Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Swimming Upstream: A Veteran Swim Instructor's Tale


      "Hey, boss.  You wanted to see me?"
      "Johnson, come on in and sit down."
      That's odd.  Normally Mr. Stevens would grin and shake my hand before my annual review.  Something just wasn't right.
      "Johnson, how long have you been a lifeguard here?"
      "Well sir, since I graduated from State five years ago."
      "Uh-huh.  And how do you think things have gone so far?"
      What an oddly vague question.  I leaned back in my chair.
      "Well, sir to be honest, I struggled a bit the first year or so.  The Aquatics Program at State gives you a lot of useful information, but you don't really learn the tricks of the trade until you go out there and do it.  Some things they teach you work, other things not so much.  Some swim lessons you'll spend time on and they'll fall flat, others you'll improvise and knock it out of the park.  As much as I've struggled, I really have enjoyed seeing my pupils improve.  Even though they aren't lifeguards yet, I believe there well on their way to becoming them once they complete the program."
       The Boss leaned back in his chair.
       "You see, Johnson, that's the reason you're here today.  You know the state budget is tight.  As the person in charge of this club, you know that the North County Leisure Board is constantly looking at how we're doing in an effort to make sure their dollars are going to the right places.  I need to look at every single one of my instructors to make sure he or she is properly instructing the pupils in all that they know."
       "I understand that, sir.  I'd like to think that my body of work speaks for itself, but I'd be more than willing to answer any questions you might have."
       "If that's the case, I don't mind if I take you up on that offer.  Johnson, what is the NCLB's goal for all its clubs in the county?"
       "That's easy, sir.  To have all its pupils become proficient swimmers in the freestyle and backstroke by the end of next year."
       "Exactly.  So what's all this I hear about you teaching the butterfly and breast stroke in your classes?"
       I gulped.
       "Well, you see sir, I believe that in order for my pupils to become well-rounded swimmers, they need to be exposed to ALL the strokes."
       "But, Johnson, you're wasting valuable time that should be dedicated to the freestyle and backstroke."
       "I can see how you might think this sir, but I assure you that my students measure up to others in the country despite the fact that it might appear that they do not."
       "Well, let's look at some of your students' scores from last year to see if this argument holds water.  What can you tell me about Sally Southerland?"
        I paused for a moment.
        "Sally is a great girl in my eleven-year-old class.  She actually won the most improved award last year because of all the time and effort she put in to swim practices.  She has a great attitude and everyone in the class loves her!"
        The Boss groaned.
        "Johnson, would you say that she is at the level she needs to be at, according to the NCLB?"
        "Well, no sir if you go solely by the NCLB guidelines she is behind her peer group and isn't currently on pace to master the freestyle and backstroke.  But compared to where she was she's..."
         The Boss waved his hand.  I stopped.
         "What about Peter Poland?"
         "Well, personally I think Peter is a great kid.  He's one of my favorite pupils in the eight-year-old class.  The really picks things up quick when he is here.  Unfortunately, Peter is out a lot.  He has a single mom and she has diabetes.  There are days when she isn't feeling well enough to take him to swim practice so Peter has to stay home and take care of his two younger sisters."
         "Yes, yes that's all fine and dandy.  But what about his swimming, Johnson?"
         "Well, again he does well when he's here.  He has mentioned he loves the class but unfortunately there isn't a pool located in his neighborhood so he doesn't get to practice outside..."
         "Johnson.  You're avoiding the question."
         I sighed.
         "To be honest sir, he too is behind his peers in the freestyle and backstroke."
         The Boss looked down.  "Last student:  Josefina Machado."
         "Josefina just joined us two weeks ago.  I don't know a lot about her as she doesn't speak a lot of English.  She seems nice though and from what I can tell..."
         "Johnson, her swimming?"
         "Well, sir to be honest I don't know a lot about her ability at this time.  She just started so.."
         "Johnson, you know that the NCLB doesn't care about your excuses.  Since she is a member she is our responsibility.  It doesn't matter where she is from.  All that matters is where she is NOW."
          I nodded, glumly.
         "Johnson, I'm going to be honest.  I think you're good at what you do.  I really do.  Your pupils seem to like you.  The parents never complain about you.  The lifeguards, pool staff, they all think you're top-notch.  Unfortunately, based on your record and experience I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go."
         My jaw dropped.
         "My experience, sir?"
         "Johnson, of all the staff here at the club you're the most recent hire.  Everyone here on staff has been established:  Smith, Johansson, Petrov, McLarney, and Schultz.  They've been here since the beginning.  Now, you came highly recommended at your adviser over at State spoke very highly of you.  Said you would bring some new, innovative teachings over to our club.  Unfortunately, Johnson, these new innovative teaching methods just don't seem to be working.  I mean, we just went over three students in a class of twenty.  You know how the NCLB works.  It doesn't matter if the other seventeen pass with flying colors.  If we don't get one-hundred percent proficiency at our club then it gets shut down, plain and simple.  The NCLB has made no secret of this benchmark."
          "But sir, I mean is it even realistic to expect that every single swimmer be proficient in those two strokes?  They come from a variety of backgrounds.  Some of them just don't do well on those two strokes but do well on others.  Some of them don't have access to a pool at home.  Some of them just started.  Why am I responsible for someone's swimming ability if they just joined my class a couple weeks ago?"
          The Boss sighed.
          "Johnson, you know how this game is played.  The NCLB came by last week and timed your kids.  You were there.  They stood there in their suits and ties and had every single kid do the 100 meter freestyle and the 100 meter backstroke.  If they were on the correct pace for their age they passed.  If not, they failed.  All your classes did it, ages five to fourteen.  You've seen the scores.  You know how your kids did."
          "But, sir that assessment was only a snapshot in time!  I mean, look at Ronnie Taplow.  Two weeks ago, he did a sixty-second second freestyle.  If he swims AAU this summer, he'll be one of the top swimmers on his team.  But last week, he got tested the day he came down with mono.  He was eight seconds slower.  Surely, there's some way he can be re-tested!"
          The Boss slammed his hand against his desk.
          "Damnit Johnson, quit making excuses!  You're worse than your pupils.  They're in your class so you're the instructor of record.  Your job is to prepare them as best you can for that one day and from what I've seen and am heard today you cannot do it.  I have no choice but to terminate you immediately from your position."
          "But, sir!  I've always wanted to be here.  I love my job and my pupils.  Many of the older boys look up to me almost as a father..."
          "None of that matters, Johnson.  All that matters is your scores.  This is the profession you've chosen. The NCLB knows what it is doing.  If they didn't then surely we'd know about it."
           I put my head down.
           The Boss stood up and patted my shoulder.
           "I'll give you until the end of the day to collect your things.  I'm sorry Johnson, I wish it didn't have to end this way."
           He left me in that chair and walked out of his office.  In that brief interlude, I heard the joyous screams of children enjoying their Thursday afternoon swim lesson.

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