– Kim Schwabenbauer
I never wanted to become a teacher. I saw my mother put in long hours during weeknight evenings and weekends during the semester, preparing her lectures and grading assignments. I often asked her why it was worth it, and she always talked about preparing future generations to be successful or improving the lives of others, neither of which were very important to me during my self-absorbed high school years.
As life would have it, I took some very twisty roads to arrive in front of a class as an adjunct instructor at the very school my mother had spent over twenty years of her career. I had done so after running my own business and competing all over the world as a professional triathlete. After that class, I realized that my mother just MIGHT be on to something: I felt a fire in my belly when a student grasped a concept or came to me with a new idea for a paper.
With both parents as college professors, teaching was in my blood. I could tell that was the case as I started creating new ways to engage the students and get them excited about nutrition. I had spent over fifteen years committed to understanding how the body utilizes nutrients and developing my own expertise. “Surely teaching wouldn’t be that hard,” I thought as students were clearly sleeping in the front row of my first class. That was when it occurred to me that I had much to learn about this new endeavor. Now, as an assistant professor, I have come to realize the parallels between my former life of swimming, biking, and running and my current teaching endeavors.
Strive for Balance While Planning Your Season
The semester has some very distinct phases, just like the triathlon season. In the early season, there is the preparatory phase, which usually involves lots of long cycling rides on the indoor trainer because it’s still cold outside. Your time is spent staring at the wall trying to figure out why you just aren’t getting anywhere even though you’ve been training and sweating for hours. It takes tenacity, grit and a long-term vision to keep your pedals turning when you know the rubber won’t meet the road for months.
Teaching requires this same preparatory phase as well when it comes to planning the semester and researching new materials, videos and activities. While time-consuming, and sometimes tedious, I’m always thankful that I have spent this extra time preparing during the semester so the students can benefit from and enjoy their time in class. When the rubber meets the road, you’ll want to be ready!
Embrace the Grind
During the middle of the triathlon season, you’ve been racing for months and the travel, training and tri life start to take their toll. While you should be gearing up for the championships, you’re struggling not to throw your bike off of a cliff and just drink margaritas all day. Similarly, during the mid-terms of the semester, with finals seeming VERY far away, the mental and physical exhaustion can start creeping in. Whether I have been training the 28+ hours required to race 140.6 miles at a breakneck pace or keep the pace with all of the committee meetings, class preparation, grading and community contributions that this career path requires, this phase requires special motivation. I strive to focus on embracing the day instead of dreading it. During training, I’ll pull out that motivational “Chariots of Fire” movie that always gets my competitive juices flowing or I’ll take a couple of down days to sleep more and think less. I find it to be energizing, giving me the extra boost for an early morning jump into a cold pool or the will to push my heart rate up for the fifth hour of the bike ride of triathlon training. I’ll change up my route and attempt to see something new that invigorates my love of cycling. Sometimes I will ride or run with a friend and talk about what’s going well and what I know I can do better going forward.
Do not be afraid to watch the motivating teaching movie, take the couple of days away, look at things from a new perspective or get some support from a colleague. It is better to be prepared with some strategies to “embrace the grind”!
Know Your Why
In every race, there is a point when I want to walk off the course and go home. The pain seeps into your body and your psyche is screaming “UNCLE!!!” At this point, I’ve always told the athletes that I coach, it is important to “know their why,” or their reason for racing. Steve Prefontaine once said in one of my all-time favorite quotes, “to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” I have always believed that our abilities are nothing if they are not shared with others to improve their personal journey. By racing through my own limitations, I’ve learned about my core values and what I’ve found to be most rewarding in my life. I enjoy sharing this gift with others by helping them achieve their dreams, to do something they, and the world, originally saw as impossible. It has allowed my clients to achieve things for the rest of their lives that they couldn’t conceive at the beginning of their journey.
The same is true with teaching. The more clarity I have about my own “why,” the more often I can navigate the situations that challenge me and would normally make me want to throw in the towel. The good news is I’ve never regretted making it through those difficult moments, in triathlon or in teaching. It reveals to me my true character and helps solidify my foundation. I would encourage you to take a few minutes to jot down your “why” before the semester begins and revisit it throughout. I think you’ll find the path clearer in the moments of occasional frustration and remind you why you started your own journey in the classroom.
Don’t Be Afraid, Failure is Only the Beginning
In thirteen years of racing triathlon, there has only been one race I did not finish. During my first professional Ironman race in Lake Placid, NY, I had stomach issues that eventually got the better of me, and I was transported to the medical tent at mile 136, 4 miles short of the finish line. It was demoralizing and disheartening, as I questioned my reasons for even becoming a professional. My coach explained that failure is inevitable when taking on any upper level activity. It was not a question of if it would happen, it was a question of when. The process, he explained, is the valuable part. With time, the learning that takes place during the process turns every day athletes into champions. I subscribed to not being afraid of the process or of failure, and in fact, I learned to welcome it with open arms by trying new things and not being afraid of the outcome. I became obsessed with the mastery of each individual element and it pushed me to continue to learn and grow as an athlete.
On the heels of a teaching retreat featuring the book Small Teaching, by James Lang, I have committed to incorporating at least three new strategies in my class sessions this semester, “minute thesis,” “retrieval practice,” and “leveraging peer learning power.” I’ve tried other approaches that haven’t had the desired impact I’d hoped, but I’m excited about using some new techniques that may turn on the light bulb for students and help them in their journey to academic excellence. I enjoy employing proven methods with my own creative spin in my process of long-term mastery in this new discipline. While it may take the students out of their comfort zone of passive learning, the goal is better critical thinking not just a grade or a credit.
I hope that by sharing how triathlon has helped shape my teaching, you’ll find that a few of these ideas may be applicable to your teaching strategies as well. Remember, there is no finish line in learning!
Kim Schwabenbauer, MS, RD, LDN, CSSD has over 16 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian. Her work as a triathlon coach, professional triathlete and Board Certified Specialist in sports nutrition drove her to found her personal sports nutrition counseling and endurance coaching business, “Fuel Your Passion.” As an assistant professor of nutrition at Clarion University, Kim shares her love and passion for health and wellness with the bright young minds of tomorrow. Kim has appeared on national TV as a dietitian and coach for the hit show, MADE, and in 2014, she was ranked among the top twenty female professional triathletes in the world.