I was recently reflecting on my time as a science teacher at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, TN. It was my first “real job.” It was my first position in a career field that I loved. I was teaching groups of teenagers about science, but I knew I was also teaching them about life. It was a chance to open their eyes. It was enthralling to watch a boy grow into a man. It was unbelievably fulfilling to prompt a teenage girl with questions until she realized her real potential. It was exciting to learn new material and to experiment with instructional strategies, classroom management techniques, and assessment ideas I had only previously read about.
In my first few years, I learned some incredibly valuable lessons about teaching and leadership. I quickly learned that coaching is always better than dictating. Benjamin Franklin famously stated, “Tell me and I forget; Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.” As a sports fanatic, I appreciate good coaching. As a coach, I appreciate good coaching philosophy. In either case, one element is critical to success. Coaches always get the most from their team when they have such a tight relationship with their players that they can persuade them to believe that group success is greater than individual accolade. This can only be conveyed on an individual level. Each player requires the coach to reach them in the role they fill, with the assets they bring to the team. Great coaches are able to do this extremely effectively. The days of the yelling tyrant have given way to the cerebral mastermind; the coach who can reach each players and help them develop their individual skills for the good of the team.
This has never been easy in sports, and with the professionalization of youth sports in America, this task has become even more difficult. However, it is even tougher in the classroom. Teachers are not dealing with a team. There is not a collective goal to be achieved and there is no tournament at the end to serve as motivation. There are no stadiums filled with fans and there are no TV stations with 24-hour highlight reels of outstanding academic achievement. There are rarely signing parties and there are definitely no cuts. Teachers must superficially generate genuine excitement. They must inspire students to want to achieve, to want to do their best, to work hard, and to care.
In my first year as an overwhelmed (not necessarily completely qualified) teacher, I learned this valuable lesson. No matter how hard it is to shift from classroom dictator, commander of all knowledge and learning, to educational coach, it must be done. Students need the same assets from their teachers that athletes needs from their coaches. They need compassion, accountability, knowledge, a clear plan, ongoing evaluation, commitment, foresight, innovation, appropriate contingencies, preparation... the parallels are endless.
At first, I walked into my classroom every day with a solid set of lesson plans that I had designed with the content in mind. My lectures were funny, engaging (for the most part), inspiring, and accurate. I had several students tell me I was their “favorite teacher.” However, at the end of that first year, I had a student smack me in the face (not literally, I’m 6’9”). She told me that she loved my class but wished she could remember some of the lessons because she wanted to be a nurse and knew biology was important. Unfortunately, I had spent a great deal of time (traditionally) teaching and very little time involving my students. Planning sessions were filled with content inclusion but were routinely lacking thoughtful student involvement. I had become a lovable dictator of science. Charisma kept the students looking engaged, but they were not truly learning. They were not developing a deep understanding of the content. I felt guilty as I realized I had been a hopeful nurse’s biology teacher (she has since gone on to become a very successful pediatric RN -- thank goodness). At best, I had helped her develop some study habits. At worst, she may not have learned anything from me to actually help her move toward her goal. Something had to change.
This became a launching point for my career but it also opened my eyes to the importance of motivating my students to engage for the right reason. I was learning how much more effective it was to serve as coach in my classroom instead of the supreme overlord of academic knowledge. It was becoming clear that my students could actually retain information and understand complex concepts if I could design with each of them in mind, and build an environment in which they could create their own connections as I simply offered prompts. I had to coach them up. I had to help them see their deficiencies; not so that I could have a nice bell curve in the grade book, but so that they could identify and address their mistakes. I had to help them focus, make meaningful decisions, and pursue deeper understandings because of the powerful learning that accompanies that level of thinking.
On the court, I had to hold my basketball players accountable to performance standards that were set and maintained in practice/preparation time. I would never just tell my players about basketball in a locker room and then hope they could translate my lecture into a superior performance at game time. I had a long-term plan, and I would teach the game in small chunks, giving the players a chance to try it, experience it, fail at it, improve, and try it again. We worked on the fundamentals every day, but we spent far more time in situations that allowed us to experience game-like intensity and authentic scenarios. We rarely had contests to see who could make 100 shots or dribble without losing the ball. Instead we put the players into situations that modeled real scenarios. We never get to shoot 100 shots while standing still in a game. Why would we practice that? We wanted our players to have practiced in game like situations so often that when the actual game day came, they could act on instinct without having to think.
It took several years, but I finally realized my classroom was the practice court. It was where my students needed to be preparing for genuine performance. They needed to be becoming both college and career ready, instead of just prepping for a good performance on a contrived test. I needed to help them learn how to learn, far more than I needed to make sure they could perform a cool trick that did not really matter. I could tell them about a topic until I was blue in the face, but it would have been as foolish as telling my team about basketball without letting them experience it. I had to ask myself, did I want students who were good at bubbling a sheet, or students who owned their education and could be at least moderately career ready when they left my classroom? They needed to dig in, experience the subject, get their hands dirty, fail, improve, and learn. It became clear that my role was to create opportunities for them to do this in a strategic fashion. As with my team, I would have to hold them accountable, provide insights, and help make adjustments, but I was not suppose to be playing the game for them! As a principal once told me, “At 30, if you build a car, no one cares. Lot’s of adults have built cars. But if you can teach a 16 year old to build a car, everyone will notice.”
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