Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ski School lessons for Educators

We drove out to Colorado with the four boys over break and spent a couple days in Keystone.  It occurred to me again that skiing holds many life lessons and in particular many metaphors that are applicable to educators. I wanted to share these with you in the foolishly optimistic hope that some good can yet come from my Colorado travails.  

I am not a great skier.  I’m the kind of guy who considers it a monumental feat to simply avoid the urgent care clinic. I had the ignominious distinction of probably being the only guy on the mountain to be approached not once, twice, or even three times - but on four separate occasions on day one by Keystone ski patrol with the prompt, “Dude!  Are you alright? That was a colossal wipeout, bro.”  (Actually, the first two referred to me as “bro” and “dude.” The latter two who approached me to help gather my ski apparatus that was scattered over the debris field of my latest wreck referred to me as “Sir” - as in, “Are you okay to get up, sir?” which I took to mean I was aging rapidly during my brief sojourn on the mountain).  

Here are some lessons for educators I took from our family outing::

Speed is your friend, until it’s not. Momentum is everything in skiing.  You definitely want to go just as fast as your mastery of the mountain permits.  However, the slope can sneak up on you with unexpected changes in conditions - suddenly the terrain becomes icy under a veneer of powder and, next thing you know, you have faceplanted in a most humiliating fashion.  

Lesson for educators: Curricular pacing is everything. You must find the balance. Seek the balance between a slow pace that simply frustrates learners because it is too plodding and proceeding hurriedly in a way that bewilders and induces fear in the learner, since neither extreme is good.  Proceed at a pace that is manageable or you’ll make yourself miserable and end up having to crawl back up the mountain to collect your things!

Stay high side or you will lose momentum. If you ever want to see a frustrated snowboarder, find a fairly flat part of terrain on a ski run and watch them do the hop-along.  A snowboard does not glide very well over flat ground, but most runs have a rise near the middle and slope off to the edges.  The hop-along is what I call the situation where a boarder has to remove one foot from the board and literally hop along, dragging his board to get to the next descent.  The key for a snowboarder is to stay high on the ridge.  The better boarders manage to get enough speed going and continue to glide along without sliding over to the margin and losing momentum.

Lesson for educators: Take the high road.  Don’t allow digressions to destroy a great run (or a great semester).  When the going gets tough, you have a choice.  Stay focused and intent on what matters most- the key learning objectives for the day.  Don’t drift off to the margins or you’ll find yourself hopping along on one leg, cursing the conditions, and wondering how you got there.  

Yield to those in front, but beware of those behind. The Skier’s Responsibility Code requires that you yield to those in front and that you are always aware of skiers and snowboarders in your “periph” as you go down a run.  You must also maintain an awareness of obstacles both man-made and natural that are part of the surroundings.  To fail to do so jeopardizes your safety and the safety and serenity of others who are out there with you.

Lesson for educators: Teaching requires a vigilant awareness of your surroundings and an almost uncanny knack for sensing what’s happening elsewhere - out there - beyond your immediate visual field.  You don’t have to have eyes in the back of your head, but there would be some days where it’d help.  Be mindful not just of those students who are “out in front” but also those who are struggling, slipping, and scrambling downhill as you work your way through the term.

Take delight in other peoples’ successes.  Sometimes, the student surpasses the teacher.  Such a situation should not be cause for petty resentment or adult annoyance. We should take delight in the accomplishments of our students, even when they’re a bit precocious and we’re a bit perturbed.

Two years ago, entering a lift station, Coby knocked me off the chair with his board, the lift chair raked my back, and the lift just kept right on moving.  His comment as he soared away from me was, “Well . . . bye, Dad.”

This year Coby was much more proficient in his handling of the board, his lift chair etiquette, and his skillful maneuvering on the slopes.  As we exited the Summit Express lift he simply glided away on his board turning his head back just partially to say, “You can go down the run with me, Dad, but seriously: you’ve got to try to keep up.”  

A Happy New Year to all and good luck “keeping up” with your students as you conquer learning objectives both Green (“Easy”) and Black (“Difficult”) this semester!