Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Teaching as Coaching

When I was young, my dream was to become a lifeguard. I also wanted to be in a rock band and be a marine biologist, but lifeguarding was a real, tangible goal with a clear path that could be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. Also, I didn't know any rock stars or marine biologists personally, but I was in awe of the lifeguards who coached and taught me every summer. That dream came true; at 16, I was lifeguarding, coaching swim team and water polo, and teaching swimming lessons. I did that for four summers, as well as coaching beginner swimmers part-time over the winters. I loved every minute of it. Over the years, even as I turned away from swimming as a full-time occupation/obsession, I always seemed to come back to coaching.

I see a lot of similarities between what I used to do as a coach and what I now do as a writing instructor. I've written before about how writing is a lot like sports in that you need to practice the basics, but I see my role as a coach rather than how we traditionally understand the role of a teacher. 

With beginner swimmers, who were always my favorite to coach, you spend a lot of time building skills through short instruction followed by putting it into immediate practice. Especially with my developmental writers, they need to immediately put into practice, and in as many ways as possible, the skills or concepts they are learning. As a coach, it was easy to show swimmers how the drills we were relentlessly practicing fit into when they swam regularly. My students grumble, but understand that the grammar drills or writing exercises they are forced to do reinforce the lessons they need to know when they write a paper.

When you coach, much of the hard work (for you) takes place before and after practice. You plan the season, develop your long-term work-out strategy, write out individual practices, and modify those plans as the season progresses while observing how the athletes are doing within the program. During practice, you implement the plan, paying close attention to what is happening, adding feedback when necessary. Especially for a sport like swimming, the coach doesn't seem to be doing much while you are killing yourself in the water.

In many ways, teaching often looks the same. You teach a brief lesson, based on the larger goals and aims of the class that you prepared in advance, and then let the students practice or work on their own/in small groups. You get their work at the end of the class, bringing it with you outside of class to evaluate it. Sometimes, this leads you to modify your next lesson. You are always listening and watching as they work in class, offering feedback, encouragement, or direction as needed. But students often don't see all of the work you do as a teacher outside of class, or even the very subtle work you are doing in class while they kill themselves doing whatever assignment you have given them.

In sports, the athlete knows that there will be a game day or competition where the hard work will pay off. Often, students don't connect the work they are doing in class with their own game day: the test(s) or essay(s) they will inevitable have to write. I struggle all the time as a teacher in a way that I never did as a coach: how to make my students understand the big picture that informs and drives everything they do in the classroom. My swimmers understood that there was a swim meet, a goal time, a cut or place that they were aiming to achieve. Swimming is an easy sport to drift off and fall into autopilot, but they always knew when the next competition was taking place, leading to a focus on the task at hand. My students complain about the work, forgetting that there will be a test or an essay, and what we are doing in class will be important when "game time" comes around.

But I think one of the most important lessons I've taken from coaching into teaching is that I can't do the work for my students. There were always a few swimmers in the pool who would go through the motions without much thought or effort. They didn't take care of themselves outside of the pool, and that reflected in their performance. They were swimming out of habit, I guess, or because their friends were all on the team, too. I've always coached on teams that if you showed up to practice, you'd get to swim. But those swimmers' times would never improve, or would get slower. You can yell, cajole, remind, nag, bribe, and every and any other motivational technique, but at the end of the day, only the individual swimmer can decide if they are going to do the work, take it seriously, and see the results.

My students are the same. They come to class, but they're not really present. They do the work, but put little effort in it. School in general, or perhaps my course in particular, falls low on the list of their priorities. A good teacher finds a way to inspire everyone, I know, but sometimes, that bad grade, the explanation of how the class will benefit them in college and beyond, the engaging and relevant exercises you've painstakingly developed do nothing to shake certain students out of their complacency. I can't write their papers for them. I can just be there for them when they are ready to do better.

Michael Vick is an interesting study in this phenomenon. He has recently come out and said that when he was the starting quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, he was lazy and only did the minimum because it was "good enough." In an interview with his old coach, he admitted that he didn't try and lied, not to mention distracted; football wasn't his first priority. But now, after a stint in jail, he's become a student of the game, becoming a more effective quarterback at an age where many are beginning a steep decline. The coaches indeed have made a difference, but so too has the individual's situation and dedication to the task at hand.

In sport and in school, you have to be willing to do the work and do the work to the best of your abilities. In sports and in school, I'm here to help.


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