In his best selling book Good to Great, Jim Collins (1991), talks about what he calls the Stockdale Paradox. The idea of the Stockdale Paradox grew out of a conversation Collins had with Admiral Jim Stockdale who was a prisoner of war for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was able to not only survive unspeakable torture but also organize the other prisoners so that they could survive as well. During the conversation with Stockdale, Collins asked Stockdale what kind of prisoner didn’t make it out of the prison camps. “Oh that’s easy,” replied Stockdale. “The optimists.”
The optimists? Why the optimists? It would seem that the optimists would be the ones who held onto hope in spite of the bleak circumstances. Wouldn’t it pay to maintain optimism?
Not necessarily. In fact, as Stockdale explained, optimism could actually create despair. The optimists in prison would focus on a specific outcome, such as getting out by Christmas. When Christmas came and went, and they were still in prison, the optimists would lose hope. Many died not from the torture, but from the broken hearts that came with repeated disappointment.
As Stockdale warned, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” (Collins, 2001, p. 85).
Many of us suffer the same misplaced optimism, the same false hope that comes from believing that we and our students will be successful without also confronting the brutal facts of their current reality. We cannot hold onto high expectations for students without also considering the reality of who they are and what they are able to do.
Others of us focus only on the brutal facts of our reality – the failing students, the lack of time or resources, the horrific family situations, the lack of support from our administrators, the unreasonable demands – and lose all hope that we can actually make a difference for our students.
Both sides of the equation are necessary in order to raise your expectations. Here is where many of us fail. We only focus on one side of the equation. We face the brutal facts and become discouraged. We look at the students in front of us, see their deficits, and give up. We face the systemic restraints and throw our hands up in despair.
But we forget the unwavering faith.
We must confront the brutal facts, yes, but once we have confronted the brutal facts, we must return to our faith. Confronting the brutal facts helps us understand our reality, but unwavering faith causes us to ask “What can I do today to move toward my goal despite the reality of my circumstances?”
Or, we focus on the other side of the equation and adopt an unwavering faith in our mission as teachers and persevere with our students, but we ignore the facts of our reality. We don’t pay attention to the real demands of our teaching task or our own limitations and fail to take action to mitigate both.
As a result, we are not consistently successful with students in spite of our faith. Soon, we lose our faith altogether.
The Stockdale Paradox is the idea that in order to make it “you must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties,” AND at the same time have the discipline to “confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” (Collins, 2001, p. 86).
You need both sides of the equation if you are going to be successful.
Even still, it’s really hard work.
It is much easier to blame the kids or their parents or the school system or a lack of resources or anything else. But, let’s face it. There are teachers out there who are in the same situation as we are and yet they manage to help their students succeed. They face the same type of students, the same institutional barriers, the same bureaucracy, the same lack of resources, the same diversity of student needs, and yet they manage to succeed.
What makes the difference between whether a teacher succeeds or fails?
It has little to do with the teacher’s individual reality. It does however, have everything to do with how these teachers see their individual reality. They recognize the brutal facts, yes. But doing so does not change their unwavering faith in their own ability to reach their kids no matter what.