Put Me In, Coach!

If you’ve been watching the NFL preseason games, you’ve probably seen this:

Academics and athletics often find themselves locked in an adversarial relationship, with pundits on both sides of the issue poking at one another with the sharp sticks of print and air time. When coaches and educators (often one and the same, I should add) listen to and learn from one another, everyone wins. A young man I know holds an advanced degree in a complex field and is a professional in a competitive environment. He contends that his college athletic career contributed as much to his success as his academic work.

What can coaches teach classroom instructors?

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for the best from your students. Good coaches know that most of us can accomplish more than we think we can…and they don’t apologize for expecting improvements in performance. Team members quickly realize that “almost” doesn’t cut it. It’s been said that one never gets better behavior by lowering expectations.  This is as true in “Grade 14” as it was in kindergarten.
  • No matter how good you are, you can always improve. I once heard an advocate for gifted and talented education explain it this way: We don’t tell our most talented athletes that they should just go to gym class and then show up for varsity games.  In fact, a coach who suggested this would probably not keep his job long. We expect coaches to find ways to help the most talented athletes leverage their unique abilities. Sometimes we neglect our best students in the mistaken belief that “the cream always rises to the top.” Coaches know better.
  • No matter how bad you are, you can always improve. The best coaches see the potential in an inexperienced or underdeveloped player and find ways to unlock it.  By now, we all know that Michael Jordan was cut from his middle school basketball team.  What we don’t know is what that coach was thinking….or how he feels about his decision now. One of the most rewarding aspects of a community college teacher’s job is the opportunity to unlock overlooked potential.  We don’t talk enough about how to spot that potential.English: Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan and Phil...
  • Encouragement is an art form. Knowing when to offer it, how to offer it, and in what quantities to offer it requires skill and finesse. In this week’s issue of USA Weekend, Eric Sheninger, writing in “What Teachers Want You to Know,” quotes teacher Larry Ferlazzo offering this advice:

    “Praise effort and specific work instead of native intelligence.  Try saying ‘Boy, those two hours you spent working on the essay last night really paid off. I loved how you described the characters in the novel instead of ‘Wow, you are a natural-born writer.'”

  • We all need reassurance that a challenge is achievable.  It’s no surprise that the “5K List” on my iPod is loaded with songs like “Stay Strong” and “Runnin’ Down the Dream.” Occasionally I’ll hear colleagues opine that college students should be self-motivated. They seem to think that students shouldn’t need gold stars for good work or support when they’re struggling.  Coaches know that good players have bad days. Last night I heard a commentator note during the Titans/Falcons game that the Titans’ coach is learning how to support his quarterback in difficult situations “to keep his confidence up.” A guy earning millions of dollars to throw a football after years of practice, game experience, and coaching needs a confidence boost? Why wouldn’t my students need the same?

Here’ a line that my own kids threw around when they were teenagers, and I find that my students all know and love it, too.  Once I say it a few times in class with the proper inflection, the students feel free to use it, too:

As I review this list, I realize that I need this kind of coaching as much as my students, if not more. I need to be asked to give it all I got. I can do the things I do best…better. I can do the things I do worst…better. I need encouragement, too. A colleague recently offered a brief and unsolicited “atta girl”  that meant the world to me. Finally, I need reassurance that the challenge of teaching my subject in a community college is achievable. That reassurance comes most often and most convincingly from my students themselves. Bring it on!

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