Compared to Teaching, Charles Barkley’s Job is Easy

In a round about way, this provocative Selena Robert’s piece about Tiger Woods highlights what’s unique and especially challenging about teaching well. Robert’s quotes Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and ruffle feathers. Most damning, Chamblee says Tiger extracts from the game but doesn’t give back to it.

Usually, the most popular analysts and critics—whether in sports, the arts, or politics—are extremely opinionated. People like analysts and critics who aren’t afraid to rip a failing player, actor, or elected official. In sports, Brandel Chamblee is simply following in the footsteps of Howard Cosell and Charles Barkley.

What the best teachers do 180 days a year is infinitely harder than what Chamblee and Barkley and other popular analysts and critics do. Teachers have to thoughtfully provide constructive criticism to young people with whom they work closely day-after-day. Young people whose self esteem is a work-in-progress.

Chamblee knows he’s never getting invited to Tiger’s pad to have dinner so what does he have to lose? When Sports Illustrated wrote about Michael Jordan’s gambling problem he never spoke to any of their writers again. Which of course made it even easier for them to be critical. It’s easy for analysts and critics to rip failing public figures from the safety of their websites, studios, and media stages.

Teachers, on the other hand, often have to tell students up close and personal that their work doesn’t measure up. And most challenging of all, students are sensitive in different ways and to differing degrees meaning teachers have to continuously tweak their message. The best ones challenge students to do better without crippling their confidence or harming their relationship. It requires a mix of respect, tact, diplomacy, and care that the public doesn’t understand or appreciate. I’m most successful at it when I lead with students’ strengths. Encouragement makes everyone more receptive to how they can improve.

Parents face similar challenges on a daily basis. They often have to tell their children, “Sorry, that wasn’t thorough, thoughtful, or responsible enough.” The most successful ones do it in loving and supportive ways that are educative. Their actions communicate, “I want you to become more competent and independent”  rather than “Don’t forget I’m in charge.”

Compared to the teachers at the school down the street from you, Brandel Chamblee’s and Charles Barkley’s television jobs are a piece of cake.


Documentary Film

Francis, one of my ace commenters recently read my “Of What Value is Art?” reflection which inspired him to weigh in on “subjectivity in art and why the notion of experts in this field is problematic.” I agree that art inevitably produces different reactions in people. The social scientific notion of “selective perception” suggests that when you and I go to a film, stand and view a photograph, or watch a dance concert, there’s so much visual stimuli that we filter it differently and therefore don’t see the exact same film, photograph, or concert.

In addition, we interpret the film, photograph, and/or concert based upon our differing life experiences. In large part, that explains how you can excitedly send a friend to a favorite movie only to have them ask why on earth you liked it so much.

Even though selective perception and differing worldviews lead to idiosyncratic interpretations of art, I believe it’s possible to reach agreement on some broad criteria for discriminating between good and bad art.

For example, below I propose two criteria for identifying especially excellent documentary films.

Apparently, movies are relatively recession proof because people like to temporarily escape the worsening realities of their economic lives. I like watching documentaries not to escape reality, but to think deeply about someone else’s reality that I’m not familiar with. It’s less about entertainment than intellectual stimulation.

There are different types of documentaries all which find audiences so I don’t presume to have a monopoly on how to think about them. For me though, I have a two-part litmus test of documentary excellence. To illustrate the first, let’s rewind the tape of my life ten years to one night when I was channel surfing before going to bed. I stumbled upon a documentary on public television titled “The Farmer’s Wife”. It was just beginning and I was so mesmerized by a topic—farming—that I had no connection to and relatively little prior interest in, that I had to carve out six hours over three nights.

So that’s the first criterion, to what degree does the documentary film engage viewers with no previous connection to or interest in the subject?

The second litmus test is how intimate is the portrayal?

In the best documentary films, I’m grabbed by the collar and pulled into the screen as a result of authentic dialogue, compelling characters, subtle interactions, and sometimes music. “The Farmer’s Wife” was the ultimate in intimacy. For six hours I lived in a midwestern farm house with a hardworking struggling farmer, his equally hardworking and stressed out wife, and their daughters. Afterwards I had far more understanding of how difficult it is for small family farmers to survive in an era of increasingly large commercial farms.

The same filmmaker, David Sutherland, made another interesting documentary a few years ago titled “Country Boys”.

My all time favorite documentary? Hoop Dreams. I was at a conference in D.C. and went to an independent theatre in Georgetown by myself to watch it. Afterwards in the subway, replaying it in my mind, I realized I learned a lot more about what it’s like to be a poor African-American living in a large inner city than I did about high school basketball. 

And for those of you interested in learning more about one of the most maligned groups in society, middle schoolers, I enjoyed SpellBound, and  more recently, The Boys of Baraka.

Lastly, I’m not a fan of  intensely ideological documentary films. I like films that prompt questions because they stimulate my thinking far more than films that are one-sided arguments utterly lacking in subtlety. Maybe that explains why I’m probably the only liberal Democrat in the country who likes documentary films, but has never seen a single Michael Moore film. People tell me I’d really like Bowling at Columbine, but I still haven’t made time to watch it.