One of my greatest memories in high school sports came from my sophomore year of high school. The season before, the varsity team was pretty bad (only 3 wins maybe), and they graduated a bulk of the starters. The following year, we were ‘rebuilding’ (that term is loosely applied here since rebuilding is usually preceded by success). Either way, we were young and inexperienced.
In our 5th or 6th game of the season, we got demolished by another team. The offense didn’t work, our defense didn’t work, nothing went as we had practiced it. Over the course of the season, we learned a great deal, gained experience, gained confidence, and even started to win a few games. At the very end of the season, we put together a little winning streak, when that same demolition derby of a team came to our gym. Of course, we were feeling better about ourselves, but playing better and improving by the 30 point margin of the previous game are two completely different things.
Obviously, I’ve telegraphed the ending of the game with my intro. We won. And I don’t mean some moral victory. We won comfortably. For the last 5 minutes, it actually felt like we were toying with the other team. We ran our offense so effectively, that it was like playing against a JV squad. We laughed as we took any shot we wanted. We played with joy. We felt the true reward of athletic competition. This is what coaches live for; to show their team how much they have improved, to show the value of hard work and teamwork, to provide them with memories that help high school boys (who are mostly oblivious to objects directly in front of them) recognize the value of those intangibles in a way that won’t ever be forgotten.
What’s that have to do with teaching or education?
The true value of teaching doesn’t come in the easy win. The true value of teaching comes from the reward of helping a student, or a group of students, work long and hard to reach their potential, in such a way that they didn’t realize what their potential was until you helped them reach it.
The thing about high school sports is that you constantly test yourself. Every game is a test to see how you’ve improved. Sometimes it is hard to tell, because the opponent doesn’t care how hard you worked, and they might just be immensely more talented than you, but there are tests nonetheless. Teaching is a bit less straightforward – the tests are all the time and none of the time, at the same time. We don’t have game days and we don’t have playoffs to determine champions. But sometimes we find moments that allow us to see the incremental success that compels us to keep moving forward.
At the end of last year, I received and excitedly accepted a summer task. The teachers in our building shared what they thought we needed to improve; the head of our lower school and I completely agreed. We initiated conversation around the topic before we all left for the summer and then I dug in. I read as many books as I could. I participated in week long workshops, and I connected with any educator who I thought could help. I was energized and thrilled to share this learning with my colleagues.
Surprisingly, during this week, our week of teacher meetings and prep for the year, I lost some of that energy. I had prepared all summer, but felt unprepared. The head of lower school and I had mapped out the opening meetings, and created what felt like a solid plan at the time. But as the meetings grew nearer, I felt like it wasn’t good enough. I felt like the film director who continues to edit his film until the head honcho says stop. Fortunately, I don’t have to put a film out for everyone to see, but kids will be experiencing some of the fruits of my labor on day one.
Ready or not, here they come.
Fortunately for me, the teachers were showing up for meetings this week and kids were showing up for class no matter how prepared I felt. Our first faculty meeting was game day #1, and the first week with students will be game day #2. I don’t really know when game day #3 is coming though.
When I started on this task in June, I knew that our goals would not and could not be completed by one person over a couple months. It also would not and could not be completed by an entire faculty in a couple meetings before the school year started. It was a challenge that needed a few months of individual work, and a couple faculty meetings, but mostly it needs us as a group to take this on over time, together. Because the process is the place where we will learn best how to make this successful, not just in the preparation. I truly believe that in the end, we will feel great about the work and the accomplishments.
Making sketches and drawing blueprints are valuable, but if you never lay down a stone, you won’t know if it really works. The best part of moving forward with the plan, rather than simply drawing blueprints, is that you see if it works. If the structure starts to crumble, you know you need to stop and rethink the step you are on; in this case the foundation wouldn’t have been strong enough to build on anyway. If you test it out, and it works, you know you can move forward to the next level
I know my work is far from done yet, but it was definitely time to test out the foundation. I’m thrilled that it looks like we have a solid ground floor and we’re ready to build the next level.