MY ROLE AS A SWIM TEACHER The renowned child development specialist Jean Piaget once wryly observed, "When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself."  If that's true, then what is my role as a swim teacher? That's a hard question to answer. Luckily, we have help. Marie Montessori, another brilliant child educator, broke the role of the teacher down into three key steps: 1) prepare the classroom and provide a sense of order, 2) encourage independence, and 3) free the child to test her abilities within limits.  Let's apply and adapt her breakdown to swimming. PREPARE THE ENVIRONMENT Before our students get in the pool, we must explore that environment ourselves—steps, wall, pool lip, surface around the pool—and modify it to fit our need to keep the child safe. For instance, we might use towels or cones to mark off the area we will use and remove objects—like floaties—that will not be used in our lessons together. PRIMARY SENSE OF ORDER For swimming, it is helpful to separate providing a sense of order into primary and secondary steps. The primary step is to keep our students safe in the water. To do that, we swim alongside them to offer support at a moment's notice. Moreover, we must remain vigilant and actively anticipate challenges and issues. First and foremost, however, we must earn our students' trust so they will turn to us immediately when they are scared or struggling. The best way to earn their trust is through being gentle, open, and consistent throughout the teaching process from introduction to practice to completion of our lessons together. SECONDARY SENSE OF ORDER The secondary sense of order comes from providing an orderly routine, a list of skills to practice, and tools and toys to use when practicing those skills. This secondary step in providing order is almost completely analogous to the classroom, though the routine is probably more prescribed than would be found in a typical Montessori classroom. However, real and immediate safety concerns that arise in the water demand this modification. ROUTINE The routine should be simple, perhaps including a hello to the pool, getting in the pool, a review of skills worked on in the last lesson, and a preview of the new skills to be explored. However, the order in which the skills are first attempted and the depths to which they are explored can and should be determined by each student. Set them free determine the order and depths that best suit their interests, comfort, mix of strengths and weaknesses, and natural curiosity. SKILLS We should share the entire list of skills we intend to cover throughout all of our lessons together at the beginning. Then we can put a child's exploration in context: that is, we can explain to a parent how a game or exploration is an intermediate step toward a skill. We must remind ourselves and the care givers that skills are milestones that are reached through a wide variety of incremental steps unique to each developing swimmer. ENCOURAGE INDEPENDENCE Accepting the exploration of incremental steps mentioned above is the first step in encouraging independence. Next, bolster that acceptance by reflecting those intermediate steps back to the student. Continue to follow up by modeling alternative methods for using the student's intermediate steps to move toward mastery of one of our milestone skills. In general, stand back and watch them play. Their play reveals what they know which, in turn, help us identify new steps and challenges they are ready to undertake. TESTING LIMITS WITH TOOLS AND TOYS Noodles, kickboards, and other swim toys are the key tools we use to free our students to explore their limits. For example, a child may fall off the noodle while exploring the pool and find that he cannot get back to the wall without it. Give him a moment to struggle and to feel afraid before gently restoring him to the noodle, perhaps modeling a more secure hold. We want them to feel safe to explore their limits, but realize that we need to be in the water with them to provide that safety. Children, like adults, can misjudge their limits especially during a period of active learning such as a series of directed lessons provides. It is incumbent upon us to anticipate challenges, be vigilant, and swim beside them to provide immediate support if needed.  Piaget created a theory of cognitive child development based on detailed observations and a series tests to reveal cognitive abilities. His work challenged the notion that children are less competent thinkers than adults by demonstrating that children think in strikingly different ways than adults. According to Piaget, children inherit a basic mental structure on which all subsequent learning and knowledge is based.  Montessori was an Italian physician, educator, and innovator, acclaimed for her educational method that builds on the way children naturally learn.
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