At the beginning of this year, we had a PD session on character development which really changed the way that think about teaching. It didn’t change it in a philosophical way, but more in a practical and pragmatic way. It’s good that you want to make kids more successful and happier people, but how do you actually do it in a classroom day to day?
I didn’t have all the answers that day because no one ever does. You will just never, ever have all of the answers. As soon as you resign yourself to that, you can start making progress.
So no, I didn’t get all the answers, but I got a few. I got enough to get started. Even moreso, I got enough to get me even more curious.
I started talking to other teachers around the school about the PD and it was largely well-received. One teacher in particular (and who I have tremendous respect for) said she’d been interested in pragmatic character education for a while and had just finished a thought-provoking book about it. It was called How Children Succeed: How Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough and she very kindly lent it to me.
I started reading it, but got overwhelmed at work and life and put it away for a while. It wasn’t until two weeks ago that I really started digging into it again and I’m so glad I did. It’s challenged me a lot while still giving me some tools to teach character education more effectively.
Several sections stuck out to me, but I’ve been thinking about the upcoming section quite a bit over the past few days. It involves a low-income middle school in the US called IS-318 and their exceptional chess program. In an email exchange between the author and a Scottish chessmaster named Jonathan Rowson, the master writes about the difference between wanting something for yourself and choosing it:
When it comes to ambition… it is crucial to distinguish wanting something and choosing it. Decide that you want to become a world champion… and you will inevitably fail to put in the necessary hard work. You will not only not become world champion but also have the unpleasant experience of falling short of desired goal, with all of the attendant disappointment and regret. If, however, you choose to become world champion (as Kasparov did at a young age), then you will “reveal your choice through your behaviour and your determination. Every action says ‘this is who I am.'”
Isn’t that fabulous? Much of the context around this chapter involves practicing chess for hours a day (three as the minimum example, twelve-to-fourteen with the book’s most extreme one), but the notion still stands. If you’re going to do it, then do it. If you’re going to use your passion as your label, then you better do your passion.
Sometimes, I wrestle with this as a composer. During school start up, I rarely compose as much as I want/need to. If I do write through September and October for a deadline, I usually crash hard at the end of November and all the way through until Winter holidays. But in the interim, there’s that nagging feeling of “you should be doing something creative right now…” and you just don’t have it in you.
That “nagging feeling” also means that you’ve made that choice, and you’ve probably made it because you like it, or it gives you some sort of enjoyment or meaning. Here’s another section from the How Children Succeed about that:
During one conversation I had with [the chess teacher] whether she ever felt that her students were sacrificing too much to succeed at chess. She looked at me like I was crazy. “What’s missing from that idea is that playing chess is, like, wonderful.”
If you love it and love doing it, then do more of it. “You are revealing your choice through behaviour and determination” and every action says “this is who you are.” I love that. Even when I’m not writing and I’m exhausted and the last thing in the world I want to do is compose, I know that I still love it and that brings me back to the piano.
Sometimes it’s this…
But that’s what it takes if you want to be this…
The same applies to teachers as it does to students: Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
If you are a student (or former student) reading this, what do you choose to be? Whatever it is you choose, know that you can do it. You can do it.
You can do it.
… but it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to do itself :). There are never any substitutes for hard work, but there are a multitude of rewards. Whether it’s seeing positive reinforcement on a paper you wrote, someone crediting your ideas, have a finished piece of art in front of your eyes, or seeing your work affect someone emotionally, the reason why it’s that good is because you put that much work into it. But even moreso, all of your actions are a result of who you choose to be.
Think back to when you were a kid and an adult asked you what you wanted to be when you grow up? Reframe that situation and that wording: “Little one, what do you choose to be when you grow up?”
Let’s have a great week,
PS: For more positive results, see last week’s post.