Could CrossFit Make Me a Stronger Teacher?

Our outside lives often impact our teaching practices. But could CrossFit really help me in the classroom? Read on and find out!

I’m going to be perfectly honest here. I’m 55 years old and more than several pounds overweight. My students clearly know the way to my heart is through my stomach, and the delicacies they have provided me over the years have taken their toll. Scared that those extra pounds were slowing me down and would begin to adversely affect my health, I decided to do something about it.

In January, I joined a gym a few blocks from my house, and I began taking classes. The half hour workouts were tough, and I easily dropped ten pounds without much change in my diet. But then in June, my workout world was turned upside down. My “fitness studio” became a CrossFit gym, and all hell broke loose.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with CrossFit. I had seen some articles and photos about CrossFit in magazines – ridiculously fit people lifting huge barbells, flipping tires, and climbing ropes. I’ve also heard about the CrossFit members, who train and work out together with an almost zealous, cult-like fervor. It definitely looked like something I would have been interested in – thirty years ago.

But I still had 28 transferable workout classes paid for, and my keen sense of economics said I must get my money’s worth. So off to CrossFit I went.

Make no mistake about it. CrossFit is tough. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I trained religiously with my husband, and I was one of the few women lifting weights at a gym predominantly populated by males. I was hoping now that my muscles had some memory, and that I could call up some of that “eye of the tiger” I had back-in-the-day.

To say I was out of my comfort zone when I started CrossFit is an understatement. My comfort zone wasn’t even in the same hemisphere. Each time I’d go to CrossFit, I was faced with a physical challenge unlike anything I had ever experienced.

Two months in, however, I’m surprised at how much CrossFit has affected me. Little by little, I began to notice that CrossFit was infiltrating other areas of my life – even the way I teach and interact with my students.

This is, of course, a blog about teaching, and so I won’t get into the many specifics of each and every CrossFit WOD (Workout of the Day), but I will talk about one type, in particular. A few times a week the WOD focuses on learning and/or practicing a particular skill: deadlifts, cleans, presses, rowing, running, or pull-ups, to name a few.  Next, the workout progresses to a series of exercises that can focus on, for instance, lifting, jumping, or climbing. At the end of the workout, there’s usually a finisher: some timed feat such as seeing how many push ups you can do in 30 seconds.

The workouts are grueling and intense. I quickly noticed if the class was crowded, I sometimes couldn’t get the attention that I needed from my instructor. And my workout suffered. I often got frustrated or gave up. But when my instructor pushed me, encouraged me, and believed in me, I excelled! As a teacher, I don’t know why this surprised me.

The help I got from my fellow CrossFitters was often the difference between finishing a workout or giving up. There was definitely friendly competition. I remember fondly how awesome I felt the day I finished my 5000 meter row before two 25 year olds. But we were all united in the day’s goals, and we were determined to tackle them together.

Finishing a CrossFit workout gave me a sense of accomplishment that I had not felt in years. Often I had to sit on my front porch waiting to enter my house because I was too exhausted to walk up the stairs. But the empowerment and overall sense of triumph lasted long into the week. And then I was anxious to tackle the next workout.

This year when I started school, I noticed my sophomores were really struggling with the basics. So I began starting the class with a fundamental skill – grammar, punctuation, or spelling. We’d practice the skill and move on into a more intense “workout”: annotating, analyzing, crafting arguments, supporting claims. At the end of the class, there was always a finisher – a summarizing activity that helped emphasized the day’s learning.

Oh, it is intense. My students first balked at how high I set the bar for them. But I work to give each one the individual attention s/he needs. I demonstrate how every feat can be accomplished. I coax, I encourage, I cheer. I help my students handle failure, and I teach them how to work on the comeback. Every day is, after all, another workout.

When the bell rings, we are all physically and mentally exhausted, but the sense of accomplishment is palatable. My students are getting stronger. They support each other in ways I have never seen before. We build off successes. And there are also extra workouts – “Bear Complexes” – where students independently read at least one book a month, honing their skills even more.

I still have a long way to go before I lose all the weight I want to and accomplish all my fitness goals. But I’m on my way. My students are, too. They’ll laugh in the face of any standardized test. They’re building up a fierce vocabulary. They’re able to tackle difficult poetry and literature. And they’ll be ready to take on college reading and writing.

In the end, I have to say CrossFit has done as much for me mentally as it has physically. It has reinforced that correlation between hard work and success. It has emphasized the power of a great instructor. It has strengthened my belief in teamwork.  And it has – most definitely – made me a much stronger teacher.

**Dedicated to an inspirational teacher and trainer – Colleen Reyes**

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