Learning to Swim
learning experiences outside your comfort zone
The warmth of the summer sun disappears as I hit the water. The chlorine bites into my eyes and stings as it enters my nose. I begin to sink past the red shorts of the lifeguard standing a few feet away, out of reach and not offering any assistance as I sink in the water. My arms flail as I attempt to claw my way to the surface, to breathe. Panic keeps my legs and arms in motion. The silence is broken as I break through the surface and gasp on the chlorinated air. The voice of the lifeguard encouraging me to keep moving towards the pool stairs is muffled by churning water as I slap the surface over and over again in an attempt to swim. The few moments of terror end with my hand hitting the pool steps and I quickly climb out to sit with the other children in my swimming lesson. We all sit in silence, shivering, whimpering with snot running down our faces.
So began my first day of swimming lessons. There is no memory of the remaining lessons from that summer, just the memory of panic and the smell of chlorine.
My career as an educator within the post-secondary system began very much like my first swimming lesson: I fell into it. The first day of class was filled with panic and I flailed emotionally as I attempted to deliver a preset lesson plan. I don’t remember the rest of the lessons from that semester, just the memory of panic and the sensation of sweat running down my back as I was out of my comfort zone.
That first day taught me two important lessons. The first was that no matter how much you try to prepare to do something by practicing, there is no substitute for the real thing. Rehearsing a presentation and lesson isn’t the same thing as delivering it in front of a classroom; it is difficult to know how well students will be able to comprehend the material or anticipate all the questions they’ll have. The second and more important lesson was the realization that my experience at the front of the classroom is no different than the experience students have when exposed to lessons, materials, and concepts outside of their comfort zone. This helps me to empathize with the students’ experience of frustration and fear in learning new skills or new technologies.
Swimming is an individual effort and although there are standards to teach the individual strokes, each person develops their own perspective of what is swimming and how to succeed at staying afloat and keeping their head above water. If we look at children swimming in a pool, each will approach their need to stay afloat differently. As educators we need to address how we will keep individual students and the class from drowning and help them overcome any fears, misconceptions or difficulties they may have of the learning experience in or out of the water.
Originally written for CTL1000 — Foundations of Curriculum, OISE Fall 2005
Jennifer J, a 14-year old swimmer at Crawfish Aquatics in Louisiana, wanted to enter a local writing contest, and she could think of no better topic than the sport that she lives and loves. She put together the following piece where her goal is to explain to an outsider this sport that we’re crazy about and still drives us crazy.
What is water? Some people say we can’t live without it. We need it for survival. It is their enemy. It is their friend. It is unpredictable and wild, yet it is tame and inviting. Water… so undefinable. But to me, the pool is my home, the water is my best friend, hard work is my passion, and swimming is my life. An outsider to the sport would call us insane for staring at a black line for hours on end, but really it’s much more than that.
I began swimming two years ago. I thought it would be fun and great exercise, little did I know that I would soon be addicted to it and never turn away. I was definitely not a natural, I slowly worked my way up the list, and I am now on an exclusive community team that is the defending state champions. I’ve been through everything you can imagine- injuries, losses, wins, friendships, enemies, sickness- yet I would never trade the lessons I learned from that for the world. Truly, swimming is a great sport. At one meet you might be ranked number one, then at the next you may finish last. It is such a fast-moving sport.
Every true swimmer has the will to work hard and get better every single day. It’s this that pushes you through those grueling practices where you just want to pass out; it’s what makes you spend an unfathomable amount of time in the pool just to shave off a millisecond in your next race; it’s what consumes your thoughts every second of the day to just achieve that unimaginable goal time. This is why swimming is not for the feeble-minded. It is the most mentally challenging thing I have ever done. You must train your hardest to overcome your fastest enemy who may as well be your best friend in the lane next to you. Swimming is simply unbelievable.
I never knew I had such a strong passion for swimming until this summer. I spent more than 100 hours in the pool this summer and made some of the best memories of my life. It was worth getting up at 6:00 AM to train for hours a day instead of having tons of sleepovers with my friends. It was worth spending my summer going to two practices a day instead of going on fancy, luxury vacations all over the world. I made friendships that will last a life time and have discovered more things about myself than I ever thought was possible. This summer I found the will to succeed and never give up. I found it in the water.
I can apply this to any aspect of my life which is the amazing thing about swimming. When you are swimming a long set and feel like you are going to drown, this is where the champions are made.
Beneath the water is a different, complete world. It’s almost impossible to describe every aspect of it. I feel alive under the water. I feel free. I feel at home. I feel like myself. But most importantly I feel that my desire for success is greater than my fear of failure.