There is nothing that it is better to commit to memory than those kinds of words and phrases whose meaning we do not know, so that where we happen to meet either with a more learned man of whom we can inquire, or with a passage that shows, either by the preceding or succeeding context, or by both, the force and significance of the phrase we are ignorant of, we can easily by the help of our memory turn our attention to the matter and learn all about it.St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching
One day, on impulse, I asked the students to copy a Picasso drawing upside down. That small experiment, more than anything else I had tried, showed that something very different is going on during the act of drawing. To my surprise, and to the students’ surprise, the finished drawings were so extremely well done that I asked the class, “How come you can draw upside down when you can’t draw right-side up?” The students responded, “Upside down, we didn’t know what we were drawing.” This was the greatest puzzlement of all and left me simply baffled.Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s book Extreme Ownership unpacks leadership principles they learned as Navy SEAL commanders, both in training and in battle. Both of these men now work as private advisors for business executives, so their book applies most directly to the business world. The principles are useful for leaders in any field, however. In this post, I’d like to explore how they apply to teachers and to school staff in general.
The main principle is stated in the title: Extreme Ownership. Essentially, this means that leaders must take responsibility for the success or failure of their team, regardless of whether or not they caused the mistake. “The only meaningful measure for a leader,” the authors say, “is whether the team succeeds or fails” (8). For a teacher, this means that if your class fails to achieve the goals you’ve set for them, you have not led them. Effective leadership is defined by success.
This brings up an obvious question: what is your goal as a teacher? Since teachers are themselves part of a team that operates under a leader, their overarching goal is defined for them by the school mission statement. All of the tasks a teacher does every day must work towards accomplishing the overall goal of the school. This goes for lesson plans as well as for class discipline. A good leader takes ownership of the overarching mission and leads his team to accomplish smaller tasks that help accomplish that mission.
Taking ownership does not simply mean admitting that it’s your fault when a student fails to accomplish a goal you’ve set, although it does include that. Taking ownership means finding out why that student has failed and giving them the resources (time, attention, incentive, additional materials) they need to succeed. Leaders can’t throw up their hands and blame the student for not applying himself. As long as that student is part of your team, you must make them succeed. If one member of the team fails, the whole team fails.
Taking ownership also means that a teacher cannot blame external factors for causing the team to fail. You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your response. It’s not your fault that a student is absent for days on end, but it is your responsibility to bring them up to speed when they return. If they don’t catch up, you have failed as a leader.
Making True Believers
The most crucial part of taking ownership is making absolutely sure your team (your class) understands why they are being asked to do something. You must explain every goal to them until they become true believers in the mission. The most effective teams, the teams that accomplish what they set out to do, are those that understand the importance of their mission. A team that believes will try harder and work more intelligently than a team that is simply following directions. A true believer will take ownership of the mission himself.
Of course, a leader can’t take ownership of a mission unless he also believes in the mission. This is why the best teachers are the ones who love their subject. The students pick up on that love and begin to love the subject, too. Good leadership is contagious. If you as a teacher constantly take ownership of your students and help them succeed, they will begin to take ownership of their own work and will be motivated to succeed.
The other aspect of belief is that a leader must “align his thoughts and vision to that of the mission” (77). If the leader doesn’t understand why a particular goal needs to be accomplished, he needs to ask questions until he not only understands but believes in the absolute necessity of that goal. Senior leaders must explain the mission to those below them, and junior leaders must ask questions until they understand the why and can make others believe. Willink and Babin put it this way:
If you don’t understand or believe in the decisions coming down from your leadership, it is up to you to ask questions until you understand how and why those decisions are being made. Not knowing the why prohibits you from believing in the mission. When you are in a leadership position, that is a recipe for failure, and it is unacceptable. As a leader, you must believe. (84)
Taking ownership in this situation means communicating to your superiors that they haven’t communicated to you. If you don’t understand the instructions, if you don’t truly believe in the goal to the extent that you can convince others of its importance, you can’t throw up your hands and say, “I’m sure it doesn’t matter anyway.” Take ownership. Get your leaders to clarify until you understand the instructions and believe in them. Only then can you communicate it to your team. To summarize: Ask up, explain down. Ask your superiors for clarification, then explain the mission to your team.
For example, take a school dress code. At my school, the dress code is clearly explained in the student handbook. Why don’t our students follow it? The responsibility rests on the teachers. We have not led effectively. We have not adequately communicated the why to the students. If we had, they would follow it. Most likely, the reason that we haven’t succeeded in our mission is that we don’t understand the why either. A leader who doesn’t believe cannot make others believe. It is our responsibility as teachers to take ownership of the school policy, to ask questions until we understand its importance, and to communicate it to the students. As the authors say, “One of the most important jobs of any leader is to support your own boss” (237). If you, as a teacher, complain about the rules and procedures you have been given, your students will, too. You must take the time to understand them so that you can enforce them as though they are your own.
Clarify the Mission
The authors develop several other principles of good leadership, but the principle most closely tied to extreme ownership is clarifying the mission. There can be no leadership where there is no team, and there can be no team where there is no mission. The mission must be simple, flexible, and measurable. If it’s complicated, rigid, or vague, it can’t be communicated down the chain of command, which will prevent anyone from owning it. A leader can’t lead his team unless he is leading them somewhere.
Teachers are classroom leaders and, as such, are responsible for the success of their students. In order for teachers to thrive as classroom leaders, they must take ownership of their classrooms, which means they must ask up and explain down. They must take responsibility for understanding the mission of the school and for communicating that mission to the students. Whether the daily lesson involves analyzing a poem, diagramming a sentence, or solving a complex equation, the class can only succeed if their teacher takes ownership of his or her class and teaches the students to take ownership themselves.
In the last several years, it has become common to hear about the importance of being a “lifelong learner.” While the first time I ever heard the phrase was in the context of classical education, I have since learned it derives from the world of TED talks and corporate virtue signaling. If one considers the term for a moment, it becomes suspect. A lifelong learner of what? In and of itself, learning has no moral value. Learning can be good or bad. Eve learned quite a lot when she ate of the fruit. In the dark corners of the internet, one may learn all sorts of wretched and destructive things. But in the pages of Scripture, we can learn of Christ and be saved. In the pages of old books, we can learn wisdom.Josh Gibbs
Learning is not virtuous unless one is learning virtue.
What is more, acting as if it is an accomplishment to be a “lifelong learner” sets the bar ridiculously low. The modern man lives in a deluge of information where he is constantly hearing trivial facts, lurid stories, and inconsequential data. We browse the internet every day, we read the news every day, we watch banal documentaries on Netflix all the time, and then we forget most what we learned because it wasn’t important or because it asked nothing of us. Simply put, we’re already lifelong learners. Lifelong learners need nobler, higher, and more definite ambitions.
One of the last assignments I gave my eighth grade composition class was writing a short story. I only had two class periods to work with, so I handed them O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” along with a sheet of questions, and we created a outline based on that story. The students then wrote their own stories, following the outline as closely as possible.
Here’s roughly what I said:
First, you need a character, which is “a person with a goal.” The goal can be as small as scratching an itch or as enormous as getting married.
Person + goal = character
Next, you to describe the world this character lives in—not necessarily a physical world, just the circumstances that surround the character (a busy city, a big family, a dead-end job, a spaceship).
Once you have a person with a goal living in a world, you need to describe something that prevents the character from achieving his goal. The character’s attempt to overcome his obstacle is called “conflict.”
Character + obstacle = conflict
If the character’s goal is scratching an itch, the obstacle might be that the itch is hard to reach. If he wants to get married, his girlfriend doesn’t.
In his attempt to overcome the obstacle, your character should meet a new obstacle, which creates new conflict. (Again, we’re following O. Henry here.) The itchy character runs all over the city looking for a back-scratcher, but all the stores are sold out. The would-be groom plans a romantic dinner, but his girlfriend gets food poisoning.
We limited ourselves to two conflicts, but a story can have many more than that. The key is that each conflict should either sprout directly from one of the character’s main goal(s) or flow from his attempts to overcome the previous obstacle.
At some point, it should appear that the character has failed at both of his goals. He’s at the end of his rope and nothing is solved. The last mayor bans back-scratchers and the itch just gets worse. The girlfriend is so sick she gets sent to the hospital and vows never to see him again.
Finally, to his surprise, the character meets one or both of his goals. (This is called resolution.) The more unexpected the success is, the better. Enraged, the itchy character grabs a “sold out” sign to smash it, only to realize its the perfect length to scratch his back. The romantic meets a cute paramedic who’s smitten with him.
Note that the most important conflict to resolve is the original one. It’s not necessary for the character to buy a back-scratcher. He just needs to get rid of his itch. It’s not necessary for the date to go well, only for the main character to find love.
The full recipe looks like this:
- Who is the main character (person + goal)?
- What world does he live in?
- What is stopping him from achieving his goal (conflict #1)?
- How does the character try to solve conflict #1? (This is goal #2)
- What is stopping him from achieving goal #2? (This is conflict #2)
- How does the character seem to fail at both goals?
- How does the character achieve one or both goals in the end?
The students that followed this structure closely ended up writing stories that, while not great, were compelling. We wanted to know what was going to happen next and we were satisfied by the ending. That’s more than we can say about most stories.
The funniest thing about this is that I tried to map this structure onto one of my own stories and realized I hadn’t given my main character a primary goal. As I’ve said before, teaching something is one of the best ways to learn.
For about two weeks before the end of the school year, I put aside trying to teach one of my classes and read out loud to them instead. I wanted to revive whatever dormant interest they had in stories, or create one if it never existed.
The stories had to be engaging (gripping, funny, sad, scary), short enough to read aloud in one sitting, and relatively clean. I also wanted to pick stories that the students were unlikely to read in school, though I realized that other teachers tend to pick stories based on the criteria above, which means the pool is relatively small.
Most important, every story had to make an impact. I didn’t care whether the students hated the story or loved it as long as they cared.
Here are the ones we read, in order:
- “The Veldt,” Ray Bradbury
- “Through the Tunnel,” Doris Lessing
- “To Build a Fire,” Jack London
- “My First Deer, and Welcome to It,” Patrick F. McManus
- “The Long Rain,” Ray Bradbury
- “A Brilliant Idea and His Own,” Mark Helprin
Today I finished my last day of teaching. The schedule calls this a “exam review” day, but since my students don’t have an exam in my class, we didn’t have anything to review. Instead, we watched Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. No prep. No discussion. Just hit play.
I didn’t really plan to end the year with this. I was just looking for an activity that wouldn’t completely waste 45 minutes of class time. Turns out, a documentary about words, art, life, rhetoric, and God summarized everything I’d been trying to say for nine months. Funny how things work out sometimes.
It has been, as they say, a year. Cheers to a long, hot summer.
Day after day, hour after hour, on this unyielding horizontal surface, marked by the gashes of hard labor and punctuated by such objects as books, paperclips, and a lamp, I, a red potato of humble origin, desirous of nothing more than a comfortable place to sleep and perhaps room to stretch out a tentative shoot or two, which may, Deo volente, someday grow to become fat and healthy tubers in their own right, after accruing much water and the nutrients necessary to prosperity, lie on my back and wait.
A vast country spreads out in front of me, brown and barren. Ahead, in the distance, a fat, dark line rests against the horizon. I walk for what feels like an entire day, though the sun never moves across the sky. It’s odd. Here, the sun operates as though on a switch, blinking on suddenly and darkening in the same way. My boots scuff the dirty ground, kicking up large flakes that float on the air before settling down behind me that marks my path. Eventually, I come to a collection of towers, hard as mountains and rising up out of the ground far beyond my head. The towers are the deep pink color of Himalayan salt. Several miles beyond them, a cliff rises out of the ground, a cliff of such immense proportions it’s hard to believe that this world has not been split in two.