He was one of those players on the tour whom everyone knew; as famous for his flamboyant lifestyle as much for his tennis, he nevertheless, in public anyway, exuded a confidence which was hard to stifle. Vitas Gerulaitis famously entered a press conference feeling ten feet tall after finally beating his nemesis Jimmy Connors following years of defeats. He stared around the room, daring a question. Challenging everyone with a cold stare and a glint in his eye, he uttered the immortal words, ‘Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis seventeen times in a row.’ As well as being a killer line, there’s a magnificent persistence in that attitude from which we can all learn.
I’m approaching the end of my fifteenth year in teaching. I think it has been a good one. How do I know? I feel happier than I did last year? Maybe. My classes seemed to achieve and coped well with recent exams? Perhaps. However, it is probably because I know more about teaching now. I’ve come to a place where nothing really throws me in the classroom; I can cope with pretty much everything I need to deal with. I am now managing to merge good classroom practice with academic theory, gleaned through my Masters studies and additional reading. I can justify my decisions in and out of the classroom. I can challenge anyone in the room with a cold stare and a glint in my eye.
Our self-confidence as teachers should stem from our experience and what we know. The longer you teach, the more you should know about teaching, surely. However, I’m not sure this is always the case. Unless we underpin our practice with theory are we not destined to make the same mistakes again and again, perhaps without knowing that they are mistakes? The more I learn the more I realise I was probably metaphorically losing to Jimmy Connors every year. The high points often overcome by a sense of disappointment over this class or that; an awareness of what I should have done differently; an inability to avoid the same mistakes as last year.
I got to thinking about this the other day as I finished “Make it Stick’ by Peter C. Brown. A fascinating book about memory and information retrieval, it seemed to challenge my existing thinking in just about every chapter.
‘We cannot remember every aspect of an event, so we remember those elements that have greatest emotional significance for us, and we fill in the gaps with details of our own that are consistent with our narrative but may be wrong’.
Our earliest memories of teaching have tremendous ‘emotional significance for us’, good and bad, but it is how we fill those gaps that helps us to become better teachers. Remembering where we went wrong and correcting that is the difference.
Every time something like that clicks for me there is a mini Vitas Gerulaitis inside, punching his fist in victory. Another wee notch to my racket. And I no longer make the mistake of being pleased when I get to the end of the book and feel satisfied that I understood it. My fist punching moment occurs at the end of lessons when I know my teaching has improved. I know more than I knew then. That’s why effective professional development that has impact is so crucial. It allows us to persist with a goal.
Nobody beats me fifteen years in a row.