I had just asked Abby to read a draft of my blog post to get some advice on the last few lines. She made her suggestions and as I went back to my keyboard, I heard her sniffle.
“What?” I looked at her puzzled as I pulled her to me.
“It’s just that… I guess.. that a coach can make such a difference. People don’t know that what they say, how they say it can have lasting effects. A lifetime of impact. They can make you believe in yourself, or…”
Abby sat snuggled up against me on the couch, and we giggled. She had tears streaming down her cheeks, and I was blotting at my eyes as we laughed sheepishly. “Mom, when one of us cries, the other one always cries too.” I hugged her and told her that she had just put her finger on why I wanted to share that story. And then I realized that maybe there is more I need to tell.
I’ve been a coach/ teacher/educator for nearly 30 years. What I haven’t said is that the inspirations and observations that I make as an “ordinary Olympian” are crucial to the work I do as an educator. Abby named one of them; educators can have a lifetime of impact, for the positive or for the negative. One little thing you say can be a foothold over a hurdle, or it can be the hurdle.
Another of the guiding principals is that what you say shows what you think. And what you think, whether you are conscious of it or not, drives the way you teach and coach. Duane really did believe that I could do the impossible. He also believed in all of his athletes, and we never ever got the message from him that something was un-doable. If you believe in people, they start to believe in themselves. And when they believe in themselves, then the learning starts.
I do believe that every child can learn and that nothing is impossible. If it hasn’t been done, it’s just because we haven’t figure out how to do it yet. And when I sit at meetings where a teacher comes and says a child can’t read, or can’t remember, or can’t learn, I worry that the child is getting that message too. In fact, I’ve been darned near ready to walk out of meetings where the rhetoric is just poison. There is no quicker way to stop someone from being successful than from helping them to think they can’t be. And there is no quicker way to help someone be successful than to help someone think they can be. Duane did that for me; I want to do that for other people. And I guess I’m sharing that story because I want all of us who teach and coach to touch base with ourselves and our beliefs on a regular basis.
If we don’t think we can teach all kids, then maybe we aren’t really teachers. Teaching people who are not struggling to figure things out is the easy part; the real teaching comes when we are put in a position to figure out how to provide that foothold for a student or learner who is struggling to get over a wall. It’s not easy; the answers don’t just show up. If what we’re looking for is to feel sure, solid and right, then these are the circumstance where we’re really uncomfortable. The real teaching comes when we put our own frustration and doubts aside and stand firmly with our students, letting them know we will not leave them until we both figure out how to get over that wall. The real challenge to being a teacher is understanding what we do as a practice.
I wrote that one of things I learned from competing in the Olympics is that “there is no state of mastery. And the Olympic motto is about the process, not the outcome. As soon as you reach that superlative state, you are done. But there is no superlative state. You are never done… Being an ordinary olympian is about getting up every day, trying, learning and then trying again.” The same is true for teaching.