If you ask Chris Evert who was the better athlete, herself or Martina Navratilova, she’ll tell you it was Martina. The former rivals (who are also close friends) went on Oprah together last year. "Martina's a natural athlete," Evert said. "She could have been a champion at any sport she chose. I wasn't like that. I was a champion in tennis because I loved the sport so much, and I focused so hard on my game” (or something along those lines; I’m paraphrasing).
Evert’s statement suggests that there are two ways to achieve greatness: through talent or through hard work. Of course, in practice a successful person would need some combination of both of those things; no one would argue that Evert wasn’t athletic or that Navratilova didn’t work hard.
But we often expect that talent trumps hard work, that a person cannot excel at a sport or hobby or profession or field of study without some observable, natural proclivity for it.
As teachers, we can’t help but judge our students this way. Some students are just never going to get it, we say, often about students who have been given very few chances to get it before now.
Students judge themselves this way, too. I’m just not good at English, they’ll say, often in an introductory English course, like someone walking into a new yoga class and declaring, Don’t bother teaching me; I am horrible at yoga.
Whenever I parallel my own teaching to the subjects that I currently get taught at, mainly martial arts, I think, This whole school thing should be less about assessing and judging and more about learning. A student who can’t write a grammatical sentence shouldn’t be chastised and humiliated any more than a student who can’t throw a straight right cross; both students just need instruction and practice.
Although I am reminded of my role as a teacher each time I attend a kickboxing or yoga class as a student, sports taught me how to be a good teacher before I ever knew I would become a teacher myself.
When I was in high school, I was pretty good at all the subjects I studied in school—except physical education. I wasn’t horrible at it. But if there was a C on my report card, it was probably next to the letters P.E. Most of my gym teachers ignored the kids like me who weren't great at catching a fly ball or running a mile. And while I always enjoyed running around and getting exercise, P.E. was always my least favorite subject because it was frustrating and humiliating to have my teacher rolling his eyes and insulting me if I couldn’t master the art of the layup during our two weeks of allotted basketball instruction.
I had one great P.E. teacher in high school: Mr. Hart. He was also the photography teacher. He seemed like a pretty interesting guy. He was the only P.E. teacher I ever had who actually ran and did sports with us instead of just watching. He was into windsurfing and scuba-diving, and he brought his own equipment so we could try it in the swimming pool.
But my favorite thing that Mr. Hart did was create obstacle courses. It was a requirement of P.E. classes that we run three times a week. Sometimes, instead of just running the track, Mr. Hart would have us run all around the P.E. area, up and down the bleachers, through the trails in the bushes, jumping over hurdles, stopping at the pull-up bar to each do a pull-up. I could never do pull-ups, and my other P.E. teachers would have just yelled at me to try harder. But Mr. Hart came and lifted up all the students who couldn't do pull-ups, and encouraged us to pull as hard as we could to train our muscles so we could learn to do them on our own.
In Mr. Hart's class, I discovered that I could be good at sports and working out. It's not my natural area of strength, but I like to work hard, and I can learn a lot if someone will teach me.
Now that a large portion of my adult life revolves around a sport, I regret that I so often sat on the sidelines as a teenager because I didn't think I could do a good job.
Back during Mr. Hart's class, I had a revelation that has stayed with me throughout my years of being a student and a teacher. I thought: You know, those other teachers never bothered teaching me to do sports because I wasn't good at them naturally. But if someone would just teach me, I could learn. I became angry at the years of teachers who hadn’t taught me anything, who had ignored me or insulted me because I wasn’t naturally gifted in a subject that it was their job to teach me.
And then, for the first time I can remember, I thought in horror of all the students who weren't naturally good at math and English and other academic subjects (which I was naturally good at) and how their teachers might be treating them the same way, as hopeless cases not worth teaching.
When I tell my friend Marie this story, she says, “Like all my math teachers. They just ignored me and hoped I’d go away.”
When I became a teacher, I vowed to be there, like Mr. Hart, for students like Marie in math and me in P.E., students who are ready to learn, if only someone would be patient and teach them. In the time that I have worked in a community college, where we accept all students at any skill level, I have met some English Martina Navratilovas, superstars who are just waiting to unleash their innate skills upon the world.
But I’ve also met dozens of English Chris Everts, and I have seen them rise to great success and achieve things that their teachers would never have thought possible—that I wouldn’t have thought possible—because they are tough and scrappy and ready to fight for the knowledge and skills that are their birthright as humans.