Change is strange, but never a stranger

by Ryan O. Murphey

I have always been fascinated by change and strangers. My mom told me not to talk to them, and I hated when new things happened. Remember the new “Star Wars” movies? Oh, the blasphemy….I wonder if when my mother comforted me as a child by telling me that the Beatles and Van Gogh would always be popular, that I actually started to fear change the most. I put on my Beatles records the day Lennon was assassinated and somehow it made me feel better to look at that large cover with the Fab Four in black turtlenecks and pointy-toed boots and suits with no collars in glorious monochrome. Don McLean so beautifully compartmentalized the tragedy of the misunderstood, deranged painter so gorgeously that I forgot to weep, even though mom would every time it played on the eight track.

The paradox of change lies in the fact that while necessary to survive, our childhood brains are programmed by nature to avoid it to survive. Babies love repetition; it helps their brains develop patterns, and patterns help build foundations for cognitive glory. If you’ve never seen the dancing bear on “Teletubbies,” it’s no joke! The reason things like Bach and B.B. King’s blues still resonate even today aren’t because they are dead and famous. In this fragmented digital present that seems oddly pre-destined to disconnect us from other humans by superficializing every human interaction, or at least taking away the fear of its immediacy, many things curiously resonate larger than ever and they aren’t just “meta.” Or perhaps meta is something more “meta” than we actually want to admit. I will call it the “super-meta.”

My issue with a digital interaction is that it only works one way. Either you are typing with thumbs or someone else is, and you can manage the time and space between the two however you wish. Even “face-time” (why must we be obsessed with names or things that have a face in them, just saying, Facebook?) has an element of control and an editing power that real-time three dimensional interactions do not. When I try to play fiddle tunes with my digital bandmate in Oregon, we can’t hear or see everything that’s actually happening in that space and therefore the signal gets compressed or thrown offline (unless you buy the expensive version). But seriously folks, I am no Luddite. Oddly, I am writing this hoping that you will be reading it on a digital blog, but that experience will be no different than it was on paper. Think about it–it is still static–it will not change if you click away from it because you are distracted by a text message or advertisement, and this is no different than it was or is when you are reading a paper book and your kids interrupt you to find the Wii remote.

Yes, at times it does seem that we are living in strange times, but I assure you they are no stranger than they ever were. Perhaps you are a Talking Heads fan and you may remember that life on planet earth is the “same as it ever was,” or never was, depending on your perspective, in many respects. If you don’t know about David Byrne and co., well you can go to the You Tube or better yet, get a record player and buy it on vinyl–David would surely appreciate a few cents back in his pocket after Spotify has managed to rip him off along with countless other of our musical heroes and villains!

All of this is leading me back to my original point (I swear), which is to say that change is simultaneously natural, necessary, exhilarating, terrifying, stifling, and frustrating. Sometimes I wish I were a history teacher when scouring Facebook and tiring of the rainbows and Confederate flags. It’s as is if everyone has forgotten the basic rule of evolution and religion: change, or die trying not to. If you are religiously inclined, your history teacher hopefully mentioned Henry VIII and his somewhat accidental fragmentation of the Catholic Church that was either necessary or blasphemous depending on your point of view (If you haven’t heard this, watch “The Tudors” on Netflix. Johnathan Rhys-Meyers goes “all-in” as the Henry that should have been). Or perhaps if you are more of the science bent, you may favor Einstein’s famous letter to Truman begging him not to drop the bomb after helping to create it! I love this kind of stuff, but it’s surely scary for conservative Christians and retro-liberals who probably never thought civil rights would extent past the issue of race. But the truth is folks, as I have often quoted myself, “There’s more truth in fiction,” and yes, the truth “is” stranger than fiction because the truth is fiction. Ok, this is a paradox, a play on words, a double entendre, not an oxymoron (I love those too), and I know this because I teach the greatest subject of all besides music, Language Arts, even though most would say I am being replaced by STEM, You Tube, books on tape, movies, Common Core, and whatever, or whoever else; however, the truth of a fictional character can’t be digitized or captured on video, or quantified into useable data because fiction is both static and malleable. It actually demonstrates the covert if fifth-dimensional thinking. It is intellectual Mercury. A story, unlike a song, can be stopped or started by the reader in real time at any point on any “page” and still keep moving in his or her mind at any pace, regardless of the author’s tempo (Joyce demonstrates this best for all of you brave souls who have even glanced at Ulysses). A song requires time to exist, but not words. Words can be stared at like a painting and still move you by their forms. A novel like The Catcher in the Rye or 1984 can be read one way by baby boomers and another way by millennials and both interpretations are correct…So many great novels are timeless because they are new and old at the same time and therefore more true than any history.

If you apply this concept to your actual career, or for me life, as a teacher/artist (yes, all teachers are artists), you will stop worrying about standardized testing, evaluations, technology in the classroom, or any other of the latest techniques touted by pedagogues, or you will worry about it even more! The point is, change will happen. It happened to me and I was afraid. I have worked for ten years in the same urban high school with the same devastating stories that you’ve seen on “The Wire” or heard or read about at some point in the forefront or fringes your life. There are great things about challenging, poverty stricken environments as well as horrible things. For one, you can actually “change” a kid’s life every day. That’s truly amazing, and the universe can never take that away from you. You can also get so stressed out from all the poverty factors that are daily manifested in forms of fear, pressure, insanity, insouciance, and learned helplessness. My unexpected demon finally reared its head this year in the form of stress that I didn’t ask for but probably caused myself to awaken by repressing feelings of being overwhelmed and generally depressed under the guise of a red cape and cross I had fashioned as some kind of superhuman savior of hard-luck teens at-risk. What my doctor and I realized was that I was the one at risk with a blood pressure reading of 190/110. Yeah, that was a difficult day. I knew I had to change-up…I thought I would never leave the war on intellectual terror being quietly waged by synapse soldiers like myself every day. Ultimately, it was my family and close friends that urged me to get out. Thank the universe for them.

It was really hard to leave my post knowing that plenty of other brains would fall victim to our helplessly broken and beyond repair public educational system as I moved on to the more peaceful pastures of a magnet school. Yes, there was guilt, then emotional detox, and finally acceptance that perhaps it’s alright that I left and the hope that some other poor and naive soul will proudly take up my flag for that same noble, yet mostly fruitless cause.

Today, watching all the posts and rainbows flash before my iPad, it really hit me though. My battle is eternal. Next year, there will be a new theater of war in a different kind of mind, the intellectually empowered. How will I keep their need for intellectual stimulation fed while constantly barraged by banality on every device? How will I combat the entitlement of wealth or the zealotry of well-meaning, yet over-involved parents? It will be different, but yet the same.

Change your tune!

Change your tune!

I listened to Chris Thile, mandolin genius, today on You Tube, again. He was wearing blue jeans, alone with legs crossed in a hotel on tour, playing Bach’s violin Partita in E major. Then I found a video of Nathan Milstein playing the same piece in a coat and tails, alone on stage, in black and white with carefully placed silhouetted statues. I was struck by the immediate brilliancy and variance of each performer. One was blown glass-like, fragile, yet cascading, Lloyd-Wrightesque, relaxed and lighting fast, fluid–a hummingbird stopping for a brief second at a feeder to fill its lithe body with sugar water. The latter was studied, erect, dignified, with sudden stops and starts and elegant dynamics which spoke of East Egg pseudo-royalty, or Greco-Roman pantheon-like columns–a lioness studying its victim respectfully before a sudden and beautifully terrorizing slaughter. Either way, I can assure you beyond all reasonable doubt that Bach did NOT intend his piece to be played “that way” and yet both are flawlessly, perfectly, beautifully flawed in every way.

In this same way is our existence and the characters of fiction that I will excitedly revisit with trepidation each year. They, like the eternal hope of our souls can never die. That is both reassuring and haunting…That is the truth of fiction. That is the truth of change. That is the law of life. Your world will change and you will be changed by it, yet some things, like Bach, the Beatles, Shakespeare, Jay Gatsby and Jane Eyre will always be there for you to revisit. So is the course of our brief time in this terrestrial plane. I say spend it wisely, or unwisely (for some wasted time ends up being extremely valuable), and don’t be afraid to converse with a stranger. That is what I now know (sorry mom) and am meant to ultimately face–the strangeness, or strangers of change.

Obama was elected like so many other former politicians on the platform of change and hope–we humans are so delusional to now reject these natural impulses, or think of them as new at the time of an election or major legal decision. Speaking of delusions, I think I’m going to go and learn that Bach partita myself, I mean, how hard could it be? There’s an app for that, right? Or, I could buy the recording on vinyl. Either way, the notes will be waiting for me to “read” them and any way I or you choose to “play” this game of life in any given moment, or millennium will always and never, change.

Teachers, have you discovered the power of the Competitive Teaching Model?

Serena Williams has won an astounding 20 Grand Slam singles titles, along with 13 Grand Slam doubles titles with sister Venus. By anyone’s measure, this makes the “Queen of the Court” a bona fide expert on competition. And, although raised in Compton, California, sharpening her tennis focus as gunshots echoed throughout her neighborhood, it’s Williams’ perspective on competition – specifically losing – that has always inspired me:

“If anything, you know, I think losing makes me more motivated.” – Serena Williams

Here’s a world-class athlete, who by her own admission “hates losing,” applying Dweck’s growth-mindset to the international dog-eat-dog world of professional women’s tennis. At 33 Williams is impressively the Women’s Tennis Association’s world No. 1, yet it’s her approach to competition and the impact it’s had on her life that has affirmed my work for the past eight years.

The frontline of education

When I arrived at Maplewood High School in the spring of 2008 two things were undeniably clear:

1. The school was inches away from a state-takeover.

2. Traditional teaching methods would not suffice.

However, the plight of Maplewood High mirrors the hardened reality of so many other schools across the globe and their hard fought journeys to increase student achievement, while simultaneously closing achievement gaps, combating merciless poverty and stabilizing teacher retention.

Moreover, the valiant teachers who dedicate their lives serving on the front lines realize quickly it takes more than Pearson products or the latest app development to inspire students who have historically been written-off and ostracized by society at-large.

The evolution of collaboration

Before I applied for a doctoral program, before I researched Freud, Maslow, Akey, or Finn, before I naively took the stage at TEDxAntioch, there was Ryan O. Murphey (@ryanomurphey). Everyone has that handful of life experiences that we are convinced irreversibly changed our lives forever. One of my select few is meeting the man who would become my teaching mentor yet biggest competitor.

Soon after my arrival at Maplewood, Murphey and I began collaborating. The Texas bluegrass anomaly, who’d already done a couple of years at Maplewood, and a redheaded twenty something from Evansville, Indiana used English Language Arts content as a platform to not only build our unique curriculums but also solidify a one-of-a-kind friendship, collaborating feverishly while pushing each other to be our very best.

Murphey was without question my teaching mentor. From unit plans to seating arrangements, syllabi to summative assessments – if Maplewood was Tatoonie, Murphey was undoubtedly Obi-won. Yet in true Jedi fashion, I knew collaboration would only get us both so far. If we were to truly help students grasp the next rung on the student-achievement ladder, we would have to extend our synapse-warrior mindset into a full-blown pedagogical sparring match.

Then one day it happened.

I made an announcement to a classroom full of 35 juniors that we would be challenging Mr. Murphey’s class in the upcoming writing assessment benchmark.

And that’s when everything changed.

Introducing the Competitive Teaching Solution

Born out of necessity, the Competitive Teaching Model officially took shape as my teaching experience and better understanding of how and why students learn continued to grow. I didn’t need 15 years of experience to understand students learn differently. In fact, after only four days in a loaded classroom, it became unavoidably obvious students need tailored instruction, nanosecond feedback and a shared goal to rally around.

Cooperative competitors!

Cooperative competitors!

This triangulation of pedagogies began to shape my entire teaching style. As I began digging deeper into the how and why, it became more and more clear my role was transitioning from didactic teacher to facilitating coach. Great teachers maximize the absolute best out of students by gaining significant insight into them as learners and people. This new focus and approach to individual student needs was a catalyst in creating a culture of trust in the classroom, which inevitably became the lynchpin of our success. Franklin Covey’s Chief People Officer Todd Davis may have said it best, “High trust culture is the competitive advantage.”

Any educator worth her salt knows the value of differentiated instruction and formative assessments. What remains a mystery to most teachers is the real-time application of these non-negotiables and how catering them to specific student needs impacts learning, retention and attitude.

However, this mystery can be solved in as much time as it takes to refresh your Twitter feed. Students react favorably to personalized feedback, based on tailored instruction. This reality cemented my student-centered approach to teaching. Insight had now turned to outright inspiration, which commanded a new kind of student attention, offering the perfect opportunity to unleash a shared vision.

 When Freud met Maslow

The unyielding reality is great teachers work both smarter and harder. Thus, students need a psychological X-factor, an intangible motivator that goes far beyond the occasional piece of candy or fist-bump. I leveraged my growing sense of teacher-efficacy with increased student buy-in and positioned my classes as the underdogs. As I began creating an ethos and identity for each class, a psychological thunderstorm was brewing.

Famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud asserts that man’s innate desire to hunt and kill to survive has not vanished – merely transformed into his innate desire to win. This primordial instinct formed the cornerstone of how my classes would do business. We were learning and growing, perpetually sharpening our skillsets so as to do what underdogs do best: prove to everyone we were significant, not once, not ever to be underestimated.


Celebrate Success!

Where Freud’s emphasis dealt primarily with man’s origins, the grandfather of modern psychology Abraham Maslow helped actualize our present. I quickly realized when underdogs perceive themselves as formidable, affirmed by hands-on leadership and personalized practice, a life-changing shift happens. As my classes identified common goals – competing against other classes – an overwhelming sense of belonging took hold. Students found strength in their unique talents and applied these individual pillars to form a collective Parthenon. No longer was competition solely for the athletic or artistically gifted. Now, a kaleidoscope of students and their reinvigorated passions and talents banded together to form a new kind of team – an academically eclectic mix of inspired underdogs with laser-focus and an appetite to go the distance.

Beyond Winning or Losing

Besides maybe Dolph Lundgren’s iconic performance as steroid-strengthened Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, the original ROCKY sits at the proverbial mountaintop, maintaining its universal appeal heavily due to the film’s authentic ending. The reality in that film, as well as in any classroom, is that winning ultimately takes a backseat to the power of the journey itself. Balboa’s inability to capture the title means very little compared to his affirmed ability to take punishing hits and keep moving forward. This ideology beckons Serena Williams’ admission that losing actually motivates us further. And don’t take my word for it – ask any millennial or centennial gamer: the reward of completing the latest Call of Duty mission fails in comparison to the learn, unlearn, relearn process of mastering the game.

Or, maybe its author Rory Sutherland’s plea that we give more attention to “psychological solutions” than to our historically-focused “technical-engineering solutions” (learn about the power of perception here). This certainly stands to reason in the tumultuous landscape of education, where too often we rely solely on the arrival of the next-big-thing, from gadgets to legislation. In the end, it’s the global shift of empowerment that is driving a new breed of student. Today’s Centennials don’t have to be told they’re unique – their Instagram does a fine job of that – and they expect their feedback to come as quickly as their Snapchat goes. More importantly the Centennial mindset lends itself to a practical intelligence, one that would have them see their learning directly correlate to their unique success, which, in turn, strengthens the team’s overall success, as Centennials and their penchant for equity and diversity remind us that a Rising Tide Truly Lifts ALL Boats.

For more information on the Competitive Teaching Model, peruse my dissertation here.

Watch my TED Talk everyone is buzzing about here.