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VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES | Essay

A Hard Lesson for the Teacher

May 01, 1999|MEREDITH LOURIA | Meredith Louria teaches English at Santa Monica High School. E-mail: louria@smmusd.org

As a high school teacher, I've often thought, "Kids today have to learn how to take initiative. It's not my responsibility to chase after them. If they really cared about their educations and their grades, they would come to me for help." To my surprise, beginning an exercise program taught me to question and eventually discard these beliefs.

I have never enjoyed exercise. "After a hard day of teaching," I would rationalize, "I want to relax; I don't want to add to my stress by pushing myself to do something I am not good at."

As I entered my 40s and watched my weight increase, I began to feel desperate. A nutritionist I consulted suggested exercise, especially with weights, as the answer to my problem. One of my girlfriends, also a teacher, and I started working out with weights. We hired a personal trainer to teach us the routine and work with us periodically; in between, we worked out together.

While I dutifully did the workouts twice a week, they were hard and not fun. "Don't you feel like a jock!" my friend Debra would crow as she pressed 15 pounds. No; I felt weak and foolish as I huffed and puffed with the 10-pound weights. She was always eager for the trainer to come and change our routine; I dreaded those days, feeling that just when I began to feel comfortable with something, I was being pushed to try something harder. There were workouts where I was close to tears. "Don't push me today," I'd warn. "It's a miracle I'm here and I'll be happy just to get through the easiest workout."

As an experienced runner, Debra assured me that the first few months were the hardest. If I could make it through three months, I'd be hooked; I would look forward to exercise. The trainer was wonderful--encouraging and supportive. She cheered me on and lavished praise on me for the smallest advances.

Debra was right. Three months later, I did see results and have come to enjoy exercising. Some days are still harder than others. Some days we meet after school and are so exhausted, or so upset by one of the day's events, that we have to talk for half an hour before we can get down to business. I still have a tendency to push myself less than I should. And even though I resist changes in my routine, I know I can handle them and that pretty soon new exercises will be as comfortable as the old ones were.

Recently, I began to reflect on my beliefs about teachers and students in light of my exercise experience. When a student resists starting an assignment, I remember how I felt about exercise: "I don't want to add to my stress by pushing myself to do something I don't enjoy and am not good at." When a student tries an assignment, no matter how small his or her effort, I remember how I felt during that first month: "It's a miracle I'm here and I'll be happy just to get through the easiest workout." When a student turns in an assignment, even if it's late, I remember how my trainer made me want to do better: She cheered me on and lavished praise on me for the smallest advances.

When I know a student can do better, I push him or her; I remember how I still need to be pushed, how much I appreciate my friend's dogged refusal to let me give up or stagnate. Needing that push doesn't mean I, or my students, don't care. When a student interprets my push as criticism, I remember how I dreaded those days, feeling that just when I began to feel comfortable with something, I was being pushed to try something harder. My goal is that every student will have enough good experiences with assignments that he or she will be able to face a new task and say, "I know I can handle it and that pretty soon that new exercise will be as comfortable as the others are."

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