What does it mean to be an Underdog’s Advocate?

by Daniel Bauer

Recently I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Art of Charm. I was intrigued by the guest, Amy Morin, a psychotherapist, college psychology professor, and author responsible for writing the viral blog post “13 things mentally strong people don’t do.” This post has been shared millions of times. You can read the post here and list to the podcast here.

Here is a summary of Amy’s points. Mentally strong people don’t:

  • waste time feeling sorry for themselves
  • give away their power
  • shy away from change
  • waste energy on things they can’t control
  • don’t worry about pleasing everyone
  • fear taking calculated risks
  • dwell on the past
  • make the same mistake over and over
  • resent other people’s success
  • give up after their first failure
  • fear alone time
  • feel the world owes them anything
  • expect immediate results.

These are not my ideas. Again, you can read Amy’s entire list and her description of each of the ideas in the original blog post here. Amy also turned this list into a book you can purchase here and is releasing an e-course on mental toughness available in November 2015. At $97 this course seems like a steal if you are interested in developing your mental toughness.

But if you don’t want to fork over $97, let me share a few of my own thoughts on developing mental toughness absolutely free!

As an Underdog’s Advocate you need mental toughness. This is a key advantage that you can bring to work with you every day. Underdog Advocates need this edge on the front lines of our schools because our jobs are really hard. The physical, mental, and emotional toll that school leaders go through is incredibly taxing.

Only the strong survive.

Mental toughness is natural to some, but in my case it had to be developed. My family of origin made life easy for me so early in my life (and sometimes to this day) conflict and obstacles seem a lot larger than they actually are. Maybe you can relate.

Here is how I developed mental toughness.

Develop a sound core.

If you work out enough you know that the core is the foundation of all strength. The same is true in mental toughness. My core was established through my faith which I “work-out” every morning. Each morning I read a devotional and pray. Therefore, each morning I start off feeling “centered” and have the right kind of perspective to bring to the school where I lead. This daily discipline helps me develop compassion and empathy.

I also use an app called “Calm” regularly. I have yet to use it everyday, but I look forward to making it more of my daily routine. I like this app because it is teaching me how to meditate and in my view, this bolsters my prayer life. It has helped me develop more self-awareness, but most importantly, it helps me recalibrate and slow down as the day’s busyness fights for my attention.

Finally, I also like to journal. I stole the idea of the 5 minute journal and applied that to my morning and night time routines. Journaling helps me stay focused and develop an attitude of gratitude.

I encourage you to explore faith, read inspiring literature, pray, meditate, and journal. These actions will develop mental toughness.

Develop close personal connections

This idea is also heavily influenced by my faith and I believe we were meant to do life in intimate relationships with others. Real relationships founded on shared interests, trust, and vulnerability help leaders develop a strong core. If you are like me, you can struggle with thinking your stuff don’t stink. The antidote to this illness is through intimate relationships.

For married folk this is easy, our spouses can act like a mirror and help us identify weaknesses and blind spots we need to be aware of. For singles and marrieds alike, it is important to develop additional close relationships where people express both love and truth.

Developing relationships can take blood, sweat, and tears, but the key component is time. One way this process of developing close relationships can be accelerated is by harnessing the power of technology. Now with the internet and social networks it is easier than ever to connect to amazing people.

How do you think I got to guest post on this blog? I don’t live in Tennessee nor have I met Ryan in person. In early 2014 some of my colleagues visited his school and were wildly impressed. They shared with me a YouTube video he made capturing some of the great things happening at his school. From there we connected via Twitter and LinkedIn. The next thing I know we’re doing an interview for my podcast, and now I’m writing on his blog!

I encourage you to develop great relationships harnessing the power of technology. Just by creating a blog and podcast myself, I am now connected to hundreds of amazing people from 84 different countries. My thinking and mental toughness has no choice but to develop even stronger.

Do Hard Things

Being an Underdog’s Advocate is tough and if this is the toughest thing you are doing right now it will be hard to win.

@MrRileyjo practices what he preaches -- Do hard things!

@MrRileyjo practices what he preaches — Do hard things!

People develop bucket lists to identify what will help them feel fully alive with the short amount of time they have on this earth. While I fully support people maximizing their lives I believe that it should be done in a way that is others-focused.

What if we took bucket-lists and added a socially conscious component?

One guy I heard on a podcast mentioned, “the easiest way to make a million dollars is to help a million people.” That is when it clicked for me. Of course I would like more money and nice things in my home … heck, I’d even like to own a home!

However, my focus needs to be on helping people. The financial rewards will follow, but most importantly I will be rewarded intrinsically and will truly be emotionally and relationally wealthy.

In 2013 I ran my first marathon. I had no desire to do this even though I had been invited numerous times. Each year, my church partners with Team World Vision who trains average people like you and me to run marathons. Now this is cool enough on its own, but the beauty of Team World Vision is that they provide clean water for kids in Africa that lack access to the clean water you and I take for granted each day.

Now in 2015 I’ve trained for 3 marathons and completed 2 (my sports doc pulled me from the starting line this year due to a stress fracture in my foot). What I’ve learned over the last 3 years and completing 2 marathons is that I am capable of anything.

No one in their right mind runs 26.2 miles straight. Who really wants to run or work out for more than 4 hours? This is crazy, right?

The key take-away I’ve learned from these marathons is the development of a “toughness” muscle that just won’t let me quit! I’m now working on a the complaining muscle, but that’s another story …

Over 3 years I’ve had just over 80 high school students complete the marathons with me and together we’ve provided around 600 African kids with a lifetime supply of clean water. You can help me provide more clean water to kids here (and it’s tax-deductible).

Whether it is marathon or some other challenge, I encourage you to commit to doing something extremely hard this year. You will be a better leader and develop more mental toughness as a result.

In summary, those looking to develop more mental toughness should

  • develop a sound core
  • develop close relationships
  • do hard things

This blog post was written by Daniel Bauer the founder of Better Leaders Better Schools a blog and podcast made for you, the school leader. Daniel helps school leaders create winning cultures, focus on the essential, and lead with courage and integrity. You can read his blog here and listen to his podcast here. Daniel is also an AP at a top-performing high school in Chicago, IL.

Daniel has created a special gift for free for readers of the Underdog’s Advocate blog: 15 questions guaranteed to unlock your leadership potential. You can get this free download here.

Introducing teachers, society’s new underdog

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re an underdog. Today’s teachers are faced with some of the most complex, unforeseen challenges the world has ever known: It’s no secret that today’s students are continuously disengaging from the archaic school-model that has cramped creativity and problem-solving while force-feeding standardization and the overuse of assessment tracking. For teachers, this is just the tip of the iceberg. What typically goes unnoticed are the countless hours working from home, the selfless sacrifices for children we’ve just met and the ever-increasing demand to simply give more.

Yet, in the midst of a seemingly barren academic future, there lies unbridled hope – hope that takes the shape of every teacher and educator reading this today. I used to think it was only the students I served, most of whom come from severe poverty, that were the underdogs. Their challenges are so great, their adversity insurmountable. I positioned myself as the underdog’s advocate because as a teacher and then an administrator I wanted nothing more than an opportunity to fight for these students, helping them push through, overcome, and persevere.

However, like any reflective practitioner I soon realized how shortsighted this mindset was. Yes, today’s students are underdogs there’s no question about that but they’re certainly not the only ones – because being an underdog is more than just your financial status or test-taking ability. It’s more than what school you attend or what zip code you call home.


Being an underdog is a state of mind. A state of mind that positions one’s self as the challenger. The challenger who faces brooding forces with unyielding courage. As I work with teachers today, the spirit of the underdog is palpable – it’s electric. And as I participate in Twitter chats like #Leadupchat, the ideas and visions of committed teachers and educators affirm this undeniable energy. We, too, are the underdogs. We are the challengers fighting for every inch of academic progress, fighting for every new idea that pushes the limits of curriculum and expectations — fighting for our future.

We’re fighting for our future because for too long now quality education has been crushed by the immense pressure of standardized testing – the effects of which have left teachers, students and families suffering from the strains and anxiety of a system that values statistical data and the stoic, robotic-nature of pre-programmed teaching methods instead of a nurturing, creative-centered teaching approach that would position teachers as instructional designers, organically crafting inspired lessons used to spur student engagement while fostering a coveted sense of belonging in the classroom.

Furthermore, it was Chip and Dan Heath, in their landmark book SWITCH that asserted that “Self-Control is an exhaustible resource” which so fittingly lends itself to the current educational landscape, where teachers are forced to abandon creativity in order to meet the confines of standardization. The fallout has resulted in low teacher morale, plummeting teacher retention and an overall decrease in young professionals even pursuing what was once considered one of the most noble occupations on the market.

Thus, the impact on teacher-effect and its correlation to student achievement and, more importantly, students’ love for learning has bottomed-out. Even in schools where the stressors of poverty don’t create infinite barriers and head-banging challenges, these schools, too, suffer from a passive-compliance epidemic because students now merely see school as a means to an end, forgoing inspiration and intrinsic motivation for mind-numbing drill and kill, multiple-choice based teaching prescriptions that have all but choked the last remaining breathes out of learning’s last attempt at life.

And so the question now becomes what fuels our fighting spirit? What drives the underdog deeper into education’s new frontier after years of confinement and complacency?

Typically we’re taught to fear the unknown. We shy from strangers, avoid darkness. Even more so we’re psychologically hardwired to avoid change. We like things the way they are, comfort provides security and security ensures our safety. But there’s a shift happening in education. In fact this transformative shift is happening as you read this blog. As ironic as it may sound, there’s never been a better time to be an educator, a teacher, a life-changer, an underdog.

collab pic

Success skills: teaching’s new imperative

Education itself is changing – the shift is happening right before our very eyes and it’s playing out in schools and classrooms across the planet. See, no matter how hard the forces that be hold onto the archaic model of education, where group think and standardization rule the day, there’s an even more powerful force surging headlong into education’s new frontier, already carving the proverbial path for a new generation of inspired underdogs. Whether it’s the advanced momentum of cutting-edge technology, practical approaches like Project-Based Learning, or how Nashville is revolutionizing the high school model with our Academies of Nashville, this bona fide shift takes the shape of each and every student that steps foot into a classroom searching for something new. This overwhelming force is slowly but surely causing educators everywhere to rethink what a great education looks like. It’s forcing us to analyze our teaching styles, redefine our measurement criteria, and above all – to listen.

That’s the beauty of being an underdog, we don’t allow our ego or complacency to stand in the way of appreciating what truly matters: And what truly matters is creating inspired educational platforms that allow students to embrace the technology they were born with while providing experiential learning opportunities they crave. This doesn’t mean Education 2.0 comes without reading, writing, math, poetry, or the Gettysburg Address.

Not at all.

Everyone reading this knows a teacher who incorporates all of the indelible academic pillars into forward-thinking, engaging lessons where a student-centered approach lifts learning beyond rote memorization and blends technology with inspired pedagogy. These teachers – teacher like you — are leading the underdog’s new charge to transform teaching and learning in one of the most pivotal points in history. Globally we’re shrinking. Platforms like Twitter and YouTube have made the international exchange of ideas as simple as the impact of a 140-character tweet! Economically we’re expanding. Look no further than the city I live in as Nashville booms its way towards a tech-rich economy.

And so I’ll reiterate: There’s never been a better time to be an educator. We stand on the threshold of a new era where the only certainty is that change is inevitable and the need for progressive teaching undeniable. History has called us – it demands our service and implores us to commit our efforts for the betterment of not only students but all of mankind. Will this challenge be easy? No. Will our adversity be great? Yes. Yet let’s not forget who we are…

As underdogs we’ re built to persevere, born to overcome and destined to make history. So, I leave you with a final call-to-action – embrace your teaching passion, connect with other inspired educators and together let’s show the world that the spirit of the underdog is what’s driving us forward into education’s new millennium.