Beth is teaching me the head float. With my chin and forehead out of the water on my back, I push off from the wall into the back float while keeping head and chin in a neutral position. She wants me to kick my legs while floating on my back, but quickly sees how locked my knees are. I get out of the pool, sit on a chair, and Beth helps me move my knees, experimenting, moving them for me so I can feel how it should work.
Beth is a talented teacher. I’ve been an educator my whole life, working with all ages, including as a professor — so, I think I’m qualified to say this. I specialized in teaching reading (we’ll get back to Beth in a minute). Some kids learn to read organically, a larger group learns as a group in the classroom. The remaining struggling readers need specialized instruction. It takes a talented teacher to help them achieve reading fluency. In addition to teaching the mechanics of reading, lessons must be tailored to meet individual learning styles, get rid of heaps of emotional baggage (including shame, fear, frustration), build confidence, and, finally, help the learner experience the joy and empowerment that reading brings.
I think a lot of this is true for teaching non-swimmers to swim.
I didn’t learn how to swim organically. I need specific, personalized instruction.
Beth has years of experience teaching swimming to draw on, but she personalizes her lesson. For example, after getting me out of the pool to practice kicking she could tell I still didn’t get it, so we got back into the pool and she gently moved my legs for me so I could feel the correct motion. She continually experiments and observes: you are locking your knees, here are some ways to relax them.
While Beth moves my legs, I relax and float, which builds my confidence and joy in the water. I can feel how high on the surface I am floating. I wonder how I can achieve that on my own and will practice it between lessons.
Maybe natural swimmers don’t think about the many small movements and minute adjustments that go into the process — just as most fluent readers don’t think about phonics. Most couldn’t show them to a non-swimmer. Beth can.
Toward the end of the lesson, while I’m floating on my back, Beth asks me to exhale air through my nose, then she turns me from my back to the belly position, where I blow bubbles in the water before returning to my back to breathe. I try it several times and suddenly, jubilant, I get it — I do it! Beth grins, and I feel her authentic joy in my learning.
In a recent interview one of Beth’s students told me she hears Beth’s voice in her head when she swims. I laughed, remembering my reading students who used to tell me they heard my voice when they were reading — that’s what a good teacher does, lends you her voice until it is replaced with your own.
Dear Shoney: Thank you for your kind words. My students have been my greatest teachers. They are the ones who have taught me to break skills down into bite-size chunks and the importance of providing an environment of encouragement and possibility. ~Beth