We Talkin' About Practice

In 2005 a friend convinced me to run a 5k race.


Despite not doing much running since my last 5k in 1999, I was confident I hadn’t lost much speed during my six-year running hiatus.


When the gun fired to start the race, I quickly made my way toward the front of the pack. As a part of the lead group, I could hear the race volunteer yell “six minutes!” as we crossed the one-mile mark.


A short time later something didn’t feel right. My legs started to fatigue. My lungs gasped for air. My sides began having cramps. What started as a dead sprint had deteriorated into a sluggish jog.


Like an elementary student running the mile in PE for the first time, I made the classic mistake of starting way too fast. The more people who passed me, the more frustrated I became.


Eventually I crossed the finish line in 25 minutes. Although not terrible, this time was nowhere close to the marks I posted six years prior.


A few days later after the disappointment wore off, I committed to running the same race the following year. By adequately preparing for the event, my goal was to post a time that more accurately reflected my running ability.


Over the next 12 months I did everything possible to practice for my next opportunity. I studied the best training plans, asked other runners for advice, and completed workouts that placed me in the best position to succeed.

In the days leading up to the second contest, I felt good about my preparation. My body felt strong, I understood the course, and my confidence was high.


When the gun sounded to begin the race, I again made my way toward the front of the pack. As we passed the one-mile mark I could hear the race volunteer yell “six minutes!”


Would I experience the same fate as the previous run?


Not this time. Due to my intense training, I was able to keep the same pace the entire race. Although I didn’t win, I finished the 3.1-mile course in 19 minutes. I felt great satisfaction in knowing my hard work paid off.


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What if instead of 19 minutes, race organizers told me my time was officially 22 minutes? Instead of giving me the time I earned, they averaged my two race times together (25 minutes in 2005 and 19 minutes in 2006).


I would have told them this was unfair! I put in a year’s worth of hard work to demonstrate my mastery of a 5k race. Why should an assessment of my running ability be impacted by a previous performance?


While this approach to judging 5k races seems ridiculous, this is common practice in schools.


For as long as most people can remember, teachers have used averages to determine student grades. Although some teachers are beginning to place more emphasis on content mastery as opposed to central tendency, averaging is still the prevailing approach to grading in schools.


What is the root cause of this mindset? As has been described throughout this book, educators love holding on to traditional practices. Beyond grading philosophies, many educators are passionate - if not hostile - about preserving conventional methods.


"It worked for me growing up," these teachers argue. "It can work for our kids as well."


Imagine a doctor, accountant, or engineer refusing to alter their approach based on new discoveries. Rather than adopt modern techniques, what if these individuals used the procedures that were popular during their childhood? They would likely be out of a job … if not in jail.


Of all the things educational leaders are asked to do, convincing staff to change their attitude on "controversial" educational topics - such as grading practices - is among the most challenging. While there may be no perfect game plan for changing deeply-held philosophical beliefs, one of the best ways to change opinions is with stories.


Stories stimulate and engage the brain, helping the speaker connect with the audience and making it much more likely the audience will agree with the speaker's point of view. If you need to influence behavior, telling stories must be part of the solution.


I love telling staff about my 5K example as this is a relatable experience for many people. Several other narratives - such as being given multiple chances to take a driver’s license test (redos) and requesting an extension for filing taxes (deadlines) - speak to the disconnect between grading practices and real life.


While I have not changed everyone's opinion, I have managed open doors for meaningful dialogue about best practice. And when seeking change, engaging in conversation is the first step.


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Thinking about telling your own story? Consider these five tips:


Conflict: Good stories are about overcoming a challenge. Without this element, stories aren’t very interesting. Think about how your character deals with conflict as you craft a story.


Takeaway: Plan your story starting with the takeaway message. Think about what’s important to the audience. The ending is the most important point of the story - the one that lingers with the audience.


Photos: When telling a story, a photo or graphic can be powerful. Stay away from text and complicated graphics. Often, a single picture goes a long ways when conveying a message.


Length: I'm sorry, but your faculty doesn't want to listen to your 15 minute story, no matter how persuasive you think it may be. Rather than lose your audience, keep stories to no more than five minutes.


Practice: Yes, "We talkin' about practice!" Most of us have not told stories in front of an audience since high school. Ask a friendly audience for feedback before you unveil your story to staff.


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While I never won a 5k race (damn you Nick “5 Minute Mile” Cochrane!), my running experience created a go-to story with staff.


In Soul Trader, Rasheed Ogunlaru said, “The only way to change someone's mind is to connect with them from the heart.”


Whey trying to change long-standing beliefs, ditch the PowerPoint. Instead, deliver a compelling story that connects with your audience.

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