Teaching as White Water Rafting


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Pictured Above:  me falling out on a Class V rapid called “Boulder Drop” on the Nahatlatch River.

This was quite a few years back and was the last official rafting trip I’ve taken.  It seems pretty tame in the picture but what you dont see is the eddy I gradually swirled into after my raft mates left me behind.   Moving in a circular pattern, gaining momentum till I found myself heading face first for a large boulder.  I braced …in an instant before impact… I was sucked under.

I’m not sure what happened after that.  I know I fought to get to the surface but eventually the river just “spat” me back into the pool below the eddy.  I was rescued by a kayaker.

In “The Skillful Teacher” Chapter 1 Brookfield shares a metaphor of teaching being like white water rafting: “..periods of apparent calm …interspersed with sudden frenetic turbulence “(Brookfield 2015, pp.5).

I wouldn’t say my teaching career to date has been punctuated with any near death experiences quite like my rafting career.   That said,  I can relate to the analogy.

One of the more poignant moments I’ve experienced was volunteer teaching a budgeting and finance skills workshop to challenged youth.    My PowerPoint failed, the classroom set up was less than ideal,  and the students were deemed “unpredictable”.  It was as if everything was conspiring against me.   I didn’t panic but continued with the lesson.  On completion I sheepishly handed out the evaluation feeling that I had failed in my teaching and failed to reach the students.  The feedback was scant, with one form containing a single word “kill” on it.    As the students left,  the individual that was the most quiet , non participatory  approached me and said “Thanks, that was interesting”.  On that day,  this one comment,  from this student provided solace.

Outside of confidence in our own abilities and being subject matter experts,  there is other rafting related advice to help us “navigate” turbulent waters.

Sit on the rim of the raft:  sitting on the inside in what appears to be a safe zone actually increases your chance of being ejected.  Our presumed  “safe zones” in teaching and sticking with routine can actually be the most dangerous in terms of our effectiveness as instructors.  If we expect our students to take chances with their learning we should be prepared to do the same.

Learn to use the paddle:  proper paddling gives you another point of stability;  rowing in unison provides greater control over the raft.   Learning your tools and techniques, and a variety  of them,  can provide you the added stability when encountering turbulence.  Participating in the learning can provide added control.

I think good teachers welcome turbulence even though “capsizing” can result  in shaken self confidence.  Brookfield claims  any teacher who suggests they never encounter dilemmas, or “whitewater” , should be viewed with skepticism.


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