Lessons from the gym

I go to a great gym in my town three to four days a week at six in the morning. I credit it, and its owner, Scott, with making my life more manageable. Almost every time walk out of there I am feeling flexible, strong, and mentally ready for the day. I love it.

In spite of this, I don’t really want to go. Or, I should say, I don’t really want to get up at 5:30 am, four days a week. However, with a busy work and family life, it’s really the only time that works for me. And, there is a lot to be said for starting the day early. However, when that day starts in the deep dark, and I have to bundle up to go outside and shovel the snow off the van and scrape the windows, and meantime, my family is all cozy inside…. Even in the summer, I am compelled to stay snug in bed.

Plus, I usually sweat on the floor of the gym. It is hard work.

So, I mentally prepare. I lay out my gym clothes. I picture myself walking out of the gym, feeling good. I remind myself that I love to eat. I remind myself that I have to keep weight off, and take more off, to slow down the progression of my arthritis.

I wonder if my students have to talk themselves through the doors of school in a similar way, even if they love school. I wonder if they realize how much of what we do starts with talking to ourselves, visualizing, seeing the outcome. I wonder if they understand that it is hard work even when you love what you are doing.

I am reminded to talk with them about this in a more systematic way.

Sometimes, while I am watching my sweat drip, I think about teaching, and learning, and doing.

Scott is a great facilitator.

He is almost always cheerful; he doesn’t come in complaining about the time of day.  I hope my students can see that in me, too, even if sometimes I have to lose the ‘cheery’ Ms. Inden and get out my ‘teacher voice’. I do not ever complain about having to show up. Sometimes I tell classes that I am about done in and need their help, but I want them to know that there is no where else I would rather be at that moment.

It is clear loves what he does. He is always improving his practice and showing us what he learned. His passion for his work comes through.

He has a routine that does not often change. Oddly, this provides a degree of comfort. It’s odd, because I don’t do this well enough for my students. I recognize the impact this has on my comfort level, so I am thinking about more ways to routinize my classroom.

Scott has routine, but varies the activities within that structure so we don’t get bored. Activities change frequently over the hour so that we don’t stick with any one thing for long. His activities are interesting, and sometimes a lot of fun.

This is a strategy I use a lot. I don’t want the students to get bored, so I mix it up, keep it moving, vary the location of the class, the style of learning, the kinds of out-put I am expecting, the level of choice they have for topic or product. I want them to be a little surprised by how much they learned. (This is also why I find routing hard to implement.)

Of course, there are also the times when I feel frustrated at the gym. A key frustration is when the instructor lays out the plan, and then, on the fly, adds in something I was not expecting. Because I am often doing exercises that are just plain hard work, it is, again, a mental game as much as anything.

“Okay, we’ll do three rounds of the core circuit today, five reps.” We gather our mats, our balls, benches, or other devices we might require. Mentally, I am going over the 3 planks I will be doing. I am picturing it, and telling myself, you can do it. I know my arms will shake, my muscles will burn, so I am getting ready for it in my head.

As he punches times into the interval app he has on his phone, he says, “Never mind, let’s do four rounds, five reps.” I already did the heavy lifting – which was mental. Now I have to prepare myself again, and I am frustrated, surprised at the depth of my emotional response.

I get it that he has calculated on the fly what we have done as a class, and what he thinks we can handle that day. In spite of his sometimes evil ‘bwahahahah’ that we tease him about, he not out to torture us. Mostly. Also, I trust him to know that this is best.

But I am reminded that my own ‘on the fly’ changes of the plan I laid out for the students could elicit a similar negative response. I need to be sure I am not pulling the rug out on anyone, especially not anyone that struggles to keep up in the first place.

Going with the teachable moments provides some of the best learning. It is not about sticking rigidly to the plan. It is, however, about being careful to acknowledge that students might be stressed by what I am doing, to pay attention to the behaviours that might show me that a student is frustrated and then mitigating it as much as I can.

Because of my arthritis, I am a ‘special needs’ student and this provides me with some insight I don’t normally experience. School for me has always been easy, because I have a facility for reading and writing, for remembering and analyzing.

At the gym, I become a disabled person. Some exercises I can do the same as everyone else. Other exercises are entirely impossible.

Scott is good at finding ways to help me achieve close to the same goals as other participants, but in a different way than the rest of the class. It can’t always completely match, but it keeps me in pace with everyone else. I don’t have to go off and do something entirely different, or find a different gym, or join a special class.

However, even though I am a forty-seven year old woman, I still can feel the following, especially if I am tired or in pain:

  • an odd shame and embarrassment when new people find out I am different
  • frustration when Scott forgets temporarily about my disability and asks me to do something I can’t do
  • anger and grief because of what I can’t do, and what it means for the future

Scott creates a kind of learning environment that has both community and individualization. We are in it together and in concert with each other, but at the same time he is talking with each of us about where we are, where to go next, how do something different to nurse a sore shoulder, or how to add challenge to an activity if we can take it.

I strive to match this kind of environment. It is harder at school, where young students often don’t know why they can’t read or get their ideas out of their heads. Tests can show where a problem is a disability as opposed to failure to learn, but it doesn’t provide a script to follow. Students may not have been taught, or have not yet grasped how to be reflective about themselves as a learner. They may have developed a host of highly effective behaviours for avoiding thinking about it or doing any work at all.

At the gym, nobody ever calls me dumb, or points a finger and laughs, or takes home a report card with an A, while I take home my inevitable C+. (There is assessment rearing its ugly, slobbering head again, but that is another post.)

However, the principles hold. If we can help students win the mental game, if we can mitigate frustration when it gets hard, if we can differentiate, if we can teach students to be knowledgeable about their challenges and their goals, if we can provide opportunities for differences to be honoured, and engage them in the process as much as possible, we can help them be strong and flexible.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from the gym

  1. I love LOVE this! You have made powerful connections to your practice and the experience of your students, and, too, it has nudged me to steal some time from the beginning of my day to resume the gym routine that is invariably pushed aside.

    I’ll be back to read around your blog some more… but until then I’m leaving you this little breadcrumb-like comment so you know I was here!

    Yay!

    • Thanks so much, Leah. It is always a good idea, as a teacher, to be the student whenever possible to remember what it feels like! Good luck with the gym, it’s a struggle with time pressures, exhaustion, but worth it.

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