An 82 Game Season

Many of my favorite high school memories involve the Philadelphia 76ers. Adam and I, and a few of our friends, would often decide during a boring afternoon class to leave after school for a Sixers game. We would toss together some of our money for gas, sandwiches, and the $10 tickets that put us in the last possible row of the arena. We had to squint to make out the jumbotron and the distant players looked like ants on a sidewalk.

Our favorite player, Allen Iverson, was almost always the smallest person on the court. He was barely 6 feet tall and probably weighed 170 lbs, but he would consistently perform his magic by pinballing through players twice his size to somehow be the best scorer of his generation. We would scream wildly as Iverson would lead the team to what always felt like an improbable win. Then we walked to the barred fence that overlooked the player’s parking lot and waited for all of our favorite players to leave. We kept yelling as they got into their cars and hoped that they would give us a wave or a shout.

The Sixers are in the playoffs this year for one of the first times since those days that we would cheer from the top row and obsessively watch players get into their expensive cars. In one of our worst moments, we saw some sunflower seeds that Allen Iverson spit out of his mouth while talking to a friend, and we scooped them into a ziplock bag as a creepy souvenir. Yes, Adam looks really cool on this blog, but I would bet that somewhere in his crowded Philly apartment he still has those half-chewed, 20 year old, sunflower seeds. I texted Adam about that this week and he reminded me that we never were terribly “cool” in high school.

That shook my confidence because I’ve always thought that wearing replica Sixers jerseys, baggy jeans, and calculating how we could meet Allen Iverson represented my “coolest” life stage.

The point is that this year’s version of the Sixers probably has a better chance at winning in the playoffs than those teams we used to watch religiously. Allen Iverson was a god in December, but our favorite team always fell short when they got to the games that really mattered. There was always bigger, stronger teams with a deeper talent pool that killed our championship dreams. They were the same teams that we had watched Iverson destroy in the regular season, but the playoffs always seemed like a different game.

I learned back then that 82 games, which is an NBA regular season, and the playoffs that follow that make for a really long season. What happens in game 1, or game 30, or game 70, doesn’t reliably predict what will happen in the end. The best teams knew it wasn’t about a single showing, but a longer and steady improvement toward something bigger.

Teaching isn’t about a great class or an amazing lesson. It is about a full year that builds toward our students learning the content at varying paces and, hopefully, becoming better and more complete people.  

We have adopted a policy of evaluating teachers that reminds me of the way that Adam and I used to evaluate the 76ers. We spend the little time that we have watching the individual games and cheering wildly for the teachers who can perform for 42 minutes in November, but by the end of the year we are too busy doing other things that we forget to notice who won the championship.

I thought about this the other day when I was talking to a colleague who teaches senior English across the hallway. He was carrying a pink, plastic, wiffle ball bat in his hand. He told me he had just spent most of the last period trying to show his students how hard it can be to hit a fastball on the inside part of the plate.

I was interested.

He saw that his class was in danger of missing one of the best lines from Fences, the near-perfect play by August Wilson. Troy, the tragic father says that “death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner of the plate.” When you understand that quote, you start to piece together who Troy is as a person and a father. However, most of his students weren’t baseball players. They missed it. So he had to show them and that took most of the period. Students stepped up to face fastballs from their teacher who was taking turns hurling pitches on the inside and outside part of the plate. Students would smack the outside ones and complain about the inside ones. They discussed it a little bit, but the point was the Troy viewed death as a pitch he could hit over the fence. There are certainly challenges in life, but death isn’t one of them.

I thought the class sounded amazing. The students were interested, laughing, and enjoying the metaphor that everyone in the room now understood. The teacher stopped to explain to me that there was no reading or writing that day, just some work on hitting outside fastballs. If that lesson were observed by a principal, most of the rubric for effective teaching would have went untouched. There was not much “rigor,” no assessment, and the physical danger of indoor wiffle ball.

Evaluation and accountability are two of the most important things in education, and we have somehow completely missed some of the most important components of the process. We have been distracted by fancy lessons that meet observable characteristics that can be achieved in 42 minutes, and we have paid less attention to what happens over 180 days. Our leaders have been trained to look for bulletin boards and exit slips and they miss the stuff that will show up in the playoffs. We end up praising and rewarding the teachers with the best stage presence, the ones who can do the dance, and the ones who wear the shiny suits. It is much harder, but more important, to evaluate the teachers who manage to do the most over an entire year. One period can demonstrate some potential or ability, but it certainly doesn’t demonstrate the real learning and relational leverage that happens when you are tossing fastballs across the inside corner of the plate. This isn't only happening in education- most of society usually amounts to a bunch of kittens chasing the shiny reflection from my watch as I dance it around a room. 

The work of real teaching and learning can’t be judged in one or two good lessons. Much of what great teachers do is in after school tutoring, lunchtime conversations, and re-teaching in small groups. In fact, a lot of my best moments happen when I’m so focused that I don’t notice that there are some students in the room who are off-task.

We have to get better at paying attention to who wins in the end, not who wins in December.