As an endurance athlete since the age of 12, I’ve had the opportunity to do some difficult things. That three-hour run we did in the cold rain at forty-five degrees comes to mind. So does the Horribly Hill Ride, a cycling tour that concludes with a 2000-foot climb on the top of Blue Mounds State Park. And now that I’m in the pool, every day challenges my ability to physically and mentally exceed my capabilities.
For all those years of training and racing as a multisport athlete, there is still one activity that serves as a challenging comparison to all others. Teaching.
Classrooms of all sorts
Perhaps you’ve stood in front of a classroom of children or adults with everyone depending on you to provide a stimulating learning environment. And if so, you are to be congratulated. It takes personal assurance to teach any subject to others. One must be confident in the material, capable in its presentation and compelling in its delivery. Otherwise, you lose your audience.
As any standup comedian can tell you, losing your audience is one of the worst feelings known to the human race. A disinterested sea of faces is as deflating as a bad dream. And just like those dreams where you’re trying to run away but can’t move your legs, it is an enormous challenge to win back an audience.
Musicians know the pain of this distance between performers and audience as well. One story about rock balladeer Gordon Lightfoot says it best. The singer was onstage but having some challenges due to some substance abuse problems. And when he asked, “Does anyone have any requests?” an audience member shouted back. “Yeah! Try to remember the words!”
Harsh. There’s nothing like a heckler to gut your ego and confidence in some circumstances. Imagine if you were finishing the last leg of a triathlon and all the spectators along the course, rather than yelling encouraging words shouted out insults instead, such as, “You look like hell! Give up, this isn’t worth it. Why do you even try!”
That’s how wilting it can be to serve as a teacher and lose rapport with your audience.
Good teachers know how to hold the attention of any audience. In my own experience, I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms over the years. While I’m not a teacher by profession, I was married to a public school and preschool teacher for nearly thirty years. My mother was also a public school teacher for twenty years. My oldest brother retired from teaching English after thirty years at a private high school. His students still keep in touch and write him news of their challenges and success in life. He earned their trust because he invested himself fully in the process of teaching.
At his invitation, I once stood before his classroom of high school students to talk about art. The first session felt like it went pretty well. The kids seemed engaged and attentive. I unleashed a veritable barrage of information in that fifty minutes. Then the period ended and another wave of twenty-five students entered the room. “Oh no,” I realized. “I have to do it all over again.”
A teaching marathon
And that’s the challenge. Teaching is not a sprint, as they say, it is a marathon. You can’t sprint the first half mile and expect to finish the race. But given the situation, I plowed into my material. This time it didn’t feel so fresh or exciting. After ten minutes, I could feel a strange exhaustion rolling over me. My brother, who had been standing in the back of the room, calmly made his way up the side aisle and walked over next to me. From there, he slid into leading the classroom, and in doing so, started in with a question that drew the students into discussion and questions.
And that, my friends, is just one of the arts of teaching. There are many, many more. Preparing lesson plans is a key element of the profession. So is knowing how to direct and gauge the pace of learning. That’s all before you get into the realm of inspiring people to learn. In many respects, preparing to teach is like preparing for competition. It takes planning, preparation and implementation.
Teaching as a practice
It also takes practice. Just as becoming a faithful practitioner of yoga takes ‘practice,’ so does becoming a capable teacher. The process typically does not happen overnight.
It matters not so much what age students you are addressing as it does how you are trying to teach. There is far more to teaching than most people appreciate. We’ve all had teachers who are good and bad. Sometimes teachers are both, like the Bad Teacher in the Cameron Diaz movies.
Not everyone that goes into the profession is a gifted teacher. At least not at the start. Those who do excel at teaching, such as the lead character in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, are known to leave a lasting impression on the students they encounter.
One can, unfortunately, say the same thing about bad teachers as well.
Teachers as coaches
A few of the teachers I had in high school and college also served as coaches in track and field, basketball or cross country. It was always a unique experience to be coached in athletics and also tested in the classroom by the same person. Suffice to say I always wanted to impress my teacher/coaches even more with what I could do in the classroom. Because I didn’t want to be just a ‘dumb jock.’
Thus I can clearly recall with pride getting a paper back in the Earth Science classroom from my cross country coach Rich Born at Kaneland High School. The grade at the top of the paper said “A.” I’d answered all the questions correctly. That meant a ton, because while the results of a running race are quite empiric, being based on time, so are the results of taking a test where there are right and wrong answers. Learning what you can do is a great sense of satisfaction in either case.
Imagine the pride a teacher feels when they see students achieving results that they did not think they could accomplish! As a person that has taught in many circumstances outside the true profession, I can profess equal joy and satisfaction knowing that something you’ve taught your students has been absorbed. The same holds true for coaching, which is why so many good teachers also make good coaches. Getting better at a sport often requires instruction and guidance.
The same holds true for coaching, which is why so many good teachers also make good coaches.I’ve coached the sports of baseball, basketball, track and field, soccer and cross country.Getting better at a sport often requires instruction and guidance. Coaches are the teachers who try to make that happen.
This is particularly true in the “skill events” in track and field. No one takes up pole vault and goes fourteen feet the first day. It takes weeks and months of practice on technique and learning the art of turning running speed and strength into height. Our little school out in the cornfields near Maple Park, Illinois, happened to have a big tradition in pole vaulting. State champions emerged from that windy field with the cheesy landing pits. all the sports I’ve witnessed, pole vaulting may be the discipline that required the most teaching. The pole vault coaches were teachers that knew how to see what kids needed to do, and then communicate it. There is perhaps no better illustration of how teachers help students achieve greater heights.
Of all the sports I’ve witnessed, pole vaulting may be the discipline that required the most teaching. Our pole vault coaches were teachers that knew how to see what kids needed to do, and then communicate it. There is perhaps no better illustration of how teachers help students achieve greater heights. And here is my public confession: I sucked at pole vaulting. I could high jump 6 feet and triple jump forty, but was always too skinny in the upper body to manage a good pole hang.
Parents and kids
Like teaching, coaching is never easy, and often unappreciated by those who stand to gain the most from the time and energy coaches put into that endeavor. When I was coaching, I met many very successful parents along the way. Wealthy, important people. Some appreciated the time I spent coaching their kids and would ask questions about how they were doing. Other parents just picked their kids up from practice and hardly said a word. In either case, I always felt it was an obligation to give them honest feedback about their child. Teach your children well, or let someone else do it?
Last night I spent a couple hours doing a storytelling session for a rolling group of fifty students and their parents. It was teaching in its most relaxed form. No curriculum to dispense other than a cute children’s story I wrote a few years back. The story involves a pair of robins who start building a nest, but the male keeps getting distracted and brings backs feathers to stick in the nest rather than the straw and twigs his robin wife asked him to gather. The story concludes when an owl, attracted by the sight of all those feathers waving in the breeze, makes a pass at the nest and snatches a feather away. That’s proof enough for the mother robin to call her husband to task.
The story is about learning how to focus as much as anything else. We all need that, and we’re all prone to distraction. But Mr. Robin gets into his gig of collecting feathers instead of grass for the nest because he thinks he’s doing something pretty cool for Mrs. Robin. Some of our intentions are plenty good. They just have unintended consequences sometimes.
During the storytelling process, the kids got to venture around the classroom playing the role of the father robin gathering feathers. I purchased the gaudiest colored feathers I could find at the craft store, and build a “nest” out of Sculpey clay that I painted as if it were the mud nest in the story. It all worked wonderfully as an interactive storytelling focus.
Then I led the classes in a live drawing exercise where they copied what I drew on a piece of paper under the Elmo projector. I was frankly shocked how well these “students” including skeptical parents did when following along to draw an owl.
But by the end of those two hours, I was pretty cooked. It takes a lot of personal energy to keep things moving. I thought to myself, “My God, if I was an actual teacher, I’d still have four or five hours to go.”
And that’s the deal with teaching. It’s your job to win the day, every day, for days on end. That’s your mission and your calling.
It’s frequently exhausting work. Add in the fact that teachers often come in early and stay late, coach athletes after the school day or run bands or other extracurricular activities, and it’s no ‘nine to five’ profession. Far from it. =========
Two friends that taught in public schools for more than thirty years recently retired. During their careers, one earned an award for the top teacher in Illinois. The other won a similar award as the top teacher in their school district. They were inventive, creative teachers who also trained dozens of student teachers over the years. They have taught college courses on teaching, handing their experience to new generations of teachers.
It turned into a long haul for them in the last few years. That’s because school policies and national politics such as the federally mandated No Child Left Behind turned their profession into “teaching to the test.” This conservative effort to deliver accountability in early education may have been well-intentioned, but it was a failure in terms of enabling the talents of true teachers to direct and school students in real learning.
My friends are still teaching, however. Even in retirement, they continue in the belief that teaching is one of the most important things you can do in life. Whenever I read about or hear people criticizing teachers or complaining that they earn too much, have too much time off, or think they’re entitled to pensions, I think of all my teacher friends that have given so much of their lives and talents to people like you and me.
Perhaps you don’t think education is that important? If so, I ask you: Is intellectualism, academica and higher education really the enemy? These were some of the disciplines consistently maligned in the runup to the recent presidential election.
“I know people with Master’s Degrees that can’t hold a job,” one commenter barked on a Linkedin thread. The topic was Donald Trump, and why he constitutes the advent of a new era of frank talk and “common sense.”
But the comment criticizing someone with a Master’s Degree that can’t hold a job seems to make a number of assumptions about why that person had trouble staying employed. Why make the supposition that the degree equated directly to the inability to stay employed?
To turn the question around, could it be the sameheld prejudice against learning and the pursuant market value of that Master’s degree that has something to do with the reasons why that person was dismissed, or could not get hired because the degree raised their salary requirements? A Master’s Degree is not cheap, yet sometimes the companies who want that grade of experience are not willing to pay for it. That’s the real problem sometimes, along with ageism of many and all types.
There is another level of consideration here as well. Could it be that in a world where being right seems so goddamned important to so many people… that a person who is actually able to point out errors of fact or fatal principles in corporate actions might be an unpopular personality? Instead, it may be the ignorant Yes Men and Yes Women who remain most employable in such a culture.
Just as importantly, in the realm of religion and politics, that’s how false dogma and fascism come to rule the day.
Teach your children well
We’re all teachers of one sort or another. As the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song says, it is our job to teach our children well. Sometimes we even have to teach our parents a thing or two. I know my children do.
But to malign all teachers (as some people seem wont to do) as lazy or lacking value in our culture is the worst mistake the world can make. Such rude assumptions betray the arrogance and ignorance underneath. That doesn’t mean people can’t become a success despite such attitudes. As Mark Twain once said, “All it takes is ignorance and confidence, and success is sure.”
Some people will never get that bit of insightful humor. They refuse to see themselves in the lesson Mark Twain conveys in that biting bit of humor. It’s a common problem, this persistent, arrogant lack of self-awareness.
We’ve all been present in the classroom when someone fails to “get the joke” about their woefully wrongheaded answer. Life can be cruel, and at times, so can teachers. If need be. There is an instructive value in that. There is only so much publicly professed ignorance a teacher is required to tolerate.
Cold, hard truths
I recall standing in my dorm room after a long run on a cold winter afternoon. Staring out the window toward the Oneota Valley in the distance, I remarked that the hills looked purple. A diffident athlete from another sport strolled over next to me and barked, “They’re not purple. They’re black.”
No amount of discussion or corroboration from other people in the room could convince this hulking guy that the hills were purple. So I asked, “Are you colorblind?”
He took that as an insult. “Fuck you!” he said, raising a fist as if ready to punch me.
Some people just refuse to consider that their own observations, worldview or viewpoint could be wrong. Even when a crowd of otherwise rational believers joins in, the stalwart and stiff-necked refuse to be convinced.
Those are the people that teachers have the most difficulty in reaching. It is also true that those types of people tend to be the crowd most willing to criticize teachers or other leaders as lazy or undeserving of the pay or benefits they work so hard and long to earn.
The Bible records what the Lord God thinks of such folks. “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9).
Yes, the Bible recognizes that dealing with stiff-necked people is the biggest challenge of all. Convincing a stiff-necked person, or people, that they might be wrong or need to repent is sometimes an impossible task.
Even as great a teacher as Jesus Christ had a tough time convincing people there was a better way to engage the world than to possess, covet, dictate or demand that everyone else go along with the legalistic ways of authoritarian religion and politics. Truth be told, Jesus wanted to set us all free from that. But stiff-necked people stood in his way. That segment of society persists in our culture to this day. Bloviators and accusers. Stiff-necked believers.
So the task of reaching (or teaching) stiff-necked people remains one of the world’s greatest challenges. We see it even in the top levels of sport, where “uncoachable athletes,” resist the call to discipline, whine and complain and make it difficult for everyone else around them to achieve.
Encouraging such arrogant people to repent is one of the longest and most difficult tasks in all of history. It can exhaust the spirit and tax the soul. It also cost the Lord Jesus Christ his life. He taught with all his heart and wisdom, but in the end, the stiff-necked believers and authoritarian zealots betrayed him and turned him over to even more brutal authoritarians who tortured and killed him. Meanwhile, Jesus’ detractors stood below and jeered him on a cross for daring to teach something other than what they told him to do.
It’s still quite difficult to get the stiff-necked world to recognize these traits among the ranks in the present day. So here’s a little list shared from the website Crosswalk.com in a post from Dr. Ray Pritchard. It cites the eight hallmarks of stiff-necked people. These are the traits that keep people like you and me from learning. They throw up stumbling blocks between great teachers and ourselves.
1. Certainty that you are right.
2. Refusal to listen to anyone else.
3. Defensive when criticized.
4. Making excuses for your shortcomings.
5. Lashing out at others.
6. No desire to examine your own life.
7. Repeated pattern of misbehavior.
8. Prayer without repentance.
Perhaps you’ve seen some of that on social media. And perhaps, like me, you’ve committed some or all of these errors in judgment. But if you ultimately repent and soften your heart, even after great conflict, you are not lost. You can still learn. You can still lead. You can still teach. You can still advocate for social justice, promote the merits of honesty, express hope for the future and show respect for great teachers.
You become, in other words, your own best teacher. This holds great value for you as a multisport and endurance athlete as well. Because with an open heart you also learn best from the experiences of others. I’ve written about that trait of openheartedness in the face of challenges in my book The Right Kind of Pride: Character, Caregiving and Community.
Our outgoing President Obama tried to set an example of teaching and temperance. He also stood fast on issues of civil and racial justice, and against gun violence by and against police. He did all this while serving as a model of graceful fatherhood in the face of great responsibility. He was a great model and teacher for us all, especially black Americans so long maligned for a supposed lack of core values in family, faith and virtue.
Yet what has that earned him from the stalwarts of a stiff-necked nation? Largely, a patent ingratitude and forgetfulness in how far we’ve come from that period when the economy was in shambles and our nation was steeped in ideological, endless wars of choice. Add in a dose of racially-driven disrespect and discourteous accusations and hateful comments toward his wife Michelle, and somehow it seems the picture should be clear enough. If some people had their way, there would have been a public crucifixion of Barack Obama, the man whom many accused of being a ‘false Christian,’ or a ‘Muslim.’ As if the word itself constituted an insult. There are still martyrs of spirit among us today.
Triumph of the unteachable
What we’ll be gaining has yet to be revealed, but that list of stiff-necked traits above certainly has a set of checkmarks next to it when you consider the supposed “teacher” of such great intelligence that he claims no need of counsel from anyone else, especially America’s intelligence community. He was proven dumb wrong on that issue, and many others. But even when he’s wrong, he insults those who point it out and refuses to accept what he’s learned even when he’s already admitted it.
That would get you a failing grade in any Middle School classroom in America. There’s not a teacher on the planet who would put up with that kind of performance from a student. Yet as our nation’s often blind republic(an) would have it, we’re now about to install that fellow as the head of our collective classroom.
Let Stupidity Reign!
So I’ve come to accept that it may take all the endurance this country can muster to make it through this stiff-necked reign of bluster, Tweeting and political terrorism passed off as normal politics. This will be a test for all of us as individuals. Even those who support Trump have been finding it difficult to account (e.g. Twitter?) for his nuclear threats, apparent collusion and love for Russia, and his continuing lack of consistency on any issue under the sun.
Because sooner or later, as citizens, and as a nation, we will find ourselves uniting under completely different banners in order to deal with the consequences of Middle School politics writ large. I predict that liberals and conservatives will find surprising new common ground on issues of education, environment and business on which to collaborate.
It’s true in every classroom: sometimes it takes a total idiot to bring to light the importance of the classroom environment, and how people actually enjoying learning together when necessity demands it.
Such was the case in American during World War II. And in some respects, the Civil War when class idiots insisted their racial superiority guaranteed them more rights than most. Such divisions ultimately drew the country back together. And before that it was the American Revolution when mutually liberal resistance to the conservative authority of Great Britain drew people together to form a more perfect union.
So in the meantime, let us say a prayer: God help us. Be our everlasting and enduring teacher. Amen to that.
Addendum: Godspeed, President Obama
What you read next, you may not fully agree, and you have that right. But in America today I think we’re losing a President who was in many ways a great teacher. Many stiff-necked people refused to listen to his example. They considered him too academic for their tastes, or criticized his demeanor as too officious, or arrogant. But that ignores the facts of his terms in office.
The man has shown great patience while facing one of the most raucous, divisive classrooms the world has ever known. For starters, he taught us perseverance in the face of a crushing economic recession brought on by a previous administration. Some disagreed with his methods, but the fact of the matter holds true: they worked.
Then our President showed patience in the face of often unjust criticism. He demonstrated willingness and consideration for the ideas of others, but was slapped down and ridiculed by his political opponents, especially Mitch McConnell, who swore that he’d force Obama to fail.
President Obama continued all this in his teaching style, and many people hated that. He was a law professor and Constitutional scholar before taking office. In this mode, he admittedly tested the limits of law with executive orders. But he knew what he was doing because he actually understood the law more than his peers or even more than his predecessors, who advocated the concept of the Unitary Executive. But truth be told, his executive actions were necessary given the complete and publicly stated opposition from his political opponents. And ask yourself an honest question. If you were in his position, what would you have done?
Modeling vision and courage
Pushing forward with vision, Obama succeeded in proposing ways to confront our nation’s great challenges in healthcare. The Affordable Care Act, passed by Congress and verified constitutional by the Supreme Court, took the courageous stance of protecting millions of people from discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. The law also extended vital women’s health care provisions, among many other benefits.
And yet again, his political opponents refused to learn anything from these vital changes and protections for the American people. Instead, they engaged in stiff-necked obfuscation and resistance by voting fifty times (or so) to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The job of Congress is to propose and build laws. And those who opposed the ACA and arranged 50 votes against it should instead have been working to build legislation as an alternative if the time ever came. And at this moment in time, years after the issue was first debated, there is no such plan available. This is a massive failure of both public conscience and political responsibility.
And so, the longheld and harsh criticism of our outgoing president seem to have no basis in fact or action. On every indicator from job growth to stock market performance, independence from foreign oil to basic gas prices, America is in far better shape now than it was eight years ago.
Obama himself admits that his tenure was not perfect. That is the hallmark of a true leader. For that example alone, I am thankful to have seen this man and his wonderful family do the best they could while serving the country. You may disagree, or continue to hate the man for any number of reasons. But I ask you to as the hard questions as to whether those feelings are genuinely based on principle or through habit of mind and tribal allegiance. Because that is also what God, or you are not a believer, human conscience asks you to do.