Saturday, January 4, 2014

When Good Isn't Good Enough

I’ve been asked by a number of colleagues and students why I’m choosing to invest myself so thoroughly in my writing projects.  I’ve asked myself the same thing.  To paraphrase the Wu-Tang Clan, a full length novel ain’t nothing to mess with, at least not lightly.  Three full drafts and continual minor revisions have taken up hundreds of hours that might have been more productively spent improving my teaching, or less productively spent wandering the wilds of Skyrim pulverizing butterflies with an axe.  So why do it?

I've come to the conclusion that the answer has to do with the difference with being good at something on the one hand and doing something great on the other.

I have a good mind, not a great one.  When I was younger, I developed the misimpression that I was a legitimately great thinker (it’s not an uncommon misperception among young men).  I was the product of a highly successful high school speech and debate program.  I was surrounded by good-to-great minds (including a couple of legitimate geniuses), all of us driven to maximize our talents; the dynamic was one of mutually reinforcing success, and I achieved at a level high enough to think myself a good deal smarter than I actually was.  When I went back into education as a coach, I expected more of the same.

If you’re not a great thinker, or if you’re not working as hard as you could, debate will let you know.  It's true of those who compete in the activity and equally true of those who coach it.  Whatever else may be said for debate, it produces a wealth of objective, empirical data on the question of whether a coach is an effective educator.  Eighteen years in, the data confirm what my own subjective assessment would suggest:  I’m a good coach and teacher, but not a great one.

There are going to be people who are going to read that sentence and accuse me of selling myself short, or even of beating myself up.  That's not an accurate assessment.  To say that I am not a great educator is not to deny myself any value. It is, rather, to recognize how thoroughly the concept of greatness has been debased.  Within the educational profession in particular there is very little incentive for teachers, schools, districts, and even nations to resist hyperbole when describing the quality of their work.  Words like “excellent” and “great” are reflexively used to describe mediocrity.  As Garrison Keillor aptly put it, "all the children are above average."  I don’t think that can be true.  I think that there is value in preserving the meaning of words.  Great is great.  Good is good.  Average is neither.

The school at which I teach, and its direct predecessors, have employed 94 years’ worth of debate coaches.  Many of them have been very fine educators, but never have the debaters achieved more than when under my instruction--in fact, they've never been particularly close.  Over the course of my career, I’ve built two competitively successful programs essentially from scratch.  The data support the claim that I am a good educator, and to be a good educator is no small thing.  A good educator will have great days, sometimes even great weeks.  A good educator can have attributes of greatness, such as my ability to adjust lessons on the fly to accommodate new or unexpected input, or to create teachable moments out of whole cloth.  A good coach can be instrumental in helping great pupils achieve great things, and a good coach can help any pupil be better than they otherwise would be.  And a good educator can make a meaningful positive difference in students’ lives; there are young people out there who will die happier for having crossed paths with me.  By any reasonable reckoning, my school is lucky to have me.

But I’m not the best teacher in my building, or in my department.  I have seen great teaching, and it doesn’t look like what I do.  I have too many bad habits.  I’m not lazy, but I have a hard time sustaining energy over long periods of time; I tend to coast.  I don’t have a great teacher’s focus; I don't engage in the painstaking attention to detail that characterizes great educators.  I have an unfortunate combination of a black sense of humor and bad judgment about when to deploy it; hence, I cause pain to students and co-workers without intending to.

And then there is my expertise in my chosen field--once a considerable strength of my teaching, and now, increasingly, less so.  The game which nurtured me is leaving me behind.  Competitive debate evolves and changes in unpredictable ways, and one can never fully understand an argument without actually having defended it in competition.  I remember, as a young coach, looking with scorn on older educators who weren’t fully versed in my contemporary, cutting edge tactics.  Now I have, unmistakably, become one of those older educators.  I learn as much as I can; I hire assistants who know contemporary theory and delegate to them; and every year, the game moves on around me, and I grow a bit less competent.  The slippage is inevitable. 

I’m a good teacher.  I probably always will be.  But not quite a great one.  Within my debate community, the torch is increasingly being passed on to a new generation of exceptional coaches with the energy of youth and the expertise of recent experience.  Greatness still resides in the old warhorses whose special genius and exceptional pedagogy makes them masters of the craft.  But my window to join them, it seems increasingly evident, has closed.

Even so, I’m not yet ready to concede that there's nothing great inside of me.

Every writer, I think, wants to believe that they can create something immortal.  We all want to create something that will survive us, to write a new top line to our own obituary.  And it’s that dream that makes the constant straining worthwhile.  It’s the same sentiment that made Michelangelo (the artist, not the ninja turtle) say that every block of stone had a statue inside it, and that the sculptor’s job is to discover it.

I’m not Michelangelo.  What I’ve written to this point isn’t great.  It’s not even close to great yet.  But I’ll just be damned if I can’t see the outline of the statue in there.  And that’s what keeps me chipping awaythe desire to be the man that’s worthy to wield the chisel.  The belief that I can be that man.  It’s not despair over the person I’ve become, but the exultant expectation that I might also be something more, too.  That there might be something in there that only I can bring out.  Something that will bring happiness to complete strangers.  Something that will be worth all the extra hours.

I read everything put in front of me as a boy, but I might have enjoyed Choose Your Own Adventure books most.  I loved the sense of volition they gave me.  It may be because of those books that I’ve never believed in destiny, but in choice.  Some part of me still sees the future in terms of a series of branching narrative paths, all equally possible in a given moment, all dependent on the choices I make. 

I have a lot of choices to make where my writing is concerned.  I know better than to think that effort is a guarantee of success, or even that writing a great book means that the book will achieve greatness.  Down 99 percent of the paths ahead of me lies an unpublished novel or novels.  Down most of the rest lies a novel that’s published but mostly unread.  A debater would know how to weigh the potential costs and benefits.  A rational actor would give up the quest, focus on what he’s good at, and pour the extra time into improving myself at the job for which he’s paid.

But still there’s that voice whispering at me, from way down one sliver of all those possible pathways.  The voice that whispers, But it could be greatIt might be great.

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