Coach Spelic

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a slice of my coaching heaven (Zug, Switzerland)

One of the privileges of my professional life has been to serve as a coach to our school’s track and field teams. I started coaching at the school in 1992. 25 years ago.

I have taught at the school for 21 years.

I have been a parent for 23 years.

If I add on my first 2 years of teaching and coaching at a small private school in the Washington, DC area – then I have 27 years of coaching track under my belt.

I love the sport. I love my athletes but I am not the best track coach in the world. I provide guidance. I offer feedback. I model my expectations. And there are certainly better skilled, more knowledgeable and focused coaches than I. But coaching is my thing.

Coaching is where I develop relationships with students which go beyond instructing and assessing the results. We laugh, sweat and struggle together. I ask them about their lives in progress, how they are feeling and what they are feeling. And often they tell me.

Sometimes they ask me about myself, about my running history: which events I ran, what my best times were, which distances I liked most. Recently one of them discovered my Twitter profile. They asked me: How come you have so many followers? Through my writing, I told them.

When my athletes ask me about school records and past highlights, my memory is remarkably thin, especially when it comes to hard data. I almost never remember times or distances, but I do remember the people. I remember so many stories of athletes and our conversations. Of finding one athlete’s ‘just right’ event at the final tournament of her senior year. Of the boys 4×400 relay that ended with a remarkable swan dive and made me weep in the stands. Of the Spanish teacher’s son who’s poetry of jumping was almost too beautiful for the competition in which he was entered. Of the skinny sprinter girl who went on to attend my alma mater, run track all 4 years there, become an outstanding geophysicist and who is now a high school teacher who coaches teams of her own.

This sport has given me so much. It is what I know. To coach young athletes is one of the single greatest privileges of my professional life. This is the passion that found me long ago; the gift that keeps on giving.

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Timely, Relevant Feedback

Today I had a second grade student give me some honest feedback at the end of class.

“Mrs. Spelic,” she said, “I feel like you don’t respect us when we do good. Even if we do everything we’re supposed to, you do this,” she covers her eyes and lowers her head, imitating me to a T.

I looked her in the eye and said, “You know what? You’re right and I’m sorry.”

At least that, at least I was able to admit my shortcoming and let her know that I understood what she was telling me. But as I went through the rest of the day, her words and the sentiment lingered. I definitely see her point. I clearly don’t give enough credit where and when it is due in that class. Rather, I let the three or four mega attention-seekers steal the show, time and time again.

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I also wish I were this beautiful while thinking about my students and their needs.

Every lesson I wish it were different. I wish I was different.

And yet, empirically speaking, it is certainly not every lesson that feels like a management parkour rather than a well planned set of learning experiences. There are certainly days, classes and moments where we accomplish all we set out to do and end the period with smiles on our faces and they leave with an Awesome Gym Day Award in hand. That happens, too. Sometimes. Not frequently but sometimes.

And in the student’s feedback there’s a very clear way forward.  She told me what I need to do differently. She’s been in school long enough to know what works for her and has learned how to ask for precisely that. Quite an accomplishment in and of itself, actually. So if I have any claims on being a growing, learning professional, I will heed her advice and get on task with acknowledging students ‘doing good’ and stop overemphasizing the negative.

The first step is listening. The next is making a tangible change. If I succeed (or if I don’t), I am certain that relevant feedback will not be far behind.

 

image via Pixabay.com

Move.Learn.Live. Day 3 Storytelling

Sore, stiff and slow moving is how I woke up on day 3 of the ECIS PE conference. All of those things yet even more keen to go back for more action, connection and greedy learning.

As a practice, I selected my workshops in the morning and stuck to my choices throughout the day. This simplified matters when I got into a good break time conversation and felt tempted to waver. My check marks in the margins provided the necessary commitment reminder.

A well designed conference program offers participants enough choices of sessions but not too many; a thoughtful mix of topics in each time slot and useful descriptions which facilitate and ease the decision-making process. In this case, I felt very well served by my hard copy program which I could pull out and refer to quickly. Each time slot usually had 4-5 sessions on offer and while I didn’t get to all the workshops I might have enjoyed, I finished each day without regrets.

My day 3 choices were decidedly less physically risky (like ice hockey on day 1) or cardiovascularly challenging (Scottish folk dance on day 2). I opted for a session of team volleyball drills, followed by a gentle intro to mindfulness for PE teachers and finished up the day with myofascial release techniques.

Serious conference swag.

On this last day, I clearly felt more grounded and comfortable. I knew a few more names, fell into conversation more naturally and approached a couple of people I hadn’t spoken to yet but was curious to meet. Here’s why I think this matters: belonging doesn’t just happen. It’s a process. During my time at this conference, my sense of belonging – to this particular group of professionals, to this specific field of practice, to my various identity subgroups (gender, nationality, school affiliation, country of residence) – needed time and context to grow. And that happened largely through storytelling: where I’m from, where I work and for how long, which levels I teach, how I came to live in Vienna, which colleagues we know in common, what I learned in the last session and what I hope to gain from the next. These are the stories I told and exchanged with my colleagues over these three days. Bit by bit we arrived at varying degrees of familiarity.

I suppose this is what professional conferences give us: a temporary container and context for our individual and combined stories about ourselves, our interests, and our discipline.

All of the workshops were conducted in English. I left thinking about how many of the presenters instructed, encouraged, corrected and motivated us in a language which is not their mother tongue. Hats off to them for not only providing excellent material but also modeling the bravery and enthusiasm we hope to cultivate in our students and in ourselves.

One idea that came up in more than one keynote was to flourish; thinking about what this may mean for us throughout our lifespan. It’s hard not find the word, the very notion, attractive. Who doesn’t want to flourish? In our field I see multiple opportunities for us to investigate what that may look like for our remarkable students. I also see roadblocks which lead us away from pursuing such a lofty ideal with and alongside our students. I’m grateful for the outside impetus to follow this line of thinking beyond the conference structure.

Trying to capture, safely store and retain so much learning from any conference is a challenging task. Writing this blog post and its two predecessors help me in that process. Through writing I tell a new story. I remind myself that I was a part of the story, that I helped it grow and breathe while it was happening. 

When I return to my students and we chat about spring break, I can’t wait to hear which stories they will share about what they tried and learned. When they ask me, I can’t wait to show them how much fun I had learning to be a better physical education storyteller.

Move. Learn. Live. Day 2

I guess I forgot how fun it can be to do physical education lessons with adults. On Day 2 of the ECIS PE Conference hosted by the Vienna International School I tried a bunch of different things: I looked into some fresh ways of approaching functional mechanics and got to dance as if no one was watching. In the afternoon I tried my hand at parkour and finished off the day engaging my vestibular system by spending some time upside down.

I had conversations about philosophy and methods, about what we do at my school that I think works well, and questions I have about what we might consider doing differently. All day, all manner of stimulation and processing. I suppose it’s what we educators come to conferences for. But this getting active and doing stuff together, often quickly, just can’t be beat. I tightened my buttocks, rolled my spine, twirled to the right, and galloped to the left. I got to be Sleeping Beauty when my group created a 90 second drama dance. I learned how to squat properly, leading with the hips, not the knees and my push-up just received an overdue upgrade.

I learned some Scottish folk dances, felt like an expert when we got to practice handstands and cartwheels, and noticed how my bravery went on recess when trying some of the parkour obstacles. There more dudes at this conference than women but the degree of mutual respect and shared interests makes the imbalance a non-issue. At least two times today I heard mention of capitalism in a critical context. Imagine what may be on tomorrow’s agenda.

Truth be told: I can hardly wait!

Move.Learn.Live Day 1

It just so happens that there’s a PE conference going on this week. In my town. During my spring break. And I decided to attend. It’s been a few years since my last PE gathering so this opportunity was hard to ignore.

From the opening session to the end of this first day, I can feel that something has already shifted.

I’ve been teaching elementary PE for 20 years and I value the time I get to spend with my students and colleagues building my repertoire and broadening my vision in the field. But when I come together with my colleagues from other schools, I need a surprising amount of time to settle in and feel like I truly belong. There may be may reasons for this but I imagine it has something to do with having come to the discipline through different doors than most other PE professionals.

In the opening keynote, one colleague mentioned the sense of community that he enjoyed at these conferences. And I knew what he meant. When I arrive, I may feel somewhat awkward and a little shy but before the event is over, I’ve always managed to meet great people, learn a lot of new things and get my PE groove on all over again. This conference is already living up to that ideal after the first day.

And this sense of community is different than at other conferences I’ve been to. PE teachers at PE conferences need to do a lot of moving, and game playing, and demonstrating and testing out. We all try the games we want to share with our classes. We take instruction as we would hope our students would. We (re)discover our strengths and weaknesses as we explore various activities. When we do that with each other it creates very different bonds than if we just had a couple of minutes to turn and talk during an hour long lecture. This is how we build community over the course of a few days.

My selection of activities today included: Turbo Touch ( a rugby related invasion game), a team building set of challenges, basic ice skating and hockey, and a session on voice care. Every session involved movement, conversation, trying some new things.

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Ice Hockey was my stretch session today. I thought I knew how to skate. I’ve been working on speed skating for a few years now. But, oh my. Hockey skates are entirely different. And I had on a helmet that made it hard for me to see and a stick in strangely fitting gloves that I didn’t really know how to handle while trying to focusing on staying upright in my skating. (Add a slight whining tone to that last sentence to get the full effect.)

So I tried as many of the drills as I could. In our group of about 15 there were about 4-5 of us who were relative novices. All good until we played a short informal game of hockey (with a tennis ball). As a middle aged woman of limited confidence on the ice I proved largely able to keep myself out of harm’s way which was my primary strategy. I stayed back on defense and when the ball came in my immediate vicinity I moved in that direction but was usually so slow that the action passed me by without consequence. (Yes!) The game itself could not have lasted more than 7 or 8 minutes max. But as I stayed out there and fell at least once in pursuit of the ball, I reacquainted myself with the sting of incompetence shame. Yes, I felt embarrassed that I literally was of no use to my team but I also felt grateful for the experience.

This is what my students must feel in the face of a scary challenge. The bravery they and I need to muster to stay with the task even when we doubt our capacity to do anything correctly is huge. That is what I learned out there on the ice: It’s hard to be a beginner sometimes. When I was last in finishing a drill, the instructor Sam said, “Great effort!” And that mix of pride and mild embarrassment was so tangible.

So I’m glad that I tried the hockey session, even gladder that I came away injury-free but not without falling. I reminded myself what it means for me to be brave. What risk feels like. And what a good feeling it can be to know that you managed something you weren’t sure you could do. This is professional development that really counts because it’s so very personal.

That’s what this conference is for. It’s why I need to be here. And doing this together with a bunch of PE professionals is how we build community, one blunder, one mix-up at a time.

Resourced Learning

I’m almost finished with the springtime cycle of parent-teacher conferences. This is a part of my job which I really enjoy. Meeting parents provides that rare opportunity to communicate in person how marvelous and amazing my students, their children, are. It’s a chance to share my specific observations and to hear particular concerns or questions.

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One parent said at the end of our talk, “You really know my son, you really do.” A compliment of the highest order. This is what I am here for.

I ask myself ‘How do I know this child? How do I get to know each child?”

First of all, I have the benefit of frequency. I see students between 2-4 times per week, depending on the grade level. That’s a lot of contact time. Time is a resource.

Next, I teach in an environment in which although there is relatively high turnover in our student body (about 1/3 on average per year), I often get to teach or at least see many children over the course of a few years. I get to participate in their development. Shared history is a resource.

I spend time observing students. As the years have gone by, I have stepped back from extensive direct instruction and encouraged more student-led and independent activities. Besides cultivating a culture of choice and self-direction, these opportunities allow me to stop and look, to study and analyze student behaviors. Children reveal a great deal about themselves their tendencies during these times. Creating space for observation is a resource.

In my PE classes, I am who I am. My students get to know me in a unique and deeply individual fashion. The multiple filters and mental models each child brings to our encounters shapes the development of our relationships in unimaginable and hard to document ways. When I teach I show a ridiculous number of behaviors, emotions, capabilities which all reach students differently. Over time, kids develop ideas about who I am and what I represent to them. And these ideas are constantly being updated, revised and reworked to accommodate new input and fresh perspectives. Awareness of dynamic, evolving relationships is a resource.

Above all, my students share themselves with me. They talk to me, they ask questions, they run wild with their peers and hang back by the water fountains. They buddy up quickly or pace around the margins, they shout out their favorites and broadcast their dislikes. In everything they do, they are tireless communicators. And it’s not that I understand everything they are saying, offering or demonstrating at the time. Rather, I take their input into account when attempting to grasp their intentions and determine how best to meet their needs.

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Students compel my curiosity and I learn. I learn about them. I learn from them. I learn through them. This is how I get to know my students: I open myself to what they can teach me.

When we look for resources in teaching, we tend to bypass our students.

What if we recognized our students as the most precious resources available to us in developing our teaching and learning?

What if we learned to ask students more often about what they know and understand about the world so far?

What if students were in the habit of being able to tell us who they are before we rush to categorize and file them?

Imagine a world where “the educated” believed that their mission was to stoke the fires of curiosity wherever they went and see the potential for learning in everything that came their way.

Imagine then how well resourced education would be.

About Fear

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I think it’s time we had a talk about fear.

Yes, fear. The stuff that makes you afraid,

that provokes anxiety, that keeps you up at night

Or makes it seem impossible to get out of bed.

Fear.

I have a couple of books on the topic.

Whole books dedicated to helping me

cope with,

understand,

manage,

and investigate

my very own special, unique and distinct

fears.

And I’ll be honest,

my fears are not for my safety

or that of my loved ones.

They are not about having enough

of what one needs to survive.

Rather they are more about

being enough.

About my capacity to measure up,

follow through,

deliver as promised,

and smile at the end.

Those nagging fears about

leaving things undone,

failing to finish

in time,

of not satisfying

someone else’s requirements of

my time, energy and talent.

*Suddenly I’m getting all warm

and beginning to perspire under my sweatshirt

as I write this

because fear of telling the truth

sparks a nerve.

There’s something at stake,

something at risk,

something to be afraid of

because that’s how fear works

expertly curving back on itself

always leaving the heavy residue of doubt

and misgivings

and sense of loss.

Isn’t it funny and isn’t it typical

that I would ask myself:

what’s a nice way to end this post?

so no one needs to feel too uncomfortable;

already afraid again

that I might upset the apple cart by

telling you what happens

so often,

so reliably,

so stubbornly

to me.

It’s only fear and it has a name

and so many faces and forms.

My fears like to dress up

and show up in disguise under an assumed name.

I can’t always recognize them at first.

But I can recognize their whispers after a time

and respond accordingly.