How Do You See Yourself As An Educator?

Courtesy: John Holden

When children attend lessons, the teacher can never be sure that swimming will be a meaningful and rich experience for each child. Therefore, is it the teacher’s role to teach skills or to educate them about what they are doing is important so that the experience becomes so rich it will have a lasting quality for a lifetime? The immediate response could be both. We educate them about what they are doing by teaching swimming skills so that it becomes a rich and meaningful experience. We can judge the physical aim quite easily by all sorts of assessments of swimming skills, but the latter takes some time to evaluate.

When a child finishes his/her formal school swimming lessons or indeed when a competitive swimmer decides to retire from competitions, what lasting effect will the swimming experience have upon the individual? One thing is certain, they may eventually forget what they have learned but what they will never forget is who you were. The teacher’s influence, to a large degree, affects the richness of that swimming experience, especially in the ‘teaching moment.’ This means that there is a hidden agenda deep within our teaching. I therefore see myself as an educator as someone who has expertise that others can benefit from but within that expertise, there is a hidden agenda of fairness, empathy, a strong sense of values and principles to work from. I now realize that I no longer teach or coach swimming but what I do teach and coach is people.

We as teachers and coaches want to have a positive influence that will have a lasting effect on our charges, but sometimes that hidden agenda influences the way we act. ‘The most powerful facts that dictate the way we act are our taken-for-granted assumptions.’(MacDonald/Labbett 1998)

This results in us making judgments. I wonder how many of these we make in the course of a lesson?

No amount of lesson planning will anticipate everything that will occur in a lesson. The most important teaching and learning occurs from moment to moment. This is very evident with beginners. On Thursday mornings, I have a group of fourteen, eight-year-old beginners. I have a lesson plan but ideally, I should have fourteen lesson plans as they are all at varying different levels but even if I had fourteen lesson plans things happen and they happen suddenly. Last week Stephanie went ahead and did her first four strokes but up to then there was no indication that she would not let go of her float. There have been other instances where a youngster has done a few strokes and the next week it’s back to almost the beginning. Another example involved a boy swimming 10 meters from left to right but could not do the distance from right to left. All these amount to our feelings in the ‘teaching moment’ and they are referred to by Stenhouse as Subjective Perceptions:-

There is no escaping the fact that it is the teacher’s subjective perceptions which are crucial for practice as (s)he is in a position to control the class(Stenhouse 1979)

These subjective perceptions are our feelings which dictate the way we judge and act; both with individuals and collectively. They can be both negative and positive and they can fluctuate from one to another throughout the lesson. They are most sensitive in the ‘teaching moment.’ The teacher reacts having made a judgment. The consequence of this reaction will have an effect on the pupil and all these actions build up a lasting effect. To some swimming teachers, they may appear trivial but:-

Trivial events influence the outcome of great events. There is no way such contingencies can be factored into making predictions. Thus a calculus of prediction is beyond our grasp. (Olson 1992)

The trivial events are important such as giving a pair of armbands to a struggler or saying to a pupil, ‘I want you to try and swim without the float’ and then they end up sinking and swallowing water! These events influence the outcome of great events in teaching and with beginners the great event is the first few strokes.

We can, of course, sometimes get frustrated as teachers when things are not going to plan and you can say to yourself ‘Rachel is going to be a hard nut to crack – she does not seem to be making progress.’ We need to react in a positive way and that is not necessarily skill related as to why there is insufficient progress. Equally, It could well be no fault of your own as a teacher. We have in these situations got to make it more of a rich experience. ‘Entertain them hugely while educating them gently’(Longfellow 1981) This should lead us to activities where the youngster cannot be in a position to fail. This stands as a firm basis so that skills can be worked upon with great patience and be prepared for a longer ride. Re-demonstrate the skill, repeat the practice, revert back to earlier ones and give it time, The synapses in the brain will eventually fuse together to create the inertia for the first time. Hopefully, the learning experience has become rich.

However, It would be wrong to suggest that once a youngster can swim it is from then on going to be an automatically enjoyable rich experience. The adolescence, for example, is a vulnerable situation. I must admit most youngsters aged between thirteen and fifteen, simply come to my lessons, get on with it and enjoy it. However, some, a small few, will do whatever they can to get out of it. This is where your values come under threat. A value is an obligation you put on yourself in accordance with the moment. It becomes difficult when there seems to be no firm check on such individuals. The Swimming Teacher as an educator has a problem but I took great comfort and encouragement when I read:-

The job of the teacher is not only to impart knowledge – that is a relatively small part of the total. The main task is to stimulate the interest and gain the commitment and involvement of the pupil. However, If the pupil approaches the causation of new knowledge in a negative frame of mind, determined to reject rather than to involve themselves, the trainer’s job is almost impossible. (Harvey -Jones 1993)

The stimulation of the interest which gains commitment and involvement, again derives from the ‘teaching moment.’ and it is here that the teacher should look for ‘serious intent.’ Serious intent should always be rewarded and from this, the teacher needs to harmonize his/her actions. To exemplify this I opened my life-saving class with a question for Year 9 pupils. “Where can you drown in your own home?” All the obvious responses came to the fore, bath, sink, pond and so on. Then one boy said the toilet! This resulted in laughter. To some, it was a bizarre answer, but it was a genuine attempt by a pupil to answer the question. I replied with “Very unlikely, but you cannot rule it out. It’s a volume of water. He has a point!”

Another example when serious intent should not go unrewarded in the ‘teaching moment’ is when youngsters are really struggling in a class. Equally, serious intent can result in excellence. This leaves the youngsters ‘in-between’ and it is these “unnoticed” pupils who are sometimes neglected. Of course, an observant teacher/coach should be alert to the difference between serious intent and plain laziness but it is a great teaching skill to observe the available clues and harmonize the appropriate choice of action. As teachers, we get to know the proficient and the less able but the “middle band.” tends to fade from our imagination during the course of a lesson. Even with different ability groups established, the “good” and the “bad” tend to swallow up most of our time. Meanwhile, for others, that rich experience is diminishing and we need to work on it more by a fair distribution of rewards, time, and the appropriate pitching of work.

There is another other side of ‘serious intent’ and that is on the part of the teacher. The Swimming Teacher as an educator should be an example to the class in his/her sincerity, earnestness and in what (s)he says so nobody can make any objections to wholesome words. With my classes, I like to think that I talk to them agreeably and with a flavor of wit and fit my answers and instructions to the needs of each one. Some youngsters tend to be apprehensive about their teacher and (s)he can appear to be ‘overpowering’ to them without any intent to be so on the part of the teacher. This can be accelerated on the part of the teacher by using a loud voice, although in certain pools (s)he may have to. This can hinder the richness of the experience and we do not want our charges to remember us for the wrong reasons because of a sense of power.

I do not want to be in any sense under the power of others, in as far as I want others to be under my power – that is lack of self control on my part. (Stenhouse 1979)

What I feel Stenhouse is moving towards is that we as swimming teachers or coaches should establish a position and make it available to others. In order for the lesson or club session to be a rich experience, the teacher/coach should serve the needs of their swimmers and not expect the swimmers to serve the needs of their teacher/coach. By doing this and making swimming available to others as Stenhouse puts it, the teacher/coach has a firm basis to become an effective educator so that with this established position, (s)he can then offer a rich experience so that the student can fall back upon swimming for the rest of his/her life.


  • Harvey-Jones J 1993 All Together Now
  • Longfellow W 1981 Swimming and Aquatics Safety  American Red Cross
  • MacDonald B /Labbett B (Notes from conversation 23 May 1983) University of East Anglia, Norwich (UEA) Cited by Labbett 1998
  • Olson J 1992 Understanding Teaching Open University Press
  • Stenhouse L 1979 (From His Early Papers)  UEA


John Holden has a degree in Education (BEd) from the University of East Anglia where he coached the Varsity team. He is a qualified teacher and has been coaching and teaching swimming for over 38 years. Holden was the UK’s key note speaker at the International Federation of Swimming Teachers (IFSTA) in Hong Kong in 2004. A Sir Winston Churchill Fellow, he writes extensively for swimming publications all over the world and he is currently on the coaching staff of the North Norfolk Vikings Swimming Club, UK.

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Johnson Swim school
25 days ago

Excellent article 👌