Head of School Blog: A Culture of Coaching

Matt Green
I can still recall in great detail one of my first job interviews.  Most of the day, quite rightly, centered on my candidacy as an English teacher.  I met with the department, taught a class, spoke eloquently about my favorite novel and otherwise tried to summon forth the requisite tweed-wearing, elbow-patched literary gravitas.  My last interview, however, was with the athletic director, a no-nonsense veteran in school-branded swishy pants who, as athletic directors are wont to do, cut right to the chase. 
“So, what do you think you could coach here?”  
“ I think I could coach wrestling and lacrosse,” I offered.

“Well, what I really need right now is football and basketball, so…”

Considering the looming weight of my college loans and my father, who had made it very clear that returning home and setting up shop in the basement was not an option, I took a deep breath and said, “...and I could coach football and basketball, too.”

I am not sure if my “default to yes,” mentality can be credited (or is to blame!), but I got that job and that year found myself the defensive coordinator for the JV football team and the Head Coach of the freshman hoops team.  Between then and now I have also enjoyed coaching stints in cross country, soccer, wrestling, lacrosse, and baseball, none of which I had really ever played.

In sharing this story with you, I wish to make the point that, though deep and broad knowledge of a sport (or a subject) is important, it alone does not necessarily make someone a great coach, or a great teacher.  The attributes of a great coach are universal, and the lessons I have learned as a coach have most definitely made me a better teacher.

Carol Ann Tomlinson picks up on this theme In an essay titled One to Grow/Every Teacher a Coach  “The best coaches,” she writes, “ encourage young people to work hard, keep going when it would be easier to stop, risk making potentially painful errors, try again when they stumble, and learn to love the sport. Not a bad analogy for a dynamic classroom.”

If you doubt that teachers have a lot to learn from coaches, consider the alternative.  Imagine for a moment a lacrosse coach spends his whole (40-minute) practice in front of the team, talking about how to play lacrosse and then sent them home to practice by themselves at night.  Or imagine if the team, to demonstrate what they had learned about lacrosse, took tests or wrote papers for which the coach provided feedback two weeks later. I don’t know that that team would be prepared come game day.

Learning requires clarity of explanation, stimulating low-stakes practice,  that in terms of challenge is “just right,” and regularly offered and firm but gentle corrective intervention.  It is rarely a solitary endeavor and flourishes in collaborative, supportive classroom culture. In other words, find a high performing highly motivated student and chances are that students has been well-coached.

Teacher trainer Quinn Simpson, in an article entitled, When Teachers Act as Coaches, Everyone Comes Out a Winner, writes “Teachers who see themselves as coaches know that the job is helping move someone from A to B. It is not about presenting specialized knowledge (of geography or biology or calculus) or giving answers. It is about setting students on a path toward reaching a goal. The teacher engages in conversations that lead students toward insightful action. Students then have ownership over their learning and are accountable for their growth.  This classroom is more flexible and open than the more traditional model. Its culture is one of shared responsibility, with an ongoing feedback loop between teacher and student.”

I am convinced that one of the primary ingredients in the Falmouth Academy secret sauce is that just about all of our teachers coach just about all of our sports (and I include performance ensembles in this number.)  Teacher-coaches know the importance of building team culture and community, providing regular real-time feedback, and striking the correct balance between challenge and support.  They know that heavy lifting builds muscle, that practice makes perfect, and that nothing motivates like the prospect of a public performance. And they know that at some point, their players must head into the game to compete and that they had better be ready–in the gym and on the field; in the classroom, the studio, or the science lab.

Some time ago, a veteran teacher, after some 30 seasons of exemplary coaching, politely asked me if he could step down.  Reluctantly, I honored his request, but asked, “Will you miss it?”

In voicing one concern, he summed up my message:  “I don’t think I’ll miss the actual coaching, but I am a little worried about what’s going to happen to my teaching.”