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Why Every School Needs to Require Tandem Bike Riding

One of the major benefits of marrying a teacher is the fact that we share a summer schedule. This summer, our schedule found us on Sanibel Island, FL. My husband, Paul, had mentioned riding a tandem bike on several occasions, and given that the number of bikes matched the number of people on the island, we went with the “why-not-today” philosophy. Neither of us had ever ventured a tandem bike ride before, but it would be just like riding a bike, right?

The sales associate rolled a bright blue tandem bike from around the back and suggested we take a trial run. Immediately we noticed the wobble. I could barely get both of my feet off the ground before feeling as if I were going to fall over. When my husband shifted in his front seat to find balance, I shifted in my back seat to counter balance. Forget trying to make turns. Our destination was going to be “just straight.”

It took 17 seconds to realize this two-hour leisurely tandem bike ride we just signed up for was going to be anything but easy. However, I was up to the challenge.

Fast forward 90 minutes and we arrive back to the bike shop, smiling.  Through our experience and the rich conversations we had during our ride, we discussed things that will not only help us in our marriage, but also in our profession.

Although it may not be a budget line item yet, I believe that every school needs a tandem bike on campus, and here’s why:

Tandem bike riding teaches true collaboration

The bike’s design forced us to work together, and that is not always the case on our school campuses. Although it is possible for teachers to agree at a weekly PLC “meeting” to work on a shared goal or mission, it is often as easy to go behind the closed doors of a classroom and disregard all that the team planned to accomplish together. On a tandem bike, the rules are simple – collaborate or fail. There are no other options. And frankly, tandem was more fun. I know if Paul and I were on individual bikes I would have worried about keeping up, and I couldn’t easily point out the beauty I noticed on our journey. True collaboration, like a tandem bike, says “we’re in this together.”

Tandem bike riding requires clear communication

Test your communication skills with a loved one on a tandem bike. I dare you. Riding a tandem bike, just like working in a team, requires clear communication. Paul and I had to create, and live by, clear norms. For example, approaching a crosswalk means to break slowly; another bike rider on the path means shift weight to the right. Although the communication worked two ways, most of the essential communication had to come from the front seat. In our schools we need the leaders, the ones with the clearest view of the mission and vision, to not only lead the way, but to communicate regularly about what they see and if there are obstacles up ahead.

Tandem bike riding teaches you to share the control and to trust

For a person like me, who likes to be in control, tandem bike riding can be terrifying. When Paul shifted his weight, I could have easily counter shifted mine, and got us both off balance. Instead, it was much easier to go with his shift. Once I allowed myself to relax, I was able to “live in the flow.” I could remain relaxed and just adjust. I didn’t have to be in control all of the time. We already agreed on our shared mission (“just straight”), so I just had to trust him. If there was a bump in the road or pedestrians walking by, it didn’t change our mission. Allowing the lead learner to shift when necessary, then going with it as a team, makes the ride easier. Building trust takes time, and requires more than a trust fall at the pre-school meetings. But, if you want to build trust quickly, ride a tandem bike.

Those were my major takeaways for teachers working collaboratively, but Paul kept pressing a point that I also have to make here.

About halfway through our bike ride, Paul and I switched seats. I was in the front. I had the clear sight lines. I was in control. Paul felt squished. Paul felt out of control. Paul felt ineffective. It wasn’t the back seat, per se. It was the fact that the back seat was physically too small for him. Yes, he could still be a part of the mission, but he couldn’t be his best self. He didn’t need the front seat, or the leadership position, he just physically needed a seat that fit him.

Let’s look at Paul’s discomfort from two different perspectives.

When teachers work in collaborative teams, the person riding in the front seat and the person riding in the back seat will often change. A teacher has to be comfortable with a role change. When you are in a teacher-leader role, consider the seats you are creating for your peers. Are you asking them to feel squished or be ineffective? When it is time to bring up the rear, communicate what you need to be most effective to complete the mission.

Now put a teacher in the front seat and a student in the back seat. Will students be more willing to follow us and go with the flow if we clearly communicate our mission and vision, share the control, trust them, and work from a place of true collaboration? And can we at least get them the right seat--the right seat being anything from teaching a relevant and engaging curriculum, to addressing different learning styles and interests?

Remember, the right seat will help students be their best selves, which is why teachers are on this tandem journey together anyway.

14 Comments

Brad Hurst commented on July 19, 2014 at 7:53pm:

Great blog!

Val - Great blog! Your writing flows so well and I really like how you connected a real life experience to your profession so meaningfully. Great work! 

Valeria Brown Valeria Brown commented on July 22, 2014 at 12:23pm:

Life Experience

Thanks Brad! It's very difficult to separate life experiences from teaching apllication. I think if we take the time more often to recognize the connections,we will all benefit.

Regina McCurdy commented on July 24, 2014 at 1:07pm:

In Tandem and in Teaching

This trait, not separating life experiences from teaching application, proves you're a learner and teacher at heart. Many blossom just by being around you and absorbing what you have (and LOVE) to share. 

By the way, Michael is always talking about trying out a tandem bike. Guess I'll need to now! :) 

Jozette Martinez commented on July 20, 2014 at 12:15am:

True Collaboration

How exciting it is to read a new blogger and more importantly know that they really walk the walk and talk the talk. Your story will stick with me and it will become a living breathing part of my classroom- I can see the advantages of this helping with discipline and conflict between students and colleagues as well.

Valeria Brown Valeria Brown commented on July 22, 2014 at 12:26pm:

Conflict Resolution and Tandem

Josie,

Your ideas (that you share with me in person) about using tandem bike riding as a tool for student conflict resolution is brilliant! I think before long, everyone will have a tandem bike. Not only will we be better communicators, we will also be in shape!

Rod Powell commented on July 20, 2014 at 1:23pm:

How 'bout a bicycle built for THREE!

Great piece here Val!

I'm looking forward to many more from you and Paul.

Here's a thought:

What would happen if we found a bicycle built for three and included an administrator into the fun?

Imagine the role shifting and reversals that would take place then.....

  • Admins taking a back seat and letting teachers lead - What would be the student's role here?
  • What if students take the lead?  How would teachers and admins contribute?

Certainly sets thoughts spinning about school redesign - doesn't it?

 

Valeria Brown Valeria Brown commented on July 22, 2014 at 12:36pm:

Threes Company!

Rod,

If we truly believe that all people are teachers AND students then we can always learn from one another, and at times, be led by one another. I think there are multiple ways for us to make this happen for our students that are easy to implement, i.e., book selection, student surveys, project based learning, design thinking. As for the teacher and administrator, I think it is as simple as recognizing leadership and passion in teachers and then equipping them with the necessary tools to make them come true. The true question is, how much trust do we have and how much control are we willing to give up.

Paul Brown commented on July 21, 2014 at 11:09am:

Conversation

Val,

Great thoughts, of course, but I hope a piece of writing like this will propel others into the conversation regarding student-teacher-administrator collaboration. Thank you for allowing me to join you on the journey toward a "high-quality education system for all students."

Rob Kriete commented on July 22, 2014 at 11:47am:

Bike built for 4?

Val-

Bravo on the vacation, Sanibel, the bike ride and the rich analogy.  I love it!

My collaborative PLC of 8th grade ELA teachers work to get in sync, as well, and would be well served with a bike built for four (or five, or six, or whatever the groups contains!)

 

Valeria Brown Valeria Brown commented on July 22, 2014 at 12:41pm:

Tandem Alternative

If we can't find large enough tandem bikes Rob, then we are going to have to adjust. I think any activity that meets this equation will work.

(Clearly identified goal + Communication) x Fun/Empathy  = Collaboration. Lol! I am not a math teacher. What do you think?

Wendi Pillars commented on July 22, 2014 at 1:21pm:

Alive in the flow

Val, I love your entire post, but really love what you wrote about your husband once he switched seats:

Yes, he could still be a part of the mission, but he couldn’t be his best self. He didn’t need the front seat, or the leadership position, he just physically needed a seat that fit him.

What a perfect reminder, in its pithiest form, as we watch our students learn, and work with our colleagues--are we giving them a chance to be their best selves? Is this temporary transition going to do more harm than good if they are in a position that doesn't fit them "right now"? Could be a case of just needing to grow into it, right? :) (not in your husband's case, though!)

Your post also made me laugh because it reminded me of the Google conference bikes I saw when I visited the Googleplex in Mountain View this summer. 7-seaters!! One person steers, and no one can really see where they're going. As NPR said on one of its shows, that's probably the best visual metaphor for a work meeting! 

Here's a link to a pic and NPR's report about them:

http://grist.org/list/googles-seven-person-conference-bike/

Valeria Brown Valeria Brown commented on July 22, 2014 at 6:11pm:

Room to Grow

Wendi, thank you so much for pointing out that some seats won't fit because we need to grow into them. For me, a seat that is a little too big and seemingly overwhelming, is a stretch zone and probably good for me. 

Christopher Lloyd commented on July 22, 2014 at 7:48pm:

Steering for Success

Val,

Thank you so very much for sharing this thinking.  (You know how I love good visuals!) So often in education we connect with each other through common experiences and we share ideas through good stories.  This story truly makes me think about how we sometimes steer the work and sometimes provide the energy and effort to move the work along.  And if we trade off in these roles, we not only gain an appreciation for the different roles and work, but we also build our capacity to accomplish even more.  Thank you again for sharing this.  It made me think :)

Barry Saide commented on July 22, 2014 at 11:03pm:

Switching Seats is Key

Hi Val -- loved the piece. The visual of seat switching, and interpreting its meanings was key for me. Any great educator needs to be flexible, and identify when those times are (and when they aren't). I wondered if there were a time that there are students who sit up front and we just follow their lead. Isn't that the spirit of true inquiry-based learning, and constructive cooperative learning? Keep it up!

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