Saturday, June 21, 2014

Costa Rica Inspires at World Cup 2014

In football’s firmament, Costa Rica is considered a faint star, barely visible next to the supposedly glowing stars of Italy, Uruguay and England.

Someone clearly forgot to mention that to the plucky, never-give-up Costa Ricans in the 2014 World Cup, currently in progress in Brazil.

Whatever may happen in the next phase of the tournament for the team from the tiny nation, the Ticos (formally, Costarricenses) have shown that they can outrun, outfight and out-strategize the best teams in the world, and do it with verve and style.

A nation of about 5 million with a landmass of about 20,000 sq. mi, Costa Rica nurtures a well-deserved reputation for its progressive environmental policies, the only country in the world to meet all five criteria for measuring environmental sustainability. It constitutionally abolished its army permanently in 1949 and has consistently been among top-ranking countries in the Human Development Index.

Is it any wonder that out of a nation of enlightened government come a team of energetic Davids ready to vanquish football’s Goliaths?

Not so fast, you say. There is no proof of any correlation between good governance and football prowess. Besides, this is only the first stage of group games. Next is the knockout phase where anything can result from a maddening combination of luck, pluck, bad and good calls and that x-factor, the intestinal fire to win.

But that’s beside the point. The Ticos have already shown that they can take on the best by believing in themselves, working hard and seizing opportunities whenever they present themselves. They have no superstars, no Messis and Neymars, yet as a cohesive team they are as solid in the back and fluid in the front as any team in the world.

They were in the so-called ‘Group of Death’ and now they are the ones most alive in that group.
We are too focused on name brands and so lose sight of genuine wonders. Costa Rica has so far been the wonder of World Cup 2014. When they beat Uruguay (champions in 1930, 1950) 3-1 in Arena Castelao in Fortaleza and Italy (champions in 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006) 1-0 in Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, they taught the world one thing: the unheralded can beat the celebrated through fearless, attacking football.

On June 24, the Ticos take on England, a mere formality, since England is already out, having lost both to Italy and Uruguay. If any team deserves pity and scorn in equal measures, it is England’s Three Lions, the most overrated and hyped team in history. To call these “lions” lambs would be to insult lambs. While Costa Rica should play to win on June 24, it should conserve its energy for the next phase and happily settle for a draw.

Costa Rica’s performance lends itself to academic lessons. If Brazil, Argentina, Holland and Germany represent Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and, say, Caltech, Costa Rica represents a community college. Yet community college students need not feel inferior to students from these elite universities. Through grit, focus and faith in themselves, they can compete with the ivy-league educated students in any field.

On July 23, when two teams compete for football supremacy in the World Cup 2014 final, Costa Rica is unlikely to be one of those two.

But that will not in any way diminish what the tiny nation has already accomplished: They can compete with the best and win.

So, if you are a community college student and you are competing for a job with a Stanford or a Harvard graduate, don’t give up. Prepare for it, give it your best shot and the job can be yours.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Of Teachers and Footballers

Brazil is reeling from strikes, protest marches and simmering resentments over horrendous wealth and income inequality as it hosts teams from 32 countries and stages the planet’s largest sporting event: World Cup Football.

Brazil has so far spent an estimated $11 billion dollars to build stadiums and make ready the twelve cities where the matches will be played. Reports of outrageous bribery and corruption have left the population bitter and angry.

Among thousands of protesters throughout Brazil, one group stood out with its poignant chants and banners: About 200 striking school teachers who were demanding a 20 percent salary increase just to make ends meet. Their chant: "An educator is worth more than Neymar."

Neymar refers to Brazil’s 22-year-old star striker whose exceptional speed and dribbling ability have vaulted him into Football’s elite players. The Spanish Club Barcelona is reputed to have paid his Brazilian club Santos a staggering $138 million transfer fee to play in the Spanish league.

Forget, for a moment, Neymar’s transfer fee and just focus on his annual income. According to Forbes, Neymar pulled in a cool $20 million in the last 12 month through salary, bonus and endorsements.

Let’s put this in perspective.

Based on data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and national statistics agencies, the average annual salary of a Brazilian teacher is estimated to be $18,550.

From a purely monetary point of view, a Brazilian school teacher will have to work for over one thousand years to equal Neymar’s earnings! Equivalently, assuming that his earning remains constant (in fact, bonuses and endorsements increase yearly as a player’s star rises), Neymar earns the combined salary of over a thousand school teachers every year.

So the chant, “An educator is worth more than Neymar,” can only be metaphorically true.

How so?

Teachers shape minds, fire imagination, unleash creativity. Who can predict what their students will create and explore and discover? The magic of their creations and discoveries can transform the world. At least the possibility is there, and it is this elusive possibility that inspires teachers to pursue their passion in spite of society’s indifference to their remuneration. They are held in high regards, for sure, as high as doctors and engineers perhaps, but any society that is comfortable with teachers earning a small fraction of what doctors and engineers earn is a society rife with hypocrisy.

So yes, an educator is worth more than Neymar any day of the year, even if that educator struggles to put food on the table for his family.

If Brazil can win the World Cup (although it won the Cup 5 times, more than any other country, its last victory came in 2002), it is likely that the seething discontent of its football-crazed people will dissipate and some genuine economic, social and political progress will emerge.

If, on the other hand, Brazil makes an early exit from the joga bonito, riots and strikes can break out from the favelas and beyond and engulf the country. This will be particularly problematic considering that the summer 2016 Olympics is expected to be held in Rio de Janeiro from August 5-21.

It is against this frightening possibility that Neymar da Silva Santos Junior and company will have to fight as the green-and-yellow team embarks on its fateful journey on June 12. If the Brazilians can bring the Cup home, even the teachers, at least for the time being, may be inclined to overlook the inequality that has riven this fun-loving country.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Teachers Who Transform

What qualities mark a teacher exceptional, one who transforms the lives of students and whose influence students may recognize immediately or years later?

A great teacher knows that students are unable to understand everything he teaches. His lectures contain content that are beyond the grasp of even the smartest kids in the class.  But he knows that such content can fire the imagination.

Such a teacher has not only passion for his subject, he also has the skills to move fluently between disciplines, to give examples from literature when teaching math, say, or poetry when teaching physics. For him, cross-pollination of ideas is critical to making his content come alive. He can make connections. The possibility of serendipity propels him.

This teacher knows that her teaching is more about students than about herself, but while she is not ‘the sage on the stage,’ neither is she a mere ‘guide by the side.’ Whatever it takes to stretch the minds of her students, she does. If it means going against the conventional order of content, so be it. If it means touching lightly on a tangential topic, with fuller explanations to come later or maybe never, that’s the way it is. The transformational teacher is non-linear rather than linear.

A memorable teacher never relies on her reputation, however exalted it may be, for she knows that she has to earn her wings every time she enters a classroom. Each class is a fresh start, even if she has been teaching that class for decades. She has abiding respect for her students, and so she prepares her lectures carefully, always seeking new angles to old materials.

The great teacher takes to heart what the English historian Edward Gibbon said: "The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” In other words, after listening to such a teacher, a student feels as if the content is the most natural and logical thing in the world and that he knew it all along. It is interesting to note that the legendary physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) quoted Gibbon in his preface to “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.”

This teacher – among the rarest of breeds - can be serious without being solemn. There is an element of playfulness in his teaching and in the way he uses humor to leaven formulas and formalism and, most importantly, to put his students at ease so they can use the full power of their minds. Under his guidance, students find the inner resources to ask deep questions and experiment on their own.

“Education is not the filling of a pail,” said the poet William Butler Yeats, “but the lighting of a fire.” Students lucky enough to come in contact with a great teacher know exactly what Yeats meant. They develop new ways of seeing and thinking. They are open to surprises. They discover a more wondrous world beyond their smart gadgets. After graduation, they are more likely to solve problems that will make a difference in people’s lives than becoming rich through a corporate job or by managing other people’s money.

The great teacher rejects teaching fads seasonally served up by ‘experts’ who have never stepped into a class. Teaching to the test or teaching to the core or teaching to this or to that are meaningless phrases for her. She can ignore the fads and the buzzwords because she studies her students meticulously and intuitively, most of them anyway, and so knows how to put the spark in their minds, how to kindle their creativity and sense of wonder. Even with the inroads technology has made into education and all the ‘big data’ analysis of ‘effective teaching methodologies,’ she knows that teaching will remain an art and not a science.

An extraordinary teacher is also a radical, a revolutionary. He shakes things up. He challenges students to question accepted beliefs. He encourages them to cross intellectual boundaries. He disturbs their universe. He mixes relevance with danger. He is tough without being trying, supportive without being sentimental. His expectations are high, just as his tolerance for shoddy work and knuckleheads low. His greatest pleasure is in seeing students embark on intellectual journeys on their own. His focus is not exactly on knowledge - that can bud later - but on enduring curiosity. Because passivity is the killer of intellectual inquiry, he peppers his students with questions and then demands that they pepper him with questions. He helps them reinvent themselves as they discover hidden treasures of their minds. He shows the sky to students trapped in the bottom of a well.

A great teacher removes the fear of failure from his students. He inspires them to try things out as a beginner because that is the key to unlocking creativity. Whatever emotions a student may experience in his class, boredom is not one of them. Disturbed, agitated, uncertain, falling off the cliff maybe, but dull? Never!

Everyone should know a transformational teacher, someone who can light a fire and reveal a universe. It doesn’t happen, of course, but for those lucky students for whom it does, they should spread the word so that other well-meaning teachers can learn from them and emulate them. 

No amount of ‘educational reform to prepare our students for the 21st century’ sloganeering will make a dent in our broken educational system. For the truly dedicated, teaching is a calling and it is these few who can show us the way.