A couple of years ago, when my son learned how to walk and then run and my partner and I realized that we would need to be able to chase him, we grudgingly decided to get back on that old “health and wellness” horse and started going to a Pilates studio twice a week. Almost immediately, I started making connections between my Pilates teacher, Hana, my learning experiences at the studio, and my own teaching. Even though my title is hyperbolic, it is also oddly true; I keep having epiphanies about teaching and learning by continuing to exercise with Hana. For example:
- Wow! Is it ever hard to walk into a new classroom for the first time! I always aim to lead with empathy as a teacher, but there’s nothing like being a new student again to make you remember how difficult it is to try something new. My own students tend to be stony-faced on the first day, and it is easy to forget that the vast majority of them are probably feeling incredibly stressed about the decision to actually TRY something. Does anything make you more vulnerable than letting a group of strangers know that you are hoping to change your life?
- It’s amazing how fast and how far you can progress just by doing what you can do without being criticized or shamed for your imperfections. As long as we are safe and trying, Hana does not comment much on her students’ form; as an ex-ballerina, her philosophy is, “You can be perfect when you’re dead.” The truth is that I literally can’t do many exercises correctly — I aim towards them, building up strength by doing the best I can. The physical progress that I have made by doing imperfect pushups and awkward stretches is something I connect to my students, who need to be able to express their ideas, both in conversation and in writing, without being judged against some distant standard. As long as we stay engaged, we will get there; indeed, there is no other way to get there.
- There’s nothing wrong with doing reps. There are certain exercises that we always do, come hell or high water, every single Pilates class. Sometimes the difficulty increases, or an element is added, but the basic routine stays the same. I used to feel self-conscious asking students to repeat activities too much in my classes, afraid they would get bored if I didn’t “mix it up.” Now I see the beauty and comfort of certain classroom routines that you know you can count on, and that you know are helping you to gain confidence and make progress. Making progress is itself engaging!
- Motivation is sustained by relationships. Really, this is the key to why I continue to surprise myself by spending money and time to go to Pilates twice a week. Against all odds, I feel like I belong in that studio. I don’t even consider not going because I don’t think of it as drudgery. I think of it as a gift that I am giving to myself. Hana has facilitated this emotional connection to the Pilates routine, and I study her because I feel that somehow, if I understand how she builds and maintains the relationships that she does, I will hold the key to keeping my students in class, engaged, doing what they can do in regular classroom routines as they move towards greater strength, fluency, and independence.
I haven’t analyzed all of the elements that make Hana’s teaching so effective, but there are things I certainly try to emulate. She knows everybody; she judges nobody. She is personally involved but also professional. She is absolutely confident that her students can learn, no matter what age, size, or physical limitations they present.
But still, there is something magical about a teacher who knows how to apprentice students in such a way that the change they seek is their very own — not a standard imposed from outside — but an ongoing gift to themselves. I guess this is the final reason I keep going to Pilates: an amazing teacher makes you want to learn more!
Blog Contributor, Nika Hogan
Nika Hogan is Associate Professor of English at Pasadena City College (PCC) and the Reading Apprenticeship Community College Coordinator for the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd (SLI). She has a B.A. in English and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Multiethnic U.S. Literatures from the University of Massachusetts.
Her work at PCC and with Reading Apprenticeship is focused on developing pedagogical, curricular, and institutional approaches and structures that will maximize the retention and success of all students, especially those entering college at the “basic skills” level. She has been involved in many learning communities through PCC’s Teaching and Learning Center and is currently the Activities Director of a Title V grant designed to scale up those programs to a broad first-year experience pathway that will, if she gets her way, integrate both reading across the curriculum and reading across the community. She lives in Altadena, CA, with her partner, their three-year-old son, and two extremely under-disciplined terriers.