How weight training reminded me what good teaching is

In October, I decided I to join a neighborhood gym to help me prepare for the winter blues. I abhor these January days with cold that hurts.  The sun disappears early and I can’t go for runs outside. I need the sun. Doctors say this seasonal sadness originates from a lack of serotonin, that chemical responsible for an elevated mood. The winter blues are real for me.

I decided to challenge myself a little more in December and signed up for a few personal training sessions. Three years ago, my back went out while shoveling snow in the alley (I have a snow blower now). So I stayed away from any exercise where I ran the risk of throwing out my back again and flopping on the floor with back spasms like a goldfish out of water. (It wasn’t pretty.)

I became a student again. I asked my trainer Joel Campuzano at Mr. Bigg’s Gym on the Southwest Side to teach me how to strengthen my lower back with squats and dead lifts. Becoming a learner again these three weeks helped me see the other side of teaching.

Dead lifting 175 pounds at Mr. Bigg's Gym on Chicago's Southwest side

After teaching for twenty-one years, it’s easy to go with the flow and forget about the characteristics that I worked to develop when I started my career.

Becoming a student in a context I’m not used to made me think about how I teach. By becoming a learner again, by struggling, by growing, I reflected on what good teaching means.

First, I realized, again, how important it is for students to understand the purpose of what we do.

Joel focuses on developing my strength. So I’m only working up to three sets of five reps with good form: quality above quantity. Each session, I start with just the bar on the squat, for example, and Joel adds weight each round for about a fifteen-minute block each exercise. I don’t know what the math is for increasing the weight —but Joel does. And because I trust him and know he has the knowledge to guide me, I do what he says.

When I started in mid-December, I could only squat 95 pounds in one set. Today, I squatted my body weight: 160 pounds.

But I still struggled with the military press—I don’t like this exercise. But, again, because I trust my teacher, I do it. Joel tells me I have to push my hips forward—but not my knees—to help propel the bar that’s below my chin past my face and up above my shoulders—not in front of my head. It’s hard. Today, with 175 pounds, I struggled with the form. When Joel asked if he should decrease the weight, I said, “Yup.” But he only took off five pounds. We were not going backwards to last week’s weight.

I realized how important it is to make accommodations for students when they struggle—but we can’t make it too easy. I saw the difference today between supporting a student through a difficult circumstance and lowering expectations. I still struggled, but I managed the weight better and my form improved. I still don’t like the exercise, but I did it.

These weeks, I also remembered the importance of specific feedback. Joel corrects me or makes me stop and re-do something if my form is wrong. He corrects my hand placement, the movement when I yank the weight instead of dragging it, or when I pause too long. After every set, he tells me something I need to change without being condescending. When I’m lifting the weight, he shouts encouragement. It helps incredibly.

This helps me self-reflect, and I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to feel when I do something wrong. Today, I almost started with my body position slightly off—not good when I’m building up to dead lift 180 pounds.

Joel said, “Good. I’m glad you caught that.” Joel let me figure it out before I did any damage. I know he would have stopped me if I hadn’t caught my mistake.

I also see the role that data plays in my learning. I log my food intake in an app and follow the guidelines for healthy eating that Joel gave me. I felt disappointed when the data showed that three small slices of pizza are almost 1,000 calories. Hey, everything in moderation.

Thankfully, I’m not in pain or even sore after working out. I just feel good even though it’s still only 9 degrees outside and the sun is gone. Plus, I’ve lost a few pounds and that makes me feel really good.

These three weeks, I’ve learned how to lift weight I never thought I could. This is the most valuable thing I’ve been reminded of through weigh training: as teachers, we have to patiently guide, and encourage, and correct students so they can do what they never thought they could.

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