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This is part nine of my willpower project tracking my progress through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. Jump back to part one if you want to start at the beginning.

Noticing Social Influences:
Chapter 8 was all about the ways in which others impact our willpower. It’s somewhat ironic, therefore, that I spent more time alone last week than I usually do. My wife was out of town and we’d just moved, so I took the week as an opportunity to connect with myself, doing more reading and taking more time to be by myself than I typically have time for. I noticed that my willpower isn’t particularly higher when I’m alone, but it takes on a different flavor. My decision making is much less filtered by other concerns. In some ways this is positive because I was able to very independently flex my schedule to make time for additionally reading, but I also had less accountability to eat well because no one was looking over my shoulder and I felt a decreased sense of responsibility. This reduced sense of responsibility made it easier to let dishes pile up in the sink.

The additional time spent alone also served to highlight the time I had that was influenced by others and my experiences definitely aligned with the concepts that McGonigal outlines. I am definitely more easily influenced by people I am close to. When my coworkers get off topic it is easy for my concentration to drift along with them, but if I’m writing in a coffee shop the conversations of strangers have almost zero impact on my ability to focus.

I also noticed the social impacts while at the gym. The people surrounding me have an impact on how much time and focus I give to warming up. When people were warming up and stretching very intentionally I noticed that I was more diligent in my own warm-up, regardless of the posted workout that day. When people were less focused in their warm-up routine, my focus drifted as well and I warmed up less carefully as a result. Luckily this wasn’t associated with any injuries or difficulties this last week, but it is definitely something I will continue to be mindful of. Warming up intentionally is a nice bite-sized “I will” challenge.

In terms of using visualization to leverage positive social impact I only had one experience where I did this intentionally: job hunting. Searching for a new job (across the country no less) has been a consistent “I will” challenge for me even though it hasn’t seen much attention in these posts. This last week, now that we’ve moved, I’ve been able to dedicate more time to finding a job and I’ve encountered some blocks that make me want to stop looking. In these moments I’ve worked hard to maintain my willpower, and this week I intentionally visualized how my wife would react positively as I applied to each possible position. This wasn’t the only technique that I leveraged, but it definitely helped me keep my long term goals in mind when things got difficult.

Chapter 9: The Limits of I Won’t Power

Quick! Don’t think about purple elephants!
….
It’s all you can think about now, right? That’s the essence of Chapter 9. When we work really hard to suppress thoughts, ideas, or emotions we can’t actually do it and we spend more time thinking about those things we’re trying to suppress. This is all well and good when it’s purple elephants, but it’s more difficult if you’re trying to suppress an impulsive thought.

The paradox occurs because while one part of our brain (the operator) is working on thinking about everything that is non-purple-elephant, the monitor portion of our brain is running scans to make sure we’re not thinking thinking about those elephants. We get a series of signals along the links of “am I thinking about purple elephants? No? Ok, good. How about now?” It turns out that while we’re doing these checks we’re actually thinking about those elephants. The same goes true for that cake you’re trying to resist, or that pair of shoes you’re trying not to buy. If suppressing your impulsive thoughts doesn’t work, what do you do to avoid temptation?

McGonigal’s answer to this dilemma mindful acceptance. There are some specific variations of mindfulness and non-attachment that help us deal with ideas that we want to suppress, but it can be boiled down to the idea that we should notice our feelings without judging them, and disconnect our thoughts from our actions. Just because you have the thought, doesn’t mean you have to take the action. This is really the entire essence of the book, and could summarize McGonigal’s entire definition of willpower. We have impulsive thoughts all the time, and our willpower is our ability to differentiate thought from action. I want to eat a lot of chocolate when I’m bummed out because sugar and fat trigger dopamine, but I use my willpower to make a different choice that is more in line with my long term goals. My midbrain activates one thought, and then my prefrontal cortex overrides that impulse with a rational command. I think one thing, and then I do another thing.

Specifically for this week I’ll be focusing on one of the experiments from Chapter 9, and that is swapping our willpower challenge from an issue of “I won’t” to “I will.” An example of this would be turning the statement “I won’t eat refined sugar” to “I will eat foods X, Y, and Z.” The research on this shows that by framing our choices positively we build more confidence and more long term success. If we’re constantly thinking about what we can’t have we form very intense cravings that are difficult to ignore, and when we do give in to our cravings, we indulge to a greater extent. This has an educational component as well. Instructing a student to resist negative behaviors is less effective than encouraging them to replace the negative behavior with a positive one. Instead of “don’t blurt out in class” the correction should be “when you have something to say, raise your hand.” The student can focus their “I will” power in order to encourage positive behaviors, just like focusing on “I will eat more carrots” helps me avoid chocolate.

This chapter is particularly helpful to me as, despite reading everything, I still tend to think about using my “I won’t” power as a first response. I look forward to seeing how switching to an “I will” focus changes my behavior.

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And another two weeks have passed without a post. It turns out moving keeps one pretty busy, but we’ve sold the house, moved into the apartment, and schedules can be reestablished. The willpower project is back on track.

I’ve tried to remain mindful of my willpower-based decisions throughout the moving process, however it became quite difficult as getting boxes packed and moved dominated my active willpower reserves, leaving little for healthy eating choices or exercise, let alone finding time to write. (Eating was particularly impacted as we were in kitchen limbo for a while with cooking supplies packed and no food in the house, causing me to eat out all meals except breakfast for about a week.) With those concerns in mind, I’m pretty happy with how I made out through the process. I was able to draw on willpower reserves to make sure that boxes got packed, and then subsequently unpacked.

In addition to being mindful of my willpower decisions, I made my choices easier by leveraging the idea of reducing variability. I did this by intentionally limiting my options for lunch. I allowed myself to get either a salad from Whole Foods or chicken and stir-fried veggies from Uwajimaya (a local Asian grocery). Other possibilities were simply out of the question. I combined this with the idea of the green willpower fill-up (see chapter 2) because I can walk from my office to Uwajimaya in a reasonable amount of time and I took advantage of this when the weather was cooperative. This definitely helped me stay on track with my long term health goals, despite the stress of moving.

In my professional life I was able to use McGonigal’s process for countering cycles of self-guilt. April and May are a stressful time in public education, particularly with teachers on non-continuing contracts as this is the time of year when they hear whether or not they will be retained. When things are looking unclear for my teachers many of them hyper-analyze their decisions and deeply internalize any failures, quickly progressing into a cycle of self-guilt and possible avoidance. McGonigal’s process outlined in chapter 6 allows me to help teachers see that they are not alone in their struggles and there are concrete actions they can take to increase the likelihood of being retained. This helps teachers take an active role in their retention and avoid feelings of helplessness.

Chapter 7: Putting the Future on Sale

In Chapter 7 McGonigal explores issues of instant gratification and how delaying gratification can be used as a technique to make more choices in line with long term goals. In simplest terms, our impulsive selves put a very high premium on immediacy and when rewards are delayed we perceive them as being less valuable. The terms is known as delay discounting and McGonigal explains it in economic terms, saying that in a particular study people “deprived themselves of what they really wanted for the fleeting satisfaction of a quick fix.” (p. 158) In order to combat this tendency McGOnigal outlines four experiments:

  1. Wait 10 Minutes
  2. Lower Your Discount Rate
  3. Precommit
  4. Meet Your Future Self

Wait 10 minutes is simply that. See a temptation? Wait 10 minutes and see if you still want it. If you do, knock yourself out. If not, don’t pick it.

Lowering the discount rate is somewhat more complex and it is predicated on the idea that we are better at internally justifying the first reward we thinking about. This means that if you think about the immediate reward first you tend to think about the choice as losing the immediate reward. “I’ll lose the hour watching TV if I look for jobs.” We can lower the discount rate by switching the order of thinking by replacing the previous statement by saying “is it worth trading an opportunity to apply for my dream job for one hour of video games?” By switching the focus of our self-talk we can remind ourselves of our long term goal and take advantage of our brain’s method of internal justification.

McGonigal uses the historical example of Hernàn Cortès burning his ships to illustrate the most extreme example of precommitment. It’s taking action that sabotages the impulsive self. In this case, by burning is ships, Cortès prevented the temptation of heading home before he’d achieved success. We don’t all have to burn our ships. There are more subtle ways to precommit to our long term goals. If you’re struggling with shopping, leave the credit card at home and take a specific amount of cash. If you’re trying to eat healthier, pack your lunch the night before so that it’s easier to grab it in the morning. If you’re trying to change your clothing choices, lay out the clothes the night before so that you don’t have to choose when you’re in a rush. All of these options are based in motivating oneself toward future goals by increasing the cost of choosing against the goals. In the first scenario, if you really want to use that credit card while you’re shopping you will have to head home and then back to the store, at which point you have significantly delayed the reward.

Meeting your future self is intended to help concretize the future, something that McGonigal keeps coming back to. This was extensively covered in her talk that I attended, and I’ve been using this technique regularly with my teachers by having them write letters from their future selves or by vividly imagining a future transformative movement. These techniques have been incredibly helpful and I’ve seen my teachers build significant motivation toward improving their practice.

I read this chapter about a week ago and I’ve been thinking about these ideas a lot. The small amount of willpower it takes to delay gratification by five to ten minutes is extremely powerful in helping me to making the choices that align with my long term goals. It doesn’t take much to reduce the discount rate and de-prioritize instant gratification. This chapter is a perfect example of how very small adjustments can make a big difference in a person’s life.

It would be really easy to not write this post. I spent the week at SxSWEdu and when I returned home I competed in the Crossfit Open and spread five yards of wood chips. My wife is still out of town, so no one is looking, and the TV looks really good right about now. That’s the whole point though. Willpower is about doing the difficult task instead of the easy one. It’s about perseverance as much as it is about self-restraint. In writing this (instead of queuing up a pile of Star Trek on Netflix while eating potato chips) I am exercising my “I won’t”, “I will”, and “I want” powers all at the same time. I will write this post and I won’t watch TV because I want to write consistently.

Here goes part three of my willpower project. If you’re just getting on board now, you may be interested in jumping back to part one.

Reflecting on Week 2:

It is easy to let travel disrupt routines and intentions, and I experienced some of that disruption while at SxSWEdu in Austin. The first thing to go was the meditation followed by exercise. It was too easy to just get up and begin the day without taking the five to ten minutes to sit in meditation, and I didn’t have the convenience of my gym. I was aware that I was skipping the meditation and workouts, but did nothing to remedy the action. I feel no guilt at this. I want to acknowledge it for the sake of mindfulness. Plus one for self-awareness, minus one for volition.

In terms of the specific experiments for week two though, I was more consistent. As expected, not having a car, forced me to spend the appropriate time outside. (A lack of rain significantly helped this despite historically low temperatures on March 3rd.) Since I got back home, I’ve been able to continue to get outside because I had five yards of wood chips to spread. Now that the wood chips are spread it will take some additional intentionality to get myself outside in an active capacity on a regular basic. Hopefully the transition into spring and warmer, and possibly drier, weather will help facilitate this. (Oh right, I live in the Northwest and it’s raining while I write this. Getting outside is securely in the “I will” category.)

Perhaps because I was out of my regular routine, I did not find much need to use intentional breathing to keep my fight or flight response in check while in Austin. I did have one instance where my anxiety rose (during the session where I was being filmed) and I took guidance from Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk about recontextualizing stress to work for us instead of against us. This is similar to adjusting breathing to control fight or flight. When I returned home and competed in the Crossfit Open, however, I definitely had to monitor my fight or flight reaction. Any type of competition gets my stress levels very high, and I had to actively control my breathing in order to keep the nerves at bay and lift with proper form. I wasn’t able to completely control the response, and had a small hiccup at the beginning, but I did feel myself regain partial control before my heat and I performed well. The breathing technique will definitely take more practice and I need to keep it in mind for future situations.

Chapter 3: Too Tired to Resist: Why Self-Control is Like a Muscle

This was the right chapter for this week. As mentioned above, I’m pretty beat, albeit in a #firstworldproblems sort of way. This chapter is all about laying out McGonigal’s muscle model for willpower that she covered fairly deeply in her talk at NTC. The big point is that while willpower is limited in the short term, it is extremely growable in the long term. Just like our muscles. The more I squat, the stronger my legs get.

In a given period of time, I can only do so many pull-ups and overhead squats, as open workout 14.2 showed me in no uncertain terms. At a certain point my muscles stop responding and I fatigue. The pull-up that seemed fairly straightforward at the beginning of the workout becomes an impossible mountain to climb. Willpower is similar. We exert our willpower on something, and we run out of gas. Despite this short-term limit though, through training we can increase our work capacity. When I began exercising in earnest (about four years ago) one pull-up was extremely difficult, while now I can do many in a row. McGonigal’s argument is that willpower functions in the same way. We train the willpower “muscle” and its work capacity will improve over time. We can expand our willpower tank. What used to be extremely difficult becomes less so. I’ve experienced this firsthand with exercise. It used to be a difficult willpower task to get into the gym on a regular basis, and now it is second nature. Through practice and repetition the difficult task has become normal and I’m trying to get writing to that same place.

The other fascinating piece of this chapter is a link between diet and willpower, finding that our willpower is tied to blood sugar levels, and blood sugar trajectory in very direct ways. As one might hypothesize, consistent blood sugar and a low-glycemic diet, help us maintain consistent willpower. Huge fluctuations in blood sugar lead to fluctuations in willpower. This is something that I hadn’t thought of, but it makes a lot of sense. Good fuel means good performance physically and why should our mental capabilities behave differently?

This upcoming week continues the willpower-monitoring theme, however, this time McGonigal is asking for her readers to track times of high and low willpower. This is primarily tied to time of day, but I have a hypothesis that physical location matters as well. I know that I work better in some environments. I find that I write well on airplanes for instance. (Something about the limited stimuli I think.) I also know that it’s hard for me to focus when I’m in cluttered space.

The experiments this week cover eating well, finding a “want” power to act as a reminder of long-term goals, and creating a specific willpower workout in which I should attempt to control something that I usually don’t control. I am confident in my diet, and this extra monitoring will serve as a strong reset post-travel. (I wasn’t interested in resisting tacos while in Austin.) I will continue to use my desire to write more consistently as my “I want” power to refocus myself. Lastly, for a willpower workout I will focus on monitoring my sitting posture to maintain healthy spine position. Here’s to a week of clean eating and a well-aligned back.

This is part 2 of my Willpower Project, tracking my thoughts and processing through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. Head to part 1 in order to start at the beginning.

Week 1 Reflection: Observation First

It’s been a week of meditation and monitoring my willpower-based decisions and I’ve definitely seen some change. I find myself more aware of the conflict between my long-term goals and my impulses. This includes my desire to blaze through the entire book instead of taking the one chapter at a time approach McGonigal suggests. (Willpower challenges come in all shapes and sizes.)

I suspect that a certain amount of the change I’m experiencing is due to an observer effect in which the act of observation influences the behavior of the observed subject. In this case I am both subject and observer, so it is, to a certain extent, impossible to avoid. Unlike a scientific study though, I am not concerned about this impact. My results are not invalidated by an observer effect. The goal of this project is to change my behavior improve my awareness of how I use my willpower. If observation alone acts to positively influence my use of willpower, that is a promising finding: an extremely low cost intervention can create positive change. The observer effect helps me achieve my intended outcome.

Throughout this week I’ve been much more aware of the conflict between my long-term want to write more consistently and my immediate impulses to play video games or watch TV. I also noticed an additional conflict: the conflict between activities I want to do and activities that I need to do. The primary conflict for my willpower challenge is how to use my unscheduled time, should it be used for writing, or some other activity? This is impacted by other “need to do” activities like making dinner, work, or running errands, and by more carefully observing the situations in which I choose some activity other than writing, I’ve been able to be mindful of how much of the conflict is about myself as a person, about my choices, versus a somewhat more external time limit. This observation is important because it allows me to remove judgement with regards to choosing to write. I can be more objective. If I didn’t write because I chose to idly browse Facebook, that is importantly different from not writing because I spent more time than usual making a nice dinner. They may have the same end result of less writing, but means are extremely different and important to consider.

The meditation was easier than I expected. The section in chapter one that encourages objective reflection, as opposed to a commitment to perfect meditation, was extremely helpful for this. Mindful objectivity allowed me to notice my meditation without being evaluative. I had the permission to be bad at meditation which helped me do it more often.

I’ve gradually increased the time from five minutes on the first day to eight minutes at the end of week one and I plan to keep increasing through the second week. I can’t say for certain if it’s due to meditation specifically, or a more general mindfulness, but I have definitely seen an increase in my self-awareness in this first week, but as I wrote above, I don’t need a scientifically verifiable and replicable study. If I’m doing something that helps, that’s good enough.

This week has already helped me with my willpower challenge (a few times I’ve made the choice to write instead of another acidity) and this mindfulness has extended into other areas and I’ve noticed myself being more mindful of food choices, my driving habits, and how I’m spending money. The progress I’ve made during the first week is definitely encouraging me to maintain these behaviors and try the experiments in chapter 2.

Chapter 2: The Willpower Instinct: Your Body Was Born to Resist Cheesecake

This chapter covers the physiology of our response to perceived threat and draws the distinction between the impulsive fight or flight response, and the willpower-leveraged pause and plan response. Most of the chapter aligned strongly with what I heard in McGonigal’s workshop, and it was helpful to see it reiterated with a bit more explanation and strong scientific citations. Through the chapter McGonigal continues her empowering message that as human beings, we are in control of how we respond to situations. The size and power of our prefrontal cortex makes us uniquely equipped to distinguish between external threats (like a raging bear) and internal threats (like the desire to buy a flashy new pair of shoes).

This distinction resonated powerfully with me. It’s very easy to externalize threats and respond with fight or flight, and this is very important when the threat is truly external, like a bear. The whole point of fight or flight is actually our body’s ability to repurpose our energy system before we think at all. This response, however, is completely ineffective on internal threats.

It turns out that the flashy pair of new shoes are not the threat. My desire to purchase the shoes are the threat. (In this case a threat to my long term goal of reducing impulsive purchases as opposed to a threat to my life.) By seeing the threat as internal as opposed to external, I can much more effectively activate my willpower to resist that threat. The energy is not directed properly at my desire as opposed to the shoes themselves. This need to distinguish internal and external threats requires the kind of self awareness that I activated during the first week, and I’ve already seen improved ability to determine the locus of a threat and respond accordingly. I’m definitely not perfect, but I’m noticing a lot more than I had previously.

The other extremely important component of chapter 2 is the link between willpower and our physical health, and this is evident in the willpower experiments. In week two McGonigal tasks her reader to activate intentional breathing, spend time outside, get more exercise, sleep more, and intentionally engage in relaxation. I’m pretty good about some of these already. Thanks to my wife’s insistence I usually get seven or more hours of sleep every night, which is on the good side of McGonigal’s scientifically-backed six hour minimum for proper willpower function. I also exercise regularly and I don’t plan in making changes to that regimen any time soon. The other willpower experiments are less present in my life currently.

The other components: intentional breathing, getting outside, and active relaxation are going to be my focus for week two. The intentional breathing is intended to be used in acute situations as a way to actively shift from fight or flight into the pause and plan response. I’m going to try be mindful of my physiological response to perceived threat in order to activate an intentional pause and plan response through controlled breathing. This week I’m going to be away at the South by Southwest Edu conference in Austin, so I will have to walk more than I usually do at home, this should help facilitate including five minutes of outdoor physical activity. I will need to be more intentional about this time when I return home. Lastly I am excited to spend time in active relaxation. McGonigal’s process for this is very straightforward, somewhere in the grey area between meditation and sleep.

Even only one week into the project I am feeling much more in control and aware. Additionally, by understanding willpower as a physiological and growable component of my life, I’ve been able to remove some of the guilt associated with losing a willpower challenge. Reconfiguring my understanding of willpower is making me more willing to attempt activities that challenge my willpower. I look forward to reflecting on a second week.

This is the first in a series of posts that I will be writing as I work my way through Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct. I picked up the book after attending her five hour intensive session on the Science of Willpower and Compassion. The session had a significant impact on me as I wrote about earlier and it left me wanting more. A lot more.

Much to my chagrin, The Willpower Instinct is structured to be read one chapter at a time for ten weeks, like taking a class, with exercises and observations to make during the week. (My usual impulse is to fly through books very quickly, but I’m going to give McGonigal the benefit of the doubt here and read it her way.) I may end up reviewing the book at the end of the process, but that is not my current plan. I will also not be summarizing the content of the chapters except where absolutely necessary.

I will be using these posts to track my thinking throughout the process as well as to create some external accountability for my willpower challenge. Ten chapters and a summary of the whole thing: eleven posts over as many weeks. (I’m even starting on my birthday. Auspicious? Sure.)

Introduction: The Willpower Challenge
The willpower challenge is the heart of the project. In the introduction McGonigal has the reader select a specific willpower challenge that serves as a focus area for the ideas and techniques throughout the book. This focus is necessary because there are simply too many aspects of willpower that we could choose to work on, therefore in order to see progress with the techniques, and within the time frame, one should focus on a single aspect of willpower from any of the three categories: I will, I won’t, I want. I chose from the “I want” category, meaning an “important long-term goal you’d like to focus your energy on.”

I’ve been working for a long time on developing my identity as a thinker and writer through this blog, and I’m somewhat happy with the results, but definitely not satisfied. To this end I am selecting to improve my consistency and frequency in posting to this blog as my willpower challenge. There are a number of immediate wants and impulses that impede my ability to write consistently from the pull of television and video games to my love of exercise, but it is not as though I am incapable of making the time to write. Thus, the idea of posting my thinking as I work through the book was born. These posts may not be the only writing I will post, but they’ll be the lion’s share for a while.

Chapter 1, I Will, I Won’t, I Want: What Willpower Is, and Why It Matters
This chapter is all about defining and identifying willpower. As such the willpower experiments for the week focus on tracking willpower choices and brain training to improve self-awareness. In order to change something we have to know what it is first.

Tracking our willpower-impacted decisions is important because we need good data. People tend to dramatically underestimate the number of willpower-impacted decisions we make each day and as such estimation is unreliable. By deliberately tracking my decisions I should see how often, and under what circumstances, I choose activities that are impulse-driven versus intentional and thoughtful. I should then be able to observe the impact that my decisions have on my long-term goal of writing more frequently and consistently.

The brain training exercise is regular meditation. There are strong links between meditation and a variety of self-control skills. By practicing regular meditation I should be able to improve my self-awareness and goal-focused decision making. (I am dramatically oversimplifying here.) The key to both the tracking and the meditation is to do them without judgement. The task is to observe when and why I make the choices I do, not to evaluate them, or pile on any guilt on myself when I give in to impulse. Similarly the meditation is not about completely emptying my mind, but noticing how my mind wanders and continually refocusing on my breath. This is the observation stage of the scientific method.

See you next week for a report on week one and a look at the second chapter.

Nancy Jones taught English during my junior and senior years at Interlake High School.  When I had her she’d been teaching since the opening of the school in 1962.  My senior year was her last year at the school.  She was notoriously difficult and had a reputation for being a very tough grader.  She would regularly use words that left students (and often colleagues) scratching their heads.  This woman did not suffer fools.  I’ve been extremely privileged in my education.  I’ve been blessed with powerful educators at all levels of my formal and informal schooling.  Nancy Jones is the single greatest teacher I have ever had and I never told her.

Dear Ms. Jones,

Thank you for dedicating your life to teaching belligerent and uncooperative teenagers.  Thank you for being unwilling to accept mediocrity.  Thank you for your deep commitment to equity and equality of educational opportunity.  Thank you for never surrendering.

In my junior year of high school my motivation for quality was strictly limited to “good enough for a B” because that was the threshold for my parents leaving me alone.  (I discovered this threshold during my freshman year.)  I had a firmly established policy of putting in the absolute minimum amount of work to get a B, and by my junior year I was seriously testing the line.  To this end my pattern was to quickly write up an essay the night before it was due, turn it out without revision, and see where the grade fell.  I generally had no trouble landing in the acceptable range.  Until I hit your class.

In your class I tried this method and was met with words that changed my world: “You need to rewrite this.  I know you can do better.”  This rocked me to my core.  I’d never had a teacher hold me accountable for my best.  Good enough was always good enough and here you were telling me that I would have to work hard, and that through working hard I would improve.

Reworking that essay forced me to examine my understanding of the purpose of writing assignments.  I was firmly rooted in a fixed mindset that linked my writing ability to doing the least work and earning the highest grade.  I thought my work was excellent because I did well with little effort and you were telling me otherwise.  When you handed back the paper and made me revise it, you reminded me that the lowest acceptable level of work is one’s best work.  You also showed me, in no uncertain terms, what it really means to have high standards.

At the time I thought you were being mean.  I thought you were being a hard grader.  I thought you didn’t like me.  I didn’t realize that your insistence on nothing less than my best came from a place of unending compassion and caring.  I know now that you believe each and every human being capable of deep thinking and excellence.  I know it because you never dumbed things down.  You never lowered your standards.  You never gave in to protestation, and you, without fail, always called out students like myself who were disrespecting your class through mediocre effort.

Ms. Jones: I learned how to work hard in your class and I am forever grateful.  I learned the importance of universal respect in your class.  I learned not to suffer fools.  I cannot, at this moment, name all of the books we read in your class, (I do remember that you called me out for not having read Pride and Prejudice when I tried to skate by on another essay.) but I do remember your presence, your compassion, and your never-ending pursuit of the best in everyone.

Since your class I’ve become a social studies and AVID teacher, including three years at Interlake, and I am now mentoring novice teachers as they begin their work.  Your lessons and beliefs stay with me every day, from the continual demand for excellence, down to the specifics of how to write strong analysis.  Your legacy lives in the students’ who, like myself, are forever bettered as a result of your work.  Thank you.

With eternal gratitude,

Gabriel McCormick class of 2001

PS: No, this letter is not a rough draft.

There are times when teachers see immediate results of their work.  Times when a student has that elusive lightbulb moment, or when the student implements a taught skill without prompting.  These immediate validations of a teacher’s effort are infrequent at best, and often quite rare.  Teaching is a long term process in which positive impact is regularly delayed until years after when the student and teacher have lost contact.  Teachers rarely have the chance to understand how their work impacts students in the long term.  I recently received an email from a former student that highlighted just how rare it is to hear from a student after they leave my class.  The way she describes her life, and the impact of my class, was extremely unexpected. The excerpt from her email below has been edited for length and to remove most personal identifiers.

She says:

Hey Mr. McCormick! I just wanted to say thank you so much for what you taught me over the years as my AVID teacher. … the things I learned in your class, YES even/especially AP World have really made an impact on me. Since leaving about midway through sophomore year, I went through the worst of the worst, and became a version of me that I never thought I’d ever become. … I went through the pain of mental, physical, and emotional abuse at that time. As expected, I was in the worst health anybody could imagine.
 
I decided to leave Washington and move back into my grandparent’s house…. I’ve been here for about 2 months [after about a year of being out of school – GM] and I’m already back in school. I’m going to college and I’m in the medical assisting program, I’m the youngest in my class by many years, but everyone looks to me for help! My note taking skills have been recognized by my instructor and classmates, and I have AVID to thank. I really do look back at all the mistakes I’ve made and thank God everyday that education was always something that I took interest in, even if I lost myself for a while. My family is very proud of me and supports me 100% of the way, I hope to one day become a [physician’s assistant] after a couple of years working as an [medical assistant], and my graduation date is set for May, 2014. Wish me luck!   Again, thank you so much for putting up with my nonsense those few years! I love my entire AVID class and I wish them the very best at their last year as [High School] students.

When she left my school in the middle of her junior year, I was incredibly concerned for Carmen.  She had been exhibiting unusual behavior and her grades were declining rapidly from an already inconsistent position.  When she left school I felt like a failure.  I hadn’t reached her.  I was unable to get things turned around to help Carmen get back to the student she’d been in earlier years.  Over time I stopped thinking about her.

When I received this letter from her I was forced to take stock of my self perception.  In a certain way it creates a level of paradox.  Most of the time education is an extremely gradual process by which students build on past experiences and integrate new knowledge and skill, thus creating an ever-developing persona.  At the same time, however, there exists the potential to create extremely powerful catalytic moments that initiate radical change and have lifelong impact.

I would like to think that I helped teach Carmen the grit and individual determination that helped her build back from setbacks that could have completely derailed her life.  While we worked on these kinds of non-cognitive skills in class, she already came to my class equipped in many ways.  Carmen’s determination and perseverance are products of a gradual building process in her life.

With Carmen I did not create an appropriate catalytic moment that caused her to take stock of her life.  That moment had to come from beyond the classroom, and took her down an extremely difficult path.  I was able to set something of a time bomb in her head though.  Education acted as a beacon for Carmen.  No matter her declining grades, her difficulties, or her questionable choices, Carmen always maintained an unwavering faith in the power of self-improvement through education.  I do not know if this was a conscious belief while she was in my class, however, she clearly has that belief now and she can link lessons from my class to her ability to realize her academic goals.  As her teacher I was able to support this through my own unwavering belief in her ability to grow and improve.  Education provides her with hope that change will come.  Combined with her willingness to put in hard work Carmen is seeing her belief become reality.  She recently sent me a picture of her quarter grades and the proof is undeniable:

CarmenGrade

Carmen’s story reminds me that all success is not instant.  Most success is not immediate.  We do not all take the same path, nor do we need to.  Carmen helps maintain my faith in the transformative power of education.  She is the American Dream: a child born of immigrant parents who, through hard work and determination, will create for herself a better future.

Stories like hers are why I remain committed to improving our education system at all levels.  The work is slow, and change is incremental, but change is possible and objectively small victories are worthy of celebration because they are subjectively deeply meaningful.  In the greater picture, one student turning a GED, abuse, and addiction into a degree and work in the medical profession is relatively minor.  In the story of Carmen’s family she will be the first to complete any higher education and she will act as an example to her younger siblings and cousins, dramatically impacting their lives.  In her most recent email, Carmen told me that she wants to become a paramedic so that she can save lives and said “thank you for caring I don’t really have anybody who does.”  The impacts of education are rarely immediately visible, but that does not diminish their value.  Maintaining commitment to the educational process requires perseverance, belief, and an appreciation of delayed gratification.