Sunday, April 05, 2009

If only we could make teaching more like coaching!

About a month ago, I finished up another hockey season. Coaching hockey in Warroad is very demanding in terms of time, energy, and emotion, so I always look forward to the freedom I'll have when the season ends. But when the season ends, I always feel a little empty. I love teaching--I really do. But the fulfillment I get from that doesn't come close to matching the feeling of fulfillment I get from coaching.

As a coach, I feel much more important to my players than I ever do to my students as a teacher. A major reason for this is simply time. I'm not sure whether I spent more time this winter with our hockey team or with my wife. Practices, games, tournaments, over-night trips, and bus rides all add up. Because of all that time, a coach gets the opportunity to talk to players that a teacher can never get with students. I don't know how many times I sat down and talked individually to players this year, but it was a lot. More often than not, kids respond to these talks with real gratitude, and I'd come away from that feeling pretty good.

One reason the talks I had with players were so meaningful is that the kids cared so much about what we were talking about. It's tough to match that when I talk to a student about their performance in American History or Economics. One can argue about whether or not sport is too important to young athletes, but the bottom line is that it is very important to them. Although there will be some grumbling while kids are going through difficult skating drills, deep down they expect and actually want to be pushed. I don't get that feeling very often in the classroom.

The bottom line is that kids who are out for a sport want to be there. I firmly believe that, at least at the high school level, school should be the same way. In other words, it should not be compulsory. Public education should be there for any young person who wants it, but it shouldn't be forced on anyone who doesn't want it. In fact, it can't be forced on anyone, because there is no way that you can force someone to learn who isn't interested in doing so.

Finally, as a coach--even though I am just an assistant coach--I have real authority. If a player ever becomes a liability to what we are trying to accomplish on our team, our coaching staff does not have to put up with him. Players can be dismissed from our team at any time. Everybody knows that--coaches, players, and parents. Partially as a result of that, the power that coaches have in this area rarely has to be used. During my twenty years at Warroad, only two players have had to be dismissed.

I often criticise so-called educational experts, but now I'm going use a quote that I got from Diane Ravitch's Left Back. In 1933 Isaac Kandel said this: [There is] "one part of our educational system, secondary and higher, in which there is no compromise with standards, in which there is rigid selection both of instructors and students, in which there is no soft pedagogy, and in which training and sacrifice of the individual for common ends are accepted without question. I refer, of course, to the organization of athletics." He suggested that if American schools became more like their athletic programs, they would be reinvigorated.

That statement was made over 75 years ago, but it still holds true today.


Blogger Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

I also think that the coaches have a less rigid style in coaching than they do in the classroom. Some of these young men *need* to move in order to learn and are naturally more kinetic. School is difficult for them. Have you done any workshops on things like the vestibular and proprioceptive systems?

I got that looking for definitions, but your vestibular system tells you "where you are," such as sitting, and your proprioceptive system would tell you about your muscles, say, that you are squeezing an orange too hard. Well, hopefully that makes sense.

My son G will be asked by staff to do things like grab a stack of books, walk to the library and say HI to so n so and walk back with the books. It helps him get that sensory input, a short break from studies, and he usually returns ready to learn.

G has a diagnosis because he's very *obviously* on the spectrum. Many young men have some of the same difficulties attenuating in class, but are given no breaks or resources to help them focus. Eight hours a day.

Not to say that there should never be times that students should sit still and pay attention... more that it is often more difficult for boys.

(Mmmm... but you knew that! It was a great post and I wanted to talk about it in the comment section! And BTW, even my non-sportsy boy *loves* the coaches. They're just special!!)

4/05/2009 1:47 PM  
Blogger mmazenko said...

While NCLB demands that "all children perform at academic grade level by 2014," we certainly don't expect that all students perform at varsity level in sports, or choir level in music, or art institute level in graphic design. Thus, the sports analogy is insightful, though it ignores the fact that schools will tell a kid he's not good enough at basketball, but would never tell a kid he's not good, or can't ever be good enough, at math.

Charles Murray, controversial social critic, makes note of this in his new book "Real Education." Half the kids in the country are, for lack of a better term, below average (or below the median) in linguistic and mathematical abilities. Yet, they are expected to continue striving to perform at higher levels, because you can't be cut from math class or "benched" in English.

Plus, kids will allow themselves to be run through the ringer and even screamed at and abused for the honor of playing on Friday night. Honor roll simply doesn't hold that allure. It does in Taiwan, though, among other places that place a higher premium on academic success

4/05/2009 2:13 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mrs. C., you're putting me to shame by throwing those big terms at me!

Michael, we agree that there are things in athletics that can't be duplicated in the classroom, but I still think there are things to be learned. I think we should give every kid who has the desire the opportunity to be the best he can be, and as you made clear, it just can't be that way in an interscholastic athletic activity. But while I have no desire to see someone cut from English because he or she lacks ability, I firmly believe that we should be able to "cut" kids who won't make a decent effort or who behave so badly that it takes away from the learning of others.

Also, everyone recognizes that it would be ridiculous to ask me to try to run a hockey team if I was stuck with a number of kids who didn't want to be there. I think it's just as ridiculous to expect teachers to run their classrooms under those conditions.

4/05/2009 2:36 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

After I wrote my last comment, something occurred to me. Hockey is very important to Warroad--the town fathers call the city "Hockeytown USA." If anyone ever proposed that our high school hockey team be stuck with kids who didn't want to be there or with kids who disrupted our team or didn't make a decent effort, important people in our community would be outraged, and you could bet that legislators would be contacted and action would be taken. I think the same would be true for communities that are considered "football towns" or "basketball towns." Yet, those are exactly the conditions that classroom teachers in public schools throughout our nation are expected to operate under. Where's the outrage?

4/05/2009 3:54 PM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

Love the analogy.

But ... Nobody says, "If you don't play on the hockey team, you'll be a failure in life." People who market education say all the time (though rarely in these words), "If you don't graduate high school, you'll be a failure in life."

According to our marketing, by throwing out kids who don't want to be there, we would be condemning them to eternal failure. And who wants to do that?

4/05/2009 5:22 PM  
Anonymous JoAnn said...


I love this conversation. Roger the last comment is so true. When will this country move forward in understanding it is all about education, and not about politics.

All children can learn, I truly believe that. WHat I do not believe is that we can teach every child in the same way. Until our local communities understand that the education (learning), not athletics are the future of our kids things will be slow to change.

Dennis your comment is so meaningful. If we were to change aspects of our activities there would be an uproar from the community.

Now don't think that I am anti-sport. I am not. I am a coach, and teacher. What I find is a problem in "most" public schools is the budget and time that is given to sports.

Examples that I have seen are teachers fighting for supplies while athletics receive new equipment and facilities. Somehow things need to change.

I am not sure of a solution that is acceptable to everyone, but I think that the conversation is real and it needs to be open for discussion.

4/05/2009 5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i teach music, now at the elementary level, but formerly at the middle school level. what you are saying about motivation is so true. even kids who are not especially talented in music actively participate and therefore learn more than even the most talented child who does not want to be here. i get frustrated every single day because those who do not want to be here take away from the education of those who want to learn - and then, teachers are held accountable for poorly performing students. how can we effectively teach when we are constantly interrupted by the behavior of those who clearly don't care?

4/06/2009 7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read through George Hillocks' Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice and it talks about learning being a "flow experience." Basically, students should enjoy learning. This discussion made me think of that idea and how much more effective teaching can be if teachers made it a "flow experience" for their students. If students treated their learning with the same amount of passion and determination and drive that they do in sports, we would be at the top of our game (no pun intended) against any global competition. I'd rather coach my students and have them excel than teach them and watch them hate it.

4/13/2009 8:22 PM  
Blogger Angela Watson said...

This is such a thought-provoking post! I've included it with this month's Cornerstone Accolades.

5/02/2009 7:57 AM  
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