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Ten Feet in the Air: How Kitesurfing Changed the Way I Teach

Five years ago, I embarked on a journey to learn how to kitesurf. In all honesty, I was absolutely terrible at it. I made all the classic beginner mistakes, and I truly believe I invented new mistakes. I pulled my bar and thus ejected myself out of the water, doing a kind of superman belly-flop that ends with me being dragged across the water, slapping my legs and face against the ocean, wondering about all my life choices that led me to this moment. I lost my board and spent hours dragging through the water, trying to get it, with real tears streaming down my face, masked only by the ocean water that I was dragging my face through.

Several memories that always make my heart beat fast are from times (yes, plural) when I tangled my kite with other people’s kites. Interlocking kites is not only a beginner move but a dangerous maneuver that can be deadly for reasons I’ll leave unsaid in case my mother reads this. I regularly felt the real and potential scenario that I could drown trying to learn this new sport. The one mistake that surprised my seasoned instructor is when I lost my entire kite by somehow bypassing both safety systems in an effort to free myself. Luckily, a professional was near, retrieved it, and saved me $1500. Each lesson pushed me far beyond any comfort levels into a place of real, heart-pounding fear. I found it difficult to sleep at night.

Dear to my heart, teaching students lessons on organization and self-advocacy.
Dear to my heart, teaching students lessons on organization and self-advocacy.

Looking back now, though, I can finally see that my struggles with kiting have actually made me a better kiter because I have gone through it all. And I would even go as far as to say that my journey with kitesurfing has made me a better teacher.

At first glance, my job and my passion are unrelated, on opposite ends of the spectrum. On one end, I am a kitesurfer, living on the beach, drinking out of coconuts, and living the dream. On the other hand, I am a Learning Specialist, reteaching math concepts, reading with students, and advocating for 30 children who are very dear to my heart. How can a sunny day on the water connect with my 27th lesson on student organization or self-advocacy? It can. And the more I think about it, my passions are intertwined and connected in deep ways.

Rio de Janeiro offers green waves and great wind for intermediate riders.
Rio de Janeiro offers green waves and great wind for intermediate riders.

Having a Goal That Matters

The first day I saw someone kitesurfing, I was captivated. I was in Costa Rica, and I was 20 years old. I am not sure if it was the sun, the mountains, the sparkling water, or the general vibe at the beach that day (it was an insanely cool beach hangout),  but I became obsessed with the sport. I was sold. I was mouth-open, wide-eyed, and in total awe.

After second-guessing myself for a decade and a half, I decided to book a trip to the Dominican Republic alone, stayed at a kite-resort, and fully paid in advance for a week of lessons. I was locked in no matter what. The driving force behind this was my burning personal desire filled with visions of myself on the water, surrounded by volcanoes and good times.

This commitment to an end goal doesn’t leave me lightly now as I develop IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) for my students. I’ve developed plenty of goals for my students without asking them or taking into account the actual goals of my students. Yes, I do want my students to read, write, and memorize their math facts, but now I am much more careful about how and why I write an IEP. Lee Ann Jung, a clinical professor at Lead Inclusion, and my official educational hero, was kind enough to leave me with this powerful message during a conference: “When you are writing the goals, you must think deeply about skills that will really change a student’s life by starting with questions like, ‘Are the goals on the IEP life-changing? Do they include student aspirations? Will they matter twenty years from now?’”

I thought this method of developing goals was logical, but I had a hard time with this at first because of the way I was taught to write IEPs. Also, it takes time, thinking, discussions, and brainstorming to develop these goals. But what this reflective process leaves you with is a powerful goal that everyone is invested in no matter the struggle. When I dreamed of kiting, I had it in my heart that I was going to get there, no matter what. It was this personal goal that pulled me literally and figuratively through some very difficult situations.

The Learning Pit anchor chart: If you go over the pit, then you are probably not really learning.
The Learning Pit anchor chart: If you go over the pit, then you are probably not really learning.

Learning Pit

During the course of a school day, I see many students stop to look at the Learning Pit anchor chart. They are drawn to it. I had one student walk up to it, and mutter under his breath, “That makes sense.” And then he walked away. It’s important to note that he didn’t know I could hear him.

At times, I want to do everything I can to help my students succeed. I teach, reteach, re-explain, redo, re-anything for them. But sometimes, I just need to let them go through the Learning Pit.

The Learning Pit, developed by James Nottingham (2019), is best described as a model to help students think, communicate, and discuss learning. Through this structured process, students develop resilience, wisdom, and self-efficacy. This year, I have learned to step back and let the process take place. I mean, how can you teach resilience without letting students fail? I have given my students language to discuss how they are feeling, but I don’t jump in to rescue them. Further, I have stopped dragging students through assignments, thanks to the sage advice and tweet-wisdom of Lee Ann Jung (2019).

My goal is to improve the skills that are giving students difficulty with an assignment. It definitely takes more time, and it can feel frustrating (for students and fellow staff members alike), but this is where real progress is made. Students must go through the muck to feel what learning truly feels like. And since I am on the hunt for lessons that will really change a student’s life, I would have to say that this lesson is the one. This is what learning really feels like. And if you leap over the pit, you probably already knew it, or you’re probably not learning. It just makes sense.

I went deep into the pit with kitesurfing. I needed multiple teachers and extra lessons to get me started. I finally understood the learning pit for what it was – a deep, dark place where I used resilience, positive thinking, and oodles of time to claw myself out. When I see a child struggling with a concept or giving up on a task, I just need to think back to the time where I took a two-hour swim to try and get my board back and ended up on a reef, bleeding and crying. I just have more empathy now. I also have the language, anchor charts, mini-lessons, goals that matter, and wisdom to help… without over-helping.

Letting Things Go

Collaborative Problem Solving, developed by Dr. Ross Greene (2019), is the non-punitive model based on the idea that challenging behaviors occur when the expectations being placed on children exceed the child’s capacity to respond adaptively. I was lucky to attend a two-day professional development session with Dr. Greene, and he said, “Imagine you are stuck in traffic for hours, and you are at your worst. You are frustrated, upset, and you cannot move. At that moment, someone asks you to do something. How do you respond?” I admit I hate driving in traffic and have had my fair share of relatable experiences. So this question has never left me.

I know for a fact that I exhibited challenging behaviors to my kite instructors (who I adored and admired). I cried. I pouted. I screamed. I even swore. And I was a 35-year-old adult, fully aware that I was acting out. Again, this doesn’t leave me now as I support children with challenging behaviors. I have gone through some difficult times with my students, and I believe that patience and forgiveness are the paths to really getting through to students. It is only human to get caught up in a moment with students and take their actions personally. It happens.

In Dr. Greene’s book, Lost at School (2014), one of the fundamental and underlying questions revolves around what is the most important role an adult can play in the life of a child. Dr. Greene essentially concludes that by understanding and developing clarity on why a child is struggling is the first and most important part of helping him or her develop.

It has been one of the wisest moves in my career to let things go, come back each day, and focus on the unresolved problem – not the behavior. Thinking back, I didn’t have the skills to kite. What if someone had punished me instead of reteaching, re-demonstrating, and re-explaining the technique again? I would have never learned. Ever.

Teaching children how to self-advocate. One of my favorite lessons that promote independence and student-voice.
Teaching children how to self-advocate. One of my favorite lessons that promote independence and student-voice.

Overcoming Fears

A somewhat anonymous quote that has been widely repeated and used is “Do one thing that scares you daily.” If you get into a comfortable routine, this is harder said than done. And more importantly, it doesn’t tell you why we should overcome our fears.

I have to say that I still get nervous kiting. If I go to a new spot, or the waves are big, or the wind is particularly strong, my heart skips a beat. However, it is always worth it to go. I always feel better, accomplished, proud, and happy. Kiting is my self-care. I don’t have time to mull over problems when I am in a line-up trying to catch a wave. The sport epitomizes living in the moment, and some people describe it to be like yoga or meditation. No two sessions are alike because the conditions are always changing. Just like no two lessons are alike, nor two students. I am constantly changing and adapting, often feeling like I take two steps forward just to take one giant step back. There is no better analogy for teaching in my mind.

Jericoacaora, the north of Brazil, has many beautiful places to put pep in your step (for kiters, windsurfers, surfers and tourists alike).
Jericoacaora, the north of Brazil, has many beautiful places to put pep in your step (for kiters, windsurfers, surfers and tourists alike).

And I can say that I have been out at night and have been stopped and asked, “Are you the girl who kitesurfs?” I am. Even though I am a mediocre kitesurfer at best, it puts a little pep in my step. And that pep leads to clarity and positivity in the classroom.

Women Tend to Underestimate Themselves

Many times on the beach, I have been stopped by women in awe of the sport. I always tell them that they can kitesurf because it really is just a technique similar to driving. But I see their doubt. I can’t blame them, though, because I felt the same doubt for 15 years.

Kitesurfing is largely dominated by males, and this disparity in gender may help further kitesurfing’s reputation as an intense and dangerous sport (Women and Kitesurfing, 2017). However, my experience has taught me that success at kiteboarding is much more a function of technique, control, and assessment of weather conditions rather than something that is gender-specific. I admit, there were a few times when the waves were so huge and I didn’t want to brave it. When I looked out at the water and it was only men, I definitely perceived the situation as intense. With some deep, pensive breaths, I had to get over my self-doubt and try.

Using anchor charts and explicit teaching to help teach test-taking skills without over-helping.
Using anchor charts and explicit teaching to help teach test-taking skills without over-helping.

In education, I find that women tend to underestimate themselves, too. Crystal Morey, a blogger for an eye-opening series, Women in Leaders in Education, regularly writes about female trailblazers in education.

The research finds that while 75% of the educational field is composed of women, only 30% of educational leadership roles are held by women. This discrepancy considers many factors, including female to female competition, ‘Imposter Syndrome,’ which is described as the inability of high-achieving women to internalize their accomplishments as rightfully deserved, mom-guilt (closest to my own heart), and the like. (Morey, 2018)

I doubt myself all the time. I was afraid to speak at the AASSA (Association of American Schools in South America) conference, I was afraid to write this article, and I was definitely afraid (still am sometimes) to kite. But I had my vision, and I stuck with it – the good, the bad, and the terrible.

My passions are intertwined, and I see myself differently because of it all, slowly internalizing my accomplishments. I set a goal for myself years ago, slowly clawed my way to an intermediate level, and now I am so settled into the sport that I consider it my self-care and my source of confidence. I never (ever) imagined this journey would lend itself to my work as a teacher giving me a new lens through which I view goals, resilience, positive thinking, and multiple failures. Further, after humiliating myself countless times, I certainly did not imagine that it would empower me as a woman. Even when I failed miserably over and over, I still learned valuable lessons.

And now, it’s hard not to feel so darn happy when I’m finally ten feet in the air.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

Greene, R.W. (2019) About the CPS Model. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Greene, R. W. (2014). Lost at school: why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York: Scribner.

Jung, Lee Ann. (2019) Response to Instruction & Intervention: Powerful Tier 1 Through Co-Teaching. ASSAA Conference, Santiago Chile, April 9th, 2019.

Morey, C. (2018, August 16). Women Leaders in Education. Retrieved from

Nottingham, J. (2019) The Learning Pit. Retrieved from

Women and Kitesurfing: A Motivational Guide. (2017) Retrieved from

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Jennifer Kotullak
I am a Canadian, living in the north of Brazil, working at an American School. How did I get here? I dreamt of it first. When I am not kitesurfing on the ocean, I can be found supporting and advocating for students. This is my 10th year of teaching, with 8 years of international experience.

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