Confession: I am not, in any way, shape, or form, an athlete.  Although I recognize the physical and mental importance of exercise, this has mostly meant for me a leisurely stroll with Orie, my labroador-retriever mix.  In elementary school, I cringed when it was my turn at kickball and my classmates in the infield would yell, “Ali’s up!” and take a few (very big) intentional  steps forward.  I took an extra science class in high school to avoid gym.  You get the picture.

However, in an effort to try new things and overcome my physio-anxiety, I have started taking a spin class this year with one of my closest friends, a fellow high school math teacher who swears by it as the best stress relief $20 can buy.

On that first evening of class, I had no idea what I was doing.  Stephanie, the 20-something, blonde, bubbly instructor helped me size my bike correctly and showed me how to “clip” my shoes into the pedals.  At the beginning of class, when she asked who all was a first-timer, I shyly raised my hand, and I was once again back on that kickball field, terrified of the humiliation that might follow.

Stephanie then went on to introduce herself and tell us that the theme for her class is “I can and I will.”  She explained that for the next hour, we were a supportive community who celebrate each other’s victories and help each other at every turn.  I was intrigued by this idea. A dark room full of stationary bicycles didn’t seem like a place that I would describe as a “community.”

You will probably be as surprised as I was to find out that the next 50 minutes were life-changing.    The first two songs (a classic Britney Spears dance song followed by Justin Timberlake’s newest single, because Stephanie confessed she was in a “Mickey Mouse Club mood”) went without incident, but then during the third song- my left rented cycling shoe unclipped and my water bottle went flying.  No one noticed since the studio was dark, but I had a mini panic attack at that moment. I had no idea how to clip back in or how to even get off the bike to retrieve the water.   But then Stephanie said into her microphone, “Remember everyone, I can and I will.  You’re doing great,” and I felt a surge of determination.  Somehow, I clipped that shoe back in, and I was off and cycling.

When the class ended, many of my fellow cyclers asked me if I liked the class.  I heard a “Great job!” from someone who I never even met, and I knew that I would be returning.  Even though during the class no one expect Stephanie has actually spoken a word, I felt:

1) Proud of myself for completing the class,
2) Part of a community,
3) Ready to try it again the following week.

Unable to take off my math teacher hat for very long (or maybe at all), during the way home, I started thinking. Is this how my students feel after a math class? Are they proud of themselves for trying something new? Do they feel like they are part of a community?   And if the answers are “no”, why not?  If an instructor who I had never met before, one fellow teacher, and a room full of strangers could make me feel supported and challenged in 50 minutes, why couldn’t I do the same with my students whom I see 90 minutes every other day?

And are the situations really that different?  I understand that fundamentally an exercise class that adults willingly pay for and attend is very different than a public high school math classroom- but I would bet that many students who enter my math classroom on the first day of school feel a lot like I did on that first day of spin class.  What changes do I need to make to help those students feel like a member of a community, to not to be afraid of making mistakes, to know we will work through challenges together and support each other at every turn?

Just like that, my motto for 2014 was realized; something that I will share with my students and use to help them when they fall off the “math bike” or just when they need that extra surge of energy or confidence-

I can and I will.

What are you doing this year to transform your classroom into a place where students feel welcomed and supported?

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