Published Online: September 12, 2012

First Person

Game Day: What Teachers Can Learn From Football Coaches

Well, September is here and football season has begun, with all the usual hoopla and analysis. At the same time, most teachers are beginning a new school year. The timing may be more opportune than you think: I believe that teachers can learn a lot from successful football coaches.

I am continually amazed at the skill and talent of my teaching colleagues, but in spite of our best intentions, some lessons don't go as planned, students are not engaged, or achievement results fall short of expectations. One consistent cause of the problems is that some teachers at all experience levels overlook or neglect some basic components of effectively planning and delivering lessons. Here's where a few football and teaching analogies can come in handy.

First off, of course, great football coaches know the game. But this knowledge is not based merely on hunches or intuition. They know the statistical data and how these should affect strategy. They confer with their coaching staff and other colleagues, and study lots of game tape. Ask any coach, and they will tell you that this level of preparation is required to win.

Great teachers prepare in much the same way. They know what students need to learn and how to teach every student in their classes. They inform their intuition with relevant student data obtained from each lesson and are confident in answering key planning questions such as, "What is appropriate, necessary, rigorous, yet engaging for all of my students at this time?" Providing clear, consistent, and data-driven answers to these questions in our preparation is necessary if we want students to win.

Of course, before games are played, football teams have spent a good deal of time practicing. They do this so all the players know what they are supposed to do as plays are executed on both sides of the ball. If coaches have planned effective practices, teams will run efficiently, and the players will carry out duties independently. Great coaches take care of the logistics, routines, and procedures so that they can focus on coaching during the game.

Practice is important in classrooms as well. Clearly communicated and practiced routines and procedures are hallmarks of skillful classroom management. Most teachers know that students need to practice classroom procedures and routines before they are expected to carry them out as part of the lesson, but many teachers do not plan exactly what the concrete steps for these procedures will be. Consequently, considerable instruction time is lost and behavioral issues emerge.

Further, great teachers plan procedures and routines so that students ultimately take responsibility for them. Many well-meaning teachers frantically prepare and distribute classroom materials before and during lessons. This prevents them from focusing on their most important job: coaching students to achievement.

'Chalk Talks' and Perspective

Great coaches are also known for their effective—even inspirational—"chalk talks" during which play designs and strategies are diagrammed for players. Teachers could learn from this. It is always surprising to me that while the majority of people are visual learners, many teachers rely on only the auditory mode to give instructions or explain new content. When working with teachers, I find that sharing the axiom "teach more; talk less" is helpful. Communication expert Michael Grinder reminds us to "go visual" whenever possible, since this is the quickest route to understanding and memory for many learners. Great teachers accomplish this by posting succinct procedures and expectations and consistently using graphs, charts, thinking maps, and other visual aids whenever possible. Offering visual components to lessons also helps differentiate instruction, especially for students with disabilities and those with developing English skills.

Head football coaches are typically on the sidelines during the game. They are strategically positioned to rally players, but they do not have the best vantage point to make all of the game decisions. That is why they have assistant coaches reporting to them from stadium booths overhead. Leaving nothing to unreliable memory, the assistants consult replay video during the game as well. Sometimes, as a result of this instant feedback from the assistants, strategies are adjusted mid-game.

Teachers, like head coaches, are similarly hindered by their up-close, in-the-mix viewpoint on classroom proceedings. But while they don't usually have assistants who can observe with a birds-eye view of the class, they can get much-needed perspective by planning for formative assessments. Such assessments can give them built-in, objective feedback about how each student is doing during the lesson. Sometimes this instant feedback suggests that lesson plans need adjustment, and skilled teachers can change course mid-lesson, if necessary.

Great coaches can also control the game tempo. For example, they know how to increase the pace of play execution and the transitions between plays, or slow down the tempo to "ice" or curb momentum of the opposing team. In observing and coaching teachers, I find the most frequent cause of student boredom and misbehavior is poorly planned lessons. The lesson pace is usually too slow, and the teacher loses the students' interest. Great teachers, by contrast, know how to create and build on momentum. Well-planned lessons tend to spark teacher enthusiasm, sense of purpose, and level of concern. And these are infectious qualities that get students going as well.

Of course, great coaches don't forget about strategy when the game goes into overtime, either. Similarly, excellent teachers plan extra refining or extension activities in case momentum is high, and lesson objectives are met before class time is over.

Setting Goals, Studying the Video

During football games, the spectators often focus on the showy, superstar players, even though consistent winning is a result of skill mastery by offensive linemen and other often unheralded players. Similarly, some teachers mistakenly gauge class-wide competence merely by responses given by the star students who always eagerly raise their hands. By contrast, great teachers, like their coaching counterparts, employ a system whereby the competence and contribution of every single student is measured and improved.

Great coaches know their teams will not improve unless the players know explicitly what they need to do to win. Similarly, intrinsic or self-motivated learning is fostered when students have clear purpose and know when they have achieved a relevant goal. Yet the most common response I hear from students when I ask them how they know they've done a good job is, "When the teacher tells us." This extrinsic source for approval hinders motivation and fosters unproductive competition among students. Great teachers plan clear, tangible, and logical goals that can be stated simply and are easily understood so that all students can work together to achieve them. Clearly planned end goals and benchmarks along the way that serve to inform teachers and students will cultivate independent, intrinsically motivated learners.

After game day, successful coaches watch miles of video tape to inform the team's strategy for winning the next contest. This is a critical component of lesson planning for teachers as well. "How did it go? How do you know? Now what?" are essential reflection questions teachers need to ask.

Significantly, more and more schools and other education organizations are beginning to use video to help teachers perform this type of reflection. This is an excellent and efficient way for teachers to hone their skills. It can be even more powerful if teaching colleagues (like assistant coaches) provide feedback after live observations or based on video-recorded lessons. The research on peer-coaching models is overwhelmingly positive. Yet many teachers operate in isolation, uninformed, and likely unaware that their subjective hunches about student learning are most likely flawed. Taped lessons and collegial feedback will help.

Success in classroom instruction, like success on the football field, takes a willingness to plan thoroughly in advance, have ways to inform decisions during the action, and ways to reflect afterwards.

So, fellow teachers, are you ready for game day?

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