Sunday, August 21, 2011

What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher

Occasionally, when I am driving home from work, I’m able to listen to a show called “Fresh Air” which is on NPR (National Public Radio). In it, Terry Gross (or an associate) will interview some interesting person. The discussions are often fabulous.

One day last week, I was able to listen to the show for just 4-5 minutes but, during that time, I heard something that really caught my attention. I have thought a lot about what I heard ever since that time and pondered its connection with my dealings with students. The person being interviewed was Brad Ausmus who retired recently as a catcher in baseball. He played in the major leagues for 18 years and is 7th on the all-time list for the number of games caught by one person.

If you follow baseball at all, you know that occasionally (especially when things are going badly) the catcher runs out to the mound for a quick talk with the pitcher. Probably like every other baseball fan, I’ve always wondered what the catcher can possibly be saying. Well, the person doing the interview on Fresh Air asked that specific question: “When you go out to talk with the pitcher, what do you tell him?”

Unfortunately, I was driving in my car so I couldn’t write down the words verbatim but here is the gist of what Ausmus said. “I always had only one goal in mind when I went out to talk with the pitcher. When I left him, I wanted the pitcher to absolutely believe that he was capable of getting out of the situation that he was facing. If he didn’t believe he was capable of taking care of the problem, we didn’t have much chance.”

What a fascinating lesson: I only had one goal. When I left him, I wanted him to believe that he was capable of getting out of the problem.

No wonder the guy stayed in the major leagues for 18 years.

We talk with our students all the time. Often, they have a problem – they have failed a test or they don’t understand what’s been covered or they have been lazy or busy and fallen behind. Frequently, it is their fault entirely.

It is easy to get really frustrated with students. There are times when I want to look into the student’s eyes and say “you messed up. This is all your fault. You’re an adult; let’s see how you get yourself out of this problem.”

That might well make me feel good (maybe we are all a bit sadistic) but I’m paid to teach students not to put them in their place. I didn’t become a teacher to berate young people for the mistakes they make. I became a teacher to help them succeed – not half of them, all of them. Over the years, I’ve talked with hundreds of teachers. One thing I have noticed is that, if you are not careful, it is easy for teachers to get into an “us versus them” mentality. “Students are lazy.” “Students have to be told everything.” “Students will cheat if you don’t watch them every second.” But in teaching, we are all on the same team. The catcher may be really upset at the pitcher but he still wants the pitcher to do well and win.

As a new semester begins, I’m going to try to be a bit more like Ausmus. When I talk with students, I’m going to think of them as pitchers and me as the catcher trying to get them back on top of their game so we can both win.

When students come to me with issues/challenges/problems, I’m going to attempt to (a) define the problem so we all understand, (b) tell them how I think they can and should resolve the problem, and (c) make sure they believe they are capable of fixing the problem. When they walk out of my office, I want them to believe they are capable of solving the problem. That certainly doesn’t mean that I’m going to do the work for them. The catcher doesn’t go out and offer to pitch.

In baseball, the goal is so obvious: we want our team to score more runs than the other team. In education, the goal may vary somewhat from person to person but it usually is pretty close to: we want every single student to learn the material and understand how to use that knowledge to have a better and more fulfilled life. When a student gets off the track to that goal, it is our job to show them how to get back on the track and leave them believing that they are capable of doing just that.

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