teachin' school

teaching tip 8. don’t be the drowning lifeguard.

when i was 15, i got a job at a swimming pool in a rich neighborhood. the owner knew my dad, a former swim coach, and she basically just gave me the job. i was certified but wasn’t really ready for the responsibility of being a lifeguard. i could blow a whistle at running kids, but it made me nervous to even think about having to jump in to save someone.

one night, there was a party. we moved everyone to the sand volleyball area where there were picnic tables for the cake and ice cream. my boss told me to do a once over in the pool area just in case. and it’s a good thing i did. as i walked up to the pool and scanned it, i noticed movement in the middle of the pool.

someone was drowning.

i immediately jumped in and grabbed the little girl. panicked, she crawled up my body for precious air. little as she was, she pushed my head under for a second. surprised, i swallowed some water and started coughing it up. it took a few seconds for me to realize what had happened and act. i pushed her off of me and then grabbed her from behind like we were taught. i held her close to me with her arms trapped so that she couldn’t really move and swam to the shallow end. she was crying by then. i turned her in my arms, held her, and told her she was okay.

thank god, we walked out of that pool together. but i realized later that i had to push her away from me to save myself first before i could think to save her. i didn’t lifeguard again after that summer. it was too stressful after what happened with that little girl.

but i learned some lessons from that event. there are times when you are teaching (or in life in general) when you will need to push a student or other teacher away from you emotionally so that you can get yourself right. once you get your head on straight, you can go back and try again. it doesn’t mean that you’re giving up. it just means you’re retreating to come back with a better and safer plan.

i’ve had to do this several times over my teaching career.  no, not several.  dozens.  sometimes it’s just for a day.  sometimes for a week or month.  but it’s always worked out.  we either tolerate each other or even better, grow close because of it.

just this past year, i had a student who i really liked, but she treated me way too familiarly because we had gotten to know each other before i was actually her teacher.  she crossed the line a couple of times and we had words about it first semester.  i should have pushed harder but because we had that previous relationship, i kept letting it go.  but it took so much of my class time dealing with her behavior and holding detentions that weren’t really working.  then, around christmas time, she spread a hurtful rumor about me and another teacher (who is basically my brother at this point).  she ended up having a detention and the issue came up.  i went at her head on and ended up crying while explaining how much her words affected me, the other teacher, and consequently his wife if she ever heard it.  when confronted with it, she broke down and started crying.  she loves all of us.  she was just going through a hard time and taking it out on us.  she apologized for everything, but we left for the break without much resolution.  after that, we slowly rebuilt our relationship from the ground up.  it took some time, but we both worked at it.  now, she’s one of my favorite students.  i don’t have her in class, but she checks in with me several times a day.  i’m glad we went through that.  it made me a stronger and better teacher.  sometimes the breaking point is good.  sometimes a break is needed.  and sometimes you can break through.

(the first portion of this post was initially published in august 2013.)

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