Weightlifter / Spotter

The good teacher knows if the learner learns through the ears, the eyes, or the hands just like the good spotter knows where the lifter wants support – at the wrists or under the elbows or on the bar. The good spotter is unhelpful; the good spotter doesn’t intervene at the first sign of struggle but realizes that the struggle is essential, that the struggle is the entire reason they are there, and waits as long as possible before intervening.

The good teacher puts weight on the student’s intellectual bar and lets her struggle under that weight as long as possible, asking questions to help her cut through the confusion, just like the spotter shouts encouragement at the lifter.

Mostly I envy the spotter. The job is so (comparatively) easy. The spotter steps in just as the lifter begins to collapse and not a moment before. That moment is nowhere near as obvious in teaching where what the learner says she needs and what the learner actually needs often are not the same thing, where it isn’t visually obvious that the learner is too perplexed or not perplexed enough.

And, my word: we’re spotting thirty people at once.

[Photo credit]

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Dan, nice analogy. It really illustrates the point from your “Be less helpful” post. Also, it kinda relates to the recent discussion about the use of stock photography. This was a pretty simple photo, obviously done with a flash, doesn’t seem touched up in photoshop or stylized. It’s to the point.

  2. We were reviewing linear regression in my IB class today and a student asked a question about residuals. I immediately went into Socratic mode and began answering her question with more questions intended to help her realize that she already knows the answer.

    Right as I’m really getting her engaged, another student turns around and just gives her the answer.

    Talk about a buzz kill.

  3. I think the teacher more closely aligns with a good personal trainer. They are your spotter but also someone trying to get you to a particular destination. They plan the activities that you’ll have to struggle through, have an end goal in mind etc. You get the idea.

    The spotter for me is too temporary a role, too focused on the micro but I’m probably over analyzing.

  4. There seems to be that kid in every class with me. I don’t know there true intentions, maybe they think they are saving a peer from looking bad?! I rather have the student think for a minute and come up with a wrong answer… that’s me wearing the teacher’s hat though!

    I can only chalk this up to impatience or implusiveness. There are a few students that just can’t handle students not knowing the answers or just want to get class moving along because they’re bored. Either way I agree it’s a buzz kill.

    Though completely off topic, this reminds me of the students that don’t even attempt to do work of any kind rather than being told before thought processes can occur. To those kids, my favorite saying goes something like this…

    “I can correct wrong, but it’s very hard to correct nothing.”

  5. Absolutely great analogy… I’ve heard of teacher as coach and many others but never as spotter. Unfortunately, I think many teachers fall into the trap, as David Cox mentioned, of lifting more than they should. We need to carefully allow students to push themselves to the limit. Great post!

  6. I commented this on Rhett’s Dot Physics blog, too, but I want to say it here too.
    There was a session at the Chicago AAPT meeting in February in which a teacher gave a great teaching example. She explained to us how to knit. Could we knit, after listening to her explanation? Well, I couldn’t. Then her helpers passed around skewers and yarn, and we all REALLY learned to knit. Anyway, it was a really cool teaching demonstration.

    It feels a bit overwhelming to me to be a spotter for 30 people at once, but I think I could teach 30 people to knit at once. Or maybe not knit, but I think you know what I mean.

    I think rather than trying to spot 30 kids at once, I’d like them to be able to spot each other. By becoming the teachers, they will learn that much more! Plus, I will feel much less overwhelmed by my job.

  7. “That moment is nowhere near as obvious in teaching where what the learner says she needs and what the learner actually needs often are not the same thing, where it isn’t visually obvious that the learner is too perplexed or not perplexed enough.”

    This is the real struggle for me in my classroom…i teach Special Ed, and my students have a kind of reinforced helplessness, where they may have found in the past that if they said something was too hard, they would get immediate help. Seven months into this school year, and they still will ask for help or say something is too hard before even trying to engage in an activity that I know they can make an honest attempt at, even if they wouldn’t have complete success. There are days where I feel so frustrated that they won’t make that first attempt, even after I’ve made it abundantly clear that it’s ok to make mistakes as long as they try their best.

  8. As a teacher/coach I admire the analogy and may, with permission requested, borrow it in future years. I follow you and your cohart with interest as you discuss teaching ideas hoping to find a nugget my old brain can wrap around and learn from.

    Keep up your efforts, your helping an “old coach” learn a few new tricks for assisting students to learn marth.