How Ski Season Made Me a Better Teacher

Recently, I was fortunate enough to go on a 5-day ski trip with all of my second graders. Don't get me wrong, there were times I didn't feel so lucky... When multiple students were getting sick on the bus, or while trying to keep track of 4,000 hats, gloves, scarves, and snow boots. But one of the best lessons I learned from this trip was one I wasn't expecting.

Let me start off by saying I was amazed by the confidence and eager positivity of my students. Even the ones who had never stepped foot onto a snowy mountain were ready to put on their boots, skis, and practically take a flying leap off the slopes. My nerves, on the other hand, were a mess. I was about to ski down a small mountain (with an instructor), I hadn't been skiing for more than 8 years, and I was just plain scared.

And then I realized something. I rarely do anything that I'm not good at. I rarely try anything new. Sure, I love to travel and explore new places, but I've always felt good at that, independent enough to get off a plane and wander around a city I'd never been to, even if I didn't speak its language. But this was different. I couldn't remember the last time I tried a new activity where I was afraid of failure. 

All of my students assumed I was an expert skier until I told them I was an almost-beginner. They were surprised to see me in this new light, and I loved that. I always try to impress upon them that teachers don't know everything, that we're always learning just like they are... and this was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that.

After all, how often do we expect our students to try something new? To apply a new strategy to their learning? To use new language to work through problems and to express themselves? To put one brave foot forward and do something they're not comfortable with? All the time, right? But how often do we acknowledge what a special moment this is for them? A delicate, vulnerable moment when they need our support and feedback? Do we give them the tools they need to feel successful, to want to continue, to make another attempt at something else? How often do we put ourselves in their shoes?

I thought of these questions as I skied down my biggest mountain yet. With my ski instructor at my side, she watched each move I made, and gave me specific feedback accordingly. "Put more weight on your right leg now... Lean forward, not backward... Find a rhythm for your turns, like this" (demonstrating).  With each piece of feedback, I felt more confident, and felt myself improving. The connection between specific feedback and feeling successful hit me immediately. After all, isn't this what we do while teaching? Figure out what the student needs, and offer specific feedback for him to reach the next step? Even though I'd had a quick lesson (direct instruction) at the bottom of the slope before ascending, it only provided an overview of what I might need when I finally began descending the mountain. Without someone there beside me, I wouldn't have felt the success I did, that's for sure.

One final note. Even though I felt triumphant when I reached the bottom of that mountain, I wasn't sure I was ready for more. I questioned whether I had the strength to do it again. I was ready to call it a day, but another teacher on that slope didn't let me. "Come on, you have to go again!" she encouraged me. "The second time will be even easier, you'll see!" And I knew she was right. I just needed that little push, and I was ready. Of course, I immediately made the connection between this genuine encouragement on the slopes to the encouragement we provide our students. And then I realized: It really does make a difference.

This trip left a huge impression on me. It helped me realize how infrequently we face our fears as adults, and how much our perception can change when we do the same things we ask of our students. When we ask students to take risks, to learn from each other, do we lead by example? 

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