Every superhero has an origin story, and every teacher is a superhero…
In 1992, as a corporal and a squad leader for an infantry unit in the 101st Airborne Division, I was responsible for ensuring my nine guys made their way–in one healthy piece each–across the finish line of a 25-mile road march after a three week extended field problem in the wet February winter of South Kentucky. The official name of the exercise was “War Eagle”–our battalion had more accurately re-named it, “Hell Eagle.”
Cooley, one of my guys, was so short (I’m 5’7″/171cm and he looked tiny next to me) that he couldn’t match the stride and pace set by the rest of the squad. He kept straggling back beyond the mandated three-meter interval between soldiers on a march–precipitating the need for everyone behind him to run to catch up every time an officer ordered him to hustle forward to close the gap.
As the source of this scurrying running yo-yo effect, Cooley was not making the rest of our wet and burdened 1200-soldier battalion happy. The problem was quickly becoming about them and the nagging officers, and not Cooley, the person who was actually struggling with the march.
As his squad leader and as a fellow short guy, I had two reasons to help Cooley. I paced him and observed his stride: straight-legged and stumpy; slamming his heel into the pavement every step. Diagnosing the problem quickly, I taught him a trick that, while effective, looked ridiculous. I squatted like Groucho Marx and shuffled forward with bent legs in long strides, and coaxed him to do the same. Because I looked like an idiot, he refused at first, but by persisting and quoting and imitating Groucho (“I intend to live forever, or die trying.” and the topical, “Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.”) I wore down Cooley’s reluctance and he tried the shuffle. This solved the rigid-stride problem by forcing him to bend his knees and distribute the weight of his gear across his entire body, allowing him to catch up in the line.
After a hesitant start, Cooley’s helmet was suddenly gliding smoothly, around belt-level on the rest of the guys in the squad, causing laughter up and down the line. Soon the aggressive threats to his fallbacks turned into cheers as the “Groucho-Glide,” caught him up whenever he fell behind. Gradually, he learned that by alternating between his normal stride and the glide, he ceased falling back. About the same time, the rest of the squad realized this, so they Groucho-shuffled with him whenever he did straggle a bit. Monitoring these developments, I returned to my own place in the line and tried to act like the march wasn’t killing me as well. We crossed the finish line-all of us-at 0330AM that morning.
From that miserable, wet, painful day in 1992, I took away several lessons:
- You don’t teach walking from an armchair, you teach by walking together–show, don’t tell
- Diagnose, differentiate, and develop solutions and if they don’t work, start over–persevere
- Model compassion and compassionate action; always start from a spirit of generosity
- When a learner lashes out at you, it is almost never about you: help them find the real problem, help them solve it
- Always look for ways to enhance your teaching by involving the team
- There is nothing wrong with looking ridiculous if you learn something and can help others
- Be creative, be fun: joy can go a long way toward solving problems
Back at the barracks, while we were sitting on the blacktop of the company parking lot cleaning our rifles by flashlight and waiting for the sun to rise, Cooley traded good-natured jokes and taunts with the other members of the squad about his new nickname. Groucho, of course. Looking over to me, Cooley gestured, not with his index finger, but another, and yawped (pardon the language, it was the Army), “I blame that ‘mutha…’: he’s the one who taught me to walk.”
Teaching walking has been my passion ever since.