- Editor’s note: This post was just about ready to go live when I found out that all schools in Taiwan are closing for two weeks and I was blessed with the rare distinction of getting to prepare for distance learning in back-to-back years in two different countries!! What a thrill this is about to be. More on this later in a post probably called “How the turntables…” For now, back to your regularly scheduled rambling.
My high school tennis coach once told me during a match, “Every once in a while, hit your serve as hard as you can, just to let ’em know you got it.” He continued, “It doesn’t even matter if it goes in or not. Just knowing in the back of their mind that you could blast one at them at any moment will make them take a step back. The fear of the big one will make all your other serves more effective.”
Thank you, Coach Kreutz. I have carried this advice with me to this day, both on and off the court. I recently shared it with some of the boys I coached. And when I play, I still try to crank a couple of serves early on in a match, just to let my opponent know what I’m capable of. After I spin a couple in, if I notice them starting to creep up and take advantage of the slower, more consistent serves, I’ll flatten one out as a reminder, just so they don’t get too comfortable.
But more importantly than tennis, I believe this is good advice to live by. Made famous by Teddy Roosevelt, of course, to “speak softly and carry a big stick” was how he characterized his approach to foreign diplomacy. Lead with kindness and justness, attempt to negotiate peacefully, but be prepared with a strong military should things ever go south. Unfortunately, the world today would benefit greatly if more people practiced the first two components of this philosophy. It seems everyone from world leaders down to insecure influencers does a lot of barking these days, which, without intervention from a more rational party (the existence of which seems to be rapidly deteriorating), inevitably leads to biting. I guess big stick energy is quite the opposite of the current rampant spread of the aforementioned little dick energy.
I’m the first to admit that my attempts to be a good person, friend, and teacher fall short of perfection, but I do try to live by this ideology as much as I can. When I was younger, I used to be a more arrogant and obnoxious competitor, assuming that everyone would benefit from verbal reminders of how great I was. Now, when playing sports or games, I try to mostly keep quiet, win and lose graciously, and let my play do the talking. A goal, a spike, or a victory is always more powerful than talking trash, whining to teammates, or complaining about the refs.
In my relationships with both women and friends, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve raised my voice or acted irrationally in a moment of anger. In a similar but different vein, when I was younger, I used to know no boundaries when it came to getting a girl’s attention or impressing a fellow dude-bro. Now, I realize that such peacocking is a product of insecurity and a need for validation. These days, I am much more content to just say, this is who I am, this is what I want, this is what I can offer – take it or leave it, I’m good either way.
Getting to the primary inspiration for this post, the most prominent area of my life in which my #bigstickenergy is deployed is in my teaching. Far and away the most frequent comment I receive from people who have been in my classroom is how calm I am and how peaceful the room is in general. This is not luck. I work hard to achieve this. I’ve learned over the years (11 in the classroom, wow!) that yelling almost never achieves positive results. And while every class surely has a couple of big personalities, a calm environment is one that works well for all students, both academically and developmentally. I have worked with children with all kinds of disabilities, trauma, and difficult behaviors. I’ve never met one that didn’t benefit from a calm, respectful relationship with a teacher who is steady, trustworthy, and predictable. In fact, I’ve had friends visit my class and ask if I was okay, perceiving my low energy to be a sign that something was off. Outside the classroom I guess I’m a bit more energetic and bubbly. My teaching persona, however, has a much more focused and deliberate nature, which I now understand can be a bit shocking for a first-timer to experience.
There are many different types of effective teachers and I have great respect for all of them. Many teachers dance and roll and play around all day in attempt to engage their students in the learning. That’s wonderful. That is not me. I wonder if that type of teaching is sustainable over a long career. For me, avoiding burnout is a big factor in how I conduct myself day to day and year to year, and conserving energy is an important part of that gameplan. Please don’t take this to mean that my class is boring or that my kids sit in rows and work silently all day. That is far from the case. We play games, sing songs, watch funny videos, and do arts and crafts all the time. My kids know that I love them and we have a good time. But I believe that my primary job is to create structures within which the kids can have their own fun. I’ve always kept in mind a line by Ron Clark that reads something to the effect of “A lot of young teachers think they need to be the students’ friend. I tell my students ‘I’m not here to be your friend. I’ve got enough friends. I’m here to be your teacher.'”
Which brings me to the second tenet of my teaching persona. I’ve covered the “speak softly” part. But what about the “big stick”? Well. Eeeeeevery once in awhile. I mean like, maybe 3-6 times per year, I bring out the big serve. If someone is doing something really foolish after repeated reminders, if someone isn’t showing improvements in behaviors after lots of practice, or, most especially of all, if someone is bullying, I give them a taste of something to be scared of. Sometimes, I will put on my best glare and tell them that they’ve made me angry, or that what they’re doing is not acceptable. Other times, it can be as simple as shouting “HEY” super loudly and then continuing in a normal voice. Whatever the situation, it’s letting them know they’ve crossed a line. I will usually even say directly, “I don’t get angry very often, and I don’t like to yell, but this is not okay.” I then make sure to get everyone else back on track. Later, I’ll check in with that kid, praise them if they’ve fixed what they needed to, and make sure they know I love them. I don’t believe much in punishments, as they are rarely related to the behavior. A stern conversation about boundaries and feelings is usually far more impactful. I believe that experiencing those moments of anger just once or twice teaches my students where I draw the line and makes them think twice about their choices moving forward. The best part is, even the students not on the receiving end have witnessed what’s possible and will hopefully keep this in mind when making decisions and developing habits. Kids don’t like to disappoint adults. With these boundaries in place, we can all settle in to our calm, peaceful rhythm.
At this point, I’m wondering if I should even post this on the internet. Why did I feel the need to write about it? Nobody asked me to write about my approach to classroom management, and even if they did, I’m certainly no expert (although I am well over my 10,000 hours) :). I don’t know. But here we are anyway. I guess I feel like lately I’ve been inundated with people, both in my immediate circle and in the world, who do a lot talking, grandstanding, and parading about with very little to back it up. At the root of it, as always, is insecurity. And possibly sometimes incompetence. And while I have plenty of insecurities and imperfections of my own, I’m trying hard to be better than that. Not better than others, just better than I was yesterday. Do my big mouth and lack of filter still get me into trouble sometimes? Yes. At least once a day I say something that makes Lindsay want to murder me. But we’re all working on ourselves. We’re all trying our best.
To know that you are powerful, but to not feel the need to display that power unless absolutely necessary…
To know that you are impressive, but to not give in to the desire to brag about your accomplishments…
To know that you’ve got things under control, but to not attempt to be controlling….
These, in my opinion, are the ultimate displays of strength, humility, wisdom, and inner peace.
2 thoughts on “Speak softly and carry a big serve”
Hi, Evan! Sorry you are having to teach distance learning! I’m finally back at VV, four days a week. Keep being you!! Carla
I 💛 this peek into your career and how you choose to be, with great intention! Thank you for sharing. It’s inspiring.