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.
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.
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.