The dvd cover of the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross has the following tagline: “A story for everyone who works for a living.” Though the film is about a tumultuous weekend in the lives of a handful of real estate salesmen, there’s a lot in there that I took to my job as a teacher. When Blake (played by Alec Baldwin) shows up and reams the sales team at Premiere Properties Inc. for their less-than-adequate performance, I felt like he was screaming at me to pick myself up and crush the rest of the school year. As a result, here are five lessons that are just as applicable to teachers as they are to everyone who works for a living.
ABC=Always Be Closing
At the core of Baldwin’s rant is the idea that success is not given away. It has to be earned, sometimes by ripping it out of the hands of adversity. In education, success is allegedly measured by standardized tests and course grades—but teachers know in their guts when they’ve reached a kid, when they’ve made a difference. That’s true success, and it does not come easily. Anybody can show a student how to pass a test. True success requires you to look failure, apathy and disillusionment in the eye and drag them out of your classroom. Once a teacher has done that and proved to their students that coming to school is not some joke, doors will open. The success that is measured by tests and grades is a byproduct of the success that comes from teaching a student that he or she is worth more than a test score or the letter on their report cards. Students that believe in themselves believe that any challenge—standardized test included—deserves to be met with full force.
In education, closing is making sure that you have done your best to make sure every student that walks through your door leaves a little bit wiser, happier and more confident in themselves. It’s a deal that you make with them, and if they’re not on board, it’s not going to happen. The trick? Find ways to A-always B-be C-closing.
Don’t Complain When the Leads Are Weak
After Baldwin exits, the remaining salesmen bicker with their manager about weak real estate leads. They are heard to remark: “I can’t work with this. Gimme the good leads, and I can close ‘em, but I can’t work with this.” I hear similar complaints among educators. We all want more resources, motivated kids, better professional development and more time to meet all of our responsibilities. But the truth of the matter is that we don’t get everything we want, which is just the way it is. However, that’s not an excuse to just throw in the towel. Baldwin tells his subordinates to “get mad.” The same applies to educators. Don’t let this game beat you down. Yes, teachers are expected to meet unreasonable expectations with very limited resources, so why not get mad and push back. Why not use any and all available resources to ensure the success of your students, and by extension yourself? Find grant money, collaborate with other teachers, pursue district activities, but don’t look at limited resources as an excuse to roll over and say the words “I can’t work with this.”
Find Poetry in Your Craft
Al Pacino plays Ricky Roma, the salesman with the highest numbers at Premiere Properties, Inc. From the moment he hits the screen, you know Roma is a man who has found poetry in his craft. He sits with a client, waxing philosophical about how quality real estate can be the doorway to a better life. He believes in what he’s doing, and in that there is poetry.
It’s hard to find a teacher who doesn’t believe in what he/she is doing. It takes a large amount of belief just to show up. But a teacher who has taken that belief and let it run away with him/her—that is poetry. And it’s fun. The classes in which I’ve let a gut feeling run away with me have become some of my favorite teaching experiences. Not that they’ve all been positive, but the sheer act of deliberately finding a sense of creativity and poetry in the day to day practice of teaching can lead to amazing things. If a teacher doesn’t believe in what he/she is doing, then his/her students sure aren’t going to.
Even When the Deck is Stacked, Honesty is Still the Best Policy
As tensions rise among the salesmen, Dave Moss (played by Ed Harris) starts scheming. What if someone broke into the office, stole the promising leads, and sold them to a rival company? He recruits Shelley Levene (played by Jack Lemmon) to be his patsy. Long story short, Levene gets caught and Moss skips town. Even though Moss has gotten Levene’s blood boiling about how mistreated they’ve been by their employers, he shows no loyalty nor does he show regret.
We’ve got situations like this happening all over the place. Standardized testing is becoming tied to teacher pay and grant money. No doubt, the pressure on teachers and administrators is high—almost unreasonably so. But fudging numbers and forging reports are not the way to combat this. Sure, it’s infuriating. And it’s easy to direct all that anger towards a school district or a government department. Regardless, honesty is the best policy. If teachers are focused on achieving success with their students, things will fall into place.
Voice Your Concerns
When upper management directly interferes with your ability to do your job, to achieve true success, then that is a concern. Though I don’t suggest voicing concerns with the same volume of profanity as the folks at Premiere Properties, Inc., it’s still important to be vocal. There’s nothing wrong with voicing a concern, as long as it stays courteous and professional. It can be an intimidating process, but it serves two purposes: First, it lets people know that you have an opinion, and are not just a faceless member of the crew. Second, it lets people know that you’re not a pushover. I’ve spent a large portion of my life being the type of guy who just lets everything slide. You know what happens when you let everything slide? People keep throwing crap at you.
To borrow a quote from Blake: “Go and do likewise.”