When the teacher becomes the student

IMG_0594This past week I had the opportunity to experience first-hand the feeling of being completely out of my element and going from a knowledge base of zero to a level of competence.  In a moment of weakness (probably when I was knee-deep in reading report cards), when my husband asked if I’d be willing to join him in a four day sailing course in Traverse City Michigan, I agreed.

Prior to departure for our trip, two text books arrived in the mail.  I glanced at them, but avoided cracking the spines.  It soon became apparent that I should have been better prepared before our first sail.  As we set off out of the marina, our instructor, Dan (the experienced sailor) asked each of us why we were taking the course.  My co-learners were quick to share their abundant sailing knowledge.  By this point, my anxiety about the next four days was on the increase.  As our instructor starting spinning his tails (each one embedded with sailing terminology) I found myself listening intently as I had a great deal of learning to do and only a few days to do it in.  Certification for this sailing course entailed not one, but two written tests as well as “on the water” testing.  The vocabulary was foreign. I was catching the odd phrase and found myself creating hand gestures and pneumonics to remember how an engine worked and when/how to hoist the mainsail in a variety of weather conditions.  

As I spent all day on the water and all night studying, it hit me that this is how many of our ESL students must feel as they enter a classroom for the first time ~ understanding a few key words and trying to make sense of the content vocabulary.

By the end of the four days, I had successfully passed both of the written tests as well as the “on water” tests.

Upon reflection, I dissected what had led to my success.  I have to give significant credit to the instructor. Not only did he masterfully entertain us with stories, which each had a purpose and a connection to the learning, he was very patient and encouraging.   Although I’m sure there were moments when he would have rather been the helmsman, he allowed me to take the wheel and experience the thrill and challenge of keeping the boat on an even keel.

My experience reinforced what we already know about the connection between strong instruction and learning:

Stories help, a lot!

Demonstrate faith and confidence in your students

Experiential learning is by far the most effective

And of course….

It’s never too late to learn a new skill!