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Inspired by Pitchers to Develop a Teaching Mantra

Last Sunday was opening day for the Major League Baseball season.

As I have watched games at the start of this season, I've been thinking about a bit of baseball wisdom that ought to inform teachers in our practice.

Work fast. Change speeds. Throw strikes. This mantra, attributed to pitching coach and manager Ray Miller, is the kind of thing that you might find on a locker room poster or note on a mirror. My brother's college roommate, a pitcher for the college, had it tacked up in their dorm room.

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Pitching is a complex activity. For each new pitch, there are dozens of factors within the player's control and dozens more she/he cannot change but which will impact his work. A pitcher must make decisions about arm angle, grip, where to stand on the rubber, pitch selection, location, and throwing force while balancing these against external factors such as batter skill, game situation, defensive alignment, weather, and his own energy level.

At any given moment a monologue like this one might be racing through the pitcher's head:

It's a warm day with the wind blowing out, we're in the bottom 6th and our 3rd baseman seems to have tweaked his hamstring running out a groundball last inning...the outfield is playing deep and shaded to right with the third place hitter — a lefty — at the plate..should I try to sneak a fastball by him on the outside edge or drop down to a three quarters angle and throw an off speed breaking pitch to try to get him to hit a grounder to the right hand side?

Ray Miller saw pitchers doing this and realized that pitchers who were considering this level of detail were likely to be working against themselves. His great insight was to replace the endless string of "what-if's" and "have-you-considered's" with a simpler mantra.

Work fast. Change speeds. Throw strikes.

Three easy-to-remember and relatively-simple-to-do actions. None guarantees a successful outcome, but taken together they can improve a pitcher's chance to be effective in his role. Importantly, Miller's mantra is focused exclusively on aspects of the situation which are within the player's control.

Like pitching, teaching is complex. It seems reasonable to assume that most teachers are making over a thousand of decisions during their teaching day. Like a pitcher, there are many aspects of the situation that are within our control (seating assignments, room set up, lesson plan, pacing, how to interact with individuals, classroom procedures) as well as thousands of factors which will influence our process but over which we have little or no control (students' moods, class time-of-day, administrative stress, school/state level policies such as assessment).  

Early in my career, I tried to teach with a running internal monologue. I would scroll through the various external factors that were changing moment-to-moment and search for ways to effectively respond to individuals while maintaining fidelity to my class and school goals.

I needed a mantra. The following phrase help to quiet the constant chatter and re-establish focus on a few things that I can control.

Here's an annotated list of the points I hit in my "mantra" as I work during a class period.

Show Care

My experience as a teacher and a student suggests that folks learn more when they feel like they are valued. The positive impact of social support on student achievement is also evident in some studies. "Show care" reminds me to welcome students to class, ask them about an extracurricular or outside of school activities, and encourage them.

Expect More

School should be a place where students feel comfortable and cared for, but it must not just be that. We come together to learn and grow. If students leave class knowing the same amount they knew when they came in then I haven't done my job.

"Expect more" is a phrase that reminds to push students further along the road of intellectual growth with each passing class period. It reminds me that I should be looking for ways to evaluate that growth and should give feedback to all students who about how much "more" they have grown.

Of course, there are times when students in my class do not achieve intellectual growth for reasons that are out of my control. Maintaining high expectations for what students will accomplish focuses my work towards the goal of school and encourages me to problem solve when students don't meet that goal.

Ask Questions First

Rarely do I encounter a problem in class that has an immediate and apparent solution. "Ask questions first" reminds me that the solutions to complex problems often come from learning new information. If I can find out more about where a student is stuck with a math problem or why she/he is acting out and seeking attention, I am better positioned to effectively support that student. By asking questions first I make sure that I have information about the problem and don't jump in with an inappropriate "solution" that leads to increased confusion or a missed opportunity.

I do not say "ask questions only." Clearly, I have the duty to provide information during a class period, but I do think that telling is rarely the best place to start. Asking questions first helps me to develop a classroom culture focused on curiosity and exploration as a means to understanding.

Show care, expect more, ask questions first. That's what I tell myself in moments when I find the complexities and pressures of the job creeping into my psyche in unhelpful ways.

What's your teaching mantra? How does it motivate you to make better decisions as you do your work?


Photo by MrsBrown https://pixabay.com/en/sports-baseball-pitcher-throw-1463700/

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