Liberal Education

Flip Turns with Students

A few years after I began teaching, I realized that I had something to learn: the flip turn. I was training for a triathlon and thought I was ready to graduate to turning like a “real swimmer.” When YouTube video tutorials and advice from other swimmers failed to overcome my limitations as a kinesthetic learner, I hired Marly.

A talented swimmer in college, Marly aspired to be a college swim coach. She was a graduate student in the coaching program at the college where I teach. I sometimes swam in the morning when she was coaching a masters swim team of adult swimmers, shouting encouragement with frightening enthusiasm for such an early hour.

I had met Marly in a different context, when she took introductory chemistry with me during her first undergraduate semester. Marly struggled in that class. I vividly remember her sitting hunched in her chair with an intent and slightly panicked look on her face. There’s a student like Marly in my introductory-level class every year or so—someone who is there every day, who tries to do the work on her own but gets lost, who will never ask a question in class, and who just doesn’t believe that she is capable of “doing” chemistry. The class must seem insurmountable from her perspective, and so this student opts for what I can only imagine (based on my own experience with a nightmarish graduate school class) is a miserable game of survival.

I’d never spoken with Marly about her experience in chemistry after she finished my class, so I’m only guessing what it was like for her. But my sense of her experience made me nervous about approaching her for one-on-one instruction. In the end, though, my competitive instinct triumphed. I needed to learn this, and Marly could teach me.

This is how I found myself in a swimsuit, cap, and goggles, standing in the water and looking up at Marly on the deck as she gave me instructions on how to do a flip turn. I followed her instructions. I came up, completely disoriented and with a noseful of water. “Not bad,” she said. “Try again.”

So I tried again. And again. Marly was consistently encouraging, and she only laughed at me in a way that encouraged me to laugh along with her, often spewing water from my nose. She corrected various mistakes, pointed out what I was doing well, and finally left me with the simple instruction to practice. “There’s not really anything else I can teach you now,” she explained. “You know how to do it, and you just need to do it over and over again until it gets more natural.” And get more natural it did, eventually. Sometimes Marly would see me swimming and offer both encouragement and additional guidance. When I first used my flip turns to swim one hundred yards in under a minute and a half, I saw Marly across a parking lot and ran to share my accomplishment with her, in much the same way my general chemistry students sometimes stop by a semester later to tell me they aced their first organic chemistry exam.

Throughout this experience, I was struck by the fact that the Marly who taught me seemed like an entirely different person from the Marly I had tried to teach. I found myself wondering, what if chemistry student Marly had known me the same way swim coach Marly did now? What advice would she offer her first-year self, if she could go back in time with her revised image of me as a fallible and even slightly ridiculous human being who just happened to stand at the front of her chemistry class?

I was reluctant to broach this subject with Marly, because the last thing I wanted to do was to dredge up what I guessed was an unpleasant memory. Before I could figure out how to have this conversation with her, Marly graduated with her master’s degree and moved away to take her first coaching position.

And then, with a tragic suddenness, Marly died in a bicycle accident.

As I sat at her memorial service, listening to countless testimonials about the way Marly had led and inspired those around her, it became even clearer to me that the “new” Marly I had come to know was the real Marly all along—it was the unsure, scared young woman in my class who was the counterfeit version. I missed the opportunity to benefit from her hindsight, to get her perspective on how I might help other students in her situation bring their real, confident selves to a class that is intimidating them into silence.

Marly is remembered on our campus in many ways, including an annual award given to student athletes who embody her rare combination of dedication and commitment to bringing out the best in others. I try to honor her in my own way by finding opportunities to take a break from teaching in order to learn from my students. I have tried to learn how to serve a volleyball overhand and how to do a layup in basketball. I have asked students to explain to me how they sing in languages they don’t speak, what the dance step is I catch them doing while they’re waiting for a reaction to finish in lab, how they’ve experienced the political situation in their home country that I know very little about. In all cases students visibly relax when they explain something to me.

There is something undeniably powerful about putting myself in a position not just of ignorance but of vulnerability. The uncertainty I felt when I tried my first flip turn and the self-doubt I experienced when I was still getting water up my nose twenty turns later were humbling and vivid reminders of what it’s like to try to learn something that doesn’t come easily. As faculty, we generally teach things we’re good at. I think I’m a better teacher when I am reminded regularly and acutely what it’s like to be bad at something, to let someone else see how lost I am, and to ask for the help I need to improve. While Marly did a great job teaching me the flip turn, it’s this last lesson that was her real gift to me.

Kate Queeney is professor of chemistry at Smith College.

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