There is a very unusual type of statistic kept in professional Australian Rules Football called a ‘one-percenter‘. A one-percenter is a statistic that recognises an action by a player that entails just a little more effort or courage than normal.
An example of a one-percenter is when a player chases the ball-carrying opposition player over an extended distance. Even if the player is unable to catch or tackle the ball-carrier, the added pressure applied because of the chase is deemed valuable. These one-percenters, in themselves, often have very little apparent impact on the game, in fact they can easily go unnoticed, but collectively they can change the result.
The best educators tend to make an artform of one-percenters. The next chance you have to see an outstanding teacher in action, try to see beyond their content expertise and refined pedagogy and you might observe things like:
- their ability to subtly shift the energy in the room;
- an almost imperceptible nod of gratitude to a child who has again helped another student;
- a well-timed, self-deprecating joke to defuse anxiety;
- an extraordinary level of organisation, readiness, adaptability and withitness;
- an enhanced ability to ‘think like a student’, to empathise, and to inspire;
- an absolute present-mindedness, the sense that there is nothing more important than this lesson, this child, this moment.
In football and in teaching, it’s true that, sometimes, it’s the ‘big’ moments that matter – the great goals, the amazing lesson. But ultimately, the most respected and valued footballers and teachers are the ones who turn up authentically again and again, and really commit to the one-percenters.
One of dilemmas faced by dynamic professionals is where to focus and prioritise their energy. This is often the case in early and mid-stage educators. And it is certainly the case for outstanding educators who tend to be pretty good at, and passionate about most areas of education. There is an increasing smorgasbord of options available for growth, professional development, specialisation, and post-graduate study.
But there’s a danger here…
There’s an old fable about a donkey who is both very hungry and very thirsty. He is standing halfway between a stack of hay and a bucket of water. He keeps looking to the left at the hay and then to the right at the water. He is equally attracted to the hay and the water but is unable to decide on an option. Eventually he falls down and dies of both hunger and thirst.
There are many exciting, emerging opportunities and platforms for education practitioners to make an impact both in their classrooms and beyond. But real impact requires expertise. And expertise requires a choice and a commitment. And this, in turn, requires courage and a long-term perspective.
Otherwise, the three alternatives for enterprising and progressive educators are:
- Deciding to remain more of a highly-skilled ‘generalist’ rather than an ‘expert’ – which is perfectly fine.
- Deciding to try to become expert at many things and burning out in the process – which isn’t fine.
- Not deciding at all. (But that didn’t work out well for the donkey.)
As an educator, can you ever become good enough?
Last week, I met a career teacher in his final year before retirement. He was one of the most engaged, interested and committed participants in a high quality professional development workshop.
I imagine that some of his colleagues do think that they’re good enough. But I can’t be sure, I didn’t get to meet them. They weren’t at the workshop. They gave up on commitment to systematic growth and development the day they decided they were good enough.
When you get the chance to experience true innovation in schools or organisations, it feels exciting. It’s not just the novelty, it’s the sense that this new way of doing something is qualitatively better.
This kind of development stems from an intimate knowledge of the system in which the innovation is occurring. When we have this level of understanding, we know how far the constraints and conventions of the system can be pushed or bent before they break.
But when we fail to respect the system, or we push too hard or too fast against its foundations, it doesn’t give people time to adjust or adapt. When people feel too challenged or destabilised, we can end up simply causing frustration and/or being dismissed as someone who “doesn’t get it”.
Innovation will, at times, be disruptive and stressful for some people within a system. But when done well, carefully, professionally, and respectfully, innovation can nudge behaviours, reshape constraints, and energise the system without upsetting the apple cart.
If you’ve ever visited Vietnam you’ll be familiar with the ‘experience’ of crossing the road on foot. If you haven’t, you might struggle to imagine what it feels like to walk out into a swarm of oncoming motor scooters that seem to be oblivious to the laws requiring vehicles to stop at pedestrian crossings.
Against your instincts, locals will tell you to step confidently out into the scooter-stream, look straight ahead and walk at a steady pace across the road. Somehow, scooters rapidly zip behind and in front of you – as if perfectly choreographed. It sounds and seems crazy, but it works.
It works because everyone knows the intention and direction of each other. The scooter-riders know that you are trying to get from one side to the other. And they know that you are going to walk straight and steady. You know that they are going to steer around you – as long as you walk straight and steady.
In amongst the apparent chaos, these predictable behaviours create an effective and efficient system. Everyone gets where they need to go safely and reliably.
There are times in our lives when it makes sense to embrace experimentation, growth, challenge, and innovation. And there are other times when it makes sense to keep our head down and walk straight and steady…just to get to the other side.
Feedback, especially critical feedback, often isn’t pleasant to receive. And it’s really hard to hear it when it’s about our work. So why do we put ourselves through it? Why do we go out of our way to seek high-quality, genuinely constructive feedback from peers or mentors? Because it helps us grow. Feedback drives learning.
But when you give feedback, your intention matters.
Is your intention to deconstruct a performance from the past and give your view on what would have been better or what you would have done instead? Because that’s hard to listen to. That’s the kind of feedback that can easily demotivate someone or make them defensive.
Or is your intention to help illuminate someone’s future by highlighting inherent strengths and tools that can help them be even better? When we show that we genuinely care by walking beside someone in the process, helping them see a new path, that feels really different.
Some people call this feedforward instead.
“Most of the successful people I know have tons of bad ideas.”
— Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram.
This is as true in education as it is in entrepreneurship. Success and leadership is less about always being right or always having the great idea — and more about being willing to be wrong and having the courage to pivot at the right time.