The Challenges of Teaching: a few more thoughts about the USDF instructor’s workshop

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I think I was born a compulsive teacher – as soon as I learn something, I look around for someone I can teach it to (I remember teaching my kindergarten brother to add, subtract and multiply when I was nine).  My official career has been in education, and I’ve taught all the grades from third through community college, as well as teaching riding off and on, mostly to 4-H or Pony Club youth.  If it were possible to earn a living as a professional student, though, that would be my profession of choice.  At any rate, I have a long-time interest in the craft of teaching.

When the focus of the instructor’s workshop switched from riding/training to teaching, Sarah made a point of how much more difficult teaching is.  Partly this is because with teaching riding, you now have three individuals involved (student, horse, and teacher).  Mathematically speaking, this makes the whole process of TEACHING three times more complicated than the process of TRAINING.  When you are training, communication can run two ways:  horse to rider, rider to horse.  When you are teaching, communication can run six ways: instructor to rider, rider to instructor, horse to rider, rider to horse, horse to instructor, instructor to horse.  Well, probably there isn’t a lot of “instructor to horse” communication going on, unless the instructor gets on at some point, but you get Sarah’s point:  having three personalities involved is more complex than having two. [Let alone being a classroom teacher with 20-30 personalities!]

Teaching may be difficult, and teaching while being critiqued and evaluated is more difficult.   Add to this the fact that the participating instructors had an audience that included their clients and prospective clients, and clearly this was a high-pressure situation.  Sarah tried to encourage the instructors by acknowledging the pressure, but she didn’t pull any punches in her evaluations and comments, holding instructors accountable for any lapses in attention to important details.

Another issue in teaching riding is the lack of a standard system for training instructors in the United States.  Anyone can decide to teach riding, and almost no one has gone through any particular training for how to go about it.  Sarah pointed out that to become a teacher in the school system, one must go through at least a couple years of classes about HOW to teach, but no such system (let alone requirement) exists for becoming a riding teacher.  Each of us tends to teach in a way that emulates how our instructors taught us. [In fact, even in the school system, most teachers tend to “do unto others as it was done unto them”, in spite of whatever training they may have received in college.]  Of course, if we reflect on our teaching, we can change how we teach for the better.  Sarah joked that her students are lucky she does NOT teach the way she was taught.  My thoughts along these lines are that this is a great reason to attend clinics with good instructors whenever possible, so that we collect not only the conscious memories of particular techniques and exercises to share with our students, but also the more subconscious models of how to be with our students – the attitudes, heart and soul of great teachers.

Sarah reminded the instructors of the importance of what happens before the lesson itself starts.  All of the following need to happen (not necessarily in this order):

  • If this is a new student, go through introductions.  What are the student’s experiences, goals, hopes, worries?
  • What is the horse’s background?
  • What physical limitations or injuries is the rider dealing with? the horse?
  • Ask a new student whether you, as the instructor, have permission to touch her/him.
  • Check in with the student – how are you doing today?
  • Tack check/safety check – does the tack fit? was it put on and adjusted correctly? Is the girth tight? Are the stirrups an appropriate length?  Are there potential safety hazards (extremely dry/cracked leather, bad stitching, stirrup safety bars up, boots too wide for stirrups, etc)?

In the context of the workshop, at the beginning of each lesson, the instructor was to introduce the student and horse to the audience and summarize the above points.  The rider would proceed to warm up, and the instructor explain the main objective she had in mind for the lesson.  Sometimes Sarah would tell them to go ahead, and sometimes she would instead assign the instructor a different objective.

Some observations about the teaching:

  • Don’t get so stuck on one objective that you overlook more basic important issues the rider or horse may be having (remember “the answer to every question is the rider’s seat”?).
  • It isn’t enough to tell the rider to improve something – if it doesn’t happen, stop and address the issue more in-depth.
  • Stand where you can see the rider from various perspectives (behind, in front, from both sides) or you may miss asymmetry issues.  Move around when you need to.
  • In the context of a testing, if you are going for, say, a second level certification, be sure to get to some second-level work during the lesson
  • Make sure the rider is using – and knows – correct geometry of the arena so that figures are accurate
  • Address the most basic CAUSE of the problem, not just the SYMPTOMS; make sure the rider understands the difference between cause and symptoms.

I was only an auditor and demo rider, but the workshop inspired me to try to be a better teacher!

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