My bad

I handed Economics tests back last week. Before I returned them, I had the students do a warm-up “diary” entry. This was the question: “Why is it that most athletes feel like their coach is on their side, but most students feel like their teacher is against them?” That’s paraphrased, I did a good amount of clarifying beforehand.

We talked about their answers before moving forward — there are plenty of reasons to cover, but most of them boil down to your mental approach (#separateblogpost). I mainly wanted to use this exercise to make a point before going over the test. The way I see it, I’m the coach, the class is my team, and the material is our opponent.

Then I told them every time I mark something wrong on a test, I feel like a failure. Like we lost. [This is a huge reason why I hate grading. It’s depressing.]

This speech is related to one I give in P.E. from time to time. How should you respond when teammates fail to coordinate the way they want? Imagine seeing a teammate wide open on a fast break, and you throw the pass to them, but it hits off their hands and goes out of bounds. A free basket, wasted. Same thing with a quarterback, receiver, and open space. Or you’re a volleyball player in the back row, and the incoming serve rockets in straight down the middle. You and your teammate both think the other will take it, and it hits the ground between you for an ace. Give me a sport, and I can come up with an analogy.

Here’s the default human response in that moment of failure: blame the other person. After the incomplete pass, the passer is fuming their teammate couldn’t reel in the catch, and the receiver is mad the passer didn’t give them a better throw. They’re both wondering who will take the hit on the stat sheet. The back row players both feel like the serve was out of their zone and resent their teammate for not taking it. They both show their displeasure with their body language, or openly call their teammate out, and both players go into the next play distracted and upset. It is more likely to continue spiraling than reset to zero.

Coaches recognize the default response is a destructive one for the success of the team, and they try to guide their players toward a better response. What’s the right response in these situations? It couldn’t really be simpler, the right response is both players taking responsibility. “My bad.”

It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, after the fact. The negative play is in the past, and all that matters is the response, then the next play. The perfect response is for both players to say “my bad” and mean it, at least in the sense that they recognize could have done better than they did. Ideally, the better player initiates the acceptance of responsibility, because it’s likely the other player is more insecure and is already anticipating the dominant player blaming them. In most cases, it really is more one player’s fault than the other, but it’s counterproductive to stop and assign percentages of blame. Even if it’s 90/10, and I’m the 10%, I have to be okay being the first to verbalize, “hey, my bad.” It’s okay if it’s a mechanical, automatic response; it’s better if you believe it and understand why.

Saying “my bad” is an apology. It’s acknowledging you didn’t intend for the outcome the play produced, and that you want to move forward with no hard feelings. Saying “my bad” shows you care about the team success more than your own pride or individual accomplishments. “My bad” is a simple, beautiful thing.

How does this relate to tests and grades? Well, I want my students to know I know I’m not perfect. I can always find better ways to teach material, and to test it. Their failures are, in part, my failures. Even if they didn’t study and don’t care about learning, I’ll bear part of the burden of failure. Part of a teacher’s job is inspiring their students to want to learn, isn’t it? Especially prior to college, while education is compulsory. I want my students to know I’m on their team.

It would be unfair to me to bear the entire burden. And, trust me, I tell myself that over and over as I give failing grades. But I’m the coach. Responsibility starts with me. If I don’t model it, if I can’t be the first one to say “my bad”, then how can I expect them to reciprocate?

“My bad” only works if it’s mutual. If I say “my bad” and the player who muffed my reasonably-catchable-but-not-perfect pass says “yeah, your bad”, that may make the situation worse. The students on the receiving end have to accept responsibility, too, and recognize they could have done better. The concept of personal responsibility only works if everyone has it. The person who bears all blame for all things and the person who accepts no blame for anything will both live bad, unhappy lives.

Once again, we have team sports teaching a basic concept that applies to the rest of life. “My bad” is easy to teach in a P.E. class or a team sport, and the lesson pays off in the classroom, in relationships, in business… where is it not applicable?

If we can successfully teach the concept of personal responsibility, then the next step is teaching the concept of team. Teachers and students and parents and administration and the Education Department should be on the same team, rightly considered and properly executed. Honestly, when you truly understand competition, you recognize there are bigger things at stake than winning and losing a game when any two teams compete. Aren’t we really all on the same team, in the biggest picture? Am I taking this too far? Losing my audience while claiming to be enlightened?

Sure, I’m idealistic. But can you see how teaching kids to say “my bad” in a team sport setting could lead to outcomes like taking more responsibility, having more humility, being more empathetic — among other positive developments? That’s not nothing. So why not try to teach it in the classroom, too? It’s not as conducive a setting, but if I can show my students that I want them to succeed, and that I take responsibility for their successes and failures, that could move the needle.

The only reason why I think this way is because I’m completely immersed in team sports and competition, but also committed to being a great classroom teacher and creating positive externalities through quality education. In other words, understanding sports and teamwork gives me perspective that the average classroom teacher doesn’t have, and that’s the perspective I’m here to share. The value of “my bad” nearly goes without saying in the sports world – it’s ubiquitous on good teams – but there is not enough of it in the classroom and the non-sports world. Let’s change that.

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