Apex Mountain of Educators

I recently thought back to my first interview, which was over 25 years ago. This came to me while listening to one of my greatest pleasures, re-discovering Bill Simmons in his current medium as a Podcaster.  My friend, Camp, mentioned Simmons’s pod “The Rewatchables” as one I may enjoy. I gave it a try and have been hooked on it and everything Simmons ever since!

The format is simple, Bill and his friends re-watch a favorite movie and analyze how the movie stood the test of time.

The friends use “categories” as a means to stay on track because, as friends often do, Bill et al. stray from the topic as skillfully and enjoyably as middle schooler who gets the teacher and class deep into a discussion about the destructive powers of plastic straws while in Math class.

The category that had me reminiscing was “Apex Mountain”, a discussion that ponders the question of which performer was at the top of their game, or as Bill says’ The peak of their powers” during the film.

Some examples:

Godfather – John Cazale (Fredo), Duval, Caan

Major League- Bernsen, Berringer, Renee Russo

Clueless- Silverstone

Discussing apex mountain led to a heated debate with my wife. I explained the concept, which she quickly grasped and immediately offered Patrick Swazye circa Dirty Dancing.

Before I had the opportunity to correct her she reconsidered her choice and debated Ghost as an alternative. Rebecca was generally interested when I told her neither. She looked confused so in an effort to offer some clarity, in my best Jeff Healy voice I blurted “The name……. is Dalton”

Her blank stare made it obvious that she needed more, so I continued with a series of quotes from the Swayze classic.

I was shocked when she still had no idea what I was talking about as I said Swayze style of course…..“You won’t, I’ll tell you” followed by the pantheon of mom jokes that is too explicit to include here.

Finally, while executing a perfect “sudo” throat rip, I exclaimed “Roadhouse!!!”

She just smiled and let out a “hmmmmmm”, which is a reaction I often get that says, something is definitely wrong with you, but it is not worth the fight.

So why does the Apex mountain remind me of my first interview? And why did it take me so long to get to the point?
  1.  When asked the dreaded “What is a weakness you would like to work on?” question that is included in every interview.  I responded over 25 years ago with what I thought and still think is a great answer. “I hope to improve every year of my career until the day I retire, so the teacher you will be getting year one will not be as good as the one you will get in year two and every year thereafter.”
  2. How often do you get the chance to write about Roadhouse?  Put that in your pipe and smoke it Brad Wesley!

One of the biggest challenges every educator faces is the desire and motivation to grow and improve.  Some try new techniques, lessons, technology tools (check out these excellent tech suggestions by Jennifer Gonzalez) , others change the grade they teach, some the school or subjects, others reinvent themselves by changing roles, some take on a cause or event, and there are a few who unfortunately coast to the finish line regurgitating the same old lessons year after year, clinging to a past when kids were different, parents were different, society was different.

The latter group has seen their apex mountain come and go.

I never want to be that person.  The one who is not as good as they once were. I never want to be the person others hope retires. I don’t want to be the person who frowns upon every idea, technique, or method to change. I never want to be the type of administrator that is more worried about survival than making a difference.  I want to reach a new apex mountain each and every year.

Can that be done?  No, not always, but we can try.  I challenge you to ask yourself these difficult questions that I often ask myself:

  • What was my apex mountain?
  • How far am I from that peak?
  • What can I do to get back there?
  • Am I the educator I wanted to be when I first started?
  • What shortcuts have I taken?
  • What am I proud of?
  • What am I embarrassed about?
  • Am I still making a difference?

Going through these questions is not easy.  It is hard to look back on success without feeling too self important, and it is just as difficult analyzing failure and revisiting embarrassment.

The truth, no matter how difficult it is to face, brought me to the realization that success in education has nothing to do with positions, salary, or accomplishments; rather, success is the positive influence you have made and are making on those you work with and for.

Will you run through a wall for a student just at the chance that you may make their life a little better?

Do you inspire your staff to be better?

Do you understand that every single person in your school is important, and can make a difference either positively or negatively?

Are you the type of  educator who figures out a way to make others just a little bit better?

Do you listen to your customer (the student) to see what it is they need or how we can make schools better for them?

The structure of schools and employment are a tempting trap that can sap the potential of so many great teachers.  Teachers who could have made a difference during their last year or last day for that matter, but didn’t because they reached their apex mountain too soon.

It is a challenge to stay motivated when your raise is standard regardless of performance. Particularly infuriating for teachers who may have colleagues that are less talented and lacking motivation making more than they do.

It is a challenge to stay motivated in a system that allows a comfortable retirement at 55, an age in which many educators are just hitting their stride and have so much more to offer the field.

It is a challenge to stay motivated when the actual leaders in a school do not have the title, or the wrong leader does.

The great thing is despite all of the challenges, there is no greater joy than making a difference, than learning something new, than seeing an experience through a different lense.

Is it unfair that sometimes sh&*^%  teachers make more than you, sh&^%^ administrators hold authority over you, or that priorities are mixed up?

Absolutely, but those challenges are nothing compared to seeing your profession as a task to get through rather than a wonderful, exciting field in which no two days are ever the same.

Dealing with life’s injustices pales in comparison to the drudgery of living an apathetic work life. What a waste of talent.  I would rather fight and fail, I would rather live, I would rather make a difference or die trying. I want to take Teddy Roosevelt’s advice and enter the arena!

If you are on the wrong side of your apex mountain I would ask you to ponder how to bring the excitement back into what you do.  Rediscover that passion that made you want to be a teacher, a coach, a principal in the first place. It doesn’t matter if it is your first or last year or somewhere in between;  every year has the potential to be the best. Everyday has the potential to be memorable. Every interaction gives you the chance to make things just a little better for another person. Just try to have some fun while doing it!

Below are some other Simmons categories and how they may relate to education. They have helped me to reflect,  laugh, and have added some of the “fun” that is so essential in our stressful challenging field:

The most rewatchable scene– No explanation needed.  In education? When a student finally “gets it”, Kindergarteners singing, Students writing about a teacher who made a difference, a positive note from your principal, the first day of school, winning a championship, opening night…and these magical moments:

The Saul Rubinek/Mark Ruffalo “THEY KNEW!” award for overacting. This goes to the vetern who expresses their disgust when they lose 6 minutes of their prep, or the disgruntled faculty member who makes a show of frustration at a faculty meeting when the principals rolls out the latest initiative.

The Dion Waiters heat check– In sports it is the player who comes off the bench, plays for 12 minutes and goes 5 for 6 from three. In movies the actor who has limited screen time, but steals every scene. In education that great sub, student teacher or recent retiree who swoops in and breathes a breath of fresh air into a building, usually during the doldrums of winter and before you know it they are gone, off to their next challenge.

Aged the best: Greeting kids at the door, getting outside to play, speaking to students one on one, projects, science fairs, parent communication, snow days, making a difference, retakes, and of course that veteran teacher who despite being the highest on the seniority list continues to shine each and every year (Yes you ER!)

Aged the worst– High stakes exams, APPR, worksheets, compliance, desks in rows, popcorn reading, computer labs, traditional homework (come on you knew I would have to get that in there) rote tasks, The “This is an honors class”… excuse for poor teaching or excessive workload……”These kids are out of control”  “If only their parents would…” traditional grading, planbooks, dictatorial leaders and one size fits all education.

Won the movie– Relationships, making a difference, the great people we work with, Betsy Devos (just kidding wanted to make sure you were paying attention.) Kindness, work ethic, forgiveness, growth, and being an educator, the best and most important job in the world.

May this year be your apex mountain as an educator, until next year of course. In the meantime check out the Bill Simmons podcast, the Book of Basketball 2.0 and the Rewatchables, That is after you have read our book and listened to The Teacher and Admin pod of course!