There is a well-traveled, perhaps apocryphal, story about Super Bowl–winning former coach Bill Walsh. As he observed his assistants at practice one day, he was horrified by the amount of screaming directed at the players. According to the story, he gathered the coaches together and offered one directive: “Stop yelling, start teaching.”
It is common to hear athletic directors and coaches proclaim that a good coach is really just a good teacher. As I am a teacher, the statement has always made me happy and proud. It allowed me to understand coaching success on my terms and to demystify a process I have always seen as magical—the ability to unite a group toward a common goal, the synchronous orchestration and choreography of integrating individual goals with group goals, and of course, the achievement of greatness. After 30 years of teaching, I now realize that I may have missed the important message here. It is not just that good coaching is good teaching. Perhaps I should have been entertaining the converse: that good teaching should be good coaching.
I envy coaches. I envy the relationships, the depth of the struggle, the opportunity to be that impactful in the lives of others, and the chance to achieve as a group. But it is a finicky profession. Every day, coaches are dismissed because their players did not achieve, either individually or as a group, what their talents portended. As a teacher, I worry that we are too quick to conclude that similar underachievement falls at the feet of students, and we distance ourselves from that failure with expressions like, “Well, that’s the grade she earned, not the grade I gave.” This is precisely the opposite of what is heard in the athletic world. Another Super Bowl–winning coach, Bill Parcells, is famous in the sports world for saying, “You are what your record says you are.” In other words, you can spin it any way you want, you can excuse yourself and blame others, you can even blame your players, but at the end of the day, you are simply what your players’ record is. As teachers, should we say that we are more than that, more than our students’ record, more than the accomplishments—or even failures—of our students?
Too often faculty meetings and hallway conversations are choruses of excuses and complaints. What if we were not allowed to blame our students’ failures on poor educational background (“These students were never taught to write!”), lack of motivation (“These students need to get their priorities correct”), divided attention (“These students are more interested in looking at their phones than listening to the lecture”), or even simple lack of attendance (“I can’t teach someone who is not there”)? A coach might be fired for any of these excuses. It is the coach’s job to remediate poor preparation, to motivate, to demand attention, and to insist on full buy-in. What if those became our expectations too? How might our methods change? Might our fuller ownership of the learning process be a significant service to students?
“How could we do this?” you might ask. I have tried several new approaches in my classroom to take steps in that process.
The best teams compete hard against themselves in practice but unite against a common adversary at game time. In my first-year survey class, I have implemented fierce competition as part of the learning process. We divide into teams before exams. Instead of a traditional review or a bland Jeopardy!-type game, we engage in a modified quiz bowl–style preparation. I encourage strong competition until we unite at the end to focus on the main lessons from that section of the course, earning extra exam points as a class rather than individually or in small groups. Students can steal points by correcting other groups, challenging each other’s accuracy, and parlaying and gambling earned points through successive correct answers. We have fun, but make no mistake: the competition is fierce and supported by me. We do this all semester, until it is time for our final exam. Immediately before the final, our groups compete against each other one last time for review, but then we unite to take the final exam together as a class. During the exam, we operate as a team. We cooperate, cajole, and communicate, all in the service of cohesive performance. In so doing, we learn to focus, listen, support, and compete fairly but then unite to achieve. We earn our victory as a class, as a team, rather than as individuals.
In my upper-division classes, in addition to traditional assignments, we always engage in one large-group, whole-class assignment. We take on different group roles and responsibilities to support each other and move the project from idea to fruition. I have used this approach in a variety of courses, some focused on research and others on counseling theories and techniques. The process is the same. We cannot reach our goal—whether that’s testing a hypothesis empirically, understanding what underlies a client’s counseling presentation, composing a full research report, or agreeing on a diagnosis and comprehensive treatment plan—unless we work as one. We need each other; we rely on each other. Again, we depend on each other. We challenge each other. We support each other. Just like a team. And our work products—whether those be a final research report, case conceptualization, or program proposal—are far superior to the individual papers I read for over 20 years.
I incorporate smaller things as well. I am a strong proponent of using universal design principles to build my class. Just as every athlete needs an individualized workout plan devised by the coach, each student needs a learning plan. In essence, I commit myself to giving each student whatever they need to learn. No need for documented accommodations. Let’s figure out what you need to learn, and let’s do it. In so doing, I hope I am clearly communicating my willingness to work with each individual in a way that maximizes their potential.
I explicitly state there will be no a priori grade distributions. No coach knows before the season what their win-loss record will be at the end. Why agree to accept any losses? I believe we can win each game!
On great teams, players learn from each other, not just from the coach. I ask students who are excelling to share their talents and strategies with the group. In counseling skills classes, we spend class time—yes, valuable class time—discussing in detail how we want to give and receive feedback from each other. We develop a list of rules that emphasize owning feedback and offering it in a way that is honest and challenging but builds community. Each group of students, like each team, is different. And so those guidelines change a bit each semester. And then we monitor our ability to meet our goals using these guidelines as we progress through the semester. Are we learning? What is working? What is interfering with learning? Some of those discussions happen without me in the room. Teams have been having player-only meetings forever. They often refresh our motivation and focus.
Finally, like any good coach, I push them. I explain to them that I am “greedy”—greedy for their learning. I am never completely satisfied that we can’t learn more, that we can’t go deeper, that we can’t make better connections and applications. So I push them and ask them to push me. Certainly this pushing looks different in my senior seminar than in my first-year survey, but it is explicitly present in both.
Lest anyone think that there is no room for individual evaluation and achievement, aka grades, I remind you that coaches engage in individual evaluation all the time while building their teams. They give individual feedback; they choose members of the first, second, and third teams; and at times they are even forced to cut athletes from the team. Being a coach does not preclude evaluation. In fact, it is essential to the winning process. While our feedback as teachers may not include ranking our students or removing them from our rolls, such feedback often still drives the learning process. It is this feedback that helps the students take the next step, envision a better work product, and eventually produce at a level which they may not have believed possible. Such achievement is impossible unless students know clearly where they stand, where they are excelling, and where they need to concentrate more effort.
This is of course just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Great coaches form strong mentoring relationships with each of their players, and I continue to try to translate that into the classroom. Great coaches often delve deeply into players’ lives to understand and motivate, and I often think about how I might do that within the boundaries of the teacher-student relationship. Finally, great coaches teach a lot more than their sport. They teach life. And I aspire to do that without losing too much time away from our precious content.
Last year, my first-year students earned a 96 percent on the final exam, as a team. I was on the sidelines watching them work together. I was proud of their performance. A few weeks ago, I walked into my senior undergraduate class, which prepares students for counseling and clinical psychology graduate school. The board was full of flowcharts, diagnostic hypotheses, unanswered questions, and clinical summaries related to the “client” we were working on together to close out the semester. Many students had arrived at least 30 minutes early to work together on this case conceptualization. I had not suggested it, nor was I present. It was not “assigned.” They had done a superb job, together. I definitely take these as wins.
Edmund M. Kearney, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Lewis University and the author of On Becoming a Teacher (Sense/Brill Publishers, 2013).