Published Online: January 15, 2008

In Praise of Coaches

I am a recovering anti-coach. For some years, I taught at a very (athletically) competitive high school. We were forever locked in battles for state football and basketball championships, and we were contenders in rowing, baseball, softball— just name a sport. If we’d changed our name to Sports High, the majority of our community would have been delighted.

As we continued to improve our athletic records, the administration began to make some interesting teacher-hiring decisions that appeared to be based more on coaching resumes than classroom prowess.

I was a social studies teacher—the department most often dominated by coaches—and eventually found myself as one of only three teachers who did not also have a coaching assignment. Many of our coach-teachers matched the traditional stereotype. They tolerated a classroom assignment for a few hours a day so they could pursue their true profession on the fields and courts of our campus. They rarely attended our department meetings and avoided service on teacher committees. Professional development? Forget it!

Their classrooms tended to be dominated by worksheets and seat work, rather than instruction designed to meet identified student needs. I observed coaches who angled for special grading treatment for their athletes, or who made excuses for poor academic performance because their youthful contenders were “in season.” I was, in short, disgusted, and came to believe that coaches were nearly all poor teachers.

When a newly certified teacher (and coach) was being considered for a position in our department, I actively but unsuccessfully campaigned against his hiring. I assumed immediately that athletics would be his priority. Then one day early in the school year, while eating lunch with my grade-level colleagues, someone brought up “George,” a student who was not completing his assignments and who tended to fall asleep in class. The newly hired teacher questioned us about George and later sent an e-mail asking for a detailed list of the missing assignments. None of us had specifically asked him to do anything about George, and frankly, I don’t think any of us believed that he would.

The next day George came to class with all of his missing work— despite the fact he knew he would not receive credit. He had been forced to run to practice (a mile) with his texts, and then made to complete the missing work while his teammates waited for him to begin practice. From that point forward he rarely missed an assignment.

At long last, I had witnessed a coach using his influence and power over his athletes for a good academic purpose. When I began looking more closely, I discovered some other teacher-coaches (I put the word “teacher” first here) who fit the same mold–like the wrestling coach who benched athletes for any academic or disciplinary infractions, or the cheerleading coach who did not begin practice until homework was completed. They were doing the right thing–and had been doing it all along– but I had not taken the time to sort them out from the huddle, or to use them as a resource. Instead, I had rather casually lumped all coaches into the “not really teachers” category.

These same teacher-coaches made time for professional development and attempted to not only attend but contribute at committee meetings. They regularly asked their peers for materials and lesson plans, and sought advice on how to improve professional practice. I was embarrassed to be so surprised that some coaches engaged in these activities. The realization hit me, finally, that while there is a sizeable contingent of coach-teachers who are indifferent to academics, there are also those teacher-coaches who see the whole child as their responsibility.

An Underutilized Resource

When I began to think about it, I realized that teaching and coaching are really very similar tasks. Teachers coach their students daily. We encourage our students to push themselves academically, to try a little harder then the day before, just as coaches do. Teachers and coaches create methods to allow students to practice essential skills, and they spend time evaluating performance to see how to help children improve. Good teachers and good coaches spend time reflecting on their own practice in order to grow in their professions. The skill sets are certainly very similar.

Coaches also have an advantage that regular teachers don’t: They can use their influence over an athlete to get them to perform on the field and in the classroom. They are able to make demands on an athlete that a teacher often cannot. They can act as positive role models for kids, showing that you can both be an athlete and a scholar. As I’ve already indicated, not every coach takes advantage of the tremendous power they have to inspire and truly educate their young charges. Perhaps not even a majority. But I’ve also come to the conclusion that other teachers often ignore opportunities to tap into the influences that coaches have over their group of learner-athletes.

If we really want to see a paradigm shift from coach-teachers to teacher-coaches, we need to rethink some of our teacher preparation and support. Currently, coaches have professional development in their sport as well as for their teaching role. It would be both logical and appropriate to provide training for new teachers interested in coaching that would help them evaluate the linkages between these two areas–and learn how to act as a resource in their schools both on the field and off.

Perhaps this is a task that should be tackled by veteran teacher leaders, who could target beginning teachers who also coach and help them make these connections and develop appropriate priorities. Drawing the parallel between teaching and coaching might even help teacher-coaches enhance their performance in their own classrooms as they transfer skills from one role to the other. As teacher leaders, we often talk about educating the whole child. If we are truly committed to this value, then trying to exploit the relationship between academics and athletics is a worthwhile endeavor.

I should probably admit that I married that wonderful coach who set George straight. I do have a bias now in the other direction, because I have seen first- hand how coaches who are committed to both academics and athletics can truly impact all aspects of their students’ lives. If we can harness the power they have to keep students focused on becoming better all-around individuals, all of our jobs would be much easier–and the negative tension between athletics and academics that permeates many high schools would turn into something much more positive.

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