Front-liner #1: You Don’t Need An Education Degree to Be a Great Teacher

One of the primary criticisms of Teach For America and (to a lesser extent) charter networks is that they hire people with little or no formal education coursework. TFA in particular is (in)famous for taking any college degree as a baseline and then only six weeks of intensive training over the summer before beginning work in the toughest classrooms in the country by fall.

HOW FIT FOR A CLASSROOM CAN THEY POSSIBLY BE?!! people say. And I get it. I’m not saying formal education courses don’t matter at all. But here’s the thing: some of the best teachers I’ve ever met fall into this category. That’s hardly a subjective assessment I’m making. Whatever measure you like for teacher performance: test scores, administrative evaluations, good relationships with kids, good team players– these people are/were getting it done.

Not right away, maybe. But I have yet to see anybody in their first year getting it done fabulously without an awful lot of support at different levels. Teaching is made up of multiple skill sets that require lots of repetitions and refinement to get right. Even taking that into account, there have been a few studies from the last few years that first-year TFA people in high-needs schools don’t perform any worse than their seasoned and formally certified peers, and in some cases, they perform better. (for example: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/2017/07/teaching_fellows_no_better_or_worse_i3_study.html) I can attest to this: as a corps member, I sucked in both of my first two years and failed to make a truly positive academic impact for more than a small handful of students. The truly scary thing, however, was that none of my vastly more experienced and trained peers could say differently. In fact, one of my TFA colleagues in the math department quickly developed a reputation as the school’s finest math teacher.

I slowly became even more convinced of this as a KIPP teacher. We had a sixth grade math instructor with us for a period of years that was such an uber-ace, she won a Harriet Ball prize– one of the highest honors KIPP’s national network of thousands of teachers can bestow. She had no formal education degree or even a math degree. Two of my colleagues in the 8th grade have their students greatly outperforming their peers in Austin public schools at large. Both are loved by students in and out of the classroom for the work they’ve done and the relationships they’ve built. Both are two of the finest people I’ve ever worked with. Neither were formally certified or majored in their taught subject in college.

Conversely, I’ve seen plenty of formally trained and experienced people fail and fail hard, especially in difficult environments. Experience and training can breed complacency and arrogance. When you’re taught “the way” to do something and go ahead doing it for a few years, it can be hard to adjust course when it’s clearly not working. It’s easy to blame circumstances, the kids, the community, or just young people in general. Now, I’ve met PLENTY of conventionally trained teachers that are killing it in the classroom every day. I’m NOT knocking education coursework– just putting out there that it is not at all necessarily a predictor of success. I think that should be something to chew on for people mulling whether or not to spend the tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds/thousands of hours of time it takes complete formal education training.

So what are the predictors of success? I’ve seen people crush the teacher game in tough classrooms and I’ve seen people flame out. Aside from a genuine love of kids, which is not a skill, per se, rather a prerequisite (seriously, if you don’t love kids or don’t love them anymore, get the hell out of the business) when I think of things successful teachers have in common, I think of this list:

  1. Success in college.
  2. Self-awareness and comfort with learning from embarrassing mistakes.
  3. Good on-the-job coaching (not talking about the measly two formal observations we get per year)
  4. Good response to on-the-job-coaching.
  5. Commitment to making students more independent and successful people rather than the natural desire to make one’s job easier.
  6. 100% consistency in action and classroom procedure.
  7. A clear idea of what exactly kids need to accomplish over the year and good long-term planning to get them there.

Each of these items could probably be a blog entry all by themselves. For now, I can say that the great teachers I’ve met could do all of these things over a long period of time. Good teachers could do most of them. Bad teachers struggled with most or all. Previous preparation for teaching just doesn’t seem to matter as much as these skills when the grind of the school year sets in. Experience matters, but only for people who are using that experience to get better at these things.

On the subject of experience: for me, there seems to be something about year 3– teachers who are going about their business the right way seem to hit a stride. I certainly did. That’s anecdotal, I know (as is most of this writing), but I still feel it’s relevant. Unless you’ve got a really supportive environment, it can be so difficult to feel successful your first two years. You know there’s a lot to learn and it will only come with time. Be optimistic, keep doing the right things, and it’ll come along.

Many things matter when it comes to student success, but as far as teaching skill goes, I think the general public (and the education system itself) has a lot to learn about what matters most, especially in districts with the highest needs. Formal coursework can be the perfect start, but the bottom line is it doesn’t have to be.

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Front-liner: My Life in Teach For America, KIPP, and Education Reform

As a teacher, it can be hard to have a conversation about “education reform” and everything associated with it: charter schools, ‘accountability’ measures, leadership, funding, space, etc. For a lot of people, it’s become yet another quasi-religious issue that defines whether you are one of the ‘good guys’ or the ‘bad guys.’ It requires loads of guarded speech, full of qualifiers and reassurances, lest you get accused of being anti-kids, anti-teachers, anti-unions, anti-freedom, and so on. It’s infuriating.

I spent 8 years as what I like to think of as an education front-liner– teaching in high-poverty, difficult school districts with what I also like to think of as a mission-based mindset– a goal-focused determination to help the students in these districts measurably exceed the low levels of academic achievement typical in their environment. The first two years were in north Tulsa as an initiate in the notorious Teach For America, a group that takes college graduates with no education experience (or even coursework in most cases) and places them in high-needs classrooms around the country for 2 years. Afterwards, I stuck around in north Tulsa for a year before joining the (also notorious) KIPP charter network in east Austin, Texas.

It was a crazy 8 years with a career’s-worth of extraordinary experiences. I made loads of mistakes, hit important milestones, worked on my craft and achieved measurable victories in ways I had doubted were possible. As an intense dude who too often wears his heart right on his sleeve and too seldom considers the ramifications of his words, I forged deep and lasting relationships with students and colleagues; I also was occasionally a lightning rod for controversy and alienated people. Only now that I’ve moved to a much more low-key rural district in a public school have I truly begun to process my experiences and their lasting impact.

In short: I learned a lot. I think I’m going to occasionally begin using this space to think out loud about my experiences and what I’ve learned. It might be useful for some people because while I will never stop improving my craft, I got shit done in a real way. By my third year, my students were far outperforming district averages in reading comprehension growth, language usage, state test results– whatever marker you want to use. That never ceased. My students in Texas scored in the top ten percent of all Texas kids, irrespective of district, in three different subject areas over my five years as a KIPP teacher. I’m not one of those teachers who can be written off as a lazy coaster, a bitter failure, or someone who doesn’t have the success to back up their method. I feel like I learned real things about how to effectively run a tough classroom and (after a rough start) put those things into action.

I also stuck around long enough to see a lot: that counts for something. Most TFA and KIPP people don’t last in the classroom. 2 or 3 years and they’re off to law school, grad school, or a promotion up the administrative ladder. While I have PLENTY of thoughts on that, for now I’ll just say that 2-3 years in high-poverty classrooms is not a very long time in the game, especially if we want to start drawing big policy conclusions/coach people on teaching/run schools/generalize about students. Maybe I’ve got some observations that are at least worthy of debate.

I also don’t have a horse in the race, ideologically speaking. Although I love TFA for giving me the opportunity to teach that my local NJ schools would not, which in turn led to some definite positive impact on students, I’m not a TFA ambassador. The organization was not helpful to me in the slightest after my two years with it were finished and in some respects it was an active impediment to my continued teaching career. Neither am I one of those contemptible TFA quitters: people who broke their two-year commitment pledge and now justify their betrayal of their students with a blog trashing the organization.

I am also neither “pro” nor “anti” charter school as a matter of principle. Different districts need different things. The very nature of charter schools means that they will vary wildly in setup and execution, sometimes even within the same network. I do shake my head at a lot of the stuff people (especially anti-charter people) say about charter schools, the work they do, and the teachers they have. It’s stuff only an ignorant loudmouth who has never worked in a high-needs district would say. I achieved my greatest successes, met and learned from my best colleagues, and got my very best coaching as a KIPP teacher. At the same time, it took a lot out of me– more than it should have. My KIPP experience showed me just how much charters burn through people, often in the pursuit of what are really just yearly numbers on a balance sheet (test scores/suspension rates). In the pursuit of their goals, they will often thoughtlessly (and sometimes ruthlessly) use people as cannon fodder.

I hope my writing is useful. Maybe it will make some people mad; maybe hardly anybody at all will read it. Who knows? I’d like to get some of my lessons learned out there before the acute memories start to fade, in the hopes that someone will get something out of it. If you’re interested, stay tuned.

 

Deadlift Buckshot

I love the deadlift. It’s gone from the one big lift I neglected in high school to my all-time favorite. I have many thoughts and opinions on this classic exercise and like a nice room-clearing shotgun blast, they seem to fly apart in a disparate spray while all generally hitting the same wide target.

***

When I think of the most basic and brutal strength lifts that can be done in the gym, the squat and the deadlift stand next to each other as titans. There are many awesome lifts, but these two are on the short list for combining the greatest number of muscles in a full-range movement that serves as a true test of absolute strength.

The squat was formerly my favorite of the two. It’s such a classic lift, and done properly (more on that later) it has an incredible and punishing range of motion. Stand up with a load on your shoulders: killer! But there is debate and bullshittery that swirls around the squat. Did you get to full depth? What IS full depth? How wide is your stance? When I saw squat videos as a high school kid, it struck me as a lift that separates the wheat from the chaff in the weight room, and this is true if we’re being honest. Unfortunately, I see far too many guys using the squat as a vanity lift– trying to look and feel badass without actually attempting to BE badass.

You know who I’m talking about: the guys with way too much weight on the bar, dropping to half or even quarter depth to parallel (parallel meaning their upper legs parallel to the floor– rightly considered the minimum distance for a valid squat lift), leaning their bodies over. What is the point of this? To have a bigger weight on the bar? To anyone who truly appreciates the squat, these half-lifts look foolish. To anyone who doesn’t know the difference– most of them don’t know or care how much weight is on the bar anyway. Your larger weight numbers are fool’s gold, gentlemen.

Powerlifting, one of the only sports even on the athletic fringe to feature squatting as an event unto itself, does a poor job setting an example in this regard, also. Competitive powerlifters are crazy strong and crazy dedicated dudes, which makes the appearance of their event squats (especially in the heavy weight classes) a sad letdown for me. These guys penguin-walk to the rack trussed up in a ridiculous suit in which they can barely move, set their legs as wide as they possibly can, and lean far over as they push their hips back. To the casual observer, the bar looks like it barely moves. Check out this “world record” to see what I’m talking about:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBbRmuPTHNQ

Take a lighter athlete and put them in a squat rack where they stand with shoulder-width feet and go all the way down to “rock bottom”– the rep looks like it takes forever. It’s awesome! To my mind, it’s stronger-looking than that super-wide stance in that crazy suit. Former 1,000 pound squatter Jim Wendler said it best when he casually dismissed his competition days by saying he “wasn’t strong.” (!) “Sure, I could waddle up to the monolift and squat, but I couldn’t do anything else. Really, all I could do was squat, bench, and deadlift. Today I have different aspirations.” I think I know what he’s getting at. The point of all this strength work is to be something more capable, heroic, and inspiring: not less. Yes, I’m aware it works differently in “raw” meets and for lower weight classes– but that dilutes it even further. What does a truly inspiring squat look like? There are many different answers.

Deadlift, by contrast, is beautifully simple: did you pick the weight up off the ground and stand up? Ultra wide or narrow stances will make the lift more difficult, not less. You can execute with poor form if you like: on a max attempt, it will probably result in horrific back injury. Yes, there is support gear: belts, wraps, straps, suits, etc: you know what? The bar still has to travel from the ground to your waist in a standing position. Did you pick up the weight? At the end of the day, the answer is a simple yes or no that everyone (even the casual observer) can see. The strongest deadlifts all look the same.

***

On support gear: dudes, cool it.

I see too many belts being used in gym deadlifts. If you need a belt to complete an attempt, much less a simple work set, aren’t you just guaranteeing a weak link in the chain? What’s the point of strength if it’s useless without a belt on? I can understand for very high weights and/or max attempts, it’s a good “just in case” measure to support the vulnerable lower back, although even then, if you’re thinking your back has a high chance of being injured without the belt on, I don’t understand the desire to deadlift the weight in the first place. I think it’s another case of getting numbers on a weight bar confused with actual strength. Again, if you’re pulling several hundred pounds, I totally get it– but shouldn’t us more regular, non-lifting-competition folks be strengthening our backs enough to pull the weight? Anyone who needs a weight belt to pull 315 pounds needs to take the belt off, drop the weight down to 135, and work their way up.

The same is true for straps. For those unfamiliar, straps basically connect your hand to the bar on a deadlift attempt. The rationale is that the true weakest link in the chain is the hand with all its tiny little muscles. We don’t necessarily want to hold back the massive potential of our back and hamstrings with the relative weakness of our hands. For a 900 pound deadlift, this is all but essential. But 300 pounds? 400 pounds? Remove the straps and strengthen your grip. I see guys with 315 pounds on the bar carefully putting their straps on and they just look foolish– like a kid bringing out a really awesome mountain bike and then putting training wheels on it. Who do you think you’re impressing/fooling, gentlemen? If you’re deadlifting less than 500 pounds, you have absolutely no business wearing straps.

***

Failure does not look cool.

Another fine specimen I see from time to time is the guy who loads a deadlift bar to 500 pounds, stands around talking and “looking cool” for about 15 minutes, then finally settles into his attempt. By now, of course, everyone is watching out of the corners of their eyes to see how it goes. The bar moves about two inches and comes right back down. Invariably, there’s some “har-har, I guess it’s not my day, bro” nonsense, and then he spends the next ten minutes laboriously unloading all 465 pounds worth of plates.

I don’t know what inspires someone to attempt a lift they don’t have a chance in hell of completing. If you have any awareness at all of what your body is capable of doing, you know within yourself if you’ve got a shot at that 1 rep max you’re trying to hit. Any very basic heavy work in low repetition ranges will do a lot to give you an idea. The guys who do this (and I’ve seen it three times in the last couple of months) have to know it ain’t happening.

I know what you’re thinking: they think it looks badass to attempt a 500 pound deadlift.

No. No, it does not. It looks idiotic, delusional, and dangerous. Not “cool BASE jumper dangerous” but dipshit-in-a-youtube-fail-video dangerous.

And that, finally, is what I also love about the deadlift. With the various machines and dumbbells, it can be easy to put on a show– to play the vanity game with popcorn arm muscles and lots of huffing and puffing. “Look at me! I’m badass!” The deadlift does not allow this. It is, for lack of a better term, a “real” lift. No one has a defining “strength” moment with a large stack of weights on the tricep pulldown attachment. The deadlift bar is something else entirely: loaded heavy, it will teach you something about yourself, and that something will be unmistakably  and coldly measurable.

Rising from the Ashes? A Visit from a Ghost of Christmas Past

It was December 24, 2008: my first (and only) Christmas Eve alone and my first (and only) with absolutely no idea what the future would bring. As I shut the door to my little two-room cottage in Highlands, New Jersey, I felt the despair that had been growing on me settle in a final, dark cloud.

Ten months earlier, I’d lost the person I had thought was the love of my life and I still felt the grief every day. More than that, I had completely lost my sense of myself. Two years earlier I had felt confident about so many things: I was the guy who had married his high school sweetheart and stayed with her for a decade, who had been the Cornell underdog, then the grad school underdog, had succeeded at both and was on his way to teaching. I had three guys I called best friends, all of whom had been groomsmen at my beautiful wedding.

By Christmas Eve 2008, I was just another dude working at a car wash. Divorced, approaching my thirtieth birthday, barely getting my bills paid with no healthcare– and I didn’t know it completely yet, but two of those guys I thought were great friends would be out of my life entirely within a year. I had tried and failed to get a teaching job for two years running, taking mornings off to drive through traffic and personally turn over my resume to countless school administrators. Despite my Cornell degree, my Masters, and my work as a Teaching Assistant, I rarely got so much as an interview. I was crushed, it was going to get worse before it got better, and I knew it.

Needless to say, it had not left me in a terribly festive mood. There were people who cared about me and who would have gladly spent time with me on Christmas Eve– even the good dudes with whom I worked at the car wash. It wasn’t like I had to spend Christmas Eve by myself. I just didn’t want to be a wet blanket at anyone else’s holiday, especially since nobody stood much chance of truly distracting me from my many failures. I wanted to bite the bullet and do some thinking.

I turned my little laptop on and streamed some music from KMFA, my favorite Austin Texas radio station and one of the only 100% classical music stations left in the country. They were doing a live broadcasting of “Christmas at the Carolan,” a yearly choral classic performance by a local choir known as Conspirare. It was hauntingly beautiful. As the sounds of those people singing moved softly through my kitchen, I turned my lights off and went to one of my small windows, looking into the darkness outside, thinking, “What’s next?”

I had asked that question of myself many times over the preceding months, but never with a truly broad scope of possibility. I had toyed with the idea of Officer Candidate school, even enlistment, but had never visualized the research of service branches and the walk to a recruiter. I had wondered about the door-kickers with the FBI and ATF, but had not even begun an application. I had applied with Teach For America, a big step for me (and one that I had completely rejected in 2006) but I had not truly considered an assignment that would take me far from home (possibly forever) and put me on an entirely new path in life.

I knew as I looked through that window glass into the night that I would soon be taking some or all of those steps. A storm had passed through my life and turned it upside down. It wasn’t until then that I truly knew there would have to be another storm, different in events but similar in effect, sweeping away all of my old plans and quite a bit of who I thought I would be.

And so there was– and it was every bit as difficult and permanent as I imagined it would be.

Nine years later, however, with the storm long passed, I look with an incredible sense of satisfaction on the intervening time between then and now. I learned to date and love once more. I challenged myself repeatedly, acquired new skills, and honed them to execute important and fulfilling work. I found a true sense of adventure and a love for the wide and crazy beauty of this country. It is now strange to imagine that I had considered suicide at a few different points. I look back now and it’s as if I’m remembering the despair of another person.

Except it wasn’t another person. It’s moments like these in so many stories that the cliched metaphors about rebirths and phoenixes come out. I haven’t got one of those; So many things about the man I was still remain. No one who knew me twenty years ago says “Wow, you’ve changed.” I feel like I hear of far too many people who, when backed into a miserable corner from which there is no escape, simply put their heads down and accept the misery, maybe because they fear losing not only everything they have if they want to make a change, but losing themselves in the process– that the changes would be so great, they’d have to be a totally different person to bring them about. This simply isn’t true, and as an excuse to continue wasting days of this far-too-short-life on misery, it’s terrible.

That isn’t to say I haven’t changed. I’m harder, for one– and I mean that in both positive and negative ways. I’m less of a limitless dreamer, more of a diligent worker, less immersed in beautiful moments while somehow being more aware of how precious they are. I could go on. There are many ways in which I am definitively NOT who I was in 2006 when I left grad school at age 27. How I think about things is very different.

But it’s cool to look back to that Christmas Eve in 2008 and realize that the basics are all there and still intact. Deep passion, love, joy in good work, a penchant for Viking/raider/guerrilla rebel excess, and appreciation for great stories have stayed right where they are on my short list of what truly makes me who I am. I have no doubt the same would be true for many other folks on the brink of despair. Embrace the storm! There’s no “phoenix moment” necessary, after all.

Lessons on Being a Dad to a Toddler

It’s certainly true what they say about the challenge of being a parent– although my idea of what that challenge truly is has changed a lot.

The tasks of taking care of a baby that sounded (at first) gross or difficult actually become routine and easy fairly quickly. Dirty diapers? Washing a grubby baby? Dealing with a child throwing a tantrum? These were all on the list of things I found intimidating when my kid was born and there was an adjustment period– but adjust I did. Aside: any dad who “can’t deal” with dirty diaper changes or screaming kids needs to man up. I actually laughed today when I had to snatch my 14-month-old kid out of the road and, his face nearly scarlet with rage, (hahaha daddy’s boy, alright) he repeatedly attempted to head-butt my jaw while he struggled and screamed. 8 months ago I would have needed a half-hour walk by myself after an episode like that. Now it’s just the cost of doing business when you absent-mindedly let the outside play get too close to the street.

The truly enduring challenge, then, has been something else entirely– the loss of time to indulge in a lot of the things I find fun to do. For one thing: good times spent with good people. I see my wife all the time but not in the awesome way we had come to take for granted. Quiet time together is so important to us and there’s almost none of that while our sweet little chubster is awake. We’ve had to completely alter the way in which we have fun both in and out of the house and be very mindful of the time we get. This is a little easier on us because we love our kiddo so much, but we’ve spoken wistfully more than once about the time when we could just run out of the house on whatever adventure we liked. I’m thankful we have each other and him, and at least we can work together on offsetting what we miss.

But there’s other folks, too. People interest me enough that I’ve always enjoyed hours of conversation with just about anybody! Having a toddler makes interacting with people difficult. Most people without kids don’t “get it” and have to make an effort to put up with an inquisitive toddler. Even when they’re trying their best, it can get uncomfortable. Many people who do have kids understand, but it can be hard to put hang-out times together. Between your kid(s) and their kid(s), there’s a lot of naps, appointments, routines, tasks, and worries that are all happening at different times. I can’t tell you how often considering my kid’s schedule has kept me from picking up the phone to make plans– and I only have ONE fifteen-month-old! I can’t imagine what this is going be like if we have four or five like we’re planning to do.

Aside from that, I have LOADS of other interests. I love literature, historical research, strength training, conditioning, learning new skills, cooking, you name it. I didn’t have anywhere near enough time for all of this stuff even BEFORE we had our kid, and now I have a lot less…

And there you have it. I’ve used “we” a few times in the last couple of paragraphs, but I’ve used “I” even more. When I reflected on this over the last few days, I discovered that so many of even my “quality” pursuits were profoundly self-centered. It’s to be understood, of course; I’m only human. Still, isn’t there an opportunity for improvement in this problem?

Speak to many people about their most fulfilling pursuits, and they involve service to others. It feels good to be of help to people who need it. Generations of soldiers and volunteers describe this feeling when asked why they do what they do. There’s even something for the self-centered and vainglorious in it: you get to leave a legacy through your actions. Isn’t that something most of us want? When presented with the choice between a long, happy life in obscurity or a short, violent, glorious one, the ancient hero of heroes Achilles chose the latter without a moment’s hesitation. To leave the world better or more badass than we found it: that’s the sort of thing we can feel good about on our deathbeds. I’ve often taken pride in my teaching job and the idea that I’m helping kids to a better outcome or understanding of the world through my work. I hope to make a difference every year.

Kids. And what about my kid? I look into the eyes of my beautiful son and I begin to question a lot of the dissatisfaction with lost time that I have. Isn’t a lot of it inherently selfish? It is good for me but if I were doing it living as a hermit in the desert, I suspect there would be a bit of an empty feeling about it. To push oneself to improve is far more rewarding when we can experience camaraderie with others in the process or leave a legacy through the example we set. I’ve happily poured thousands of hours into my young teaching career to experience this with my colleagues and students. Isn’t this now a shift to an even greater form of the same labor, with my awesome wife for the camaraderie and my own kids for the legacy?

This does not mean sacrificing all of my true passions at the altar of “raising kids.” Too often I’ve heard parents (bitterly) muttering that sentiment. It’s a frequent excuse for becoming a sad-sack shell of one’s former self. On the contrary, I think if I’m going to raise badass kids, they need to see how passion for life is lived, and learn by watching. Rather than give up my interests, I just have “shave close” and get to the marrow, as Thoreau envisioned– to decide what is truly a passion vs. what is more properly called a hobby(and can therefore wait until my kiddos are grown up enough that they require less time).

As a result, I can tell you I’ve spent a LOT less time on the phone, reading the internet, and consuming information on affairs that do not truly concern me and/or I can do very little to change, to say nothing of sports news(a truly frivolous way to spend time if there ever was one). This has made me a less-informed citizen on current news, although I keep tabs on the basics and the big stuff. In crisis over whether to give up this habit or my physical training and deep reading, I cut this out– and I don’t regret it for one minute.

In my general disapproval of people staring into their phones all the time, I had never truly considered how much time I was doing it until I suddenly had far less time in general. This forced a reduction. I think many folks would have allowed the training or the deep reading to lapse and I’m very glad I haven’t. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s funny to think that what was such a massive form of frustration– “LESS TIME!!” has actually improved the usage of the time I have. In the end, the decision was simple (though again, not ‘easy’). When I ask myself which of these things I’d like my son to see me give up, I know I need to put the phone down and go train or go read. History, training, and literature are passions for me in the realest sense– I feel good modeling them for my son. In the big picture of my family’s life, these are trifling sacrifices in a (comparatively) brief season.

And that’s been the biggest lesson so far– the transition from today’s individual small concerns to the long game of life– the big picture. It’s been hard blazing that path for myself. But in cutting out those instant gratifications and self-indulgences while trying to balance who I want to be for my son, I’ve found that I’ve focused more keenly on who I want to be, period, because really, they both come out to the same man.

I dig it.

Thoughts on Football: “Tanking”

“Tanking”– deliberately turning in a sub-par effort to put you higher in next year’s draft order. Each year there is buzz around this, especially when next year’s draft class has promising quarterbacks.

I feel like I say this every year, but the notion that anyone on a NFL sideline is “tanking” for some big-picture shot at a draft pick is absurd. Player contracts are terminated at ease with very little impact on teams relative to impact on the player. Non-superstars who don’t perform well every week are soon gone. This is true to a lesser extent for coaches. How many head coaches with 4-12 or worse seasons under their belt are around? The reputation and job security of coaches is built through wins — made even more difficult to obtain with league-enforced parity. Aside from all that, the math on “can’t-miss” draft prospects hardly suggests that title. About half are disappointments and all need a supporting cast. Just ask Alex Smith.

This of course is before we get into the pride and competitive nature of the players– the overwhelming majority of whom had to fight and scratch their way into the league. Does any cornerback want to be known as part of a defensive unit that surrendered the number of points necessary to put up a 2-14 win-loss record? I’ve never been anything close to a professional athlete, but I’m competitive enough as a person to find that idea abhorrent even in backyard football games. I can’t imagine how I’d feel with career success, a stadium full of people and a live TV audience in the equation.

Everyone is shocked the Jets aren’t tanking this year like the idiot sports writers thought they would. Who would want to “tank” so that the Johnson family will have another high draft pick to screw up– Coach Todd Bowles, already on the hot seat? QB Josh McCown, already nearly 40 and playing purely for the love of the game? WR Jermaine Kearse, looking for his first big contract? And those are the big names– what about the backups who could wash out by association with the rest? “Tanking” is something I’ll bet no one outside of the executives in the front office would find acceptable. It’s a horseshit concept for sports radio hosts and sports ‘journalists,’ most of whom have never played a down of football.

Attitude Adjustment in Action

“Make the best of a bad situation.” It sounds like solid advice– something we aspire to do when we wind up in uncomfortable circumstances. But there’s something I don’t like about that phrase. It admits defeat right away. Making the best of a bad situation sounds like fighting a rearguard action during a steady retreat: the battle has already been decided. It justifies a defeatist attitude about your circumstances. It can be hard to avoid when things out of your control come together to form an inconvenient scenario, but I don’t like to retreat. I want to look for the win, by ambush if necessary! I’m not always good at this, but let me explain what I mean.

This is my first year teaching in a new school district and new state. I have taught eight years of English Language Arts and history, going back and forth. I’ve got my undergraduate degree in history and my MA in English. Despite valid licensing for both in two different states and a very good evaluation record, I had a ridiculous time even getting an initial license in the state of Kansas. Because of a few technicalities in Kansas state law for number of years in a row taught for a single subject, the only license available to me was through my MA. The language for this license type is meant for people coming into teaching right out of grad school. In essence, according to the state of Kansas, I am a first year teacher and need to be treated like someone brand new to the profession.

As a result, I have to complete a two year mentoring program with an experienced teacher in my building. This requires professional meetings multiple times over the next two years while he checks up on me to make sure I’m “progressing”– so I need to devote precious plan time and take occasional half days off to accommodate my mentoring schedule. As we sat down for our first meeting, I quickly realized how awkward this was for him. We had met and chatted a few times before and the last thing he probably wanted was to be babysitting another experienced teacher– let alone one not even close to his subject area (he teaches math). We discussed the circumstances and he revealed another layer to me: by more bizarre technicalities, he couldn’t mentor a true brand-new teacher right on his hallway. As an alternate-route certification prospect, she isn’t even eligible for a mentor at all until she gets her “initial” license in two years!

After we got done laughing about that, I was at a crossroads. While I didn’t have a full professional teaching license in the state of Kansas, I definitely had a license for a shitty attitude at this point. There were so many reasons to dismiss this whole process: a result of typically Byzantine government regulations that don’t hold up to common sense, a waste of time for two professionals, a waste of district resources, a diversion of skilled guidance from where it was truly needed, etc. And my mentor clearly appreciated my situation. In fact, I could have easily “made the best of a bad situation” by getting the professional aspect of our conversation done as quickly as possible, maneuvering myself through the hoops with bare minimum of effort, and getting on to resuming pleasant personal conversation we’d already had about life and teaching.

But I had a flash of good thinking I wish I got more often in times like these. If I did those things, then the whole list of reasons to dismiss the process that I mentioned above would be irrevocably true! The battle would be lost; defeat admitted. Enjoy the rearguard action on a bad day. What purpose would that serve? Why accept that list? Why willingly participate in a waste of time? I couldn’t change the circumstances, but I certainly could change my approach to defy that list.

After all, I’m hardly done learning in this game. My mentor might not teach humanities– ok, so talking about lesson plans is probably not the best use of time. But what about best practices in execution? It doesn’t matter what you teach; many of those remain the same from classroom to classroom. This might not be my first year, but it’s my first year teaching English to high school kids and several inefficiencies and bad habits were already showing themselves.

I embraced my mentor’s questions about what wasn’t going well as a great opportunity to self-reflect and thought out loud about what they were. For one thing, I’ve been making my students do quite a bit of thinking and writing in longer form. My idealism told me that this was a far better way to get them working with critical thinking skills and great literature than, say, worksheets or multiple choice, but it requires timely feedback. The truth is after two months I was woefully behind in grading and providing feedback on writing. How can I expect my kids to improve when we’re ten moves further ahead by the time they get feedback on the first move?  I was committed to writing but had to speed up grading. I also was struggling to pace my lessons: at my old school, I had gotten used to 75 minute lessons. Now I had 45 minutes– a staggering difference in instructional time. This led to many other difficulties. I wasn’t consistently assessing my kids on skills according to my plans. One day’s skills would spill over into the next day, which would disrupt the procedures for learning the next thing, and so on. I didn’t know what I expected my kids to know by the end of any given day.

Bad.

These were all things my mentor could appreciate. I got them down on a brief, bulleted list. Then we brainstormed about big picture fixes and little, day to day things that could solve some of the problems. Most importantly, these solutions had a measurable outcome that he could check with me on and get a simple answer. For example, I set arbitrary deadlines for grading writing: 48 hours for short prompts and 4 days for longer ones. As I send him brief details on when my kids are writing, he’ll be able to ask when we meet up if I’ve hit the deadlines- or he can simply look at the gradebook. I also set a reasonable goal of assessing at least three objectives per week. I anticipated that I would still struggle to assess every day. While that’s the ultimate goal, in at least some small way– I need to know what my kids learned– in the short term I still haven’t adjusted completely to 45 minute lessons and I need some solid wins. If I don’t make it one day, then that means there’s spillover to the next, making it difficult to assess another skill on that day with even less time. I don’t want to start immediately taking hits. If I can get three per week for now, that’s improvement!

By the end of our meeting, I had some concrete, achievable goals in my hand that are definitely going to impact student learning– the reason I’m in this game to begin with! I’ve got a great rapport with my mentor. I think he appreciated me being completely open to the process and reciprocated with ideas for how I could give him feedback on his mentoring questions and his approach. As I walked out to my car, I felt excited. I hadn’t wasted time at all. Who cares about the ridiculous things that brought that situation about? We imposed our will on it– snatching purpose from waste and victory from the jaws of defeatism.

Boom.