How Hard Should You Press? Motivating the Unmotivated

 How Hard Should You Press? Motivating the Unmotivated

“Whiplash” (2014) yields the question, “How hard should you press?” It is a film written and directed by Damien Chazelle which brings a surge of nostalgic appreciation for grit, as an elite competition jazz band director, played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons, squeezes primal rage, and ultimately a perfect performance, from a protégé drummer, also exquisitely cast with Miles Teller. If you like a sublime hyper percussion thrill, you will have to seek the jolting 9 minutes raw performance finale.

Wrapping up a 6-week stint teaching high school English, I pondered one of the classic lines of the film, when Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the director, states, “There are no two words in English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” He refers to how soft our expectations and work ethic have become.

Since when did it seem acceptable to be “good enough?” Have we litigated our society into fear or complacency? I remember when we lauded personal sacrifice and commitment. I counsel teachers, “If you take garbage from students, this is exactly what students will give you.” Imagine my chagrin to find short responses to simple essay questions reminiscent of 2nd grade level from 9th graders! It is not rocket science, nor is it wasted effort to employ the “re-do”, multiple times if necessary to learn to do things correctly. The recent teaching assignment validated that this tactic works beautifully to encourage small successes that further motivate students to employ effort, and this is relevant to business management as well as within school communities.

Back in the day, Coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers had Greek god aura for how his no-nonsense, hard-core, driven methods that brought men to meet their potential. As a Chicago Bears fan of the early 80s, I witnessed Coach Mike Ditka, known for his crusty, crabby, take-no-crap stance, who also brought solid performance from a team that inspired fans.

We have a book, Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable, by Tim S. Grover, that is being read among us at my house. Grover was a trainer for basketball greats Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Kobe Bryant, among others. He describes the common denominator in these stellar athletes as their ability to find their “dark side” of competitive intensity and blind commitment to work themselves toward super human excellence, whatever the cost.

Both Whiplash and my own sensibility though questions, to what degree? The legendary coaches that come to mind are Bela Karolyi, Bill Bowerman, Tom Landry, and Pat Riley. They certainly actualized potential into reality for countless fans, and we praise their efforts. However, there undoubtedly had to be some casualties along the way. Not everyone can play in the highest league, but everyone should play to their best for the league in which they reside. The Special Olympics come to mind, and I appreciate the message they give to society. With effort, everyone can elevate themselves, and the ultimate competition is within one’s self.

I’d say though, that every teacher, every coach, every parent can do no wrong to at least set the expectation, and like spring rain on good seeds within fertile soil, see what grows!

Some are destined to be “good enough,” but let’s not gyp those who with challenge and encouragement can aspire toward greatness. We need to raise the bar by our own example and help our youth to rise.

Tiger Parenting

Sharing tips from parents of successful students with other parents and their students, who aspired to greater academic achievement, was a favorite highlight at parent-teacher conferences. A physician with several children in our school simply stated that he reminded his kids, “The difference between an A student and a B student is that the A student simply put in more time.” Also, one most accomplished student had the habit of scheduling/predicting how her evening study time would be spent, and she would try to work more quickly-while maintaining focus-than her plan. Yet, another student always utilized every possible second between classes to whittle away some of her homework, or she would gain a few pages in the current novel she was reading. Her other secret to success was that she would quit and go to sleep at 10:00 p.m.; and if her work was not complete, she rose early before dawn to finish it before school. Success leaves clues! One common denominator among all students I recall though was that their parents always came to conferences; this shed light on some parenting tactics for me too. Obviously, their students’ achievement was important, and their taking time to be present, analyze, and work with teachers was testimony to that.

Education Week published, “Study: Parents Influential in Academic Success,” Michele Molnar, author of the blog, quoted co-author of the study, Toby Parcel, professor of sociology at North Carolina State University, “The effort that parents are putting in at home in terms of checking homework, reinforcing the importance of school, and stressing the importance of academic achievement is ultimately very important to their children’s academic achievement.” Two of my recent reads, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua and Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers–And How You Can Too, written by two Korean-American sisters of immigrant parents, underline attributes of Asian parents and give up some of the secrets to the statistically high achievements of Asian students. Coincidentally, Roy F. Baumeister, co-author of the willpower book I’d recently blogged about, mentioned that in terms of IQ the Asian students tended to score slightly below Caucasians, but the sisters’ book, published in the middle of this decade, referenced an overwhelming 43% population of Asians attending our own local Northwestern University! There’s definitely a higher rate of acceptance to Ivy League institutions, education, and income levels of Asian students relative their representation in the general population. I delved into these books to try to find out why. If interested, the former is a better read (active voice, more dramatic, and intense), but both books contribute pragmatic counsel for parents who want to take an active role in channeling their students’ progress in academics and other personal growth skills.

It’s not that I’ve been a negligent parent, but when I related some of the books’ anecdotes with my husband, he said, “Why didn’t you use this with our other kids? You’re too late!” All I could do was shrug and state that Tiger Mother was only published in 2011. Alhamdullilah, all of my offspring are still in secondary or post-secondary institutions; but while the elder two are sailing well on their own, my high school senior and freshman could use the savvy strategies I’d acquired through reading.

Somehow I find myself becoming like one of the matronly mothers of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, minding my children’s business, coyly giving orders while fully expecting compliance and fealty. Yet, since being late in starting this initiative, I am getting resistance and head butting attitudes from merely insisting on an additional three pages of pre-Algebra meant to decipher where learning gaps occurred. Never to concede, I have drafted, in typical Asian strategy, my children’s other siblings and even their friends for reinforcement. Collectively, we expect achievement with our efforts and a little pressure. It is just a matter of time and persistence in working until progress breaks through neural log jams. Our sacrifice and dedication is a family issue, and our sons’ performances will be our own, as we strive to find strengths and talents, fortify weak areas that potentially could cut short the trek toward a career.

To sum up nuggets of wisdom the books gave me are the following:

  • Don’t be a wimp! Insist on excellent effort in performance, whether in academics, chores, sports, habits, and conduct.
  • Expect to invest monumental time in practice, patience, and persistence.
  • Lead by example; for what you value, you must also strive to learn and discriminate degrees of quality to fine tune performance.
  • Spare no expense when the value is justified. Spend time and money when the long term return on investment is expected. Eliminate or minimize unproductive time wasters.
  • Offer short term rewards for significant achievements by communicating them when motivating the student to work more, and celebrate successes.

My perspectives have been altered a bit, as the authors have managed to contrast typical Western parenting with Asian parenting, and through this filter I found my senses and directives sharpened. Remanded to take the final step to put the dish in the dishwasher drying rack, even my husband has had the whip cracked and quickened to self-monitor that his dinner plate goes in the right place after he washes it. Formerly laissez-faire, now I am drilling a bit more precision into my family’s habits, and I have heightened my own discipline in expectation for better outcomes. True to the ayah, “Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change themselves,” (13:11, al-Rad The Thunder). We want to match with more fidelity our potential in hope that we can improve by using our given gifts and capacities.

Mindful of our upcoming elections, America needs to foster greater excellence and overall performance in education for all Americans  to avoid more hardship. It is wise to prepare our populace for the higher demanding and rewarding luxe jobs versus the lousy jobs that offer little satisfaction and income. May every soul realize that they have work to do that can better our world.

As the weather around here has blocked progress in my golf (maybe I can play 9 early before thunderstorms tomorrow), I have returned to the gym to lift weights. Evenings typically net some brisk walking, and my annual physical seems to be passed with flying colors. Weight is down fifteen pounds from a year ago; thyroid meds have stabilized so that I do not require naps—as long as I sleep eight hours at night—and my bone density seems to be holding up well.

The next challenges are to try to compete with Riad in a free online Spanish course, and we are immersing ourselves in reading about Energy and opportunities in the Green Movement. As our youngest two are still undecided in their careers, it may be that these industries are to the future what Plastics meant to the 1960’s. We want to research and guide them to fulfilling careers, if we perceive a match for their aptitudes and interests. Our senior is president of his school’s environmental club, and he has long shown interest; even when I sponsored our high school ecology club, he sat in on meetings while in 3rd grade; subhanAllah.

Eid al-Adha is this Friday, and I feel the blessedness of these days of Hajj. May all sincere and wholesome dua’a be answered, and purity be your reward. Peace! Eid Mubarak!