Resistance Training

We all have our demons. And, the battle against them is for keeps. Defeat can mean a life of mediocrity, regrets and missed opportunities. Victory, on the other hand, can mean a life worth living. This battle, however, is unending. Neither your age, income, nor the heights of your success matter. If you breathe, you must battle. But, there is no course, school or accredited program that teaches us how to outmaneuver, outflank, and outwit our demons. There are great books and role models (Steven Pressfield and Seth Godin). Yet, we know that the best way to learn something is to do that something. But, how do you teach your students to fight their demons by getting them to fight their demons? If you are intent on the fundamental transformation of your students, Tribal Teaching may be for you. It has four components (for now).

1. Choose a Big Project (No, bigger than that.)

Imagine the kind of world you want to live in, the kind of world you want your children to inherit, the kind of world that makes you proud to be a human being. Go for greatness. Change the conversation. Choose a project that when shared with others they say “Can you do that?” Or, even better “You cannot do that.”  Propose a project that is so monumental that it can only be accomplished through collective effort. You cannot do it alone. You students cannot do it alone. Neither of you have enough expertise, energy, enthusiasm, or time. The project cannot be accomplished in a semester, an academic year, or even before they graduate. It will not fit neatly into a syllabus. And, victory will be measured in inches. Who cares? You and your students are building a new world order.

2. Cede the Center

With all those young faces listening to each of your words, taking notes, and nodding their heads in approval, the classroom is your stage. I know. It is exhilarating.  But, you have to give it up. It is the project that brings everyone together, not you. Step out from behind the podium and walk away from the blackboard. View your students as partners, collaborators and co-creators instead of receptacles to be filled with your expertise. Leave behind the protective cover of theory and abstraction and step into the realm of uncertainty and immense complexity that is reality. And, just a heads up, once your work with students begins, there will be moments (probably many) when things do not turn out as planned. Embrace these moments then get out of the way. Do not give into your instincts. Do not try to fix these moments with your relative expertise. Leave them to your students. They are opportunities for your students to step up and lead, gain the self-confidence of independent thinkers, and earn their agency.

3. Let Them Fail (and let it hurt)

Your students must face a real risk of failure. I am not talking about a bad grade on an assignment kind of failure. I am talking about failure that makes their heart ache and leaves a mark. This kind of failure arises when inadequate preparation, mediocre effort, and the lack of follow through hurts others (other students, partners, collaborators and even the communities with which you work). Do not protect them from the full weight of their failure. Yet, here is the rub. Since you all have your name in the game, you will want to. If they fail, then you fail. And, you do not like to fail. So, you will want cover for them. You cannot do this. The best way to commit yourself to not doing this is to design “I Do Not Know” into your syllabus. If something has to be done and you do not have the answer, then only your students can do it. They have to deliver. And, if they do not, then others may get hurt. If others get hurt, that is on them. They need to feel their failure.

4. Walk the Coals with Them

This level of accountability will animate all the demons in their arsenal – self-doubt, self-sabotage and self-reproach. Steven Pressfield calls it the “Resistance.”  You must train them to take on Resistance. You do this by co-creating a group culture that is resistance-proof, developing a core set of values that guide your thoughts and actions, and sharing your own stories of struggle and failure. They need to know that you fight the same battles. They need to know that you are not all-knowing. And, they need to know that the pedestal they may have placed you on is shaky and in need of daily repair and constant attention. You nudge, encourage and cajole them to fight by being vulnerable. Taking on your demons together binds you together. It is a rite of passage. It makes you a tribe.

And, when the time comes for your students to spin off from the tribe, you will have already given them the chance to develop a way of walking and a way of talking (to themselves) that puts them in a better position to battle their demons tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that.

Now, that sounds like an education.

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)

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