Continuous Improvement...and Mailboxes

“Continuous Improvement is better than delayed perfection.”
Mark Twain

May 17, 1991 was a humbling moment for me: it was on this date I discovered the sad fact that I did not have the stamina to run a single mile. All my life, I had been an athlete and was even coaching several sports at the high school level at the time. So when I decided, after our high school baseball season ended that spring, to join a friend for a distance run, I did not think too much about it. At the same time, even though I was very active and in fairly good shape at the time, I had not run any significant distance in many, many years. My friend wanted to run three miles and that seemed like a simple task, so off we took from my house for a 3-mile run in the neighborhood. After just less than a mile, I knew I could not continue; my chest pounding, body aching, and breathing laborious, I gave up. My friend kept going while I turned around and walked--feeling humiliated--back to the house. On that long, sad walk home, I set a goal: I decided I would run a marathon.

The next day, I set out for another run. I knew exactly how far I had made it the previous day, so my goal was to make it that far again and just a little bit more; in fact, I decided to run to the next furthest mailbox before stopping that day. I managed to do this and followed the exact same pattern each and every day thereafter. Each day, I would simply run the same distance as the day before and then tack on “one more mailbox.” Because of the design of my neighborhood, on some days, the next mailbox was literally only inches apart from the previous day’s mailbox. On other days, the next mailbox was several hundred yards further. Whatever the distance, I knew I could make it the same distance as I had covered the day before and one mailbox more. By following this regimen, I slowly, but steadily, increased my distance. It was not long before I ran my first 5K race. Not long after that, I was ready for my first 10K. I was thrilled when I reached half-marathon status and then, on Thanksgiving Day 1993, I ran my first full marathon, 26.2 miles! In approximately a year and a half I had progressed from not being able to run a single mile to running 26.2 miles. Since then, I have completed about a dozen more full marathons (Note: The method I used to complete my first marathon is not one you will find in any running or training book or program, nor one I recommend; I have since adopted more traditional distance running programs).

Our improvement as individual educators as well as school and district improvement is not unlike my marathon journey, as unorthodox as it may have been. Rarely do our successes and sustained improvement occur overnight or by accident. Instead, they occur over time and happen almost imperceptibly during the improvement journey itself through targeted goal setting and intentional action steps. Indeed, if we continue pushing the needle forward each and every day of our professional lives, it astounds us when we look back at where we were and to where we grew over time. Too often, we seek the quick fix or magic bullet when, instead, we simply need to keep improving--each and every minute of each and every day. In fact, I note several parallels between my long distance running story and the continuous improvement journeys of educators, schools, and districts of which I am aware:

  • We must begin by establishing an audacious vision. Deciding to run 26.2 miles when one cannot currently run a single mile is more than a mere goal; it is a grand vision of the future. Educators, schools, and districts who accomplish great things start by establishing a far-reaching--but attainable--vision of a better future.
  • We next need to identify clear, daily goals we must achieve in order to eventually realize our vision. In my running quest, I decided to set a daily goal for myself: to run just a little bit further than I had the day before. As educators, if we get just a little bit better each and every day, pretty soon we will be a whole lot better.
  • We need the right equipment, support, and knowledge to help us get better. On my very first run, I began by lacing up my basketball shoes, which likely contributed to my inability to run a single mile. The very next day, I purchased actual running shoes and running clothes. This new equipment itself was not the major factor in successfully running a marathon, but having the proper equipment maximized my chances for success. In our professional improvement, we also require necessary materials and professional learning experiences if we are to succeed. Rarely can we get to where we are going if we do not have people and resources to support us.
  • We must start now. Whether the vision is running a marathon, sending a man to the moon, or becoming more innovative in our instructional practices, the time to start is now. As Twain notes above, it is far better to start improving now, getting better steadily than to wait until we think we can do something perfectly.
  • We need to celebrate min-victories along the way. When I ran my first 5K race, I felt like I was on top of the world. The same thing happened after my first 10K and half-marathon. These accomplishments along my path to the larger vision kept me going. In our professional improvement journey, we must also recognize and celebrate successes along the way to the larger prize.

When I consider my professional accomplishments and those of other educators with whom I have served, most seem to have followed a trajectory similar to my distance running success. Such accomplishments happened over time, not overnight, with a great deal of intentional effort and a consistent focus on the end goal. Whether your vision is to become a more connected educator, earn an advanced professional degree or certificate, become a school or district known for innovative instructional practices, become a 1:1 school or district, or improving the results you are getting in your classroom, school, or district in terms of test scores, my hunch is that you can do it and you will get there. Perhaps not as fast as you would like and certainly not without some setbacks along the way, but in these journeys--as with my running journey--persistence defeats resistance and we eventually will get there if we keep making forward progress toward our vision of the future.

Professional improvement--whether for an individual educator or an entire school or district--is never easy; as with most things in life worth pursuing, it takes a vision as well as the dedication and determination to reach the vision. I am honored to serve in a profession filled with individuals willing to make huge sacrifices in order to better serve our nation’s most important resources: its children. Establishing long-range visions of a better future--and then going about the grueling, but rewarding, business of realizing such visions--are ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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