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Larry Efird: The lesson of the coxswain

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Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

I don’t claim to know a whole lot about regattas and crew teams, but as I often tell my students, “I do know enough about some things to be dangerous.” They usually think I’m trying to be funny, but actually, I’m telling them the truth because I don’t want them to think I’m claiming to be an expert on everything just because I casually mention it in class. (That’s one lesson I learned the hard way.)

What little I do know regarding the sport of crew I learned from a book I read in the past year by Daniel James Brown, “Boys in the Boat.” While reading about this sport of competitive rowing, I discovered a perfect metaphor for teachers: a coxswain. “What is a coxswain,” you ask? It sounds more like an obscure response on “Jeopardy” than an actual word the average person would ever use in conversation.

There are, in fact, a few high schools in North Carolina who field crew teams, along with a handful of colleges. It’s much more common in the Northeast and on the West Coast than it is in our neck of the woods, so not surprisingly, going to a regatta is not as popular down here as going to a football or basketball game. Something I did learn on Jeopardy is that crew — or rowing — is the oldest competitive college sport in America, with the first official race occurring in 1852 between ancient rivals Harvard and Yale.

Brown wrote his book about nine American college boys who comprised the legendary crew team from the University of Washington that represented the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He describes the coxswain in the following passage:

“From the moment the shell is launched, the coxswain is the captain of the boat. He or she must exert control, both physical and psychological, over everything that goes on in the shell. Good coxes know their oarsmen inside and out — their individual strengths and vulnerabilities — and they know how to get the most of each man at any moment. They have the force of character to inspire exhausted rowers to dig deeper and try harder, even when all seems lost…In short, a good coxswain is a quarterback, a cheerleader and a coach all in one. He or she is a deep thinker, canny like a fox, inspirational, and in many cases the toughest person in the boat.”

That description pretty much sums up the role of any teacher. The hardest part of a coxswain is also getting the other eight members of his boat to row in harmony and in unison.

Teachers must take control of a class or they will have no productive effect whatsoever, but this control has to be earned. Teachers also have to learn about each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses so they can help each student experience growth.

Teachers also need resilience to cheer their students on when perseverance and character are threatened or apparently non-existent. Teachers have to be creatively inspirational while always remaining the “toughest person in the boat.”

That’s a tall order for any person. There have been days when I didn’t think I had the energy to lead 95 kids through another predictable round of lessons on Shakespearean sonnets or writing strategies. And even after I pulled myself together and sucked up the courage and strength required to teach for an entire day, someone rolled her eyes or gave a furtive glance to her neighbor when I began the lesson.

I’ve never been on a crew team, but I did get my rowing merit badge when I was in Boy Scouts — if that counts. I did learn a little about effective rowing techniques and the artful strength required to maneuver the boat and to keep it on course. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Rowing alone is one thing, but providing directives to a crew of eight oarsmen in an exhausting, competitive race is quite another. Teachers aren’t ever in a boat alone; they’re in it with 25-30 students at a time. They are trying to find the best way to make sure all their students stay on course and finish the race as winners. That’s when not knowing “just enough about a coxswain” could be dangerous!

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

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