Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why I'm a Jerk

I've tried to deny it for years, but I guess it is time for me to admit it: I can be a bit of a jerk. I do a lot of jerky things, and my face just naturally looks angry. I tell my students when they aren't doing what they need to be doing. I let them know when they are screwing up, and I let them know what they need to do to stop screwing up. When my students fail to put forth their full effort, I call them out on it, and I assess their work accordingly. To many, this seems like some real jerk behavior. Maybe they are right, but I am not going to change. I'm not going to change because my job is to prepare my students for the real world, and the real world is a jerk. The real world will let you know that you are screwing up in a far harsher way than a stern lecture and a low grade on an assignment.

My students need to be prepared to go to college, the military, or the workforce and bring their best effort every day, even if they are tired, even if they have big plans for the weekend, even if they broke up with their boyfriend/girlfriend, even if they just don't feel good or are having a bad day. The real world is going to expect my students to be responsible, driven, and dependable, so I expect the same thing. That is the only way I can feel like I am doing for them what I am called to do. Is it what they want me to do? In many cases, maybe even most cases, the answer is no. They do not want me to push them, to hold them accountable, to have high expectations, but I will say this: I have never had a former student tell me that I did not do enough to prepare them for life after graduation. My class is hard. It is supposed to be. If a student passes my class, they should know that they accomplished something meaningful. A passing grade in my class is not a participation ribbon; it is medal that was earned through hard work and determination. That is the way it is supposed to be. No one has ever learned anything they did not have to work for. Period. So, I make my students work.

A couple of days ago, I posed a simple question to my students: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? As often happens, one of my students turned the question on me. I will share the answer here for everyone who was not in that class on that day because it may give a little more insight into why I'm a jerk. I told the class that when it comes to my students, I am an optimist. I expect the best from them. I expect that every student in my class wants to be successful, wants to learn. I go into every class period with the expectation that my students are going to give me their best shot until the bell rings. I give every assignment with the expectation that my students are going to use it as an opportunity to push their performance level up one more notch. If I were a pessimist, any failure to meet those expectations wouldn't bother me because it would just confirm my low expectations, but that is not the case. When students sit in my class and do nothing, it bothers me. When students blow off my assignments, it really bothers me. These things bother me because they let me down. I have such high hopes for my students that when they let me down, I feel it. When they let me down, I let them know because wherever they end up after graduation, their boss, commander, professor, etc., will certainly let them know when they fail to meet expectations, and in the real world, the stakes are much higher than they are in high school.

Coaches will often discuss players by breaking them down into two skill sets. One skill set is tangible. Does the player have solid fundamentals? Do they understand the game? The other skill set is intangible. You can't measure it. How does the player respond to being coached? Are they mentally tough? How do they handle adversity? The first set of skills are less important in many player evaluations than the second because the first set of skills can be taught if the second set of skills are solid. Life is the same way. Successful people have the second set of skills. They are able to take negative feedback and learn from it. They are mentally tough enough to see it as an opportunity to get better. When they get knocked down, they look at the damage, learn from it, and move on with a determination to not get knocked down again. If a person can do that, they can learn just about anything. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. It is the case in sports, as it is in life.

If I weren't a jerk, my students wouldn't learn. If I accepted sub par work, what would drive my students to try harder the next time? The answer is nothing. If I give a student an A for something that is a C at best, will they ever actually produce something worthy of an A? Why would they? I would be leading them to believe that what they are doing is already outstanding. As far as they would be concerned, they do not need to improve; they are already at the top. If I made a student feel like not doing an assignment for my class is acceptable, what motivation do they have to turn in the next assignment. We all want to believe that getting gold star stickers for everything we do is going to make us feel so good about ourselves that we will naturally get better, but that is only partially true. While we will feel good about ourselves, we will never get better. We get better by competing, especially against ourselves. We get better by constantly striving to outdo our last effort. Without honest feedback of our shortcomings, how can we grow?

So, yes, I'm a jerk, but I'm not a jerk out of malice. I'm a jerk because I care more about my students and their future than the vast majority of them will ever understand. I'm a jerk because I want to see them be successful in life, and I know that they are going to have to work hard to do that. I'm a jerk because I would rather them get a little scuffed up within the protection of our high school surrounded by people who are there to pick them up, dust them off, and help them learn to get better than out in the real world where they will be stepped on by the next person waiting to take their position. I'm hard on my students because I know that what comes next will be even harder, and I can't look myself in the mirror if I'm not doing everything in my power to make sure they are ready for it.