Debate Magazine

How I Developed a Phobia for Orange Traffic Cones (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

I was on the cross country team in high school. My coach was a very serious man.

He would run us through something called “cone drills,” where he’d put orange traffic cones 100-meters apart on the track. Then he’d stand in the center of the field and blow his whistle at specific intervals: say, every 18 seconds. Our job as runners was to be passing the next cone at the exact moment he blew the whistle. Once we could do that successfully for a half mile, then he’d make us do it for a mile. The next week, he’d shorten the interval to every 17 seconds. On so on . . .

It was exhausting, punishing, grueling training. But you know what? Our team enjoyed a lot of success. And I don’t remember anyone quitting because it was too hard. We voluntarily showed up for practice each day and let our coach work us until our legs fell off. We didn’t do it for a grade or money or praise. We did it because wanted to do something extraordinary.

I’ve talked to a lot of parents who wonder why there are some schools (or classrooms or teachers) that just can seem to maintain high expectations. I think the reason is simple: we’re grabbing kids from the band room or the chess club, putting them on the track with orange cones, and telling them to run when the whistle blows.

It’s very difficult to establish high expectations among students who are stuck in required classes. My cross country coach had high expectations for our team because, simply by showing up for practice each day, we gave him tacit permission to hold us to a high standard.

Our first job as educators is to let kids go. Set them free to pursue what interests them, what gives them joy. Then, when all the band kids have gathered in the band room, and all the chess kids have convened in the chess room, then we can ask them, “Do you want to do something extraordinary?”

Everybody wants to be extraordinary. They just may not be interested in being extraordinary in the things you’ve chosen for them.

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