I am a mess. This is the first sentence of my book Bold Humility and it is still true of me today as I write this.
At the start of this calendar year, I did what I do every year. I wrote a bunch of New Year’s Resolutions. I am one of those weird guys who actually writes goals on January 1st every year and works extremely hard to actually accomplish them. As a result of my annual goal writing, to date, I have run more than 12,000 miles. I have read almost 500 books. I have paid off credit cards, run marathons, published books and articles, found new jobs, and gone on diets, but….I am a mess.
I know I am a mess because my life is not made up of checking items off of my bucket list. It is not made up of Instagram posts declaring success in hitting an established benchmark. It is made up of daily encounters of failing, picking myself up, and moving forward.
This year, one of my resolutions is to read through the Bible again. I have done this seven times in the past, but it has been a while. This year, my “reading” is actually being done by listening to an app on my phone as I drive to work each day. So far it’s going pretty well, but…as I said earlier, I am a mess.
Last week, while driving to work early one morning, I had my phone streaming through my Bluetooth speakers as I listened to a voice actor read a chapter of Genesis. As the Bible was being read to me, my car hit a patch of ice on a backcountry road and my mouth started spewing, “$hit, $hit, $shit!”…AS THE BIBLE WAS BEING PLAYED THROUGH MY SPEAKERS. I am a mess.
Last year I had the goal to run in The Boston Marathon. On April 15th I was able to accomplish my dream, earn a blue and yellow finishers medal, and take home a certificate of completion, but wow, was it hard. From January 1st to April 15th, I ran a total of 720 miles to train for the 26.2 mile race. My runs were not pretty. I was chafed. I was sore. I was gross. I was cold. I thought I looked like Rocky. I looked like Jack Nicholson. I was a mess.
Currently, my Instagram account shows 2,565 posts, yet I have more than 10,000 photos saved to my Google Photos account. Even though some think I do, I don’t post every picture I take. Why? Because I am a mess.
I currently have three books published, but all together have written close to thirty. This is because what I often submit to my publishers as my first draft gets rewritten, edited, rewritten again, and again, and again, until what is finally sold online appears to be a much different text than what I originally wrote. To produce one final copy, I typically have to create ten earlier drafts. I am a mess.
As a dad, I have four amazing kids who I love dearly. Some have even told me that my love for them may actually be my biggest weakness as I struggle to let them struggle. I hate seeing them sad. Some say I cater to them. Some say they lead me and not the other way around, and even still, I have made selfish choices that have led me out of their lives for days and weeks on end. I raise my voice. I get cranky. I get selfish. I ignore. I am a mess.
The truth is life is messy. We are all messy. Progress is messy.
As a school leader, I am often heard encouraging others to take risks. I ask teachers to take chances. I ask principals to think outside of the box, but taking a chance in today’s educational climate is scary because, unfortunately, even though we know life is a mess, in our attempt to prepare kids for life, we shy away from the mess. We encourage the mess with our words, but our actions often penalize it.
We encourage retakes, redos, and life long learning, then wrap it all up in one big final assessment. We tell teachers to take a chance, to engage, to inspire, then we walk into their rooms with a clipboard and expect perfection. We want innovation and creativity. We criticize those who mimic Pinterest boards or who purchase lessons on Teacher Pay Teacher, yet expect teachers to do what they are told by administrators. Teachers tell students to advocate for themselves, to create, and to think outside of the box. We hold students accountable when they copy the work of their peers, yet we celebrate when they copy the words of their teachers.
States and school systems work to create processes to encourage models of constant improvement. Schools are asked to take internal reviews of practices and procedures, then receive external audits to judge the conclusions reached. Schools are asked to develop improvement plans with goals and objectives, then are all held to a singular standard and help accountable when arbitrary deadlines are not met for growth.
The purpose of education is to take each person from where they are and help them reach where they can be. This should be the mindset we have for students, for staff, as well as for collective systems. We have to stop chasing the “got it-don’t got it” paradigm and realize that learning is not a lightbulb moment and neither is growth and improvement. They are all processes that are constantly evolving. You can never learn it all and you can never have it all. You can only hope to keep getting better.
In your classrooms this year, how can you encourage a mindset that focuses on the process over the product? How can you embrace the mess and encourage the risk? In your school this year, how can you minimize the emphasis on those who “got it” and celebrate those who are getting it? In your state, how can you celebrate the progress being made, encourage true transparency, and eliminate the risk of being open and honest?
We will never be able to fully and truly create processes that encourage growth if our goal involves a focus on an event. You don’t get results by focusing on results. You get results by focusing on the actions that produce results.
Do you want to run a marathon this year? Great. It takes more than signing up and showing up. It involves getting outside every day and putting in the miles. It requires a daily assessment of progress, strength, and improvement.
Do you want to read 15 books this year? Great. It takes more than a trip to the library and signing up for a Book Club. It requires taking the time each day to engage in text and a belief that daily reading will lead to a larger accomplishment.
Want to have a classroom filled with student learning? It takes more than daily instruction and weekly tests. It requires constant interaction with students to determine strengths, weaknesses, misunderstandings, and skills. It requires daily course corrections and progress monitoring.
As a marathon runner, I know that as I prepare for a race, I only run 26.2 miles on race day. When training, I never run more than 20 miles in any one session. Doing so provides no physical or mental advantage. The race doesn’t start when the gun goes off. It begins when I take my first steps outside four months earlier.
If you are a classroom teacher who wants your students to succeed on a standardized test this year, providing a practice standardized test will not yield better results. What does yield results is a continued focus on teaching and learning. If you are an administrator and you want your teachers to engage in highly engaging lessons and instruction, providing one or two observations with limited feedback is not the answer. Even with the best of intentions, this still comes across as an accountability check. The best way to see results is through constant contact, observation, and feedback.
If you have a goal this year to grow and improve, embrace the messy. Remind yourself that the scale is not always going to move the way you want it to, but growth is messy.
Life, learning, and progress are filled with ups and downs. Just take a look at my podcast performance last year. Each peak represents listenership; each valley is a void. It went up and down. This is life. This is learning. This is progress. Embrace the mess. Embrace the struggle. Embrace the process.
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Read more of Dave’s thoughts at https://schmittou.net
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