Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Why I'm a Better Swim Coach than Teacher

I largely consider the 2+ years I spent in the classroom to be a failure -- partially because my expectations were unrealistically high, but mostly because I came close to accomplishing what I felt I should. On the other hand, I consider myself an excellent swim coach. My expectations are still unrealistically high, but I come awfully close to reaching them.

I say this not to brag, but to draw a contrast. Teaching sixth grade and coaching swimming are not altogether different, but my abilities seem to be. I also find it a bit perplexing. Why am I so much better at teaching kids how to swim than how to read? Here is my explanation:

When I was in elementary school and junior high I was a teacher's dream. I was polite, quiet, and kicked butt on every standardized test, and in every math competition and spelling bee I entered. I was always getting nominated for student of the month, was put in the gifted program, and was generally a model student. Not that I was perfect -- I did have to stay after school once in junior high when my computer teacher caught me chewing gum. I had to work hard to do so well, but the biggest challenge was really motivating myself to do the work.

When I started swimming I swam in the exhibition heats because I was too slow to be in the actual events. I am honestly not sure why I stuck with it for the next two decades, but I did -- and the improvement was dramatic (though painfully slow). The transition from flopping around in the water as eight year old to winning races in college (D-III, I'm not the next Michael Phelps) was long and arduous. I worked for every single second of time I cut. I was accustomed excelling at virtually everything, but swimming forced me to think -- it forced me to push myself further than I knew I could. And, in the end, I grew to love swimming -- it has a special place in my heart.

And I think my different experiences teaching others has a lot to do with my different experiences while learning. I have no idea what it feels like to read at a first grade level in middle school, and I have no idea what it feels like to act out in class or receive constant punishment from the teacher. I do, on the other hand, know how it feels to be one of the slowest swimmers on the team. And I also know how it feels to be one of the fastest swimmers on the team -- and how to make the transition. In other words, I can identify with the problems swimmers encounter and figure out how to fix them, but I found it tough to do either at a failing urban middle school.

I often hear that superstar athletes do not make the best coaches -- the average ones who had to scratch and claw for everything they got do. Pro sports are littered with former star athletes who fizzled in coaching (I grew up idolizing Alan Trammell and Isiah Thomas -- both of whom have failed rather spectacularly in the past few years). And I wonder if the same is not true of teaching to some extent.

Teachers are often derided as stupid -- the highest achieving undergrads usually choose a different career. But study after study finds little to no relationship between intelligence and teaching results. We often forget that only a little over a quarter of American adults have a four year degree -- so even the lowest-performing undergrads are actually quite a bit above average. This is not to say that intelligence does not matter, just that it might not matter as much as many think.

Maybe simply finding the best and the brightest is the wrong course. Maybe the reason we find it seems so difficult to predict who will be a good teacher is because so many intangibles come into play. Maybe having overcome some struggle makes one a better teacher than being valedictorian. Maybe being able to relate to students has more to do with success than do the results of a vocabulary test. Maybe passion for the material means more than graduating from an Ivy League school. Maybe knowing how people learn the material matters more than how well one knows the material.

Based on a sample size of one, hiring a really good test taker does little to boost the achievement of a troubled school, but hiring an average swimmer can do quite a bit to boost performance of a swim team.

I am far from the first to argue that intelligence may not be everything, nor will I be the last -- but despite a lack of evidence to support the position, conventional wisdom seems to hold that recruiting more smart people into teaching is the quickest way to solve our problems.


Roger Sweeny said...

I think just about everything you said is right but I would add one thing.

I'll bet most of the people you have taught to swim wanted to learn to swim. I'll bet most of your Bronx middle-schoolers were there because they had to be.

Willing students make anyone a better teacher.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused, Corey. I think you are actively engaged as a swim coach, or have been in the past for a number of years. Is this the case, or are you just speaking of yourself as your own coach?

Assuming it is the former, have your written up your thoughts on coaching swimming? I would think that would be of interest to teachers in general. It's something I know nothing about, but I can well imagine there is some common ground in what you do in that and what I do in teaching math. I just don't know what that would be.

For what it's worth I have given some thought in the past to the development of skills. Here's a link.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is sometimes the people who have struggled themselves to master a subject or task who will make the best teachers. Like you, Corey, I was an enthusiastic student who paid attention in class, worked diligently on my homework, and respected my teachers (well, most of them!). It was somewhat difficult for me as a teacher to understand students who did not care about school, who didn't complete homework assignments and/or who didn't understand basic concepts. I saw colleagues of mine, who themselves had been "B" or "C" students in high school, relating better to these students than I could. I agree: It's not necessarily true that the experts in a subject are going to be the best teachers of that subject.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

RS: Yes, the self-selection factor makes coaching easier -- but I was taking that into account when comparing myself to other teachers and other swim coaches.

BR: I'm still active as a swim coach. This is the first I've written on it. I'll think about writing more later -- or starting a "Thoughts on Swim Coaching" blog (ok, not really)