Thoughts on Teaching: “Guts” and “Pride” Are Not a Substitute for Fitness.

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.

 

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