I’ve been strength training with iron implements since I was 15 years old and I’ve met plenty of people in that time with an endless list of excuses for why they don’t do it. Most are such total horseshit that they don’t provoke much reflection on my part.
“I don’t have time.”
Bullshit. In this American day and age, we have time for what’s important to us– end of story. Anyone with a standard job or less has plenty of time to train. Even with more than standard, and sometimes far more, there is time to train if you engage in a little sacrifice. As a KIPP teacher, I spent 60 hours per week working and nearly 7 hours per week commuting, made time to read books, cook all of my food, hang out with friends, and develop/enjoy an awesome relationship. After all of that, I was still training 4 days per week with separate outdoor running. I simply wasn’t spending a lot of time on my phone or the internet and no time at all on TV.
“But I have kids” doesn’t fly, either. I had a newborn baby last year. I certainly had to make plenty of sacrifices, but since I regard training as an integral part of my physical and mental health, I simply let everything else in the former list suffer. I didn’t like it, but it was what I had to do. Sometimes I had to get up before dawn (and the baby) if I wanted that to work– I got used to it.
“I don’t have time” is insulting to me. What someone is implying when they say such a thing is that I have all of this idle time available to my own vanity whereas normal people like them aren’t so lucky. Exercise is unquestionably valuable to everything about the human body. To not engage in it is to devalue oneself. This is also true for those Americans who can legitimately say they are working 80-100 hours per week in some building somewhere, and thus quite literally don’t have time. There isn’t a person alive today in this country who needs to work that many hours just to survive. To take on that many hours is a CHOICE. I understand this can be done in service of a larger goal and I respect that– but people need to own that it is at least a short term self-destructive choice they are making, and the longer they persist in it, the more destructive it is.
Where things get interesting, however, is when I get someone who questions the value of strength training with weights as a choice for exercise. I had a guy do that pretty well over a decade ago and it stuck with me. “Weights are boring and impersonal… it’s numbers on a bar. What has that got to do with life? I’d rather be working outside or playing a sport.”
Boom. That’s pretty good. I’ve got to respect that.
Ever since that conversation, there are times when I’ve been in some commercial gym, air conditioned, surrounded by people going through the motions, and I think to myself: what the hell are we all DOING here? Are we a bunch of gerbils? Why not build a house? Why not learn a hand trade and acquire a usable skill that could also get us in motion in a more practical way? Isn’t this all very artificial?
It is… but I would argue its artificial nature is good. If we train in the right way for results, we are pushing to our physical limit and beyond. The “iron,” to reference the great personal essay on the subject by none other than Henry Rollins, gives us a way to measurably establish where that limit is and slowly push it higher. If you want the science for why this is good, google “progressive overload” for about 5 billion sources on this provably excellent effect on mind and body. “Real life” and recreational sport rarely offers this opportunity in a safe and consistent way. We don’t need to take advantage of that to get beneficial exercise, but it’s a part of what I like about it.
Then there are personal reasons for me. I like to get better every day, month, and year. I want to learn new skills, become a better dad, know more about the world– and I want to do it in a measurable way. Life can just slip by without any clear idea of how you are compared to how you were, or can present you with so many variables that it’s difficult to know what part you played in your own success or failure. When I learned to smoke meat, I wanted to see people go for seconds. When I taught history, I wanted to see my kids shred the state history test–without once teaching to the test itself! When I get my wife a birthday or Christmas gift, I want to see her face light up! I want the “wins!”
Training with iron weights allows me to go in and get a win every single day. With my long term program and some simple notations in a small pad, I can hit my prescribed targets for number of sets, repetitions, and with what amount of weight and over time, I can see how much stronger I am now than I was a week, month, or year ago. I enjoy that immensely, and with the kind of exercises I choose– the squat, deadlift, power clean, etc. I can be confident in plenty of real-world carry-over for that strength as well. When our extended family needs somebody to move a wheel-barrow full of heavy crap all day, or someone to take the bottom end of a huge hide-a-bed down a flight of stairs, I can confidently raise my hand and take the real-life pleasure of being useful in a way not many others can. To me, that’s worth occasionally feeling like a gerbil!
Ultimately people need to choose the exercise that works best for them, but for my people out there that have ever been under those too-bright lights and looked past the bro pulling his shirt up in front of the mirror— to the rack full of dumbbells— and thought: “Man, what IS the point?!”
Approach, lift, go to failure, and enjoy those endorphins with confidence!
I like to write from time to time. The way things normally go is I’ll have a slow drip of thoughts about something for weeks at a time, then gradually I’ll put it all together and write a personal essay about it– my own substandard tribute to the great Victorian essayists like Matthew Arnold and Cardinal Newman. Five or six people read it and that’s ok. I write for myself mainly and there’s some long lead time for my brain to cook it up and then for me to sit down and execute it. Normally if any of those five or six people actually get something out of it, I think of it as bonus points.
But then I wonder: is that really worth the time? People who want to read about the stuff I think can dig up far sharper and more well-informed stuff on those subjects than what I put out. Maybe I could plan my writing a little better, do some more research, and get it up to the level of that other stuff, but to what purpose? I’m not a professional and I have a hard enough time putting the hours together to write about it in the first place. There are so many things I love to do, and that’s before we talk about the time I like to spend with my beautiful wife and little kid.
My wife suggests shorter, simpler blogs about my life. There are training, cooking, teaching, and adventure blogs out there that are basically online diaries for public view. It wasn’t clear to me until recently how many people enjoy blogs about training that include a little big-picture planning and consistent execution alongside an interesting life. That makes me think: “Shit, I’ve been training my ass off for years and I think I lead a pretty badass life. I’m thinking of training for a really tough endurance event over the next year alongside my teaching and BBQ plans. Should I write about that?”
But then I think: isn’t that banal? Training to me is automatic. I can’t imagine wanting to read about someone else’s training all the time. Why would anyone want to read about mine? Or my cooking? Or teaching? Or adventure? These are choices anyone can make with their time in this country. Isn’t writing a public journal sort of presuming you’re special? I went on an incredible hiking trip in the Tetons and Yellowstone: so have thousands of people before me. Literally everything I’ve done has been done millions of times over and written about, with great skill, thousands of times over. Maybe than rather than write about it, I should just continue doing it, because ultimately, who really cares?
Who even SHOULD care?
Maybe it’s just my post-modern education talking.
With Harvey coming ashore, I’ve been thinking about this album a lot. Art can reflect life beautifully (even in sludge metal) and this album connected me with this band and the city of New Orleans in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Katrina hit these guys hard, and through their experience, I’ve come to think quite a bit about the people in the path of Harvey and its broken wake.
I love how art can connect us with something so much bigger than ourselves. It’s been ten years since Hurricane Katrina; I can vaguely remember following the news, especially in the aftermath, and feeling so disconnected from what the people of New Orleans were feeling and going through. I was in Austin at the time, in the middle of a scorching hot, dry summer, and had never been touched by natural disaster in any meaningful way. It was easy to sympathize, of course, but much harder to empathize, which I think is far more important.
One of my favorite bands changed that for me in a pretty unexpected way. Down started in 1995 as a bunch of dudes who had grown up around each other in New Orleans and now each had their own self-sustaining metal bands. Pepper Keenan had been the face and chief songwriter for Corrosion of Conformity…
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I tuned in to the Giants/Steelers preseason game last night and got treated to a microcosm of something I’ve observed in a big way over my years as a football fan. Geno Smith was under center for the Giants, and the game announcers were discussing how much more calm and in command of the offense he looked than their other backup, Josh Johnson. Up to that point, it was true. Then, to the surprise of no one who has watched Geno Smith play over the years, he rolled left under no great pressure and threw an inexplicably stupid interception that put the Steelers in scoring position. Any good work he had done was snuffed out in an instant.
Geno Smith is a talented guy and even though plenty of people knew the Jets had bungled yet another QB draft gamble and taken him too early in the draft as a rookie, plenty of people could also see promise in the kid. But what became clear pretty quickly and remains clear to this day is that Smith makes dumb decisions with the football. Most of the time, he looks better than an awful lot of QBs in the league, but once every two or three games, he’s going to throw an interception like that– a game-changing, momentum-shifting, utterly horrible interception. He may win some ball games, but he also absolutely will LOSE some ballgames, practically by himself. Quarterback is one of the few positions on the field with that ability. Frankly, despite his obvious talent, I don’t understand why he has a job. He’s what I like to call a proven game-loser–“just good enough to get you beat.”
I don’t understand why anyone would want a proven loser on their roster, even if he does look better than the other guys most of the time. Smith isn’t alone: years ago, I started calling this phenomenon the “Rex Grossman effect.” Matt Schaub and Mark Sanchez are other good recent examples. Both of them have almost single-handedly destroyed seasons for their franchises with back-breaking turnovers. If a middling or mediocre QB struggles to move the offense and is only good for 10-14 points per game, there is at least a chance that the rest of the team can make up for the effort in some way: an opportunistic defense can force turnovers, running the ball can get you to a few field goals, etc. The game can remain close, especially in this age of league parity with free agency and the salary cap.
Given league parity, it’s far more difficult to overcome, say, a pick six. It’s not just that you’ve given the other team an easy six points and possibly altered the way the offensive game plan can now work. Momentum and morale matter a great deal, too. You can observe the psychological effect on an entire defense when a quarterback repeatedly puts them in a position of having to give up no ground at all to avoid surrendering points, or simply gives the other team touchdowns. It’s deflating. A star defensive end, by contrast, has more leverage to be “boom or bust.” Bruce Smith could badly miss on stuffing runs a few times a game, and the effect was rarely decisive. Matt Schaub throwing two pick sixes in one game as a Houston Texan was absolutely decisive. It destroyed the collective effort of the entire rest of the team over the entire rest of the game. Yet Matt Schaub made millions of additional dollars as a QB after that game.
Give me guys like Colt McCoy or Cody Kessler any day of the week over these players. Neither are impressive talents who can take over a game, but neither has repeatedly shown he’ll stick a dagger into his own team. Bring on Matt McGloin– a frequent sports news punchline. I also am reminded of how the Steelers use Landry Jones when they need him. These players will never take you to the Super Bowl without an absolutely dominant defense and other skill position guys, but they’re not going to derail a Super Bowl run, either. I’m no GM, but when those guys are taking snaps, I’m not wondering when they’re going to blow the game with two or three bad decisions. I was wondering that very thing as I watched Geno Smith– and you know what? He delivered. Doesn’t this count for something beyond the regular statistics? Proven losers need to find another job.
I’ve finished a couple of books (the recently published Tribe and the years-old War) by Sebastian Junger, a former embedded war correspondent for Vanity Fair. He analyzes (among a LOT of other things) the experiences and psychology of war veterans and active-duty soldiers, using examples from which we can understand humanity in general. It’s really fascinating stuff. He synthesizes a lot of research from different fields while staying concise and accessible– judge that synthesis for yourself, of course; I don’t claim to be an expert– but a lot of his conclusions are worth considering.
He’s ruffled more than a few feathers over the last several years by implying that the spike in veteran PTSD cases is not ‘legitimate’ in the way we understand it. Beyond the small number of vets who ‘play the system,’ the greater problem (and I’m paraphrasing here) is our well-intentioned promotion of a victim mentality for many of these soldiers. In our deference to soldiers who have suffered war trauma, too often we create the idea that the combat veteran is permanently different from the rest of us in a way that’s broken them and requires a total “fixing.” We ‘understand’ that they can no longer fit in among ‘regular’ people. Thus we can inadvertently exacerbate the REAL problem many veterans have: not so much acute, devastating trauma as simply returning to a “normal” life among civilians.
I’m sure you can understand right away why that’s a pretty controversial thing to say– and I hope I’m getting it right in the summary. I certainly can’t speak for veterans and their experience overseas or how it affects them psychologically. Where this all gets fascinating for me is in Junger’s time embedded in places like the notorious Korengal Valley (Afghanistan) and his observations of the contrast between the combat service member’s community in places like that and our civilian communities here in America.
In the Korengal, the soldier’s life was reduced to a very short list of priorities, and each one of those priorities assumed life-or-death importance for both the individual and his comrades. Life was spartan: bland rations, filth, no human contact outside the outpost, no activities beyond watching, waiting, and patrolling. Small routines like carrying water and cleaning weapons were vital. Get heatstroke on patrol and not only are you in serous trouble, your small unit is badly compromised: they’re down a man and they have to get you out. A jammed gun not only leaves you helpless; you can’t cover your buddies, a serious matter in a war of counter-insurgency dominated by small maneuvers rather than big strategic operations. Stripped of choice and freedom and bound entirely to small choices on the group and individual level that daily make the difference between surviving and being killed; to the average person, it sounds terrible.
Except when you listen to many veterans who have lived that life, what you find is that they actually miss it. Junger observes this in his interviews frequently, and he’s hardly alone. I’ve observed this in other war memoirs across cultures, in podcasts, and in conversation. There is almost beautiful simplicity in a life in which each day is a fight for survival and the individual is part of a tightly-knit group that are all willing to die for each other. That’s another theme reaching across combat memoirs: that with time, the soldier fights not for his country or the cause anywhere near as much as his friends that are living it with him. It’s a deeply fraternal bond.
What makes books like War and Tribe so penetrating is the contrast they draw between that life and the one the average 21st century American civilian lives. In place of a small list of possible choices, each one imbued with fatal significance, is nearly unlimited choice, much of which is completely meaningless. Instead of a small handful of people held together by a sense of selfless brotherhood, we experience the “community” of modern America, in which you can have 1000 social media contacts that don’t amount to a single real friendship, or life in a city of 1 million people in which you somehow feel completely alone.
Tribe in particular deals with this void in which survival is mostly assured and no one has a life or death bond, as well as the erosion of ancient community ties and customs because of the lack of apparent need for them. Even as early as the 1700s, Junger points out, white colonial society had a problem noted by none other than Ben Franklin himself: despite the technological convenience, greater relative ease, and predictable, more peaceful life white colonial life offered, many people chose to run away to join the “savage” Indians. Life was harder and hardship was harsher, communities were smaller and more exposed…but tighter. When recaptured, these white citizens demonstrated a devastating level of trauma. Some never re-acclimated, even when their entry into a tribal community had come by kidnapping and bloodshed, like Cynthia Ann Parker. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to run back to her “home” tribe, Parker descended into depression and an untimely death.
Should we be thinking not only of war trauma, but the trauma of this American peace? So many of us grow up, move constantly to follow larger paychecks, separate from family, become removed from any traditional communal bond beyond, possibly, marriage– which fails at an absurdly high rate. We stare at thousands of distractions on tiny screens with every free minute we have. We enjoy the highest standard of living, even among our poor, that has ever been known in world history, by a long shot, and yet we aren’t even close to one of the happiest countries in the world. Drug addiction, suicide, and depression exist at high levels in a place the ancient Egyptians would have considered the home of the gods. I look around and see a culture in which so many problems of survival have been solved, but I know very few truly happy and content people.
Perhaps returning war fighters feel very acutely what many of us feel in a subtle way– what does any of this great stuff matter if we don’t truly, absolutely have EACH OTHER with us in the confusion of life? Maybe they have to experience in an intensely personal way what we “normal” people slowly, impersonally, and almost imperceptibly lost over many generations. Perhaps the traumatic experiences of war can teach us about something we’ve been missing in peace.
I can remember the first impression Texas made on me as a teenager who’d spent his entire life in New Jersey. As I walked out of the airport, the heat struck me immediately—shocking for a March day, I thought. On my first car ride, I peered out the window and took note of how sun-blasted everything looked. Shorter trees than I was used to seemed permanently twisted by that sun. The grass looked wispy and parched. Dust and haze stuck out to me in an unappealing way. My knowledge of Texas culture was usual for someone from my region: cattle and early entry into the Confederacy were the focal points. It was not, to my mind, a good first impression.
I left after one year, only to return later for graduate school. I left again, for good I thought, in 2006. Little did I know that life and career would change in ways I had never thought possible and take me to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2009. It was only after a couple of curious road trips down to Austin that I began to think I had not left Texas for good. Lured back over time through memories of good things only half-appreciated in my former life and good plans made with good people, I returned in 2012. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Lone Star State and its story were destined to leave quite an imprint.
I’m reflecting on it now because once more the good life is taking me somewhere else (for good?) and the slow drip of everything I had absorbed as a converted Texan is missing. There will be great new stories and adventures of course, but they won’t have the unique smell of burning post oak as I line up, whiskey bottle in hand, for some brisket done the correct Central Texas way on a late morning. Some other states have fine BBQ, but when they bother with brisket, it’s usually a dry afterthought—a counterpoint to pig. Only in Texas does brisket occupy the proud number one spot where it belongs, rubbed and smoked so precisely that sauce is not necessary. Only in Texas is someone a fool for thinking sauce is necessary. Real brisket cooks can prove that wrong, and Texans line up to get the results—crisp, salt-and-pepper outer “bark” and juicy meat bursting with smoke flavor underneath. That whiskey: distilled here in the hot limestone Hill Country from Panhandle corn or blue corn, it has a fire and depth to it that I can’t find anywhere else.
Aside from flavors, I’ll miss the massive possibilities in the terrain. Close to the Sabine River, humidity, lushness and alligators remind me of the Deep South. I’ve rolled through miles of flat nothingness and forbidding little towns in the Panhandle. I’ll think of Central Texas and the Hill Country, with its limestone and stands of dark or faded green live oaks (stunted-looking no more to me) spreading themselves out over years in landscape dotted with small, old German towns and quiet hamlets. Most of all, I’ll remember Far West Texas (not Midland or Lubbock—the REAL deal, beyond the Pecos River), opening up like an old John Ford movie into huge landscapes with crested buttes, making a traveler feel like an infinitesimal stranger “in an antique land” as Shelley wrote. Strange colors shift and change in that land through sunrise and the sunset that gives way to an explosion of stars in total silence. Thousands of feet up out there, small mountain streams riffle along to refresh the tired hiker, wondering maybe that less than a day ago, he was walking the streets of Austin an 8 hour car ride away in the same state.
I’ll miss Austin, sinking though it is under the weight of its trendy status. The heart is still there: in some of its simple, great food, in the music that exists in out-of-the-way places many blocks from the puking college students and flashy people throwing money around. The heart is in the genuine artists, the old hippies who run craft operations, and for me, most of all, in the endearing local DJs for one of the country’s last pure classical music stations. Jeffrey Blair and Sarah Schneider, with their quirky, reassuring, and whole-heartedly nerdy voices welcomed me to Austin with their radio programs in 2003. I’ll miss being able to connect with those programs whenever I liked on my morning commute. I’ll miss camping with my buddy Jourdan out in the quiet of the hills, miles from Blanco. I’ll miss the silence of Marfa’s crumbling streets early in the morning, an unusual dusting of snow on the ground, a cold northern wind blowing the clouds off the distant West Texas mountains.
That feeling of space, distance, and solitude—other places in the country have it, but few have the otherworldly and wild presence of Texas, quietly imposing on the visitor the idea that mankind here is the tolerated guest rather than the conqueror. A run through the history of the Lone Star state confirms this impression. What we call ‘civilization’ struggled to maintain itself for a long time. The Spanish hacienda system withered on the vine here. Restless adventurers from the canebrakes of Appalachia—no tame place in the past by any standard, felt at home here when they arrived. The ruthless and creative Bowies, hard-drinking and hard-fighting Tom Green, frontier legend Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston, troubled adopted son of the Cherokee,–all were drawn to Texas before the end of their famous lives. The Comanche arrived here and went from being a despised minor people to the most feared and brutal tribe in the West. Reconstruction quickly and sadly foundered here as Texas proved nearly ungovernable. William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the hardest cases to ever serve the U.S. Army, said during his tenure as military governor of Reconstruction Texas that if he owned both Texas and Hell, he’d “rent out Texas and live in Hell.” Crockett, by contrast, called the fierce beauty of Texas in the 1830s his “paradise.”
‘Paradise’ is not a word most people would use to describe Texas now. It certainly looks a lot different from how it looked in 1830. When the cattle ranchers were through ravaging it, the cedar invaded, the creeks receded, flash floods became more common, and erosion increased. I have often wished, like the great Texas writer John Graves, that I could have seen Texas in its full glory, when bison roamed west of the Escarpment, cedar had yet to choke the land, and the grass was still “balls-high to a Belgian” as the fictional Colonel in “The Son” remarked. I would have liked to stand in October twilight and see the sky over Fort Davis filled with birds and unblemished by the pollution just over the border in Piedras Negras.
I’d love to see more than just the natural history, too; the human history has a grand and wild drama to it that makes me wish I could slip in as an unobtrusive stranger and interact for a brief time. I want to see the Comanche ride from Palo Duro Canyon (from a safe distance), in full gallop with those distinctive lance streamers and bison headdresses, and put a Texas Ranger company to shame with their horsemanship. I want to take a knife fighting lesson from Jim Bowie and warn him that the “lost” San Saba Mine was only a myth. I’d like to ride out west with Sul Ross, by all accounts a real gentleman, and ask him why he and his troops casually shot so many women and kids at Pease River. I know the Comanche were a brutal people, but I look into my own infant son’s eyes and I can’t imagine shooting anyone’s little kids. To see Charlie Goodnight’s trail, just once in its earliest days: heading north from the Big Bend when it was still possible to hear the howling of wolves, joining the cowboys at the Horsehead Crossing of the Pecos, and then all the way up the eastern border of the Rockies to Wyoming, where I could wash the filth off in the electric chill of the Wind River, keeping an eye on the horizon for Cheyenne raiders. To sleep under a perpetual carpet of non-light-polluted stars in the presence of those great mountains and truly be a small speck in an open, untamed range—ah, just once!
Texas is a layered story like no other place I’ve been. To have lived as a very small part of it for a time changed my appreciation for many of the greater and lesser aspects of culture and the human story itself. To even the hardest of Appalachian frontiersmen in the early 19th century, Texas was ‘ultra’ in the real sense of the Latin root—‘out there,’ ‘on the other side.’ Huge, rugged, savage, mixed, deep, rich, beautiful, and tragic, the story of Texas and its culture is still very much ultra-American. Until we meet again, Lone Star State!
I was listening to the incomparable retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink talk about leadership recently, and one of the quotes he used has stuck with me for weeks. In the U.S. Marine Corps manual, “Leading Marines,” there is a large section devoted to the importance of training for the battlefield. Without the preparation of sustained physical and mental training, even the fiercest and most devoted Marine will be rendered ineffective, to paraphrase the manual. “Guts and pride are not a substitute for fitness.” I found myself unconsciously nodding my head in agreement as I splashed through a wet field on my own conditioning run– not because of its physical meaning but because I immediately connected the practical value of that quote to what we do as teachers, especially in the field of high-poverty education.
A lot of us, after all, enter the profession and spend our first few years grossly unprepared and poorly trained, especially when we enter with a mission to change the trajectory of students in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. We hear certain cliches before we even sign up: kids in poverty need love, guidance, and understanding; they need to see the connection between what we have to teach them and their own lives; they need a cultural bridge to an appreciation for what college can do for them, etc. These things may be true (although I’m uncomfortable with the assumption that our students don’t have anybody already trying to do these things in their lives– it strikes me as paternalistic and classist), but they are also going to need a master of the teaching craft. Can we manage students? Can we establish consistent expectations and procedures? Are we experts of our content? These things take a long-term commitment to training and development. We can be as loving, understanding, and culturally relevant to the most challenging students as we like; we aren’t going to change the trajectory of many of them without this hard, long-term training and development. Guts and pride are not a substitute for fitness.
I’ve seen too many teachers learn this the hard way. They come into the game excited and ready to make a difference. They are kind to students and mindful of the challenges they face in life, model excitement about college, and spend many hours planning activities that are relevant and interesting. Yet by February, their bright smiles have been replaced with a look I can only describe as shell-shock from the psychological beatings they’ve been taking. Despite the full heart and the 12-hour days with planning, they are struggling for minutes of their students’ engagement and ounces of their respect. After a few years of experiencing this crushing failure, their spirit breaks and they quit (or maneuver themselves out of the classroom and into administration, taking their failed methods and naive idealism with them– a disaster of an entirely different order and the subject for a different blog). Nobody should give up on the emotionally important work of building real relationships with kids, but there are some practical matters that need to be addressed at the same time, otherwise (and I’ve seen this many times) the new teacher will ultimately resent and give up on those relationships out of self-preservation in their experience of failure.
New teachers need a lot of committed coaching, and they need to respond to that coaching. Teaching is an art and a science, requiring multiple skill sets for success. It defies belief that anybody new to a classroom would only get observed two or three times per year. New teachers may try hard to self-reflect on why their lessons are not succeeding, but there are so many variables to managing a classroom every day that attempting to do that as a rookie is impossibly hard. Observations should be followed up by frequent return observations, focused on ONE skill in which the teacher can measurably improve. Trust needs to be built between new teachers and their administrators (i.e, the teachers need to know observation is not a bad thing and nobody is looking to fire them), and new teachers should approach the job with enough humility to know that there are skills in building a classroom culture that need to be learned and refined on the job: skills they don’t already have.
New teachers also need a realistic attitude, especially in high-need schools. You are not going to change the world in one year, two years, five years, or even ten years. If you try really hard, you might truly shift things for a few students in your first year and if you play your cards right, you might also model a few things that your students remember years down the line, when they ‘click’ better. After you get the basics, you can add more skills and refine them. Like any great art: jiu jitsu, chess, metalwork, the number of skills you can learn is nearly infinite and the number of situations in which you will have different ways to use those skills is definitely infinite. This reality should be embraced. We have too many people coming into this profession who want to be black belts, grand masters, or making fine katanas in their first year. As with anything else, new teachers need to turn off the Hollywood movies (most movies about teaching in high-poverty schools, even the ones based on “true” stories, are horseshit) and prepare for the long haul. No one should be imagining how accomplished they are going to feel at the end of year one. We should be imagining how much better we will be in ten years– at which point we will only discover another level of even more complex skills to learn and refine. How to plan, how to execute, how to use data to drive instruction, how to relate best to your kids given what you bring to the table, even how to effectively use every foot of space on the wall of your class to help create the culture you want to see: I could be in this game for 25 years and not master it all.
New teachers need to make themselves content experts. Ideally, we should be able to answer any question from a student with answer that does justice to the depth and complexity of whatever it is we teach, and can be related with passion. I remember being told once that somebody was teaching “Othello” and they felt pretty good about it after ‘getting through the SparkNotes.’
Dude. You are trying to build a bridge between teenagers and one of the greatest writers of all time and you are skimming over SparkNotes? Fuck you! Shakespeare is the man. You need to know the vocabulary, the double meanings, the poetry and metaphor in what he writes. That’s why he’s a legend. If you can’t shed some light on the layers of Shakespeare to teenagers, they are going to think he’s an incomprehensible, old-timey bore. Make it happen! I can’t tell you how many non-experts get into my profession not knowing a whole lot about their subject (which is ok) and not even trying to deepen their knowledge (NOT ok). Your students need to know that in your subject, you are the kung fu master at the top of the mountain. If we want them to imagine what college-level knowledge and preparation is like, we need to model it. This might not be possible in the beginning, but can be done over time. The more students perceive that you are only revealing the first layer to them in the deep and rich field of your awesome subject, the better. If you haven’t even mastered that first layer yourself, you can’t possibly do this for them.
Finally, new teachers need a manual for classroom management, which is a skill completely apart from relationship-building, content, attitude, and planning. Ideally, this would be something the school leader has presented that aligns with that leader’s vision for the culture of the school. The school leader would know what things to emphasize and what he/she is looking for in the management of classrooms school-wide. In the absence of that vision, however, I like the book “Teach Like a Champion.” I’m not saying it’s perfect, and it’s unfortunately landed right in the middle of the controversy between supporters of charter school education and their critics in traditional public education. But early in our careers, we so often struggle with knowing what the many individual skills are, and how to refine them. TLAC breaks classroom management and other aspects of teaching down into many specific skills, with suggestions on how to reflect and check yourself for improvement. In the firestorm that often envelops us in our first years of teaching, especially in a very challenging school, when it can be so hard to know how to get better, TLAC is a useful, hands-on guide, and I’ve seen bits of its training work magic in every one of my 8 years teaching, for both myself and colleagues.
Whatever way you choose, training is key. Getting better is key. Practical feedback, one-step-at-a-time improvement, and long-term commitment for long-term goals are key. Just like in the world of physical fitness, ideals and belief in yourself are just a starting point; they are not going to get you a win, a medal, a championship, or a battlefield victory. Guts and pride are not a substitute for fitness.