For those of us who have friends and family members who are teachers, there's a common response to concerns about test scores and reading levels. When someone says, "The kids in our school district aren't performing at their grade level; we have to get better teachers in there!" the response is often: "How can I teach these kids when they're not coming to school prepared to learn?" With so many children living in poverty, with overstretched parents who can't help them do their homework every night or make sure they've got pencils and notebooks each day or even properly care for their basic needs, how can teachers make up for this huge deficit that kids are already walking into the classroom with?

Chuck Marohn, president of Strong Towns, grew up with two parents who were teachers. He heard this response frequently: It's the parents' fault. We can't choose our students... His reaction to this blame game about why kids weren't performing well? That's the job. That's teaching. You have to teach the kids that come to you. No matter if kids are coming to school hungry or tired, as a teacher, you have to do everything you can to help them learn.

The same logic can be applied to political leaders. When we speak about President Obama's time in office, there is plenty we can praise, but there's also an underlying sense, from many people, that he could've accomplished more if Congress had been more willing to work with him, if the opposition to his leadership hadn't been so strident, if the economy hadn't been so bad when he took office, and so on and so forth. Every president experiences this. But again, Chuck would respond: That's the job. That's what you signed up for.

This isn't a comfortable thing to hear. It will rub many of us the wrong way. But we shouldn't create excuses for our failures, Chuck argues.

There's a scene in the film Moneyball in which the Oakland A's managers and coaches are sitting around discussing how to respond to the loss of some of their key players and Brad Pitt's character, Billy Beane, keeps telling them that what they perceive as the problem — we need to replace our key players — is not actually the issue. The problem, Beane argues, is that the Oakland A's are incredibly poor compared to other teams and the game is fundamentally unfair. "We've got to think differently," he states.

It's unfair that teachers don't get classrooms filled with model students every semester. It's unfair that presidents don't get perfectly functioning countries to run. But that's not reality, says Chuck. To do the best job possible, we have to push past the unfairness and think differently.

Chuck has been meeting with local leaders across the country for the last several months in closed door conversations. One question he often asks these elected officials and city staff is "What do you wish people understood better about your job?" He consistently receives a very similar set of answers:

  • "We wish the public understood how difficult this job is."
  • "We wish the city council and the voters understood the challenges we have in making this all work."
  • "We wish people grasped how limited our resources are."
  • "We wish people appreciated how much we do and had a little more patience."

...and on and on. The truth is that wishing these things will never make them happen, he argues. City leaders have to do their jobs despite the lack of resources and appreciation. If you want to work for a city government and make decisions on behalf of your town, you will receive critiques and high expectations, says Chuck.

Here's the real question: How do you do the job despite these things? Hear Chuck's answers on the latest episode of our podcast.

(Top photo source: Seattle City Council)