Success as Obstacle
I'm starting to notice a pattern. When I discuss innovation with teachers, often their arguments against trying something new include the following phrase, "But these kids need to go through something like that." "That" is often a vague abstraction, but when focused it translates into, "what I went through as a kid." This nostalgia for our past experiences—the rites of passage we performed—is understandable. "I stayed up late and memorized vocabulary words for the SAT, why shouldn't they?" or "That's the way I learned Math" or, like when I first noticed it in myself, "That's the way I was coached."
I started my teaching career at an all-boys boarding school in Virginia, and my first coaching assignment was as an assistant football coach. I had no idea what I was doing, had never studied new approaches to the game, and so I relied heavily on what my coaches in high school did: the old-school model. Water was for wimps, breaks for the soft, tackling was a daily occurrence, and complaints filtered out the unfit. I used the same drills my coaches used, the same philosophy, the same attitude. And guess what? It worked. In the two seasons I worked there, we won at least eight games. I was unluckily lucky. The worst thing for any professional is to have your bad practices reinforced by immediate success. Now that I'd seen it work, I was much more reluctant about listening to new ideas.
Football, for me, was a rite of passage; having to go through the drudgery was the end goal. Mastering the game was not really the point.
Until I met Mark Moroz, a Canadian and former all-ACC lineman at Wake Forest. Mark and I coached together for six years (he coached the offense, I coached the defense). When we first met and discussed our approaches to the game, he looked at me like I was crazy. "You want to do hitting drills every day?" he asked. "Yes," I said, emboldened by success, "it toughens them up. I don't want to have a defense that can't tackle."
"It also wears them out," he reminded me, "and we need them to be fresh for Friday night." And he was right, of course. And here is a tip for every leader out there: by asking the right question (often "Why do you do it this way?"), you can bring about the change you want to see. Mark's questions exposed me—I didn't have sound answers. Well, besides the one: "I've always done it that way, and we've been winning." And this is the mindset that kills innovation!
As a coach, my problem was not that I did things the "old" way. The "old" way was all I knew and all I was interested in knowing—that was my problem. Unfortunately, my team's success solidified my bad practices. Mark was an instrumental figure in my professional career, a leader who wasn't afraid to challenge my outdated philosophy even though he knew I had the wins to back me up. He wasn't interested in rites of passage or even records, he was interested in doing things right.
Did I change overnight? Of course not. But my mindset changed. Suddenly coaching became more fun. I started utilizing the abundant resources at my fingertips. I read the latest science behind best practices, I watched new drills on YouTube, I reflected on my own approach. My role as coach became a verb, not a noun. I was coaching. And I didn't throw everything out. I maintained the rigor, but I varied my practice. We still hit a lot, but we didn't have much full contact. We practiced our form. Essentially, I began learning about the game, and my coaching became about improving player performance, not about establishing the rites of passage. I didn't scoff at this new approach either, I embraced it. And yes, at times, it felt like what my players went through wasn't quite as difficult as what I went through as a high school football player. But the results were undeniable—my average players were smarter, faster, and stronger than some of the best players I grew up playing against. Why? Because coaches know more about how to get the most out of their players than they did just a decade ago. That's the reward for progress, but we have to be willing to reap those rewards.
Truth be told, the football teams I coached my first two years did well despite my bad coaching, not because of it. Likewise, students sometimes thrive despite bad teaching. And after Mark challenged my philosophy, the team became even more successful. 10+ wins a season became the standard.
I write this blog because I fear the immediate success we see in our schools—SAT or AP scores, college admissions, etc.—becomes an obstacle to progress. The most successful businesses utilize the "Ambidextrous Organization Model." Here is a video featuring Michael Tushman, one of the researchers behind this model. Essentially, these "ambidextrous" businesses continue being excellent with the present standards using their right hand, but they begin to use their left to innovate. They don't immediately throw everything out that's made them successful, but they don't stagnate either. They know that if they fail to develop that left hand, they will put their companies at risk of being left behind.
I think we, in the same way, must be "ambidextrous" teachers. You don't throw sound practices out, but you must continuously question your practice, try new methods, and learn what's happening in your field. Change is an evolution, sometimes slow but always necessary. Leaders like Mark challenge us to change our mindset about what is possible. We will never do everything perfectly. That's not the point.