Last week, I passed my biannual lifeguard test for the third time – quite a normal thing for a PE teacher working at a school with a swimming pool to do. However, despite passing it twice before, this test is something that I still find challenging.
Turn the clock back seven years and I was a first year undergrad student at the University of Brighton completing the practical swimming assessment. In a cohort of 70 students, I was the only one to receive a grade low enough for this assessment to receive a fail; I received 20% for the practical element, and despite smashing the theory side, still did not earn enough credits. This is hardly surprising – when I was younger, I received a handful of swimming sessions through primary school, but never privately. I rarely went swimming with friends, and had few holidays abroad where a pool was readily available. It just wasn’t a skill I had much chance to practise.
At the time, I wasn’t worried by my incompetence in the water. “It’s the only sport I will never have to demo – my knowledge is clearly good enough” was a typical response I would give people. I then taught swimming during my training at a school that paid for a lifeguard to be present. Sorted – no reason for me to worry. I delivered good to outstanding lessons. Brilliant.
Then I got a job as an NQT at my current school, and their first action was to put me through my lifeguard training because lifeguards were not employed during the school day. I was worried, but somehow I managed to pass! Problem solved, right?
Then I started teaching swimming, without any other adult in the vicinity of the pool, and the gravity of the situation finally hit me – I am their only hope of survival if something goes wrong, and my swimming competency is highly questionable. It was at this moment, that I decided to do something about it.
I scoured the internet for some private swimming lessons – I didn’t want to admit publicly in front of other people that I was a trained PE teacher and lifeguard who wanted to improve their swimming. I booked two one-to-one sessions with a ludicrously expensive company and kept the thing a secret from everyone in my department. After these two sessions, I went swimming in a public pool every week for the next eight weeks (something I had never done before as an adult). As expected, I got better every week and my confidence sky-rocketed. I now regularly go swimming at the weekend, and it has stopped being a training exercise but rather an enjoyable leisure activity.
During my lifeguard test this week, I still found some elements of the test challenging. I was still the most inexperienced swimmer in a group of four PE teachers. But for the first time, I felt confident I would pass without question. More importantly, I felt confident enough to share with my colleagues that I had received private swimming lessons a few years ago as a result of struggling with this test. They seemed shocked, but respected my decision to improve a skill which clearly I lacked competence.
Now I am not telling you this story for no reason, but merely to illustrate an important point – I identified a significant weakness of my practice, and I put in place actions to combat it. I put up with paying exorbitant amounts of money for 30 minute coaching sessions; with swimming in the slow lane at public pools with mostly elderly people; with ex-students watching on as lifeguards while I practiced my very ropey breaststroke technique.
And now I am better for it.
How many of us, teachers or not, have weaknesses that we ignore? Weaknesses that we pretend to others we are better at than we really are? For PE teachers, it could be, like mine, an aspect of your subject knowledge that you know you cannot do yourself. Can you do a handstand, PE teacher? Can you demonstrate a cartwheel? Do you understand the rules of cricket? Do you know the roles of the respiratory system?
For any subject teacher, it may be an aspect of your practice. Speaking in front of adults? Typing speed? Spelling and grammar? Speaking to parents on the phone? The truth is, we all have weaknesses. Are you someone that confronts them head on and does something about it, or turns a blind eye and sticks to your strengths? In my opinion, willingness to confront weaknesses is one of the most important characteristics I would look for when employing a new teacher. But how easy it is to glean this in a one day interview?
The willingness to accept imperfections and work to develop them. Also, the willingness to share those imperfections with their colleagues, as I finally plucked up the courage to with my swimming deficiencies. No teacher is an expert in every aspect of the job, and anyone who gives the impression they are is simply deluding themselves and those around them.
SO – what is your weakness? How are you going to develop it, to combat it? And how are going to help others do the same? What a wonderful place of work that would be – a department of colleagues sharing and developing their weaknesses to improve their practice and subsequently the educational experience of their students. That is a place I want to work.
I now have no qualms about admitting to people I went on this journey. Anyone who ever makes you feel bad about trying to better yourself is a person you should try hard to distance yourself from.