How Learning to Swim is Helping Me be a Better Teacher

How Learning to Swim is Helping Me be a Better Teacher

I have completed two triathlons, but I’m a weak swimmer.  I backstroked both.

This year I invested in swim lessons with a coach who said she’s never had a failure.  She can’t say that anymore. I simply can’t get the hang of the breathing. No matter what I do, I suck in water.  We reached a point where she said there was nothing more she could do for me until I learned how to relax and time my breathing.

The other night, there was only one other person in the pool, and she was clearly a swimmer like me. It was so freeing to be able to do my thing and not worry about being judged or in anyone’s way. I don’t feel like I should be there taking up a lane when there are competent swimmers around. Let’s face it – it’s pretty embarrassing to be 48 years old and still using a kickboard. Typically, if there are “real” swimmers at the pool, I will only swim my backstroke. I’m still a little self conscious doing that, but at least no can can witness me inhaling water and choking my guts out as I struggle across the pool. If there are a lot of swimmers, or if they look particularly skilled, I will just leave.  And if I’m in the water and a great swimmer needs to share my lane – I pretend I’m done and leave. I can’t tell you how many workouts I’ve cut short. Hmm, could that have anything to do with my lack of progress?

That night I did all the drills the swim coach taught me. All of them. Repeatedly. I still sucked in water, but not as much.One time I went the whole length of the pool without chlorine entering my respiratory system! I actually could relax a little because I wasn’t worrying about bumping into anyone or looking like a fool. I made progress! If I could have the pool to myself or share with another limited swimmer like last night, I just might be able to to do it one of these days!

Which bring me to the reason for this post. For years our educational system has been adamantly opposed to grouping kids by ability. The sentiment behind heterogeneous grouping is that we don’t kids to be labeled or stigmatized. Well, guess what? The kids pretty much know where they fall in the pecking order.

As I reflect  on my experience in the pool, I think about the times I’m willing to take risks and when I’m not.  When I am surrounded by good swimmers, I won’t do the basic drills that will help me get better. Does this carry over to our classrooms? I would say it does. I’ve always favored ability grouping and my swim experience only strengthens my belief.

Another, perhaps even more important, lesson has been slowly dawning on me. That swim coach I hired? She never once checked in on me after telling me there was nothing she could do for me until I relaxed. I stopped going to the swim lessons, but continued to see her at triathlon training and she never once mentioned my disappearance from swim class. She also had my email address and could have contacted me privately if she was worried about embarrassing me in front of others.  But she didn’t.

This year we had a few students in our building who were… difficult. The general consensus was to leave them alone as long as they weren’t being disruptive.  Allowing them to do nothing all day, ignoring their naps or mild disruptions, was acceptable, even encouraged. I know I’m guilty of letting certain kids slide if it means that I’ll be able to keep the rest of the class  moving forward. I’ve always assumed that those kids were were glad to be getting away with it.

Now that I’ve had the experience of being that student who was able to drop out without any concern from the teacher, I have a different perspective. Maybe those kids are doing nothing because they don’t have the confidence in their ability to try. Maybe they need gentle encouragement. Maybe they need to feel safe taking chances. That swim coach’s behavior told me, without a word, that I am correct. I can’t learn to swim freestyle. I shudder to think of the students that are inadvertently receiving the same message.

If you are a teacher, I strongly suggest you challenge yourself to learn something new and difficult every once in awhile. Being a student again has made me much more empathic as a teacher. I will be adjusting those practices I can and advocating for some changes in our system in the coming year.



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