Teach Like a Trainer

Anjuli Johnston

For me, exercise and movement are about far more than aesthetics. The ability to move my body and to break a sweat are gifts I don’t take for granted, and I find movement to be directly connected to my patience and the effectiveness of my teaching on a given day. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time in various exercise classes, and realized one day that I could learn more than good squatting technique from the trainers. What kept me coming back, day after day, waking up while the moon was still out? Sure, the workouts were great, but what really kept me returning were the environment, the community, and the trainers… or, dare I say, fitness educators?

At first glance, one may not see much in common between a gym coach and an elementary school teacher. Sure, they’re both “teaching” something, but the former is teaching a group of motivated adults who are choosing to be there, where the latter is teaching a group of children who may or may have been excited to wake up for school that day. Okay, let’s be real. Maybe most of us weren’t “excited” to wake up for the gym, but we still chose to go. 

I, however, challenge this thought. While driving to work one day, I realized that there are several intersections between the two. Once I figured this out, I was able to take little snippets of instructional wisdom back to my classroom each day. Nothing new, per se, but great reminders about how to be the best teacher I could be.  

What does it look like to teach like a trainer?

Set the Tone

I loved my gym. I could not get enough of the people, the environment, or the programming. The workouts were tough. They pushed me outside of my comfort zone. Even so, I persisted and continued to come to class each morning. Why? Because it was a great place to be. We had fun. We joked. We encouraged. The trainers at this gym fostered an environment of growth and energy, and it was contagious. 

Isn't this the way we want our classrooms to feel? We want students to feel comfortable enough to give their all each day, and to know that they are part of a larger classroom community. We want students to be willing to step outside of their comfort zones and to set lofty goals. 

Cultivating an inviting classroom environment is nothing new. However, during these early weeks and months, it is so important to be intentional about creating a place where students want to come back. Even when math strategies are tough or friendship challenges get in the way, I want my students to feel like their classroom is a place that they would choose to be. 


Give Good Directions

Say them. Show them. Display them. Repeat them.

I can’t tell you how many times I “listened” to instructions for a workout, yet forgot what to do when my turn came for a given station or exercise. Sometimes I was chatting with a friend, yes, but many times, my brain just couldn’t recall. Luckily, the trainers at my gym were especially thorough. Directions were given verbally, yes, but also posted throughout the facility, so it was easy to get a quick refresher whenever I needed it. 

I imagine our students feel like this too, sometimes. Even when we feel like we’ve said the directions 100 times, sometimes our students just need 101. Rather than getting frustrated or irritable, I try to think about how I might rephrase or re-emphasize important points. I ask myself, "How can I, as a teacher, better communicate with my students?" Keeping directions posted after explaining feels like Classroom Management 101, yet it's easy to forget just how powerful that simple move can be. 


Stay Connected

At some point during every workout, our trainer would touch base with every single attendee in the class. While part of this was checking in on proper form and technique, much of this check-in was just to see how we were doing. What was new in our lives? Did our son win his soccer game yesterday? These little touches may not have seemed like much to the coaches asking the questions, but deepened the connection and level of trust within the gym. I felt valued and important, like my presence mattered. 

Similarly, I want my students to know I care about them as readers and mathematicians, yes, but I especially care about them as people. I want to know about their ballet recitals and their little brother's loose tooth. While these details may seem extraneous to some, I find them to be the building blocks of connection. Even more, I love to challenge myself to personalize lessons based on these tidbits that I pick up along the way.  Every day, I want to connect with my students to that they, too, have a place where they feel valued and important. 


How about you? Are there other corners of your life from which you are able to take valuable teaching tidbits? Have you found an unlikely "teacher" in your life?

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