We had a teacher who has taught our class only a few times, a lovely, enthusiastic teacher with a bounce in her step and encouragement in her voice. She was trying to get us to move together in large circle around the shallow end of the pool. (This is a common exercise in an aquafit class, because it sets up a current which provides a strong force to work against.)
Participants in the class are variously enthusiastic about the activity, and there are always a few who move themselves out of the way and do not take part. The culture in our class is that people can adjust the activities to suit their own bodies and abilities, and there is no pressure to take part; people who don’t want to do a particular move just keep moving in a way that is comfortable for them.
Things get complicated
First, the teacher asked us to do some new, more complex moves than just going around in a circle, and people took a few minutes to catch on. Some couldn’t hear or didn’t understand the instructions, so they opted out of the activity and stood in place. Since there were more people than usual who were not participating, it was more difficult for the people who were making the current to get around them.
A person new to the class got caught up in a crowd of people and an unfamiliar current. I first noticed her as she was saying, “I just need more room.” She seemed a little panicked, and a couple of students, and the teacher, were helping her to a quieter spot in the pool.
The teacher took a quick read of the class, and asked, “Do you want to stop doing this activity?”
I said, “No,” quite loudly, because really, it is my favourite thing to do in the pool, but several others nodded or gave a thumbs up, and the teacher drew the activity to a close.
When we were all back in our places, she asked again, “Does this class prefer to do the exercises stationary, rather than moving around? Do you like to do them standing in place?”
Again, I said, “No,” loudly from where I was standing across the pool from her, but several people nodded and gave her the thumbs up again.
“Okay,” she said, “Let’s go ahead with some stationary exercises.”
The class goes on without me
I came to a complete halt. I couldn’t go on. Exercise, the whole purpose of the class, was impossible for me.
“No,” I said to myself, “I don’t want to do stationary exercises. I don’t want to give up making a big current to fight against. Why did she ignore me? She asked, and she paid no attention to my answer.”
While the class went onto other exercises, I did nothing.
I wanted to get out and go home, and I considered it, but really, the class was far less than half over, and I didn’t want my trip to the pool to be for nothing. But while I did keep myself in the pool, I could not keep myself in the right head space to participate in the class.
Treading water, literally and figuratively
I had a long imaginary conversation with the teacher, but even while I was having it, I was ashamed of how petty it was. “Why did you ask what we wanted, if you weren’t going to listen to the answer?” “How come they get to do what they wanted, but I don’t get to do what I want?” “Are we never going to do the make-the-strong-current activity again?” “I’m not coming back if you are going to cut out my favourite activity!”
At some point in this imaginary conversation, I became aware of how strong my reaction was, and began to reflect on the importance of listening to feedback from students, especially when we ask for it!
I began to think about what the teacher could have done to help me stay with the class, and not go off onto this silent tantrum.
Something simple, I decided, would have done it. Just, “I can see that some of you want to do stationary exercises and some of you want to move around. So let’s go back to stationary exercises right now, and I’ll figure out for next class how the people who want it get a chance to do the circle exercise without causing such a traffic jam.”
I needed a little acknowledgment that I had been heard, and a promise that my wishes would be taken into account when future classes were planned.
Still treading water…
You’d think someone like me, doing all this furious reflection and meta-cognition right there in the pool, would have been able to calm myself down and get on with the class, but I couldn’t.
I began to think of the incident from the teacher’s perspective–relatively new to teaching this class, doesn’t know anybody’s names, faced with one student who had a strong negative reaction to an activity, a protective response from some other students, an impossible situation to have a conversation in, with her on the pool deck, us below her, spread out all across the pool, music blaring, and the terrible acoustics of concrete walls and high ceilings.
I had a lot of sympathy for her, and wondered if she had even heard my loud “No!” to her two questions.
I could hear her giving instructions from the side of the pool, and see the other students following along, but even my sympathy for her position did not make me able to rejoin the class. I swam down to the deep end and did a couple of widths of the pool. I slowly made my way back towards the class in the shallow end, smiling and nodding at a couple of other people in the deep end doing their own thing.
Back in the shallow end, I spent a few minutes doing some of my favorite moves, still ignoring the teacher and the class, until I noticed that they had gone on to something new. Not making the wild current, but moving, surely moving, back and forth in lines up and down the shallow end. Moving, not stationary.
It was all I needed. Maybe she had heard me after all! I slipped into place at the end of one of the lines, and I was back in the class. Drama over.
I feel more than a little sheepish as I write this post. I was amazed at how strong my reaction was to the instructor first asking for feedback, and then seeming to ignore my contribution. I kept telling myself to get over myself, but I couldn’t. Yet when she introduced some activities that made me think she had been listening to me after all, my resistance vanished.
I think about myself as a student in that class–motivated, confident, nearly always an enthusiastic participant, clear about the benefits I get from attending, not overburdened with home responsibilities or financial restraints. Yet still stopped in my tracks for a quarter of the class by having to process a storm of emotions.
Then I compare myself to an adult literacy student–not so confident, not really sure that the basic education program will result in a better job or a better life, worried about family and money. How many triggers there must be to shift that student’s focus; how many emotions aroused that must be processed before the mind can come back to the lesson at hand.
As an aquafit student I wanted to participate. All my reflection and analysis led to the conclusion that I should set aside my emotions in favour of participating in the class. But I couldn’t “buckle down.”
We know that consulting students about how a class is organized, what topics will be covered, and what materials will be used, all contribute to engagement, to a sense of belonging and importance in the group. Asking for feedback can be a powerful motivator.
Today I got a first hand experience of how powerfully negative it can be to ask for feedback, and then seem to ignore it. Much better not to ask.
Reflecting on myself as a student helps me be a better teacher. It gives me a little space to be curious when a student resists my lessons, rather than being judgmental: “If he wanted to succeed in this class, he would just do the work.” My own experience in the pool reminds me of how easy it is to be triggered into a storm of emotions that cannot easily or immediately be dealt with. It is, once again, an example of how much our behaviour is ruled by our hearts, not our heads.
Because I want students to engage, I feel the onus on me to create a space where engagement is possible, to have relationships with students where, at the very least, my words and actions don’t provoke the kinds of emotions that take the mind away, that make them resistant.