technique in turn. This resulted in much more successful conversations thereafter.
While breaking down the activity into smaller skills worked in this case, it is not always enough. Sometimes swimmers who have no problem in the shallow end panic in the deep end; sometimes students with all the skills they need don’t speak up in class. I’ve had students struggle to learn to float on their backs independently because of fear, and I’ve had students plagiarize ungraded papers (or papers they would have every opportunity to revise) because of fear they would embarrass themselves. This is why establishing the classroom (or pool) as a safe space is so important.
On the other hand, a little bit of fear can be a good thing. In swim lessons, I once had a student who couldn’t swim at all but who refused to hold onto (or later, stay sitting on) the wall when it was another student’s turn to work individually with me; he had no fear of the water. For university students, fear of embarrassment can motivate to prepare more carefully. I would never try to humiliate a student, of course. But if it comes out during class that a student has not done the reading, I’m not going to protect them from reasonable consequences—which isn’t to say that I’d let them drown.
Nor would I ever rely on fear to motivate students. In fact, it’s in the area of motivation that my experience as a slow swimmer is more important than my experience as a swim instructor. My high school swim team coach used to include every improved time in the meet results that were handed out a few days after each competition. My senior year, I was given the coach’s award (which was not given out every year) on the basis of dedication and improvement. As teachers, no matter what subject or level we teach, we can’t change the level of skill with which our students start our classes; we need to motivate students to improve, not simply to be good. Stars are not our only success stories.
“Transferrable skills” has become a rather ugly catchphrase, but seeing connections between different parts of my life has served me well, and I like to believe that I am helping my students to develop skills that will help them whatever they end up doing in life—and I don’t just mean professionally.
Note: This post was inspired by a Twitter conversation with Dr. Lee Skallerup.