Use your arms!

Clearly using their arms. Image via
Clearly using their arms. Image via

I’ve been a track coach for more years than I have taught. For the bulk of my coaching years I have focused on sprinters. While I know a fair amount about technique and training, when the athletes are on the track and in the race, there is not very much I can do for them. I do my best to remain present, bear witness, offer support.

That said, I do have one habit I use to boost their efforts. I find a space outside the track where athletes will be able to hear me. Especially for the 400m, I like to stand near the last curve. From there I watch and wait for my athletes to approach. I shout:

“That’s it. Now pump the arms, pump the arms!”

“The arms! That’s it, your arms!”

That’s what I do time and time again.

Why? Because it works.

Any  hard-running athlete who hears: “Move your legs faster!” when coming around the bend will unlikely feel helped and might be justifiably annoyed.

But the arms, well, that’s something many athletes can do something about. It may not feel like much, but a little stronger swing of the arms back and forth, elbows bent at 90 degrees – that may just be enough to pull someone through to the finish line faster than they thought possible.

I wonder in school how often we stand by and exhort our students with what amounts to the equivalent of  “Move your legs faster”? When what they really could use is a reminder to activate a part of themselves that feels more under their control in that moment.  “Stop for a moment. What thought or thoughts just went through your head? Can you remember? Tell your neighbor.” Rather than demanding that students pay attention, why not  offer an opening to have them locate their attention at that moment? Acknowledge that thoughts are and may be elsewhere and gradually guide their attention back to the topic at hand.

When we shift the focus onto what students can control, we remind them of their own power.

We do this by asking students about what they can do when they say they can’t.

Or by offering choices within an assignment.

Or by allowing students to come up with a different way that they’d like to demonstrate their learning.

There are many more ways for us to bolster our students’ sense of efficacy than we may recall at any given time.  That said, students may well experience more drive and persistence when  they are encouraged to focus on the elements of their performance that they feel are actually under their control.

When our students are in the race, let’s find ways to tell them “Use your arms!”

What I hope I am teaching

people-31339_640Let’s face it, when we teach, we never really know for sure what we’ve accomplished. We may see or hear fairly convincing evidence of our students’ learning. But determining exactly how much or which parts of that learning are actually attributable to our daily heroic efforts remains elusive. The space between teacher teaching and sudent learning strikes me as remarkably mysterious and ultimately unknowable territory. And I think that is part of what can make teaching feel so frustrating. Teach as much as we may – we can never control the learning.

Here’s what brought me to this cluster of thoughts: Working with my 4th and 5th graders on volleyball skills. So far, the majority of my students have been having a lot of fun with this unit and also a surprising amount of success. They have a nice selection of softer, lightweight volleyballs to work with. Several show signs of previous exposure and playing experience and we’ve been working on volleyball elements in fits and starts for a couple of weeks now. So today when I asked them to make small groups and practice returning a tossed ball over the net, they learned some new things (or so they said): “That it’s harder than it looks.” and “We need to call the ball.”

The critical piece for me was in recognizing that this lesson had less to do with improving those individual skills of serving, bumping and setting and everything to do with encouraging their intrinsic desire to act – to respond to the ball – to do something and feel confident in making any attempt. And so I found myself in the middle of the gym cheering wildly for a team managing more than one hit in their return and celebrating a first hesitant bump by my currently least skilled student. I told one group: “Of course I could go around and correct you all the time, looking for proper technique – but then you wouldn’t learn how to play. I really just want you to figure out how to respond to the ball each time, because it’s always going to be different – where you are, where the ball is, where your teammates are… I want you to do something, anything…”

I am not in control of their learning and (not but) I have a great deal of influence on the conditions and context for their learning. What I hope I am teaching is that my teaching is not the point. Rather, what I actually do is set up structured opportunities for my students to practice their many skills. I provide context, material, space, time, some frameworks and my enthusiasm for each of them. What lessons they take away from those experiences are theirs entirely, not mine.