I didn’t jump off the deep end and my students are better because of it

I’m not proud that I don’t know how to swim. Certainly, its a life skill, like riding a bike, that everyone should be able to do. But I don’t.

So about two years ago, I took swimming lessons at my local Y. The class was 8 weeks long and early on Sunday mornings — before any person under the age of 30 would dare show their face. That gave me some relief.

We used boogie boards, those barbell things, and practiced our breathing underwater. I struggled for all of those 8 weeks. And while I was much better than before I started the class, I just couldn’t relax in the water and let it “take me.”  I was too tense and thinking too much. My rhythm was off and I couldn’t coordinate my breathing, arm and leg movements. I was a mess.

The result: I never learned how to swim. My instructor recommended I take private lessons. YAY!

Despite my bitter disappointment, I had a chance to redeem myself on the last day of class. We were jumping into the deep end. For the duration of the class, we had stayed on the shallow end — the safe end in my eyes. But today was a chance to push ourselves farther than what we would naturally choose to on our own.

I was terrified. Of course, I waited for everyone else to go first. While everyone else was jumping, I tried to privately talk myself up to the monumental task of doing something I had never done before. I tried to think of inspirational music that would help push me over the edge.

I was up. I stepped up to the pool. As I stared into the water that was 10 feet deep, my instructor was wading a few feet away, waiting to help me if I needed it. My heart was racing. All my classmates were watching in excitement. They witnessed my struggles for 8 weeks and knew I didn’t learn how to swim. They knew this was going to be hard for me. Talk about pressure! What did I do?

I sat back down.

Yep. I sat back down. I just couldn’t push myself to do something that I had never done before, something that has avoided me my entire life. My feet were glued to the edge of the pool.

Humbly, I shared this story with my students this week. I also showed them this TEDx Talk:

It was the start of semester two, and it has been very clear that my students were still somewhat uncomfortable with the problem-based, discussion-based learning model I’ve adopted this year. They were frustrated and scared — just like I was when faced with jumping off the deep end.

After a few days away from them during Regents week, I realized that although I didn’t jump, that moment at the pool inspired me to make sure that I do everything I can to make my students uncomfortable. It made me fully embrace the disorder I seek every day. Watching the TEDx talk was great, too.

The bottom line is that I realized that am deeply responsible for helping to get my students be braver than I was on the edge of that pool. I want them to grow as mathematicians, but without pushing them out of their comfort zone, how could I ever truly achieve this? How can they ever grow if their learning of mathematics revolves around my thinking and not their own? How will they ever evolve into sophisticated thinkers if my instruction isn’t complex and push them to their intellectual limits?

They don’t realize it, but I have seen them grow immensely since September. In the past, my students had never owned the classroom the way they have this year. I’m proud of them for stepping out of their comfort zone in a big, bold way. Just because I didn’t jump off the deep end doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to.

I shared all of this with them. I think they appreciated it.



2 thoughts on “I didn’t jump off the deep end and my students are better because of it”

  1. Leeanne Branham – Secondary Math Teacher on Special Assignment Curriculum and Instruction, CUSD Clovis, CA *Opinions expressed entirely my own.
    Leeanne Branham says:

    I am excited for you and your students in this adventure. The view you have of how difficult and frightening it is to make that jump will help you understand their hesitancy and support them without taking over the thinking for them. I am excited to hear you view of this process in June.
    I think putting ourselves in spots as students where we are uncomfortable is so valuable to us as teachers. For me it was choir.
    I never was in choir as a class in niddle or high school, but i loved to sing. To be in a group singing at church or a concert was a wonderful joyous experience. Voices and notes coming together to make something more than any one of us did alone was amazing and fulfilling.
    Until i joined an actual choir. Choir was hard work. But the tightness and unity of the sound was even better. The problem: i was the slowest learner in the room. I would have to raise my hand again and again. “Can I hear this line again?” “Can I hear just my part?” “Can the altos only sing through that section?”
    An two seconds after the individualized help, when we put all the parts together, i would be struggling to remember what she had just played for me, what my group had just helped me with. . . straining to hear and follow the voice of the woman next to me, often inventing some hybrid part of my own that just wasn’t right.
    The joy was all sucked out of the singing in that struggle. I couldn’t let notes thoughtlessly effortlessly pour out. Each one was pried from my lips, delivered with concentration and self conciousness into the body of music around me, doubting my ability to contribute and so aware of my ability to ruin it all.
    But once i finally knew my part, really knew it, after weeks when everyone else had it in days, I could sing with joy, my spirit soaring past the ceiling on the wings of notes fitting beautifully together.
    Which kept me raising my hand next week at peactice, “Can i hear my part again?”
    And they didn’t kick me out. They didn’t tell me because i didn’t learn at the same rate as everyone else i couldn’t learn. They didn’t put me in a remedial group where no one knew there note and we’d never really perform. In fact when we did perform people would come up and tell me they loved watching me sing and the joy i expressed.
    And so i learned to keep that experience firmly in mind when it is then end of the day and a young girl is struggling with the exact same thing we worked through together yesterday, and the day before. I can appreciate the bravery in her tenacity. She’ll get there in time. And she can contribute to our learning. And our joy.

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