Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed, 28 Mar 2001 07:55:46 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: It's Attitude, Stupid

Well March Madness has been upon me for several nerve-racking weeks. For you who are not up on college sports, that means being glued to the television into the wee hours of the night day after day watching the NCAA college basketball tournament. As I mourned my beloved Tarhells being knocked out of the tournament by Penn State two weeks ago and look forward to a great weekend of finals basketball, even if it includes Duke, a bunch of things struck me. Here you have these highly skilled players. And what to so many insightful coaches and sport commentators talk about: attitude. It was attitude that was on the mind of the coach of Michigan State, last year's tournament champion, when he said he didn't know if his team had the desire to repeat; when a sports editorial talked of smaller schools from the mid-level conferences being hungry to prove they belonged; when a lead article of a sports website read, "It's all about ATTITUDE;" when a Washington Post article headlined, "It begins inside."

"It's all about attitude." "It begins inside." Ain't that the challenging, hard truth. That has gotten me thinking. A professor recently asked me why I don't talk about the students as being part of the educational problem. Well, I think, like the sports article said, it's begins inside, not ourside. Anyway, I do talk about students a great deal, but I do not play the blame game. I'm not going to put the onus "out there" on them until I first see that my problem is "in here." When we think that the problem is "out there," we've got a problem. The problem and the solution are always an "inside job." The only one who is going to come to the rescue with some solution us, our only real white knight, is ourselves. Wasn't it Gandhi who said that we have to be the change we seek? Surely, then, we academics have to be the difference we wish to make.

So many of us don't understand that the only person we truly can control is ourselves, that our opinion of students is a revealing exposure of ourselves, that what we see as a problem rests on our private world of meaning, that how and on what we reflect is determined by our personal and professional values. Our attitude about ourselves as teachers is mirrored in how we relate to students. If we don't have a sense of mission, we tend to blame and accuse students; if we don't have a philosophy of education we tend to put ourselves up against the students instead of our potential. To blame, I think, as I once did, is far more autobiographical than we want to admit. To blame, is to be self-absorbed, self-centered by measuring the strengths and weaknesses of students in terms of how they effect us.

So, if you question the comittment, dedication, and competency of anyone, start with yourself before you get to any student. How do you see each student? Could your attitude which effects your behavior, responses, and action be part of the problem? Do you genuinely love this person? Do you have faith in him or her, hope for him or her? Do you truly believe this person has the capacity to grow and develop? I don't believe any student is naturally incompetent or is purposefully deceitful. Many students just don't have their act together--yet. There are deep secrets in both their silence and their sound. Assume good intentions. Your deeply held beliefs about someone will create the tone for any interactions you have with them.

We academics think we are so cool. We think we are so objective, uninvolved, unemotional, disengaged, distanced, rationale. And yet, attitudes, unacknolwedged emotions, are the key to every decision we make and every action we take. In the intellectual world of academia that may be heresy. With all this assessment, we're measuring the wrong thing. We measure what we know. We measure what we do. Maybe we ought to be first asking what do we feel.

Most of the cottage industry of "how to" workshops generally miss the crucial point. To paraphase the first Clinton--if you pardon (pun intended) the expression--presidental campaign: it's attitude, stupid.

I know. A lot of you are rolling your eyes and smirking. Am I about to get smoked. Here goes. Talent, ability, knowledge, pedagogy, technology are all overrated. Not because they aren't important, but they won't take you through teaching's inevitable wet-sand and those unexpected twists in the road. Using a sports analogy: your ability may say "win;" your knowledge may say "win;" even the technology at your fingertips may say "win." If your attitude, however, says "lose," you...will...lose. You'll be in class without class. Your juices will be stagnant. You won't be the panachiest person in the room. You will not go anywhere. If your attitude is a "can't" your feet and spirit will get cemented in your "won'ts" that will soon cure into your hardened "don'ts." You'll be like a stranded Ferrari. That very expensive finely crafted machine can run, but it won't move without fuel in its tank.

It's attitude that fuels us. That's what athletes call "putting on a game face," "getting the juices flowing," "getting psyched up," and so on. Attitude determines our approach to teaching; it determines our relationships with students. The type of our attitude is the difference between soaring high into the clouds or taking a nose-dive in the ground, between success and failure; that sharpens or dulls our edge. It's attitude that will effect the outcome of our teaching more than anything else. It's attitude that determines whether our problems are blessings or curses, whether we make the inevitable failures friends or foes. It's always attitude because attitude is in on the beginning and ever-presenting in the continuing, and will affect the outcome of whatever we do more than anything else.

Many years ago, I learned, oh so slowly, that the conversion of my teaching is a conversion of my attitude into action. I always had said that at the moment of my epiphany nearly a decade ago, I started changing. And, I believe that for years. Recently, I realized that I really hadn't changed. I always had been there. It was my changing attitude about myself that led to magnificant discoveries about myself and those around me. No, no significant change in what I did, how I thought, how I felt, what I noticed, how I taught, occurred only as I started changing my atttide towards myself. Then, followed changes in my attitude about teaching and about each student. I'll say this again and again and again. The most important technique I have at my disposal--and the most powerful--be it theraputic or pathological, is my attitude. And so much of my attitude is spoken non-verbally.

And, therefore, I can attest from my personal experience that attitudes, unlike diamonds, aren't forever. The long and short of it is, if we can leave behind the wrong, pernicious, pathological, dark attitude and acquired the right, bright, therapeutic attitude, if we can let go of the negatives we so dearly embrace, if we can stop playing the blame game, we not only will have fuel in our tanks, it will be like turning on our after-burners.

It is demanding. There are challenges. However, to paraphrase some old bankers: anytime you bet on collatoral like knowledge and ability, you'll lose; anytime you bet on the person's attitude, you'll win. Maybe that's the really lesson of the NCAA tournament, the bubble, and everything else.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier