Fly Fishing, an Analogy for my Teaching Philosophy

When I think about my teaching philosophy, I think about fly fishing. For me, there are many similarities between the two arts.

Establishing a Relationship

When fly fishing, the first thing you need to understand is the nature of the species of fish that you are trying to catch. This can be learned through experience, by researching, or from a guide. Learning through experience takes a lot of time and practice; research is time consuming but the information is comprehensive, and; from a guide is expensive but quick and effective. Often, the most enjoyable and practical way to learn about the nature of fish is to learn through all three methods at the same time.

When teaching, establishing a relationship and rapport with your students is essential. Knowing who your students are, how they learn best, what interests them, and what their goals are helps you, the teacher, better plan for and facilitate their learning. Getting to know your students can come from observing their behaviour, talking with them, reading through their student records, or talking to their parents and other teachers. Using these various methods in combination with one another is often the best way to develop a relationship with your students.


Once you have an idea of the species of the fish that you are aiming to catch, you must then prepare your kit. You have to consider the body of water that you will be fishing: are you on a lake or in a river? Understanding what the fish feed on will help you determine what type of fly to use: should you use nymphs, wet flies, or dry flies? You have to consider the season, the weather, and the time of day: are the fish likely to be feeding while you’re out fishing? After considering these things, you can then put together the right tools to help you have a successful day out on the water.

Students, similarly, have optimal times and places for learning. There are a number of factors that influence how well a student will learn. Understanding what these influences are will help you prepare for a successful teaching day. Here, we can think about things like multiple intelligences and learning styles. It is also important to think about the learning environment, students’ interests, and interpersonal relationships between all members of the classroom. All of these things, and more, will help you prepare lessons that engage and challenge students, ultimately leading to student success.

The Delivery

So, now you’ve got your kit all packed and you’re out on the water. In order to catch any fish, you’ll need to cast your line. Casting a fly line is not simply a matter of hoping for the best after throwing the rod over your shoulder and then watching the bait on the end of your line arc through the air before splashing into the water. Casting a fly line involves finesse. You have to work with the weight of the line, letting it out slowly. Repeatedly, you cast forward and then cast backward, never letting the fly at the end of the line hit the water. Each time you forward cast, you let out a little bit of line, pulling all of it back as it reaches the apex of its turn in the air. When the line reaches the apex of its turn behind you, you start bringing it forward again. Knowing when to release that extra line, pulled off of the reel in preparation, during the forward cast takes practice. Once, finally, you have let out enough line, you freeze it in the air above the water, letting it drift lazily down, so as not to frighten the fish away as it lands.

(If you’re interested, here’s an 8-minute video on how to cast a fly line.)

When teaching, you cannot just give your students a task and hope they will be able to complete it. You need to use your students’ strengths to help them succeed. Preparing a good lesson is only the first step – it’s your kit. The next step is slowly introducing the concepts that the students need to know and understand in order to be able to approach, analyse, complete, and communicate the learning they were meant to gain. To do this effectively, you need to be gentle yet calculated; you need to know how to start your students off, when to let them explore further on their own, and when to bring them back together. At all times, you need to be aware of where your students are at in the process of learning so that you can effectively guide them into their next stage of that process. Eventually, they should settle comfortably into their bed of knowledge. In teacher-speak, this is “scaffolding”.

The Catch

Undoubtedly, the most exciting part of any fishing trip is when a fish takes the bait and is gripped by the hook. That’s when you have a fish “on”. It’s a dramatic event. All of a sudden, you’re engaged in a struggle. There is tension in the line. Your one hand grips the rod tightly. Your other hand takes control of the reel. Your eyes trace down the taut line, focussing in on a small portion of the water.

In the excitement, you have to remain calm and careful. If you’re too quick with reeling in the fish, the line might snap. If you’re too slow, the fish might struggle itself free. You have to engage in a little give and a little more take. With the fish on, the line must remain taut. At times, when you can feel that the fish is pulling hard, you loosen your grip on the reel and let the fish take line out. Carefully, you beginning to resist this pull, slowly making the line harder to unreel. Soon, you start reversing the trend. You reel the fish in slowly.

When teaching, you need to have an attractive hook to get the students excited about what they’re learning. It has to resemble something they already know but be different enough to be enticing. Once they’re engaged, you can then start allowing the students to explore. They need to be free enough to wander in their minds and in their worlds. They also need to know that they’re secure, that there is a direct line back to you, the teacher, when they tire of their exploring. Some students will rush out and stretch the learning past the breaking point. Others will simply follow the path laid before them. The sweet spot is when both the students and the teacher are sufficiently challenged, making the learning enticing, exciting, and even equivocal.

The Release

After all of the preparing, the casting, and the catching, it’s time to release the fish back into the water. After pulling out the hook, it’s easy enough to just throw the fish back into the water. It’s likely to survive and carry on with its life, a little wiser for having come across you. You can also hold the fish in the water, give it some time to catch its breath, and let it swim off when it’s ready. Of course, you’ll definitely need to get a picture with the fish and post it on your Instagram before letting it go.

Jumping straight into the next lesson, without any apparent continuity, is more difficult for students than is a logical, smooth transition. Some will be reluctant to move on because they enjoyed what they were learning, and others will be glad to get started with something new. When students are given a chance to process the knowledge that they have gained and are allowed time to prepare for what’s coming next, it’s easier to move forward. It’s important, too, to celebrate the success that the students met with.

Additional Resources

Statement of Teaching Philosophy – U of T Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation

Fly Fishing, an Analogy for my Teaching Philosophy

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