Swimming Teaching Has Taught Me To Be A Better Parent

Sam Sitting On A Toy Tractor
Sam Aged 5

I wouldn’t call myself a perfect parent, I am far away from that goal of perfection, but I think I am improving and that has a lot to do with becoming a swimming teacher and working and interacting with other peoples’ children.  I think I have become more tolerant and understanding to other children’s needs and backgrounds, which I wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t qualified as a swim teacher.  Children are so diverse and whilst, on the whole, you can apply the same teaching method throughout a class, sometimes a little bit more understanding, patience and TLC is required.

As I have mentioned before in my blogging, I have three children, India, Luke and Sam.  All three are so diverse and special in their individual ways and especially Sam.  In September 2015, at the start of the academic school year, Sam, James ( my 

husband) and I started on what is going to be a long journey, as to why Sam is so different to his peers and if it hadn’t been for my background in swimming teaching, I don’t think I would have been able to cope with what we now think the outcome could be.  To be honest, the story starts further back than September 2015, but when Sam was about one and I had invited the health visitor to the house to discuss Luke’s behaviour due to James working away during the working week.  It was noted that Sam’s verbal skills were not developing the way they should be and that his speech was limited.  At the time, I didn’t think anything of it, but by the time he had reached pre-school age, it was clear that Sam would need speech therapy as he had delayed speech.

Fast forward to the autumn term 2015 and the school informs me that Sam is being discharged from NHS speech therapy, even though his speech is still not clear.  The reason given is that Sam can make the individual sounds required for speech and therefore cannot be helped any further, the school and I think it is due to NHS cutbacks.  This was the second time that Sam has had NHS speech therapy withdrawn, the first time, I ended up going private and I was told by the private speech therapist that Sam should have never been discharged (it was amazing how quickly Sam was put back on the NHS).  Sam’s teacher was clearly upset when she told me and quite frankly, I was furious, so I insisted on a reassessment.

In the meantime, there were also grave concerns about Sam’s progress at school and it was suggested that I make an appointment for an Irlens test with the local opticians.  I actually ended up making two, one with the optician and one with a specialist Irlens centre in a nearby town, which I had to pay privately.  Sam past all tests with flying colours, but a stigmatism was found on one of his eyes at the opticians, so he had to have glasses to correct this.  The lady at the Irlens centre, assessed Sam’s behaviour and through our conversation, told me that she thought Sam could be on the Autistic spectrum (her own children were).  This opinion was further strengthened when I took Sam to be reassessed by the speech therapist and as the appointment progressed, the lady started looking at Sam as a whole rather than just his speech and language skills.  It turned out that the therapist specialises in sociocommunication and works a lot with autistic children and she explained to me that parents and schools quite often cling onto speech therapists because they are only really the health profession that goes into school and if the parents and schools think something is wrong with a particular child, they cling on for dear life as that is the only help that they are receiving.  I came away from the appointment with two things; that Sam would be assessed by the therapist in classroom situation and a referral to the community pediatrician.

Over Christmas, I received the questionnaires that had to be filled in by the school and they and myself were certainly geared towards the autistic spectrum.  A lot of it, I felt at the time, didn’t apply to Sam and his teachers felt this even more so when they completed their version of the questionnaire (but they have only known him for two academic terms).  Slight panic set in though when I received the report assessment from the speech and language therapist going into school to observe Sam.  It is truly amazing how much a specialised professional can pick up on within just one session, which the school and myself had quite simply missed.  As a swimming teacher, you quite often wonder if a particular child has got some kind of special needs and why hasn’t the parents noticed, but don’t dare mention it to the parents as this would be deemed unprofessional.  However, as in mine and Sam’s case, it is behaviour that is normal for Sam, yes it is different from his siblings, but it is all we have ever known and we are not trained in spotting such unordinary traits.  The therapist had picked up on more autistic traits than what we had and that prompted me to send an email asking that the fact we had missed out on certain traits be taken into consideration.  As once they had been spelt out to us, we couldn’t disagree with the findings.

The stage we are at is that Sam has a fixed date when his case file will be discussed with the community pediatrician and relevant professionals, then hopefully, Sam will be seen in person by said professionals.  It is going to be a long haul, but one that I feel that I am prepared for.

Swimming teaching and teaching in general, without you even realising, prepares you for all sorts of eventualities.  We are all born the same, without any preconceptions, but society and what happens to us throughout life shapes us into who we are.  If it hadn’t been for swimming teaching and meeting the children who sit slightly outside the margins of what is deemed normal by society, I think I would be in pieces right now over Sam and what his future may or may not hold.  Teaching has made me more patient and more willing to understand how children tick, it has made me more aware of the fact that even if I do 

have a child that has a learning difficulty, it doesn’t mean that it is the end of the world and most importantly, every child does have potential.

Are You A Helicopter Parent?

If you are parents (or have been) of school age children, please ask yourself one question: would you sit in and interfere with your child’s day at school?  The answer would be no; you wouldn’t be allowed.  Even with school swimming lessons, where the potential teacher has not got the necessary qualifications to teach the subject, would you sit in and criticise what the teacher was trying to achieve.  What about in your child’s private swimming lesson, where the swimming teacher has undergone the necessary training and is recognised by a professional body, would you sit in and criticise the swimming teacher then?  If the answer is yes, to be honest, you should be ashamed of yourself.  Why should these kind of lessons be any different from a normal day at school? 

I want to tell you about an incident that I have experienced over a course of two Fridays (and still might have another instalment at the next training session).  I volunteer at a local swimming club on a Friday night.  That means I don’t get paid, I give up my free time away from my own three children and my husband whose line of work often takes him around the country, so we only get to see him at weekends.  On the first session, I was given a little 

boy (who I found later on was 5 years old) on a one to one, who we will call Matthew.  We started off well, the warm-up wasn’t a problem and we progressed onto the main body of the lesson, breast stroke.  I think it is worth mentioning here that when I was training to become a teacher (regardless of whether it is level one or two, STA or ASA) we were taught to focus on one particular stroke per lesson and then have an alternative activity at the end, e.g. sculling or diving, I have always stuck to this format and will continue to do so.  After a while, I realised that Matthew was not understanding what I wanted him to achieve, which was to put a glide in between every pull, breath and kick.  OK, I thought, we will try a different approach, unfortunately that didn’t work either.  To cut a long story short, when I got Matthew out of the pool to move onto the alternative activity, in this case, swimming lengths, he just burst into tears.  I can understand this, sheer frustration that he didn’t understand what was being taught and also the fact that the swimming lesson started at 7 pm and finished half an hour later and he had also been at school all week.  At no point did I lose my temper or shout at him, only tried to understand where he was coming from. 

At this point, Matthew’s mother came marching over and to be honest, I found her aggressive in both spoken and body language.  She wanted to know what was going on and why Matthew didn’t want to get back into the pool.  As a volunteer, I have never experienced parents coming over and demanding what was going on.  I calmly explained that Matthew hadn’t understood what I was trying to teach him (breast stroke is the most technical stroke to teach and to be honest, as a teacher, there are going to be some lessons where you think, that was crap) and that as it was late, he was probably tired and I had given him the option of not swimming the lengths.  Well this didn’t go down too well and I got told it wasn’t that late and that he was to continue with the swimming lesson.  My friend (another swimming teacher) had intervened and got Matthew back in the pool, which left me with the mother.  I tried to smooth things over, by explaining what I was trying to achieve and how and during the conversation I found out Matthew’s mother was an ex-swimmer herself.  I suggested she should volunteer to help out and she told me that she had been already asked, so she clearly knew that the swimming teachers are all volunteers. 

Fast forward a week and I was feeling apprehensive of having to deal with Matthew and the dragon mother.  Even before I had begun to teach, Matthew’s mother had already talked to my friend, saying that Matthew had been upset since Tuesday and not looking forward to the swimming lesson and it was suggested that I didn’t attempt breast stroke this week.  I assured my friend that after last week, I wasn’t even going to go anywhere near breast stroke, to be honest I don’t need the stress!  I picked back stroke as the main topic and it was going well, all three boys were gaining knowledge and improving.  Then I made my mistake.  Matthew put his feet down and began to walk half a width back to the wall instead of swimming back stroke.  Common occurrence in all kids if they can touch the bottom and can happen for a variety of reasons.  It is also something that I will make a swimmer correct if I deem it necessary.  So I calmly stopped Matthew and made him walk back to where he had put his feet down and asked him to swim back stroke.  Simply a bit of mild discipline or so I thought.  Well, he burst into tears and before I know it his mother came storming over, demanding what was going on.  Before I knew it, I got told that it was because he couldn’t see where he was going and that I was standing in the wrong position (no, I wasn’t) to take the class.  Ok, so he might not be able to see where he was going and that can be easily rectified without the tears, but I was not about to be spoken in a manner which was extremely aggressive in front of other students and parents by someone who hadn’t undergone swimming teacher training and quite frankly hadn’t got a clue what she was going on about.  I had one extremely strong thought going through my head and that was I’m a volunteer, I’m not getting paid, I do not have to put up with this.  So I asked Matthew’s mother to go and sit back down.  She did, but not before she went and complained to the swimming co-ordinator.  Luckily, the swimming co-ordinator, has known Matthew’s mother for a number of years and said to me that she hadn’t got a problem with me as she knew what Matthew’s mother was like.  To save any further argument, Matthew has been given to another swimming teacher, so we will see what happens. 

No swimming teacher that is qualified should have to experience a situation like this, because we have been deemed capable of teaching; parents know this.  Parents interfering with their child’s lesson are severely undermining the authority of the teacher and also disrupting the flow and context of the lesson.  Half an hour a week is peanuts and a swimming teacher will pack in as much as they can into that one small slot.  Coming over onto poolside is also dangerous, luckily where I volunteer, the pool is shallow and there are lifeguards, but what if it was the opposite?  The parents are not only putting their child’s life at risk, but also the other members of the class – completely irresponsible.  All children will cry at some point for numerous reasons and swimming teachers allow for this, it’s all part and parcel of teaching children.  Parents should not and do not need to come over and interrupt the second that this is the case.  I do have a suspicion that Matthew cries extremely easily and some of this could be because mum panders to him every time that it happens.  Children need to learn to stand on their own two feet, their parents will not be able to help them as they transition into adult life and the workplace.  Fair enough if the swimming teacher is an absolute demon 

and a bully, but if this was the case, I would have been asked to leave long ago and this was my first complaint in nearly six years.

It will be interesting how Matthew gets on with his new teacher, who in fact is planning to teach breast stroke at the next training session, if the incident is repeated, I have been told that the mother will be asked to sit in the café.  I will be following with interest!

Helicopter Parent And Child.
Illustration by Charlie Powell