“It’s a metaphor!” declares one character to another as they pore over footage of minor league ball-players in the final moments of Bennett Miller’s new film, “Moneyball”. A snicker spreads through the audience in the movie theatre because his statement is so obviously unnecessary. I won’t spoil one of the most memorable sequences in this wonderful film, but suffice it to say that an underdog who rarely ‘goes for it’ takes a risk and seemingly makes a complete fool of himself, only to discover moments later that his success far exceeded his wildest imagination. The footage serves as more than a metaphor–it’s a lesson for us as educators, and contains a truth we must acknowledge again and again.
For those of you who haven’t yet made it to the theatre, or read the reviews, or have simply dismissed the film as another ‘baseball movie’, “Moneyball” tells the story of Billy Beane, general manager for the Oakland Athletics in the early 2000’s. It examines Beane’s radical strategy leading up to the 2002 season that led him to dismiss the ‘subjective’ wisdom of baseball scouts in favour of a system for selecting/rating players devised by a Yale Economics graduate. After suffering the loss of three star players to wealthier teams, he successfully builds a team that would make the playoffs, break the Major League record for consecutive wins in a season (20), and win the same number of games as the New York Yankees with less than one third of the salary budget. Though Oakland did not go on to win the World Series, Beane’s system has had a ripple-effect through the game and continues to influence how General Managers construct their baseball clubs today.
I admire the excellent filmmaking, acting, and writing that have combined to produce such a superb film, but as my family-members and close friends are aware, I am infinitely more interested in how the truth claims and ideas expressed in the film apply to my personal experience. As a new teacher, I discovered much by way of application to our profession. Here are five things I ‘learned’:
1. Change is difficult because the ‘game’ is unfair
When Beane first addresses a room full of seasoned baseball scouts about the ‘problem’ of replacing three star players on the roster, none of them can identify the real obstacle in their path to success–the fact that the game is simply unfair! Wealthier teams will inevitably prosper due to seemingly unlimited resources, while poorer teams will pick up the leftovers. I’m not suggesting that the education systems within which we practice our craft are ‘broken’ to the same extent, but I think it’s safe to say that often when we identify ‘problems’ we feel powerless to correct them.
As a highschool English teacher, my primary aim is to prepare students to be literate citizens of the 21st century global community, but sometimes it feels as though the greater emphasis is placed upon standardized tests and preparing students for these high-pressure exams. I read a wealth of articles about iPod/iPad carts and LCD televisions on the walls and the possibilities that these tools afford teachers and students, but schools that can afford such things are few and far between. Though teachers are increasingly comfortable with new technologies and the opportunities they provide for learning, the conversations in staff rooms where social media is demonized are still far too common. Eradicating old budgetary allocations, old practices, and old philosophies at a systemic level is extremely difficult–we may not have the power or influence to ‘change the game’ ourselves–but as Beane had the authority to impact the philosophy governing his team, so do we have the opportunity to bring a certain degree of progress and innovation to our own classrooms with or without the fancy tools.
2. Success is a product of confidence, not inherent ‘capability’
I would hope that we are all past the point of deducing student prospects in the way that baseball scouts must make snap judgments about players, but the temptation still remains to separate in our minds the ‘strong students’ from those who are unlikely to attain the same level of success academically, and measure our teaching effectiveness by the success of the students who possess the most ‘natural’ ability. What Beane discovers reiterates what many of us already know--confidence is the single most important factor in a player’s (or student’s) success. If a student is certain of his/her inability to succeed, his/her performance will undoubtedly match the expectation of failure. Conversely, if we can instill in our students a confidence that is genuine and ongoing, we will motivate them to work hard and improvements (however minor) are sure to follow.
According to the film, Beane abandoned the traditional practice of ‘scouting’ largely due to its proven ineffectiveness (in his own life and the lives of many other young ball players). He chose instead to take a rag-tag group of under-skilled players and explore their potential by focusing on their needs as individuals and finding out what drives each of them to aim higher. We will always have students for whom high grades are sufficient motivation, but I would venture to say that most students will look to us to point them toward other motivating factors, a truth we must consider each time we assign a project or announce an upcoming test for which we expect them to prepare. Students must see value in the tasks we are asking them to perform, and must be armed with the confidence that hard work will produce favourable results.
3. “Romance is for the fans”
I’d be lying if I did not admit at this point that I aspire to be a teacher who leaves a lasting impact on my students. It’s likely that all teachers, to some degree, consider this possibility. I remember fondly a handfull of teachers who challenged and inspired me throughout my academic career, and I often daydream about whether I will someday make a similarly profound contribution to the personal growth and development of students in my care. Fundamentally, there is nothing particularly wrong with this aspiration, but I can’t ignore Beane’s conclusion that ‘romance is for the fans’. He rarely attends the games, and even avoids the record-setting 20th consecutive win because getting caught up in personal glory and offers of inflated salaries that are sure to follow distracts him from doing his work and doing it well.
Professional sports, and (in a different vain) teaching are ‘romantic’ professions; they both offer the promise of a wonder and joy that are at times unexplainable and extremely memorable. At times, our experiences as educators approach the sublime! What we must remember is that we haven’t yet reached that retirement party. We haven’t won the World Series. We have lots of work left to do, much of it thankless and unrecognized. It would be wonderful if my co-workers and former students were to some day look back upon my career and admire my conviction and commitment to the profession, but for now I must press on with the work at hand and dismiss thoughts of glory. The drive comes from the unwavering belief that our work matters whether it is celebrated or not.
4. The sound of losing is silence
When Beane comes upon team-members in the locker-room carousing and acting foolish following an embarrassing loss, he stifles them and reminds them that ‘silence’ is the sound that follows a loss. Now, admittedly, it’s merely a baseball game, and I don’t want to stretch the analogy beyond what is reasonable, but Beane’s deadening of the mood and calling to attention of his players is an entirely appropriate response to defeat. When Oakland lost games, the result was lost revenue and a tarnished reputation. When we fail our students because we are too busy, too jaded, or too tired to give them our best, the results are much more consequential!
It breaks my heart to see students drop out, or make decisions that will negatively impact them well into adulthood. We can’t always prevent these behaviours or accept responsibility for them, but I know when I’ve done a great job vs. merely performing to expectations and I wonder if I set aside time for silence–for reflection–to consider how I might improve. Reflecting on our practice is something often trumpeted by the administrative teams and ministries for whom we work, but most teachers cite lack of time in the day as an excuse for negating this important practice. It simply can’t be ignored and set aside. The consequences for not engaging in reflection and acknowledging our weaknesses are too great.
5. “The first guy through the wall always gets bloody”
We must always remember that when we strive to incite change, to try something fresh and innovative and push the boundaries of what was previously thought possible, we will at times be met by voices of dissent. As Beane was told that ‘nobody reinvents the the game using statistical gimmicks’, we might be told that the existing methods, tools, philosophies are sufficient and favoured over the untried and untested. I am grateful for those learning environments where risk-taking is encouraged, but I am aware of just as many where it is met with opposition. To those working in such environments, the message is clear: keep doing what you know is in the best interests of your students!
As with Beane, accusations of failure may fly if we can’t produce immediate results, but there is usually a price to be paid by those who pioneer new ways of thinking or put into practice new philosophies and methods. Change is oftentimes threatening to the comfort and livelihood of respected colleagues, but it is essential if we are to remain relevant and effectively carry out our mandate. Recently, I’ve encountered online a vibrant network of teachers committed to harnessing the power of technology and the wealth of information available to us in the pursuit of teaching excellence. Many are implementing practices in their classrooms that would have been unthinkable and untenable a few years (or even months) ago. Let us continue on this path, in recognition that we may not get the credit or even stick around long enough to witness all the fruits of our efforts, but our persistence and passion will impact our education system for good! Beane never won a World Series with Oakland using his system, but another team that adopted it did so only a few short years later!
My response to the ‘metaphor’ described above is clear. At every opportunity, I will ‘go for it’ even at the risk of falling flat on my face, rather than maintaining the status quo and betraying a conviction that I can be better! I think it’s a practice that will serve me well in education and in life. What will you do?