“We strive for the excellence the Greeks called arête …–to function as you are supposed to function, to achieve your personal best.” George Sheehan
In Personal Best, the great philosopher-runner (or running philosopher) George Sheehan elaborates on one of his core beliefs: Our struggle to achieve personal bests helps us know and actually create who we are. We all have felt the “joys of indolence,” Sheehan reminds us, but the true measure of a person is how he competes with himself. The heroic human journey, he says, is “to function as you are supposed to function, to achieve your personal best … not to excel against others, but to excel against yourself.”
Sheehan writes about running, and for him, running is much more than a way to lose a few pounds; it is a way to achieve a happier, more authentic, fully realized life. Talking about why he runs, Sheehan writes as follows:
My end is not simple happiness. My need, drive, and desire is to achieve my full and complete self. If I do what I have come to do, if I create the life I was made for, then happiness will follow.
Sheehan’s idea that meaning and happiness can be found in striving to achieve our personal best extends far beyond running. In fact, I believe it is an even more powerful concept when applied to professional pursuits. Sheehan himself describes how the same striving for excellence that he sees at the heart of a dedicated writer is manifested in the creative life of a famous writer:
“I am writing the best I can,” said the author of some bestselling popular novels. If I could writer any better I would. This is the peak of my powers.” It matters little that she cannot write any better. It matters, more than life, that she is doing it with all her might.
How does Sheehan’s heroic notion of the quest for excellence apply to teaching? I believe it matters “more than life,” to borrow Sheehan’s phrase, that we see teaching as exactly the same kind of opportunity for excellence, that every day in the classroom we embrace the challenge to achieve a personal best. It matters greatly that our quest for excellence is our quest to create an opportunity for our students to experience as much growth, joy, empowerment, and learning as possible.
Like a race, the classroom provides a clear standard by which we can measure our growth. Runners like Sheehan compete with themselves to see if they can run faster, longer, or with more ease or joy. As teachers, we can compete with ourselves to see if we can have even greater positive impact on all of our students.
To pursue a personal best in the classroom requires several things.
First, we need to have a clear understanding of how well our students are learning or not learning. Thus, formative assessment becomes an essential tool for anyone striving for a personal best because, like a runner’s stop watch, it tells us how close we are to our ideal.
Second, we need to have access to new ideas, instructional coaches, collaborative colleagues, and other resources and supports so that we can make adjustments when we fall short of our ideal. The real joy of teaching is learning how to reach all the students we teach.
Finally, we need the courage to see the classroom reality exactly as it is and have the perseverance to continue striving for excellence. And since inevitably some days won’t go as well as we had hoped, if we really want to achieve personal bests, we need to accept that there will be times when we feel uncomfortable.
To learn, to see the classroom exactly as it is, we need to venture outside our comfort zone. If we don’t take risks, we are in danger of being satisfied with what William James, one of Sheehan’s favorite authors, describes as “lives inferior to ourselves.” Sheehan sums this all up as follows: “It’s more comfortable not to try. But life is, or should be, a struggle: Comfort should make us uncomfortable; contentment should make us discontented.”
The rewards of challenging ourselves, of pushing ourselves for a personal best, are enormous. When we pursue excellence, we gain a deeper understanding of our purpose, a fuller knowledge of the contribution we make, and the satisfaction that comes from doing work that makes us proud. Most important, of course, if we strive to be the teachers we were meant to be, we will make a bigger difference in the lives of children. By our example, we can even encourage our students to start their own journey — to strive for their own personal bests.