This fall, for the first time in a long time, I’m not coaching cross country. I was head coach for ten years at my old school, and I’ve been an assistant coach for the last few years here in Chicago. Recently I’ve been largely responsible for moving athletes from one place to another with a well-placed “Let’s go guys”…and was damn good at it.
I’ll miss being called “Coach,” but I don’t expect to stop coaching. Teachers, after all, are supposed to be coaches.
The teacher-as-coach paradigm has been around a long time, and it became a pedagogical staple after Ted Sizer popularized the idea in Horace’s Compromise (1984). Sizer used a junior transfer student placed in his senior elective to illustrate the concept. “Susan” ran into trouble as the class approached a fifteen-to-twenty-five page analytical paper, and, when Sizer asked her about a missing outline, the results were “consternation, embarrassment, welling tears.” In response, Sizer helped her through each part of the process—outline, draft, and revision. The total time he spent helping Susan write the paper, Sizer reported, was not more than fifty minutes, yet “Without coaching…it would never have been done at all. The distance between a paper in the abstract and her paper assigned in my course had been too great, and her apprehension (and self-inflicted humiliation in a course shared with some loud-mouthed, confident-seeming students) was paralyzing.”
This vision of teacher-as-coach is gratifying. You stand in a student’s corner and shout, “You can do it!” You praise moments of triumph and soothe aches and pains. You are a cohort who urges promising young people to achieve mutually agreed-upon goals. Coach-teachers cast aside the old-school models of instructors who disseminate information on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. A coach, well, a coach inspires.
But that’s not a coach’s only role and being a teacher-coach seems so much more complicated. My seventh grade gym coach, Mr. McGuiness touched my shoulder when he passed back rules or health tests I aced, nodding and winking to say “Well done.” He helped me up after humiliating moments—like the time, running between first and second base, I foiled a double play with my forehead. He asked again and again, between laughter, if I was okay. He got me involved in running because, I suspect, he thought it would help my self-confidence if I could find athletic success somewhere.
Yet even the sainted Coach McGuiness could be cruel…and meant to be. As a track coach, he prepared athletes for events administered by third parties—he readied athletes for contests decided by objective designations like “first” or “fifth,” “cleared” or “missed,” “victory” or “loss.” He knew the rules were out of his hands and the end result up to the athletes, so he had to be tough.
Being a teacher-coach may be even more complicated because you’re a coach at one moment and an umpire the next. In my own specialty, English, I teach my students to write well and then I decide if they have done so. I encourage them, then grade them. First period, I say they can improve their performances on quizzes by preparing better. Second period I make out a challenging quiz. When I return it later, a student might say, “If you wanted us to do better, why was the quiz so impossible?”
It wasn’t impossible of course, but it’s a reasonable question. In the past, when I answered, “I want your success to mean something,” or “It’s not me, it’s the standards that are challenging,” they countered, “Don’t you make the standards?” If, after Sizer’s coaching, Susan received the comment, “Your paper was as wooden as the outline, but still sensible and sturdy…a thoroughly adequate essay,” she might cry foul too. But what if his assessment was honest?
When I was a head cross-country coach, once a season we played a running game called “Knock Out.” In this game the runners started on the same start line and ran a half-mile loop and then rested. Every six minutes, we’d start another loop. The wrinkle was that the last one or two people to finish each half mile didn’t line up for the next repetitions. Those athletes ran the loop in the opposite direction, and kept running, without a rest, until the game was over. On the first half-mile, the runners clumped, playing it safe, not wasting energy in the front or risking elimination behind the pack. As the contest wore on, as more and more teammates jogged in the opposite direction, strategies changed. Soon all the remaining runners wanted to be near the front and, invariably, someone tried to rush to a safe lead and stay there. The survivors grew more and more tired, but the repetitions grew faster and faster. The idea was to develop athletes’ late race determination.
It was more objective than “Compose an effective outline.” Once the rules were established, it just happened. No judgment necessary. Some athletes hated the game, and I never felt entirely happy with it either. Win-lose objectivity can be painful, less disputable and therefore more ego-thrashing than rulings I make as a teacher. I just wanted to accomplish something pure exhortation wouldn’t.
A teacher-coach who protects students from risky assessments might not be serving students’ best interests. While teachers emulate coaches’ rah-rah, they could also learn from coaches’ unapologetic challenges. I’m not talking about giving low grades—I hate grades and would rather do away with them altogether. I’m talking about assigning trying tasks. Anything that helps students discover their potential prepares them for the future.
Ironically, grades often distract students from challenging themselves. Students aren’t focusing on the task when they focus on grades. They aren’t really focusing on outcomes either. They are gathering points and engaging in the most abstract accounting, not facing real and immediate challenges.
Every coach knows success is more complicated than a grade. Tony Casey, an athlete on my one of my cross country teams, was famous for asking, “How’d we do Coach?” It was the first question he gathered the wind to ask after he crossed the finish line. In most sports, the score gives an answer immediately, but in cross country, scoring requires math. You add up the places your runners received and compare it to totals other teams achieved, low score wins. Tony would stand at my shoulder watching me carry the tens until I could tell him the outcome, but what made him famous was that, even after I had the number ready, he’d ask, “So, how did we do?”
The other athletes found Tony’s question silly. “He just told you!” they’d yell. What they didn’t understand was that Tony was really asking, “What does the score mean?” Tony wanted to know if we’ve exceeded expectations or fallen short. He wanted to know whether we closed the time gap between our first and fifth runner and if we had improved from our last outing. He needed me to interpret the results.
I always wanted to say we’d done well, at least that we’d done better, but sometimes the clocks or the places disagreed. A good coach can figure out what really happened and then cast disappointment in a helpful light. During a writing conference, I have to be honest and point out what’s weakest, but I can also illuminate moments of promise and progress. The best coaches I’ve encountered focus on what an athlete might do next, where improvement lies. You can’t deny what happened, so what do you do with what happened?
Late in my running career, I ran into a coach named Mr. Miller. He chuckled at adolescent eccentricities and nicknamed me anew each week. Before each race, he said, “Do your best” with assurance my best would be enough. He met disappointment with explanation. “You went out too slow,” he’d say, or “You need to slingshot off that last turn,” or “In another five yards, you’d have had the next guy.” Sometimes I could tell he was looking for something, anything to say to a fifth place finisher, but the “grade” mattered much less than his support.
As an assistant coach, I always looked out for brooders who struggled over how they’d performed. After a few moments to let them get past raw results, I’d add my perspective. As a teacher, my job is similar. A race is a race, but you need to see something compelling in it, even if it’s just, “With a little more foresight and work, you can do better next time.”
My true job as teacher or coach (or something between) is inspiring belief in personal progress.