The Boys in the Boat—Teaching as Team Sport

What does the 1936 Olympic gold-medal crew team have to do with 21st-century teaching and learning? It’s about harmony–and having the right boat.

Rick Ginsberg, my close friend and education dean at the University of Kansas, encouraged me several months ago to read Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, a compelling narrative about the University of Washington’s legendary eight-man rowing crew that stunned the world with its gold medal win at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Central to Brown’s poignant prose is Joe Rantz, one of the crew, whose hardscrabble, Depression-era life tells us much about the role of resilience in overcoming some of life’s most daunting emotional and physical challenges. The book is beautiful and compelling in its powerful narrative of how Joe overcomes a Dickensian existence as a child and teenager to become a successful engineer, raising a wonderful family with the love of his life, Joyce.

But as Rick noted to me, The Boys in the Boat offers much insight into how nine men came to trust one another and perform in a harmonized cadence as a team—and offers implications for what policymakers (and the analysts who inform them) need to consider about the role of teachers in fueling school reform. The legendary come-from-behind victory in the Berlin games was not about the individual glory of Joe or any of his eight teammates but about how, over time, they became attuned to one another’s time strokes and well being. In fact, Joe was at one time the “weak link in the crew” who often “struggled to master the technical side of the sport,” but by the time they reached Berlin, he and his crewmates were “fiercely determined” to make sure none of them failed.

As Brown writes:

Perhaps the seeds of redemption lay not just in perseverance, hard work, and rugged individualism. Perhaps they lay in something more fundamental—the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together.

But it’s not just about teamwork. Rick made it clear that the Boys would not have won the gold medal without the right kind of technical and moral support from their coaches, Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson, as well as the boat in which they rowed. The Husky Clipper, sculpted from red cedar by George Yeoman Pocock, is profiled richly in the story. Pocock designed masterful sculls for a number of rowing teams, but his relationship with Ulbrickson and the UW team allowed eight men to row in harmony with one another in ways befitting of the sleek and exquisite boat in which they glided.

Each chapter begins, and is filled with, the wisdom of Pocock, who also serves as a mentor to the Boys:

A good shell has to have life and resiliency to get in harmony with the swing of the crew.

Pocock was a craftsman who understood the innermost qualities of the native tree and how, as it became a racing shell, it could have a life of its own if integrated with the lives of the crewmembers who propelled it through rough waters. Trusting one’s teammates made the difference in winning the gold medal. And so did the construction of the boat in which they rowed in harmony.

But most of our nation’s policymakers of late have sought to improve teaching and learning—and push the U.S. to become the top-performing nation in the world—by focusing on recruiting smarter teachers and firing the bad ones. The teaching quality hallmarks of both NCLB and Race to the Top have been on identifying effective and ineffective teachers on the basis of standardized test scores of students they individually teach. If policymakers focused on teachers and the teaching profession, they could learn four lessons from Brown’s best-selling book (which topped the New York Times best-seller list for 18 weeks):

  1. Recruit and prepare teachers in cohorts, and get them truly ready for teaching in high-need schools (and not just with a five-week training regime). Develop incentives—not just financial ones—so teachers know one another and the communities they serve, for years into the future.
  2. Transform current teaching evaluation systems so that effective teachers are defined not by test scores on a standardized test but on how well they spread their expertise to one another.
  3. Create new school designs, curated by teachers themselves, so our most accomplished practitioners can learn and share best teaching practices with one another.
  4. Retrofit administrator preparation programs to emphasize the importance of principals and superintendents who know how to cultivate teacher leaders.

I must close with Brown’s striking words, slightly altered to fit the context of teaching and school reform (my words in italics):

And yet, at the same time—and this is key—no other sport profession demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing teaching does. Great crews school faculties may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen content specialists, learning diagnosticians, or parent engagers; but they have no stars. The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water pedagogical skill as well as knowledge of students, family, and community…. the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew school faculty, along with administrators, students, and parents, in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.

Thank you, Rick, for making sure I read this book.