Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

Personal Bests

The heroic human journey is to function as you are supposed to function, to achieve your personal best

George Sheehan, Personal Best,  Quoted by Jim Knight in High-Impact Instruction at the beginning of chapter one: Personal Bests


cc licensed image shared by flickr user ActiveSteve

cc licensed image shared by flickr user ActiveSteve

Several years ago in preparation for a school lockdown drill, a large, muscular, uniformed and armed police officer leading the drill shared that at 3 AM he can be downtown with the range of unsavory characters present and not be afraid. “But,” he revealed, “were you to leave me for a day in a room full of elementary school students, I’d be terrified. You guys are heroes.” We smiled and applauded, surprised and pleased by the recognition of the challenging, even heroic work of teachers. It’s not recognition often received.

Heroism is a topic that has long been of interest to me. For well over a decade, I’ve delved into biographies and research on the lives of Holocaust rescuers. I’ve been transformed as an educator and a parent by the insight that among the very few factors that distinguished these moral exemplars from others was the presence of an influential adult in their early lives who held the consistent expectation that they help others. Also vital was a community of individuals who supported their efforts. Works such as Samuel and Pearl Oliner’s Altruistic Personality and Eva Fogelman’s Conscience and Courage opened my eyes to the impact of modeling in specific ways on the development of individuals who later transcended tremendous adversity in order to help others. I also learned about the importance of a supportive community. Over the years I’ve grown to admire more and more, not only these exemplars, but also the parents, teachers, and other adults who guided them to develop into the remarkable individuals of character they became as well as the friends, family members, and colleagues who lent their practical and moral assistance, approval, and encouragement. I’ve come to hold in the highest esteem the heroism not only of the exemplars, but of the mentors and guides who supported them.

Beginning Jim Knight’s newest book High Impact Instruction as part of the February #educoach book chat, occurring Wednesday nights at 10 PM EST, I anticipated insight on learning and teaching. I hadn’t imagined that from the very first chapter my notions of heroism, happiness, meaning, struggle, discomfort, and tension would be so positively challenged. Could it be, as in George Sheehan’s quote shared above, that striving to achieve one’s personal best is the essence of the heroic human journey? I read the words, was moved, and wondered. I pondered and reflected.  While the answer for me remains “no”; aspiration for one’s personal best is not heroism, I have gained and expanded my thinking. For me, heroism is not about doing one’s best in any area of human achievement, but rather heroism is making a positive impact in the lives of others.

My thinking has been deepened by Sheehan’s perspective. Knight quotes Sheehan describing running as much more than exercise.

My end is not simple happiness. My need, drive, and desire is to achieve my full and complete self. If I do what I have come to do, if I create the life I was made for, then happiness will follow. (George Sheehan, Personal Best, 1989, p. 21; quoted by Jim Knight, High Impact Instruction, p. 2)

I embrace the notion that happiness follows the striving for one’s personal best. Even more, I embrace the notion that combining a meaningful act that has a positive impact on the lives of others such as teaching with striving to do one’s personal best can be both heroic and joyful. I imagine that the joy Jim Knight finds as a runner, striving to get better and achieve his personal best, energizes the heroic efforts in which he is engaged as a father of seven children (thanked in the books’ acknowledgements) and as an instructional coach of instructional coaches, helping to improve the quality of learning for so many students. I recognize the intersection of joy, heroism, and personal bests.

With perspective on heroism and happiness; we can broach the messier topics of school change efforts: the struggle, the uncomfortable, and being discontented. “It’s more comfortable not to try. But life is, or should be, a struggle: Comfort should make us uncomfortable; contentment should make us discontented.” (Sheehan, p.30, Quoted by Knight, p. 9). It’s not easy to stretch beyond our comfort zones. Knight sensitively shares, “For many of us, the journey toward a personal best, although highly attractive, can feel overwhelming, especially if we feel we are embarking on the journey all by ourselves.” (p.8) Seeing teacher resistance as a sense of being overwhelmed by the struggle enables us as colleagues, coaches, and supervisors to support one another to face the discomfort and to find within that struggle both joy and meaning.

Add tension to heroism, happiness, meaning, struggle and discomfort and the need for robust support alongside high expectations becomes ever more evident. Knight quotes Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (1990), saying:

The juxtapolisiton of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are realtive to what we want) generates what we call “creative tension”: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives. (Senge, p. 132, quoted by Knight, p. 9)

How might we reframe stress in schools in the context of creative tension which does not overwhelm but instead energizes? What are possible ways of responding sensitively to the complex emotions, including joy, meaning, discomfort, and tension, that  administrators, instructional coaches, teachers and students experience in the course of striving to achieve our personal bests? How can we support one another to constantly strive toward achieving our personal bests?

As we continue reading High-Impact Instruction, and as I strive to share my reflections on the reading, I hope to find together some  answers as well as many more questions. Looking forward to the learning!

Comments on: "Personal Bests" (3)

  1. Hi Shira, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Sadly, I’m unable to participate in the book discussion due to other matters I’m focused on, but happily you are giving me a chance to participate and learn through your blog. Thank you!

    To me, the hero is one who risks his/her own personal safety and comfort for a cause greater than himself/herself. I believe we are not all called to be heroes, but some are given that great challenge. Like you, since my earliest days, I’ve been moved by the heroes during the evil events in history such as slavery, the holocaust and segregation. Even as a child, I wondered why didn’t more people stand up, act and make change. Now as an adult I am surrounded by noted struggle in the world–struggle that involves poverty, violence, war, and I wonder about my role.

    As your post suggests, achieving personal best and journeying towards who you are “supposed to be” is important. Equally important though is taking the turn in the road when a cause bigger than yourself and worthy of your investment calls you.

    I do believe we are all born with different dreams in our hearts and vision about what it means to live a good life, and journeying towards our dreams and vision does prompt “creative tension,” a positive tension that leads us forward.

    As we journey together in schools we have to create new structures and schedules that allow for greater dynamic discussion and debate that includes research, experience and observations in order to respond to students’ needs and interests. A natural result of enhanced collaboration will be the movement towards our “personal bests.” I’m looking forward to your future posts as you study this book. Thanks again.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Thank you, Maureen! As a young educator, new to school leadership, I was introduced to research on Holocaust rescuers and later other moral exemplars such as those who fought slavery and segregation. I learned, through some remarkable social psychological research, that many were influenced by a moral exemplar in their own young lives, not individuals who engaged in heroic acts, but individuals who did what they could to help others when help was needed. Sometimes, greater challenges arise. Or maybe, the greater challenges are more often present, yet we do not recognized them or rise to the challenge.

      For me, personal bests are important, but focusing more attention on personal bests of consequence is even more important. Educating and parenting are areas, for me, of personal bests of consequence; not heroic in that we are not typically risking our lives, yet significant. The act of learning is far more complex than most who don’t work in schools or other learning communities recognize. I aspire toward transforming a community’s dreams into expectations, made possible by robust supports. There is a creative tension in striving that results in excitement, longing, and fear. Finding support to face the discomfort of creative tension is perhaps among the most essential roles of teachers, instructional coaches, and other educational leaders (principals included) committed to supporting our children’s learning and our teachers’ professional learning.

      I’ll miss you and your valuable reading guides as we discuss High-Impact Instruction. Thank you for nonetheless jumping into the conversation!

  2. I will continue to think about your powerful emphasis on “personal best of consequence,” the complexity of learning and “finding support to face the discomfort of creative tension.” Have a great night.

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