Recently I’ve been working with an amazing mentor to help me on my Les Mills group fitness instructor journey. As much as I’d like to finally get to the stage where I can teach a class by myself, I am super grateful to have the opportunity to get a lot of great advice, that just so happens to be applicable to classroom teaching as well.
Teaching isn’t so different from coaching or instructing, right? Have a read and see if you agree!
“I want you to...”
One of the pieces of feedback that I received was to try and avoid phrasing my coaching cues like “I want you to squat lower” “Give me one last set” Instead, I could try using more inclusive language such as “Let’s find that range” “Shall we do it again?”.
The trouble with making coaching cues about myself is that, particularly as a new instructor, the participants don’t have any real reason to try and work harder for me; why would they care what I want; who am I to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do?
Instead of demanding that participants do something for me, focusing on the collective effort of the class and offering up the option to take a challenge together can be a more effective way to get participants on board.
Now, thinking about this in terms of teaching, I reckon a subtle shift in the language that we use can also have powerful results. If our students love us and would do anything to please us, then obviously this tip isn’t necessary. But when our students are not on board, the last thing they are going to respond to is “I want you to do your Maths work”.
We might, however, have better luck if we phrased it like “Let’s have a go at solving this question together” “Shall we go through the working out for this question again?” We are still showing the student/s that the work needs to be completed but we are no longer coming across as demanding, rather that we are on the same team and in this together.
Give them a ‘why’
Part of the Les Mills coaching model is something called a ‘Layer 2’ cue. Basically, it is coaching the participants around how to improve their execution of the movements and educating them about the benefits. What we need to do here is to tell participants why they should be doing something in a particular way.
For example, instead of just saying “As you squat, actively push your knees out over your toes...”, we might add “...to engage your glutes.” Or, when doing a chest press, say “Elbows no lower than bench height to protect the shoulders.” And the list goes on: “Pull the bar into the thighs to engage the lats” “We are alternating between exercises to switch up the muscle recruitment and allow us to stay in the work longer” “By pausing at the bottom of the movement, we are taking away momentum and forcing our muscles to work harder to push the bar back up” “Squeeze your elbows together to isolate the triceps”. You get the idea.
We can’t just say the same thing over and over and expect a change. If someone isn’t changing their behaviour, chances are they don’t see a strong enough reason to.
As a teacher, what are some of the things you find yourself repeating over and over again? Have you given your students a strong enough reason why they should do what you’ve asked? If it’s “Put the chairs up”, have you explained that the reason is so that the cleaners can move around the room easily and vacuum up under the tables? Do students know that writing the date will help them keep track of what work they have completed when? Do they understand that many students find it hard to concentrate when the noise level gets too high? That using pencil in their Maths book allows them to rub out mistakes, and that skipping a line in their Draft Writing book means that there is space for proofreading and editing?
Let’s show our students that we’re not just nagging them for the fun of it; let’s give them all the more reason to simply do the right thing!
Cut out the fluff
It would be ironic if I made this section just as long as the previous two so I’ll try to be brief. After teaching a few tracks one afternoon (okay never mind, I’m already adding in unnecessary description), I thought I’d done a pretty decent job with my instructing. I’d remembered all my choreography, nailed my Layer 2 cues and delivered some motivational cues that I was pretty proud of.
But apparently I’d gone on a metaphorical spending spree with the word ‘and’. At first, I was like ‘Oh interesting, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad’. But it was that bad.
Every session, I’d have to video myself instructing to watch back and self-reflect on, and after about 10 seconds, I could see where that feedback comment had come from. “And down down and up up... 1 and 2 and 3 and 4... And drop... And pulse... And rest.” Lots and lots of filler words.
To improve our clarity and deliver succinct instructions, we need to cut out superfluous words. The extra words that don’t add anything.
Reflecting on my teaching, I know that I can definitely ramble on a few sentences too long at times and when my explanations drag on, that’s when students get bored and fidgety. It takes us making a conscious effort to focus on what we’re trying to communicate and what we actually say to even become aware of things like this.
Next time we prepare to give a classroom instruction, let’s all take that extra second to think about how we can communicate our message that much more concisely.
The last piece of useful feedback I’d like to share is the idea of building trust. I’d definitely thought about this as a classroom teacher before, especially when developing class treaties and thinking about my beliefs on teaching. But for instructing? Interesting.
This piece of advice came about one day after I’d taught a Back track and told participants to add on weight for the third and final set. Thinking they would naturally follow my example, I modelled adding on more weight to my bar. But guess what. Not a single person did the same. Sad.
Meanwhile, I’d seen time and time again that my mentor instructor would tell participants to use a challenging weight and they would respond. What was the difference?
Building trust is something that comes with time and it comes when people know what to expect from you. My mentor instructor is great at pre-cueing exercises and giving accurate advice on how hard a track will be. Because participants had seen time and time again that the description matched the reality, they knew that when the instructor said “This is a short set, you can go heavier” or “This is an easier track, add on a couple of 1s to your barbell”, that they could trust that they could do it.
We can apply exactly the same understanding in the classroom. Our students are only going to feel like they can trust us if they can see that we uphold our expectations and that we follow through with what we say. They’ll have a go at challenging tasks if they trust that they won’t be judged, scrutinised or called out if they make a mistake. They’ll come to us for help and give things their best shot if we’ve fostered that relationship of trust with them.
So, what do you reckon? A couple of take-aways that didn’t have to come from time in a classroom? Which ones will you try?
Be purposeful teachers
Who are in control
And know they've done enough.