Lessons Learned from Surfing

I was fortunate to have grown up just a few miles from the beach in New Jersey and was there daily.  A childhood that consisted of playing at the beach and in the ocean, learning to surf around the age of 12 was a natural progression.  Currently, at the age of thirty-five, I’ve been surfing for over twenty years now, and yearly (which includes cold NJ winters) since I was sixteen.  Although I could easily wax nostalgic about the youthful days of surfing, that is not the purpose of this blog post.  Rather, surfing has taught me many life lessons that I have connected to my career as an educator, some are probably more deeply rooted in my subconscious and others might be more easily identifiable.  I recently read Grit by Angela Duckworth which brought this concept to my conscious and ultimately this blog post for those interested.

Surfing has taught me a few things about life, learning and teaching, and myself.  To be brief here is my short list (as of September 2016, because there’s bound to be more lessons):

  1. A deep understanding of the ocean.  The science: meteorological and oceanographic aspects – tides, currents, waves, winds, storms and swells, bottom contours, erosion/deposition, etc., etc.  It takes years to develop an understanding of a particular part of the ocean or surf break – and this knowledge and practice is what helps one become a better surfer.  This deep understanding can be applied to various locations around the world.  Just like in teaching, it takes years of practicing your craft to develop a deep understanding of the art of teaching.  Eventually, things like classroom culture, routines, or having an ‘arsenal’ of discussion questions or strategies to use in the moment become second-nature – helping one become a better teacher and respond to various situations (see #5).  What skills or subjects have you developed a deep understanding for?
  2. Don’t take yourself too seriously.  It’s only riding waves, it’s all about having fun.  It’s okay to fall; laugh at yourself.  Have fun teaching; make learning fun.  It’s also okay to make mistakes.  Laugh at yourself once in awhile, be sure your students know you’re human.  Of course, maintain the role of teacher/facilitator/coach and classroom culture will thrive.  When was the last time you laughed at yourself?  Do students have fun learning in your classroom?
  3. Perseverance.  Grit.  Practice.  Persistence.  These are all characteristics that I believe I’ve developed from surfing.  You fall a lot in surfing, especially while learning.  You’ll fall a lot less as you persist at it, but you’ll still fall.  Hold your breath, get back on your board, and catch another wave.  This is my ‘mantra’ for learning and work.  Falling or failing is okay.  I make mistakes, I reflect and try very hard not to make the same mistake twice.  Let your students see you fail, or when you make a mistake, (see #2), accept it, make a joke of it, correct it and learn together.  When have you allowed yourself to fail – and then, picked yourself up and gave it another go?  Where have you demonstrated grit?  Take Duckworth’s Grit Scale.
  4. Patience.  This is particularly the case in NJ, it’s not exactly a ‘wave blessed’ region offering consistent, big, surfable waves daily.  Patience and an understanding of the ocean (see #1) are essential characteristics to surfing in any region.  Be patient with your students.  Your down to the minute schedule won’t always work.  Give kids the time they need to struggle (see #3) and develop perseverance.  Don’t sweep in and give them the answers right away.  Wait.  Guide, coach, support.  Practice patience.  Can you think of an example where patience has paid off?
  5. Ambiguity. Riding waves on a surfboard is an amazing example of split-second decision making.  At most surf breaks, there is no script.  Just to catch the wave, you have to take into account your working knowledge of the wave and your expectations of how you think it will break.  Once up and riding, you are continually assessing the movement of the breaking wave, anticipating where it will break next, maneuvering your body and board according to your current abilities, and continuing until the wave ends or you fall.  In teaching, and in life, sometimes the plan needs to be abandoned.  While working with your students, use your working knowledge, the feedback you’re getting from your students (formative assessment/questioning/etc.) to consider changing directions or speeding up/slowing down.  Be comfortable with scrapping ‘the plan’ and thinking on your feet.  (Remember this takes time, see #1).  In teaching, career, or life, when have you been challenged with uncertainty but still made a decision?
  6. Be nice and respectful.  I’ve been fortunate to travel to some amazing places – all for surfing.  By no means am I seasoned globetrotter, but I’ve surfed in enough foreign lineups to understand that simply showing respect, smiling, and being welcoming is usually the easiest way to start a conversation, ask a question, learn something new, and give something back.  In teaching, it’s obvious.  Be respectful and care for your students and colleagues – as teachers, we play an important role in a child’s life.  When tough situations arose, I always said, “They’re only kids.  I’m here to coach them, care for them, and help them learn how to learn.”  Where in your life has kindness and respect helped you in challenging situations?
  7. Don’t be greedy.  Surfing can be a selfish sport.  Waves are a finite ‘natural resource’ and there is competition in any lineup to catch waves.   There are some unwritten ‘rules,’ and there’s usually a rotation and order to a lineup.  Once learned, the skilled surfer can successfully work his/her way into that rotation and get a few waves.  However, regardless of your skill level, don’t be greedy and share waves with everyone (and see #6).  I relate this to working collaboratively with colleagues – share ideas, be open, pay it forward.  Don’t be a one-way street.  How do you collaborate and show signs of generosity in teaching, in work, or in life?
  8. You can always learn.  I still find myself learning new things about surfing, pushing myself to get better, attempting different maneuvers, riding different surfboard shapes, or experiencing and learning new surf breaks.  You can be both a teacher and a learner.  Participate in a professional learning community, pick up a new book or try a new instructional strategy.  I am currently learning more about Arduino and coding, but am ultimately relating what I learn to instruction, learning, and what’s best for students.  What are you currently learning? Are you learning something new, something totally outside of education, or are you developing your skill-set?  Perhaps all of the above.

This last point relates to many of the others, but specifically number 1 and 3.  I had an intrinsic motivation and perseverance to be a competent and skilled surfer.  I had the same intrinsic motivation to do well as an educator, to be a good teacher for kids.  I learned as much as I could from everyone around me.  I was fortunate to have great mentors.  I also had the persistence and desire to get better.  I have fostered and developed a deep understanding of these interests and ultimately my passions for them were fostered.  As Duckworth claims, through grit comes deep understanding – skills increase, interest increases, nuances learned – passions developed.  This concept can be applied to almost any skill or topic, and is related to sports, arts, music, martial arts, mathematics, sciences, writing, and career.  Surfing and teaching/learning are my examples; my passions.  What have you learned so deeply that you’ve developed and fostered a passion for?

For most, the first couple of years of teaching are extremely hard, but through perseverance and grit, one may begin the journey towards deep understanding.  Sometimes, you’re going to fall.  Take a deep breath, get back out there, and catch another wave.  It’s worth every second because you’re bound to have amazing moments.

Photo by: Don Cooper
Adam surfing at his local break in NJ. Photo by: Don Cooper DonCooperPhotography.com