Guest Post: Things I Learned about Teaching … at the Gym?

Sarah Waurechen is an early modern British historian who researches political culture, but writes about teaching – at least as of late. Check out her blog at [Aside by FFG: I have written a guest post for her site in a “blog swap.” It’s called “How Teaching Has Made Me a Better Writer.”]

Ok, so I totally have imposter syndrome writing this, and here’s why. I’m 31 years old and until two years ago, I had only ever been in a gym twice. If you had asked me then if I wanted to join a gym, you would have gotten the standard answer: “They make me feel like a hamster on a wheel. If I want exercise, I’ll go the hell outside!”  And yet, I’ve now become something of a gym rat. True, I can’t keep up with FFG’s impressive fitness regime, but I do become borderline psychotic if I miss one of my regular Muay Thai classes at the local fight gym where I train 3 days a week.

What brought about this dramatic change in my behavior, you ask? I wish I could say it was some sort of profound epiphany about my relationship to my body, but I’d be lying. Readers who have come across my blog before will know about my superhuman capacity for rage, and so it will come as no surprise that my change in lifestyle was the result of one of my tantrums. One day, while I was loudly denouncing the injustices of the universe, a charmingly blunt friend suggested that I go find something to hit. Uncharacteristically, I took his advice and found a fitness kickboxing studio. The next day I was so stiff I could barely move, but I haven’t stopped hitting things since. From kickboxing, I eventually graduated to Muay Thai, and now I’m slowly learning how to fight. Truth be told, I haven’t started sparring yet, but I’ll get there.

When I’m not at the gym, I do research on seventeenth-century Britain and teach history at McGill University (well, I did until June 1 – right now I’m unemployed). Quite unexpectedly, however, I’ve found it useful to import lessons learned at the gym into my work as a teacher. Lesson 1: humility and empathy. Drafting an essay might come as naturally to me as breathing, but that’s not the case for my students, and learning to fight has reminded me of this fact. When I first got to the gym I was a hot mess, and I had to learn a good deal of technique and build my endurance. It’s taken me 2 years of training to get where I am, and I still sometimes think I’m going to puke after a hard class. And don’t even get me started on the pushups! A short time ago, I just couldn’t do them. Period. Now I can do upwards of 50 over the course of an hour if my trainer demands it of me. This hard-earned skill was the result of persistence, practice, and an embarrassing number of face-plants. Suffice it to say, I have gotten back in touch with what it’s like to suck at something, and that makes me a much better teacher.

Me on the floor after a particularly intense workout

Me on the floor after a particularly intense workout

As I battle to become stronger, faster, and more precise, I cannot help but pay close attention to the pedagogical approach of those who teach me. While most of my kickboxing and Muay Thai teachers have been amazing, adapting to my needs and to the initial limitations of my body, I once wandered out of my comfort zone and did a boot camp class. Big mistake! Not only am I just less interested in boot camp, but said class was led by an exceptionally poor teacher. At that point, I was still a novice, and I was confused by all the different stations the class involved. Moreover, I was downright perturbed when, on several occasions, only half the motions in an exercise were demonstrated. Apparently, I was just supposed to intuitively know how to fill in the blanks. When I expressed my frustration and asked for clarification, I was told to stop wasting the class’ time. The result: strained abs about a half an hour in.This brings me to Lesson 2, which, believe it or not is not that boot camp is evil. It’s that good teachers never skip steps because doing so can actually retard a student’s progress. After boot camp, my crippled body was a physical reminder that if teachers don’t break down difficult problems – or if they push too hard, too soon – the result can literally be painful.  And so, I’ve gotten better at guiding students through difficult tasks, never just throwing them into the deep end. My goal is to help them avoid undue mental strain when completing assignments (the intellectual equivalent of a killer workout), while still providing them with important skills. In practice, this means outlining different techniques and arguments as explicitly as possible when lecturing, so that students can apply these ideas on their own in a seminar setting, where I only occasionally interject. It’s only after they have completed the requisite “conditioning” that I ask them to attempt totally independent analysis, and even then, I make sure they have proper instructions.

Finally, Lesson 3. My recent foray into Muay Thai has thrown the whole issue of when to hit, when to take a hit, and when to duck into sharp relief. The ability to choose the correct course of action is important in combat sports, in the professional world, and in life. Though I have to admit, I’m better at the first two than I am at the last. I have an aggressive personality, and I pride myself on being tough. Therefore, throughout my life, I’ve either tried to strike first and to avoid disaster by being proactive, or to brace for impact and simply deal with the bruising that follows – be it to my ego, my emotional well-being, or my body. One of the first things they taught me in Muay Thai is that this can be very very stupid. Sometimes, it’s best to get the f*%! out of the way.

There’s sometimes a reason to get out of the way

There’s sometimes a reason to get out of the way

What, if anything, does this have to do with being a good teacher? Well, if you’re going to work in an institutional setting, you’re going to need all the same skills. When there are administrative problems that impair your ability to effectively instruct your class like, say, that time I had 150 students and 140 chairs: hit, and hit hard! It’s the only way you’re going to effect the changes that you need. When students say nasty things (either to your face or in your evaluations) because they’re frustrated, tired, or just don’t like you: take the hit, and hold your ground. This diffuses the situation, and discourages students from trying it again, since it does them no good. But when something stupid happens that doesn’t actually affect your ability to engage with your class –especially if it appears to pack a mean punch – it’s probably best to just get out of the way. Duck and weave around the problem, and save your energy for something else. You don’t want wear yourself out in the first round.So, while I may not be a fitness guru, I have learned a few things from the gym. I’ve also made new friends. My first gym was a little bit like the isle of misfit toys where we all had square wheels, but that’s why we got along, and I expect I will be lifelong friends with “the fight Divas.” These individuals have helped me become healthier and happier, even if I do still have occasional bouts of Shehulk rage. They’ve taught me that exercise inspires us to explore new paths, to adapt to new scenarios, and to challenge ourselves in new ways. Since I now have the stamina to do this, and a hook that will take care of anyone who gets in my way, I’m looking forward to whatever life throws at me next. I bring this energy and determination to the classroom, and my students can sense that. And that’s why I won’t stop fighting any time soon. See you at the gym!

Me with my current fight partner, Anna. Careful, she’s small, but she’ll kick your ass!

Me with my current fight partner, Anna. Careful, she’s small, but she’ll kick your ass!

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

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