America needs fewer teachers and more coaches.
After twenty-three years of schooling, I have seen my fair share of teachers and perhaps the best was my dissertation advisor Dr. John R. Thelin. As would be expected, Dr. Thelin brought to the table a host of degrees, honorifics, major publications, and accolades. Despite this, the title he asked all of his graduate students to use was “coach.” This curious penchant of his at first took me off guard but I decided it must be a helpful way for his students not to remain intimidated by his intellect and accomplishments. However, I now believe that my wise guide was onto something even more important: excellence. And, his “coach” moniker captured his standard perfectly because athletics is where Americans and their schools still take the pursuit of excellence seriously.
The difference between teaching and coaching in the United States lies not in the task or subject, but in the attitude and approach. A poor teacher can retire comfortably after decades of failure in the classroom, but don’t try that if you are the local football coach. Success on athletic fields is not simply an expectation but a demand; and this demand is embraced by parents and students alike.
If you don’t believe me, consider how many students or parents would embrace two-a-day algebra practice. Have you ever seen sixty-five boys sweating for hours day after day in the summer sun writing sonnets? Do we dress up in school colors, paint signs, and travel for miles every other weekend to cheer on our children as they explore historical sites?
The difference of commitment to sports versus academics by students and parents is striking, but don’t believe for a minute that the same bias is not institutional as well. I have taught now at every level of American academia and I have yet to give a test or have a project that was so important that a game was cancelled or missed because of it. However, from elementary school to college I regularly have had class time cancelled, projects excused, and test times altered to cater to athletic contests. In fact, at all levels, seemingly any academic activity humbly bows before the holy incantation “Uh, I’m going to be gone; we’ve got a game that day.”
This explanation, however, is not the bitter ranting of an egg-head who was always picked last in gym class. Rather, I’m a former collegiate athlete and high school coach who is intrigued by the possibilities of what could be accomplished if we would bring our athletic commitment into the classroom. And, because attitude is not enough, we should also contrast coaching to teaching, so that we might re-learn some valuable lessons regarding instructional methods. To this methodological end, I see three prime areas for consideration.
From their first day in education school, teachers today are taught to constantly bolster their students’ “self-esteem.” Strangely, I don’t remember my coaches having the same concern. Self-esteem could wait until I had actually accomplished something. Until then, they would be happy to inform me that I didn’t know what I was doing. Typically, these explanations of my short-comings would even arrive in a loud voice and in front of others. Public embarrassment wasn’t abuse; it was an effective spur to succeed.
Modern educational theorists constantly hand wring over “drill and kill” memorization activities. Not my coaches. Learning meant practice and practice meant drill. Whether I “enjoyed” it wasn’t the issue; if I was going to cover our cross-town rival’s wide-receiver I couldn’t be thinking about my footwork Friday night, so I practiced the basics until they became automatic. That is how you gain the ability to really play (automating the basics) and the same holds true for thinking.
Finally, teachers today are taught to abjure competition. Coaches know, however, that if “everyone’s a winner” everyone’s also a loser. Call it a part of fallen human nature if you want, but the fact remains that if nothing is really at stake, if excellence and failure cannot be recognized, effort will disappear. Schools now enjoy their greatest accomplishments on athletic fields, in concert halls, and in theaters because in these venues not everyone gets to start, be first chair, or play the lead. In these arenas, you are granted the opportunity to succeed and, perhaps more importantly, to fail.
So, in the words of a great teacher: “Call me ‘Coach’.”