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.

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