The Art Of Coaching

November 01, 1994 3 min read

One of the more interesting ideas to emerge from the current school reform movement is that teachers should be more like coaches. The catchy--already shopworn--phrase is: “Be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.’' In context, that seems to mean that teachers shouldn’t talk at students all the time but should point them in the right direction and encourage them. They should help students but press them to be responsible for their own learning.

But as this month’s cover story (beginning on page 32) makes clear, real coaching--as in athletic coaching--is much more structured and authoritarian. Coaches are less like guides on the side than czars on the sideline. Still, teachers might find it instructive to study coaches like Dale Patton of Pekin, Ill., one of the football coaches featured in the article.

That’s what David Ruenzel did this fall on visits to the playing fields and locker rooms of several schools in central Illinois. A former teacher, Ruenzel had often wondered how coaches get respect, commitment, and high performance from students who often are inattentive, inept, and even insolent in the classroom. Why is it that students will practice constantly and endure pain and sometimes humiliation to succeed in athletics but will barely try to master academics?

One answer came from students. Describing his coaches, one said: “These guys are out here working with us two hours a night every night....They work with us to make us better people. Teachers, on the other hand, are with us just 45 minutes a day. They want to get us out of class so they can go home.’' Another added: “When we perform poorly, they don’t give up on us but work with us over and over again until we get it right. They try for us, so we try for them.’'

Coaches offered other answers. Patton stresses discipline: “I’ve always believed that deep down, kids are starving for discipline because they know they can’t accomplish anything without it.’' Other coaches point to the shared struggle, the feeling of belonging to something larger than oneself, the sense of fulfillment that comes from doing one’s best--win or lose. Patton’s philosophy sums it up: You can accomplish almost anything with students if you set high standards for behavior and performance by which you yourself abide.

The comments of both students and coaches ring true--at least in part: Commitment, mutual trust, high standards and expectations, and discipline born of respect are as essential in the classroom as on the gridiron. But there are other factors. Clearly, coaches derive their authority from the fact that students want to play the game. Teachers would be more esteemed if students really wanted to learn. Also, there is a relevancy and immediacy about athletics. Kids quickly see the importance of learning a technique or a play and practicing it until they become competent. And soon after, they are tested in a real-world arena where their pride is on the line.

Finally and perhaps most important, there is the matter of values, which is what Patton says he is really teaching, even more than football. Years after taking trigonometry, many kids will not know the difference between a cosine and a stop sign. But the lessons learned on the playing field--the teamwork, the self-discipline, the sense of accomplishment, the pain of failure--stay with them for the rest of their lives.

In some ways, the Child Development Project’s approach to learning--described in the “Research’’ section, on page 26--applies, in a softer and gentler way, the most positive aspects of coaching. Although the basic objective of the program is to improve children’s learning, it also addresses children’s ethical and social development, making character building an integral part of the curriculum and the school climate. It does this by creating “caring communities’’ in which children learn teamwork and mutual respect. Self-esteem is earned through accomplishment, not through proclamation.

Unlike athletic playing fields, the classrooms in Child Development schools are run democratically. The students set their own learning goals, make the rules for classroom behavior, and meet together to resolve any problems that arise. Through cooperative study, children learn both academic content and techniques for getting along. Ultimately, coaches and teachers share--or should share--the same goal: to make their students better people.

--Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as The Art Of Coaching