Teaching Isn’t Easy, But The Process Is Fearless

One of the best lines from the movie A League of Their Own is spoken by Tom Hanks. No, it’s not the crying line. Everyone loves the crying line, but that’s not even the best line in the movie. Instead, it is the moment when Hanks’ character, Jimmy Dugan, is talking to Geena Davis’ character, Dottie. She is the best player on the team, but is about to walk away from the sport. She tells him that it all just got too hard. Dugan’s response, despite often playing second fiddle to the crying bit is powerful.

It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great. 

Jimmy Dugan, as played by Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own

That line perfectly explains the teaching profession. While teaching movies and even well intentioned writers are perfectly capable of depicting all things that are great about teaching, it is that difficulty piece that often gets lost. And, that could be just as damaging as not showing all of the amazing things the profession can do.

Unlike Hollywood films about the teaching industry, sports films usually get it right. They usually strike a balance between giving the protagonist something to overcome and showing just how difficult the sport can be. Even in fictional sports films, the difficulty of the sport is more or less honored. Dugan’s quote pays tribute to just how great the game is from the point of view of someone who genuinely loves the sport. The game of baseball is great because of the challenge it presents. Overcoming that challenge makes the reward even sweeter. 

Education films generally ignore that. The formula for education movies is something about either an idealistic or disgruntled teacher inherits a problem class. Notice that the emphasis on the kids being the problem and that the teacher needs to fix kids. The teacher stumbles his/her way into turning their lives around. The pathos of that is why we all keep coming back. We come back to make a difference and, maybe, be that person to turn a kid’s life around. But, rarely, does the difficulty of teaching get any homage. 

When I set out to write this site, I had an idea in my head of what my pieces would be. I wanted to share my experiences, hoping that all of my mistakes and lessons learned would other teachers. I wanted to advocate for kids and for changing an outdated system. But, most of all, I wanted to avoid the trap of making it seem like teaching was the movie experience. I wanted to avoid, the “hey, I failed at first, got better, and now I am great. Follow me.”

But, as Brad Pitt asked in the baseball film, Moneyball, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”

Ok, that’s two baseball-related quotes. Sorry. I can’t guarantee there won’t be another.

But, that does apply to teaching. How can you not be romantic about it? How can you not want to chase that feeling of teaching that magical lesson and making a lifelong impact? How can you not want to make kids feel like, as one of my colleagues like to say, they are coming to the best yearlong show ever. So, I do find myself writing with those magical themes in the background. And, sometimes, as that same colleague likes to tell me, my pieces can be a little “light and fluffy.”

All of this came to me during the second day of classes this year. I was feeling good; I finally wrote a piece about blocking out and relegating the naysayers. My colleagues were as positive as I have ever seen them. Many were excited about their creative activities to get kids to feel like they were a part of the community. It seemed like a magical time. My first day of classes were positive. Kids worked together, we chatted, and that was it. It seemed like they all left happy. 

I was feeling good about the second day. I had a plan for more community building activities. And, we accomplished it. More or less, everything went according to plan. But, I left feeling like something was missing. It just didn’t have the bonding result I was looking for. Despite actually planning, the activity wasn’t what I thought it would be. I left disappointed. I didn’t sleep that much that night. I kept thinking why it didn’t work. Did I forget something? Did I say something wrong? Was my energy off? 

In my head, I had the movie story line going. We would complete the activity, all of the kids would realize we have all these cool things in common and we would leave as a close-knit group. They left happy enough, but the activity fell flat. It wasn’t the kids fault; they did what I asked. It was mine. Or, it was just one of those lessons that didn’t work. 

The point is those lessons happen. They happen a lot.

The following day, we recovered and followed that up with a pretty positive Friday. The funny part to those two days was that I actually scrapped my original plan on the drive into work and came up with a better idea. I walked into class and announced, “This could either be the best lesson I ever did or epic failure. Let’s find out.” It turned out to be pretty good. The students seemed to have fun and I got to know them better. I left for the weekend with some of their writing in hand and a positive feeling about where we were going.

Then, today happened. In one class, another tech fail, which forced the lesson to be modified. Looking back, I should’ve just went with plan B, but I really wanted to get this lesson out there. The lesson is all about how students can turn their perceived negative qualities into their strengths and how they amplify their strengths. I went through with the modified lesson and it was just alright. I saw some kids nodding along, some kids really thinking about what the world has told them is “bad” about them, and some kids wondering what in the world this old guy was talking about. But, because of the tech issues and a slower start to class, I didn’t get to wrap it up. I needed to close it out, but will instead have to wait until tomorrow. As I write this, I regret not waiting on this lesson.

We’ll recover tomorrow and it will probably be alright, but that isn’t the point. Despite all the planning and 21 years of experience, there are still bad decisions, less than optimal outcomes, and frustration. Despite always wanting to use best practices, always putting kids first and wanting to do right by them, always wanting to do new things, always wanting to use tech to enhance lessons, and always chasing that romanticism of the profession, there are days of failure, even epic failure. Worse yet, there are days of mediocrity. I think those days may actually be worse. At least with failure, I can evaluate and fix or say that we tried something completely different. Mediocrity is much more difficult to measure. 

Despite having the mindset of “Do Simple Better“, it isn’t always easy. In fact, it rarely is. I can sit and write about things that worked for me; those are easy and fulfilling. More importantly, I want others in the profession to make those ideas their own and do even better. But, I never want to give the idea that every day is like that, especially for me. For most of us, it is not and that’s alright.

How do you get through “those” lessons where everything doesn’t go according to plan?

For me, I borrow another baseball quote from Joe Maddon. I told you I would get one more in.

“The Process is Fearless. The Process — it lacks emotions, it’s the moment, it’s the mental anchor, it simplifies the task.”

Joe Maddon, Manager Chicago Cubs

I believe in my process of teaching kids. I believe that if I follow the process for the year instead of worrying about some of the daily outcomes, I will accomplish our big goals. I want them to develop their voice, develop their ability to question the world, put those two skills together to communicate it to the world, realize that what they have to say matters and can have an incredible impact on the world, and to find their passions. Everything I do in class is movement towards those skills.

There will be lessons like the past couple of days, but that won’t stop me from continuing to innovate and to continue the commitment towards those goals. If I get fixated on the outcome of each lesson, I will lose sight of the process. If I follow that process, cultivate that process, students will leave my room better equipped for life. 

Like a baseball player and team, a teacher can fail on a given day. I’ve lived it. Last year, I had my favorite year of teaching to date. If there was ever a year that felt movie-like, it would be last year with “My 89“. It was a unique year in that we were all in a class for the first time together. I committed to a process and believed that it would lead to us all accomplishing our goals. It believe it did. But, even in that magical year, I can clearly remember a lesson that I was trying to teach about how to evaluate credible sources. I had planned it and thought it would be clear. Within 10 minutes, I knew it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was a flop and easily one of my worse lessons of the year. I knew, however, that those concepts were important and I was committed to the process. I redesigned the lesson and did it again the next day. It was better. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.

A few days later, we did an activity/lesson about using the appeals in argument. It was easily one of the best lessons of the year. Both of those experiences had one thing in common: they were part of the process. The bad lesson didn’t rattle me into thinking that the kids wouldn’t accomplish our goals or do well on their assessments. Why? I wasn’t focused on the outcome. I was focused on the process of teaching and knew that I was taking them in the right direction. Had I abandoned the process because of a few bad lessons, we wouldn’t have accomplished our goals. 

The reality is, despite what “light and fluffy” articles may say, that teaching is difficult. There are days when everything goes wrong, from tech failures to lessons that just don’t hit the mark. There are days when you say something wrong or set the wrong tone, which loses most of the class. We all have them. As long as you are in the profession for the right reasons, you will continue to have them. That’s reality. That’s what makes the profession the challenge. And, that’s why we continue to chase. That’s what makes teaching great.

We chase those good days. We believe in those good days. We know that if we remain confident and steadfast in our process, not only will we accomplish our goals with our students, but we will have more good days than bad. And, we will likely even have some magical ones as well. 

So read to be inspired. Even watch those corny teacher movies if that’s your thing. Just know that there will be days when you come home and feel like a total failure and nothing close to Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s normal. It comes with the job when you actually care about it. Just commit to your vision of what you want for the kids in your classroom. Don’t let anything, even a day that feels like a fail, change your process. If you trust the process, you are going to accomplish great things for kids.