I had an interesting conversation with a young professional recently, and it centered around what was best for the kids in the classroom with a difficult situation with a student who, let’s say “boldly expresses herself.” The topics of punishment, logical consequences, and the value of content were raised. I resisted the temptation to tell her my vision of the ‘right answer’ and shared this story, based on my own real experience, instead.
A Tale of Two Coaches (apologies to Dickens)
A new coach was hired for the high school basketball team. The coach loved basketball, and had been part of a winning squad that went far in the playoff structure through his personal career. The team practiced and practiced, and the coach chose the five strongest outside shooters as starters. The scores of the first three games were 12-38, 15-62, and 18-30. Naturally, the team was disheartened.
Unexpectedly, the new coach was called away on a Friday to a parent’s bedside due to a medical emergency. That same weekend, a tournament was held, and it became the responsibility of the assistant coach to lead the team. She placed in two of the starters and three of the reserves to start, and rotated the players regularly. The team traveled through two rounds to the championship game, where they were defeated in OT play. Scores were 38-34, 48-38, and 52–55, respectively.
The new coach was shocked when he came back the next Wednesday. “What have you done?” he said to the assistant, an older person who had only worked before as a junior high coach. “This is not the same team I left.” And it wasn’t. The starters from the first three games were shooting well, but now four other players had improved their performance and were doing good things as well in the eyes of the coach on his return .
“I’ll tell you after practice,” said the assistant.
Unfortunately, behavior in one young person was not good at that practice. Perhaps it was the weather, or the proximity to the holiday season, but the teen, Casey, was awful. Just awful. The new coach called out Casey twice, and then announced, loudly, “Because of the way you are acting, Casey, the team will be running four extra killers (a type of fitness drill). Get going.” The team complied, grumbling, and started running. At the end of the practice, the coach stopped Casey and said, “Did you learn something from that? Your team is not happy with you.”
Casey looked the coach in the eye and replied, “Not really. I might care what the team thought, or I might not. You don’t know me well enough to know if I do. Also, I told you before we started running the killers that it wasn’t fair. I said I would run, but it was not fair for the entire team to be punished. You told me that it was because I was part of a team that we’d all run. When I walk into the locker room, they may know I am a screw-up, but I think they will believe you are a total bully. See ya tomorrow.” Casey put the basketball in the rack and walked off, leaving the coach fuming.
“Let’s go out for coffee and a sandwich,” said the assistant coach. Meet you at Daily Joe’s in 40 minutes. She picked up her clipboard, and headed off towards the coaches’ office. The new coach knew that it was expected, not a simple suggestion.
When the new coach got to the restaurant, he was surprised to find that it was a family-owned place with red and yellow formica tables and aluminum trim. His assistant was already there, looking at a menu and drinking coffee. After they had both ordered, she said quietly. “I’m not here to give you the answers to why the kids won, because I’m not sure I have the right answer for your ears. I do have three things to talk about,” she said, “but they are questions, not hard-and-fast answers, that might help you in your own journey as a coach and teacher.”.
Question 1: When you went into coaching the first practices, did you ask the team to show you what they had practiced in the past and build on it? The alternative might be that you figured you could show them your offense of choice and they would absorb it, like a teacher who stands at the front of the room and lectures kids about content.
The new coach paused, and swallowed hard. Assuming that the young people had skills before they started on his team was something that he had not really thought about previously. The background knowledge of the students was not necessarily what he had focused on at all. How would that realization change his coaching? Had the other coach seen something he had not, he mused, as two plates with burgers and sides arrived.
Question 2: When you feel respected as a person and a team member, you might go above and beyond as a player. But not all our kids feel respected. How do you deal with kids who disrupt things to get attention, and challenge your authority, without one-upping the ante?
Between bites of the meal, the coach pondered this. He had grown up with club ball and a group of really accurate shooters that worked well in response to a zone defense. He had little cause to think about kids who were on a team just to get attention, like Casey, or to be part of a team group instead of going home. In coaching, and teaching, does it mean that we have to take on roles we never planned?
Question 3: Teaching and coaching are two of the hardest jobs in the world to get right. How are you building those relationships with the kids, on and off the court, balancing respect and growth for each kid with external demands of winning and talent among the high-achieving starters? If you can answer that, you may have unlocked the key to a successful career.
The young coach was ready for this question. “Isn’t sports about winning? We celebrate coaches with 500 wins, winning teams with trophies, and winning seasons with raises and opportunities at bigger and better schools?” When his assistant countered about the value of education teams and a sense of belonging in lifelong learning, he was taken aback. As his assistant grabbed the check, he found himself with one question: Now what?
Whenever I have a fail in my learning environment, I find myself reflecting on my teaching assumptions and asking myself questions. Often, my fatal flaw is that I’ve gone back to behaviorism. That’s not surprising, by the way. We tend to sink back into the comfortable when we are stressed or unsure, and most of us were raised in environments that favor the ideas of B.F. Skinner. What do these coaching questions have to do with the climate of your classroom, and the way that you teach students? In a world of so much inequality and diversity, how do we balance all the factors to move beyond behaviorism and into real learning?