There are a lot of things I learned during my 4 years as a lifeguard at the Jersey Shore. Some things I learned on my own, like always being mentally ready to act in an emergency. How beautiful nature can be. Or how important coffee is at 8 am. Some I learned from watching other people, like not wearing jeans into the ocean— ever. How you have to watch kids every second when they’re around water. Or how amazingly bad an idea it is to offer a seagull a French fry.
There’s a lot I learned that I found applicable to my work as a teacher, too. There are a lot of teachers on beach patrols— it’s the perfect job when you can count on summers off every year. As much as I like the idea of year-round school, I can’t help but think about what that would do to lifeguarding and beach safety.
I like to say that I learned all I needed to know about classroom management from lifeguarding. Both are complex work, involve more than a little bit of people skills, and require experience for improvement. Here are the three most important lessons I learned:
1) Prevention is the Mindset
Any guard who has to go into the water over and over to rescue people isn’t doing the job well. The first thing you learn about lifeguarding is that it’s not the number of dramatic rescues you make, it’s the number of people you never let get into trouble in the first place.
A teacher that constantly needs to write discipline reports, give a dozen detentions a day, and take hours to call home for bad behavior may think he’s being vigilant or having high standards of behavior, but he’s missing the point. Any teacher with these issues has to take a long, hard look at the kinds of things he’s asking his kids to do in class. If kids are acting out, it may be because they’re bored. I’ve heard plenty of stories about how “bad” kids don’t act up in shop class or gym, or in a certain teacher’s English or math class. It’s hard to get bored in shop and gym. And for the teacher that gives kids something worth paying attention to, they won’t have time to act out. A teacher has to ask himself, “Am I asking my kids to do something that’s relevant, and did I explain why it’s relevant?” And, “Am I presenting this in a way that challenges them, makes them think about possible answers, makes them try things until something works, lets them move around and work with each other, and lets them be creative?” Those are all things that can be said about shop and gym, and those are lessons that academic teachers need to adopt if they want to be preventative about class management.
On the beach, a guard has to scan his water continuously, and know where everyone is and how they’re doing, at all times. Teachers need to adopt this mindset, too— a teacher that ignores a slightly distracted student finds that the student gets progressively more distracted, gets his friends involved, pulls other kids in, and ends up needing a full “rescue” from his behavior. But a teacher with a preventative mindset only needs to redirect the student back to his meaningful work as soon as he notices the small issue. “Rescue” unnecessary.
2) Stay Calm in Rips
On the beach, rip currents form and can carry even the strongest swimmer dangerously far from shore. Swimmers try to swim against the surging water and get tired, distressed, and panicked very quickly. It’s a dangerous situation. The thing that can save you in a rip is your ability to stay calm. Rips aren’t out to get you— they’re not evil, and they’re not trying to pull you down. It’s just water rushing along the side of an obstacle like a jetty, or through a narrow gap in a sandbar. It’s not personal. If you wait until you’re past the point where the rip is flowing, swim sideways out of it, and back toward shore again, you’re fine. But it takes a very clear, level head to do that when things are quickly going out of your control, and what you usually do— swim straight to shore— isn’t working.
In a classroom, students are going to have outbursts from time to time. They’re people, not robots— you can’t program them to always behave according to instructions. People get frustrated, angry, hurt, and upset, and they act out. I’ve noticed that often, it has nothing to do with you, the teacher. It’s not personal. It’s something with the student’s home, or his girlfriend, or another class, or whatever— sometimes, it’s just the need to be free from the tightly-controlled environment that is school— even if it’s just for a moment (like Andy Dufresne playing that music over the prison exercise yard).
Sometimes the best thing to do is to stay calm and let the student vent. If you fight back by yelling and lecturing, you’re only swimming against the rip. It’s not going to work. The situation is going to escalate and spin out of your control. Don’t get me wrong—outbursts aren’t acceptable when they disturb everyone’s learning. You’re probably going to need to issue some consequences after things settle down. We’re in school to learn how to behave in society, and allowing outbursts without consequences isn’t setting anyone up for success. But calmly and unemotionally handling the situation will go a long way towards preventing an emergency. Later, after the outbust is over, ask the student what’s going on that made him act that way. Help him work it out and find a way to control himself next time, if you can. Explain to him that there are consequences to his actions, but it’s not personal– it’s school, and it’s learning how to act and how to control one’s self.
I knew I was going to be on the beach for 8 hours with limited opportunities to get food, get changed, or do much of anything not found right on my cramped lifeguard stand. So I prepared. I had changes of clothes, plenty of water, sunblock, food, a radio, sunglasses, and anything else I was going to need. Preparation was mental, too. On slow days, I would visualize what I’d do in certain situations that I knew mightcome up sooner or later. I tried to figure out what I’d do if a pleasure boat was stalled in my water, or if someone went into shock, or anything out of the ordinary. And that doesn’t count the hundreds of times I thought about the ordinary— the quick rescue, the lost child, the cut foot.
Teaching is the same way. If classroom management is a challenge for you, visualize yourself putting your management plan into action. Picture how you’ll react if a student does _________. Try to anticipate common and uncommon situations— students fighting, refusing to do work, sleeping, whatever— and decide how you’ll proceed. If and when the situation happens, you’ll be prepared, and you’ll act the way you know is best.
But really— trust me on not wearing jeans in the water.