Sunday, January 12, 2014

Reflections on Teaching

Frigid temperatures have kept us inside most of the week. We only got 5.39 miles in during the last week. Let's be honest--the frozen lake is pretty, but it's also a sign that the world is REALLY cold right now. On Tuesday, Barley couldn't even go outside to potty without her toes freezing and making her limp. I thought I was going to have to wade out into the snow and carry her back in! I never thought I'd be thankful to see 20-degree temperatures, but by Wednesday we had such a case of cabin fever that our 1.5 mile walk by the lake seemed like a huge victory!

Our involuntary hibernation has made it hard for me to avoid finishing my syllabi for the new semester. It also gave me plenty of time to think about teaching.

I never wanted to teach. In fact, I would get irrationally angry when people would say, "Oh, so you're going to teach" after learning that I was majoring in English. I've always loved school. My favorite part of summer vacation was always the end when we'd go to the open house and I'd learn whose class I was in, what supplies I needed, and which friends would be in my class with me, so it makes sense that I ended up teaching--it just took me a while to realize that was what I wanted to do.

I was blessed with some really wonderful teachers.  I don't remember much about kindergarden, other than Super and Dolphin our class hamsters (named after our school mascots, the Super Dolphins) and the letter people like Mr. T with the tall teeth and Mr. N with the noisy nose. As we watched the videos and colored the coloring sheets, I learned that letters were unique friends who had different personalities and interesting lives. My second grade teacher introduced me to American Girls and encouraged me to read and learn more about their lives. My third grade teacher was tough, but she wanted us to learn. In fourth grade, my teacher read to us in funny voices (she made an incredible grandma in Trouble River) and helped us practice multiplication and division with pig races (timed math worksheets drawn in the shape of a track that we completed on days when we could bring in stuffed pigs; the first person to finish all the problems correctly won the race and got their picture taken with their pig). There was nothing about school I didn't love. 

Although each of my teachers were different, I loved almost all of them.  As Barley and I have trained over the last 2.5 years, I've thought a lot about different training styles.

Like my third grade teacher, our first trainer is tough. She holds me accountable for my dog. When I mess up, she makes sure I know it. (And we need that. I took an online class recently and all of the feedback was "Great job!" or "This is wonderful" and I never got feedback on how to improve.) But she also wants us to succeed--which is why she's tough. She shares in our successes and she picks us back up when we fail. She approaches our training sessions as games to keep learning fun for Barley and to offer Barley choices, so she chooses to do the right thing rather than doing it out of fear of being reprimanded. Her only consequence for not choosing the right option is that she doesn't get the treats she wants.

I'm ready for some learnin'.
When we started agility, our first agility trainer was a whole new kind of tough. She was intimidated by anything or any dog. When Barley would have negative reactions to other dogs, she'd let Barley know very clearly that she had crossed a line. When Barley flew over the gate to chase down a smaller dog, our trainer had us spend the rest of class working on boundaries so she wouldn't jump over the gate again. This trainer also wanted us to be successful and gave us a lot of wonderful tools for dealing with Barley's reactivity, but with her techniques my relationship with Barley became less of a partnership and more of a dictatorship controlling relationship. There are definitely reprimands when we're working with this trainer (and I'm not necessarily saying that's a bad thing; sometimes she needs to know that there is no option but to listen to me).

Our new agility instructor reminds me of my fourth grade teacher. She uses funny voices and sayings--when Barley and I do something beautifully, she shouts out, "Sweet Baby Jane!" If we aren't perfect in an exercise, she doesn't stop us--she lets us finish the exercise, gives us feedback, and tells us to try again. She sets boundaries for Barley, and sometimes recommends we duck behind the swinging door into the hallway so I can watch but Barley can chill out while she waits her turn. We play lots of games to learn different agility skills, but there are clear rules on what Barley is allowed to do.

Each of our instructors is wonderful. We couldn't have made the progress we have made without the tools we've learned from each one of them. Since they are all so different, they've made me think about the kind of teacher I want to be.

Even though I joke about my teaching mantra being "I just want to conquer people and their souls" (thank you, Mike Tyson), I prefer to have more of a partnership with my students. Most semesters, I learn so much from them even though they're supposed to be learning from me. I don't want them to follow the rules because they're scared of my reaction or of the consequences; I want them to follow the rules because they choose to. I want to have clearly drawn rules (which is something that didn't seem as important to me until we started working with trainers--who occasionally give me conflicting advice, which highlights for me just how important clarity and consistency is), but I also want my students to enjoy learning (although I am not a funny voice kind of person--at least not intentionally). I believe in giving feedback throughout the learning process and giving students an opportunity to fix mistakes.

The more we interact with different training styles, the more I learn about my own teaching style. When I brought home this crazy Barley girl, I knew my life would change, but I had no idea that she'd make me reevaluate my teaching, too.

Barley thinks grading is less fun than learning.


  1. What a cute blog! I have a yellow Labrador that I love to run with (most of the time) but it has been too cold lately here too!

    PS, I never thought I would be a teacher when I was younger either, but I did become one!

    1. Dogs are such great workout buddies! Barley and I tried jogging a couple times, but her herding instincts made that an interesting experience (and probably very entertaining for anyone who witnessed it!). As soon as I start jogging, she starts nipping! So, we'll stick to the hiking and walking for now :)

  2. It's amazing how much our pups can impact the rest of our lives :-) I love that you've combined a lot of different aspects into your teaching. I think taking the best parts of teachers we admire and bringing them into something that works for us makes for a really great experience.