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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Help ‘Student-Athletes Achieve Academic and Athletic Success’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 07, 2019 18 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can teachers and sports coaches best work together to support students in achieving academic and athletic success?

In Part One, Jill Henry, Jen Schwanke, Brian Preece, Pamela Broussard, and Amy Okimoto shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jill, Jen, and Brian on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Miray Seward, Stephanie Wormington, Chris Hulleman, Rob Weil, Rita Platt, Douglas Reeves, and Carol Salva contribute their ideas.

Response From Miray Seward, Stephanie Wormington, & Chris Hulleman

Miray Seward is a graduate student in Educational Psychology-Applied Developmental Science at the University of Virginia. Prior to beginning graduate school, Miray was a student-athlete at Duke University. Miray can be contacted via email at: mirayseward@virginia.edu or via twitter at @MiraySeward.

Stephanie Wormington is co-director at the Motivate Lab and an assistant professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She spent three years coaching middle school volleyball. Stephanie can be contacted via email at: svw3f@virginia.edu.

Chris Hulleman is director of the Motivate Lab and an associate professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Prior to his career in psychology, he spent six years as a teacher and coach in Iowa. Chris can be contacted via email at: csh3f@virginia.edu:

What it takes to make a touchdown;all the hard work, all the practice, and the dedication ...;is as valuable off the field as on.”

Pete Carroll, Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks

The quote above is one of many examples that conveys a common belief: Sports help players develop skills for the field, classroom, and office. However, it may be more difficult for student-athletes to integrate their identities as students and athletes than commonly thought. Fortunately, intentional scaffolding from teachers and coaches can help. Below are three ways for adults to help student-athletes achieve academic and athletic success. The same strategies can apply to other adult-student relationships and can be the first step toward supportive adults actively working together to support student-athletes.

Reframe Your Role

With student-athletes, it is common to talk about developing the whole person. In practice, sports and school are often treated as separate spheres; many teachers and coaches focus solely on bettering students in school or sports, respectively. By only investing in one dimension of student-athletes’ lives, we miss an important opportunity to help student-athletes recognize the connections between their strengths on the field and in the classroom. Instead of remaining siloed, we can work together to help promote student-athletes’ development in all areas of life. Asking questions that prompt students to reflect on the similarities between sports and school is a powerful way to do this. The more we can reimagine our role, from classroom teacher or athletic coach to multidimensional educator, the more we can encourage student-athletes to make connections across their multiple identities and begin conversations with others to jointly support student-athletes.

Mind Your Messages

Words can be powerful, especially when they come from authority figures. For student-athletes, coaches and teachers’ messages can communicate whether sports and school are complementary or competing domains. A coach who talks to her players about the importance of doing well in school is communicating that sports and school are complementary domains. A teacher who tells her student-athletes to skip practice so they can study for a test, conversely, is communicating that sports and school are competing domains. Important to note is that the lack of a message is also a message. In fact, the messages that are never said can be more powerful than the ones explicitly expressed. A coach who knows her player is on academic probation but never addresses it is sending the message that she is not concerned with her players’ academic well-being. By showing concern for student-athletes’ success in other contexts, we can help student-athletes see the connection between sports and school. As an added bonus, helping students make those connections can foster their general motivation and sense of value.

Utilize Intentional Instruction

Applying skills from one context to another is not automatic. As we work to reframe our roles and mind our messages, we must also be intentional about how we go about doing so. This could involve setting up conversations to get to know more about student-athletes, building in activities to help students reflect, or finding time to talk about how lessons from sports can be applied to school or vice versa. It is important to remember that any instruction will need to be tailored for individual student-athletes, who each have different experiences, cultural backgrounds, and needs. To best suit each of our student-athletes’ individual needs and experiences, we must be willing to adjust our coaching or teaching styles.

Student-athletes face a difficult challenge: navigating and connecting their athletic and academic identities.This challenge can be even more complex as student-athletes also navigate unique racial, gender, sexual, and other identities. Through intentional scaffolding, caring adults can support students in applying their skills across contexts.

Response From Rob Weil

Rob Weil is the director of field programs for the American Federation of Teachers. Prior to working for the AFT, he was the president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers and began his teaching career three decades ago as math teacher and athletic programs coach, also in Douglas County, Colo.:

Teachers and Coaches Must Work Together;It’s Their Job

In today’s high-stakes accountability environment, it’s hard to keep your eye on the ball (I was a high school baseball coach). Teachers are pressured to help students reach high levels of achievement on standardized tests, and coaches are under pressure to win;a lot. But are these two goals the right ones for your student athletes? Is teaching only about test scores and coaching simply about wins?

How do we bring these seemingly diverse goals together in the interest of the student athlete? This question will only be answered when the teacher and coach work in partnership, an understanding that student learning is a confluence that happens in the school and on the field.

It all starts with mutual respect. Respect for the teacher’s work, respect for the coach’s efforts, but most importantly respect for every student-athlete’s “here and now” and their future. It goes without saying that both the teacher and the coach play an essential role in the immediate success of their student-athletes. Yet most of the time, neither will ever know the full impact of their important work. But that’s not the point;teaching and/or coaching is about the kids, not the adults.

For teachers and coaches to successfully work together in the interest of kids, they must focus on fundamentals that are the backbone for any student-athlete’s success in the classroom, the field ,and in life:

  1. Solving problems using a strong academic base;
  2. Understanding the importance and value of hard work; and
  3. Communicating and working as part of a team.

These three, strongly interconnected concepts are the mutual goals of any teacher/coach team. Anyone who has done either job knows it is not only the teacher’s job to focus on academics and not only the coach’s job to focus on teamwork. The teacher must enthusiastically respect the game that clarifies valuable life lessons found in practice, efficient effort, and effective teamwork. The coach must actively respect the importance of academic learning across the curriculum as well as on the field. This may sound fairly straightforward, but reality is never this easy.

Teachers never have it easy; taking the time to communicate with a coach beyond the minimum is an extra burden. It helps to remember student success is the ultimate goal. Just like coaches, any teacher worth his salt is never satisfied with “good enough.” A teacher may not like baseball or any sport for that matter, but that’s the real power in the teacher/coach partnership. It’s really not about the sport or the algebraic concept (sorry, the math teacher in me), it’s about the short- and long-term success of a student. Hopefully, that’s enough to value and ensure a working partnership. Ongoing communication will only prove to make things better in the end.

So let’s break it down. From the first day of practice, coaches must insist that every member of the team work hard in each and every class. Most schools have some sort of regular grade checks for eligibility, but any coach worth his salt never accepts the minimum;in anything. A players’ effort in class must not be an exception. Coaches must take the first step and make the time (notice I didn’t say “take the time”) to connect with his players’ teachers and share the expectation he has for his players in his class. These partnership meetings are critical to set up lines of communication to quickly get students-athletes back on track. I know as a coach, surprises on the eligibly sheets were never welcomed. For a coach of a team with a large number of student-athletes like football, this step may require the support of assistants. However, the head coach needs to be the point of this effort;no exceptions.

Many times teachers feel pressure to attend games and show their support for a multitude of school activities. And teachers should show their support as much as they can, but I also know the reality of life many times gets in the way. That’s the real beauty of working in partnership with the coach and the student athlete. Teachers taking the time to show a student-athlete they understand and value the lessons learned on the field as well as in the class demonstrates their interest in the student beyond the classroom door. This goes a long way in making that young person a success now and in the years to come.

It’s singing to the choir to say successful schools operate their academic and activity programs in a mutually beneficial way. They know programs like these are essential building blocks of a holistic and well-rounded education. But the best-designed programs need people to make them work and dedicated people to make them work well. All teachers know that every student needs more than what is found in books, and coaches know that their athletes need more than practice time.

Is teaching only about test scores and coaching simply about wins? Clearly no. They are parts of a much bigger puzzle that will only be solved by collaborative partnerships in the service of students. Teachers and coaches who work together to ensure the success of their student-athletes may never know the impact of their lessons, but be assured the lessons are learned.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

OK, let me start with some cold, hard honesty here. I have never played, what I like to call “sports-games.” In fact, I’ve never even watched one on TV. I’m not against sports, I just tend toward more solitary pursuits and always have. But, as a parent, an educator, and a leader, I have long noticed that the best teachers are often also coaches. Additionally, students who are comfortable being coached are often the most successful learners.

So, how can teachers and coaches best work together to support students in achieving academic and athletic success? By borrowing pages from each others’ playbooks. Here is what I mean.

Teachers and coaches, work together! Ultimately, coaches and teachers both want what is best for children. We want our students to have successful futures. Coaches and teachers can work together to help students set a healthy mix of goals and aspirations to help them be happy, successful adults. At my wonderful elementary schools, teachers are lucky to know many of our students’ athletic coaches, some of whom are also teachers. We consult each other frequently, offering suggestions and information to one another to help us work together to meet the needs of the whole child. We learn from each other.

Teachers, learn from coaches! The best teachers should think of themselves as coaches, not facilitators or bosses. Coaching can be defined as the art and science of helping someone achieve their goals through explicit teaching, modeling, hands-on guided practice, and lots of independent practice. Teachers cannot make learning happen; they can, however, like athletic coaches, help students acquire knowledge, skills, and tools so that students can make it happen for themselves.

Coaches flexibly employ strategies that motivate athletes to work hard to meet their goals despite frequent setbacks. They work with players as individuals and teams to teach them the skills they need, allow for ample practice, and provide near-constant feedback and encouragement. These are the key ingredients for learning.

The teacher-as-coach model places the students’ learning efforts at the center of the classroom, while preserving and valuing the teacher’s expertise in guiding, troubleshooting, and supporting those efforts Coaches in classrooms provide direct instruction, facilitate student practice, help students set and meet goals just as athletic coaches do on the field.

Coaches, learn from teachers! The best elementary school teachers support the whole child, learning about students’ lives beyond the classroom walls. These teachers know what sports students like, the types of pets they have, and they have invested in building lasting relationships with the families of the children they serve. When teachers see students on a Monday morning, they often hear stories of the “big game” they played over the weekend.

Coaches should think of their roles similarly. Imagine if a coach knew which subjects students really like, didn’t like, or struggled in. The coach could use his or her unique ability to motivate the student to set and meet goals in areas of academic need. What if each time a coach saw a player, s/he asked how that math test went or what book a student was reading? A powerful vision!

Bottom line? My personal dislike of team sports doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the value of being on a team or working with coaches. If teachers and coaches learn to work together, to take pages from one another’s playbooks, and to share the work of nurturing students, children will grow both academically and athletically.

Response From Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles on educational leadership, teaching, and student achievement. His videos and articles are all free downloads at CreativeLeadership.net. Doug Tweets @DouglasReeves and can be reached at DReeves@ChangeLeaders.com:

One excellent professional practice I’ve seen is “Coach’s Corner,” in which students who were missing important work went to the gym to finish their work. The coaches were not tutors, but well-respected mentors who demanded excellence. Moreover, sitting on the gym floor is not particularly comfortable, so no one could claim that the students were being coddled. The key for this and other consequences for missing work is that it is immediate;same day or same week;and when the work is finished, it receives full credit. F’s and zeroes at the end of the semester are worthless;they do not motivate the student and do not result in better levels of work quality.

Second, student academic performance is directly related to student participation in extracurricular activities, a study I published in Educational Leadership has shown. A growing number of schools have as a high-priority goal that 100% of students will be involved in at least one extracurricular activity, sport, or club. The greatest gains in academic performance occurred among those students who had been completely disengaged, involved in zero activities, and then became involved in two activities. There was a negligible improvement among students who progressed from four or five activities to eight or nine.

Response From Carol Salva

Carol Salva is a consultant for Seidlitz Education, specializing in English-learners. She shares her research-based strategies in her book, Boosting Achievement, Reaching Students with Interrupted or Minimal Education, in her Boosting Achievement podcast, and on her blog:

Teachers and sports coaches working together should be a priority for all of us. No time to collaborate? Support each other anyway.

An Idea for Coaches

Our sports coaches are doing an incredibly supportive thing just by being the sports coaches ... but many are doing so much more. Our coaches build relationships with students around a common interest and area of the child’s life where they may see their efforts paying off. Our coaches build relationships with our students and they can help us reinforce good study habits. For example, a few years ago, I was teaching a student with limited formal education in our high school. He was one of our fastest runners, a gifted athlete who was receiving track coaching for the first time in his life. I was looking for ways to help him transfer his growth mindset about sports into his actions in the classroom. I wanted to work with the coaching staff on this but I was struggling to find a common time. I spoke to the student about it and I was delighted to find out that his track coach had been incorporating a set amount of reading or studying time prior to each morning run. His coaches knew the importance of daily reading and content-area studying and took it upon themselves to create a time and space for him to do it before their workouts. In doing that, they conveyed to him that his literacy was as important to them as his success out on the track.

An Idea for Academic Teachers

I appreciate that our coaches convey the message that they value literacy. In turn, I feel that it is critical that as an academic teacher, I convey the same type of message about the importance of sports and other extracurricular interests. My niece had a teacher in high school named Ms. Jackson. Kristina raved about this teacher ,and in time I had the pleasure of meeting Mary Jackson and seeing some of the reasons so many students at Stratford loved being in her class. One practice of Mary’s, that I share frequently with teachers, is how she gets to know her students. Every year, Ms. Jackson has her new students fill out an index card explaining where they are after school on most days. Many of her students write that they are on a particular sports team. Others write that they are working in the area at places like the local grocery store or car wash. Mary then takes these cards and categorizes them and then she sets out to see every child outside of school at least once during the school year. By showing up at football games, basketball games, and other events, she is conveying to the students that they are important to her. She is also supporting the students in a different setting where some of them might feel more successful.

An Idea for School or District Leaders

Learning doesn’t happen from the neck up, it happens from the feet up. ; Mike Kuczala, @KenesthetiClass

A few years ago, our director of athletics shared Mike Kuczala’s Ted Talk with me so I could gain a better understanding of the training our physical education teachers were receiving. Her idea was that her PE teachers could support content teachers if they knew some ESL strategies ,and I agreed with her wholeheartedly. She was requesting an ESL training from me, and the extra step she took was to give me a way to gain background knowledge so that I could align the ESL strategies and explanations to the work the teachers are already doing. I did that and even emailed the powerpoint to Mike Kuczala, who gave his stamp of approval on it. Needless to say, it was a hit with the PE teachers, and the students were the ones who benefited the most from the collaboration. I offer that as an example of how our leaders can support us as they coordinate the professional learning opportunities their teachers will have.

Thanks to Miray, Stephanie, Chris, Rob, Rita, Douglas, and Carol for their contributions.

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