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.

  • JustinMinkel

    It’s about great teaching, not just great teachers


    I love your list of what policymakers need to be doing. There’s this myth of innate ability with teaching that seems to lead legislators in particular to focus on hiring/firing. Out with the bad, in with the good.

    The reality with teachers is more akin to the reality with students. Teachers have gifts and potential, of course, like our students do. But those gifts need to be developed and integrated into a collaborative team. That potential needs to be tapped.

    I’m a much better teacher now than I was 14 years ago, and I’m hope I’m much better 14 years from now than I am today. What helps me improve is what you named: collaboration (including time in the school day to do it), observing other teachers to learn from them, professional autonomy, opportunity for reflection.

    It’s not so much about good teachers as good teaching. We need to hire and keep talented individuals, of course, but we can’t fire/hire our way to excellence. We have to take the path of most resistance but most lasting transformation: creating the conditions for excellent teaching to thrive.

    Thanks for making that case to those who need to hear it.

    • akrafel


      In my opinion, you are so right in pointing out collaboration as a key to “good teaching” not just good teachers.  It is over all good teaching that schools need to be sucessful. Teaching is a dynamic act, it grows and moves and learns.  I learned so much from you Justin by reading your thoughtful blogs. Teaching is human. So incredibly human and humans are designed by nature to work and live together.  I love the analogy of boys in the boat. The boat slows down if even one rower is flagging. Teaching and watching each other, helping each other with those rough classes, with the hard times when energy flags all are critical part of rowing the boat together.  Just like those rowers, we must help each other, encourage each other and contribute to each others learning and technique. We must guide and create the school community together because we just can’t do it alone.  The idea of one teacher in a classroom with the door closed is not the best way to improve teaching as a whole or the human need for living community.  I need to watch and talk to my co-teachers, especially when I am struggling to solve a teaching problem.  Many hands, many heads are better than one. I think teachers are right in taking up this issue when they have a chance to lead. Let’s hope teacher leadership spreads and grows too.

  • akrafel

    Trusting Each Other

    I love this analogy of the boys in the boat being like a team of teachers guiding a school.  I have the priveledge of working in a teacher powered school which is operated by a cooperative team of teachers.   That the rowers had to do give thier all, they had to trust the others to do the same to have a smooth, beautiful and sucessful outcome is so much like a strong teacher team.  The weaker rower in the story made me think of a teacher this year on our team who had a really, really difficult class.  The techniques she had just did not work with this group.  She was really stressing.  The whole team leaned in to help her.  She went searching for new ideas to help keep the class focused and moving forward.  She turned not only to the internet of the larger teacher community (and brought new ideas to the whole team), but also she turned to her teammates knowing that they would not judge her, but help her because we are all in the boat together.  Her teammates responded and agreed to bring more resources to this teacher and to the class. The weaker part of the school community that this class represented was lifted up. What was interesting is that things that helped this one class turned out to be helpful for the whole school and a new process of having older kids interact with younger kids more often(which worked for the target class) helped create a kinder, gentler community overall.  This made the whole community stronger.  Just like in the book, helping the weaker rowers to do better improved the performance of the entire group. The teacher who was struggling trusted her teammates to help her.  That is part of what being on a team means.  It is good work.

  • peterzak

    Real Leaders

    As a grad student in a teacher leadership program a teacher for 9 years and coach for 10 years I can’t help but have some attachment to this blog. I feel that teachers need to help each other out; teachers need to collaborate, work together as a team to better help themselves and help their students. The teachers identified as “weak links” may just need support from other staff to help their skills set grow. I do not think we can fire our way to better teaching. Teachers are just like students we are learners also, if students did poorly on an assessment you need to re teach to the students. If a teacher has a bad evaluation you coach them up or coach the skills the teacher needs to improve on. I believe that teachers are just like any other athlete, we all have our strengths, and we all have our weakness. Teacher leaders and administrators should play the role of a coach, call a timeout when something doesn’t look good, get the team on the same page, or bring us in to a huddle and give us an inspirational speech. Just because a teacher has had success one year does not mean they will have success their entire career. Teachers need leaders to help support, motivate, inspire and allow us to grow with the ever changing landscape. Teachers need that leadership, I feel we need to share a vision and practice working achieving that vision together.