I’m pretty sure many of us use sports analogies with our students. Whether it’s a point to be made about teamwork, the importance of practice, or any of a number of other important subjects, sports seems to be an effective way to make this kind of thing relevant to students. I believe that the most effective professional coaches have something to teach we educators about success and teaching. Some would argue that Bill Bellichick is the most successful NFL football coach ever. There are arguments to be made against this claim, and it is not my intent to debate that here. I only wish to say that today I will discuss some matters regarding teaching that we can learn from this highly successful coach.
Teaching is in one sense all about preparation. We prepare our lessons, and after we have taught those lessons, we want our students to be better prepared to do something than they were before they attended that class. In this regard, teaching can be challenging, because many of the goals we want our students to achieve are long term. For music teachers, we begin rehearsing for a performance months before the concert date. We do this because we often don’t see our ensembles everyday, but 1-3 times a week. With less than daily practices, preparation is crucial because we want to use our practice time as efficiently and effectively as possible. Time is precious. This brings us to Bellichick point number one. It is a sign that hangs in the Patriots’ locker room. “Every battle is won before it is fought.” The result your students will realize is correlated to the quality of the preparation you, the teacher, have given them.
How do you know when your students are prepared? According to coach Bellichick, “you’re prepared when everyone knows what to do. If it’s too complicated it won’t work, if it’s too obvious… it won’t work. It comes down to execution.” This is related to the psychological concept of flow (Csikszentmihaly, 1975). A very simplified explanation of flow is that when the level of challenge and the level of ability are properly balanced, the task given to an individual will be challenging enough to hold interest and motivate effort, but not overly challenging so as to discourage, or insufficiently challenging so as to become boring. Getting everyone to the point where they know what to do includes making sure that what each person is doing is the right level of challenging, resulting in each person contributing at a level that is at the top of their challenge tolerance within their present ability level.
As important as preparation is, it is not the final word in how things will actually transpire during the lesson. We all know that making a great lesson plan is one thing, but many factors can disrupt what we planned to do, rendering the plan less successful than we anticipated. Eisenhower put it well when he said, “The battle plan is great until you actually get into the battle, then it doesn’t mean anything.” He might just as well have been talking about the lesson plan. The reality is we as teachers must make adjustments as a lesson is unfolding, changing tasks and strategies to account for unanticipated difficulty or ease that students are experiencing. Commentators love to talk about what second half adjustments a football coach will make, especially if his team is trailing at the half. Teachers must do the same thing, but on a much more condensed time scale. Most of us aren’t teaching a 2-3 hour class, the length of a football game. We’re making adjustment decisions over the course of a 45-90 time span. Make ongoing decisions in real time is a hallmark of successful coaches and successful teachers.
Though none can match his Super Bowl record, there are many other successful NFL coaches beside Bill Belichick, and many (maybe all) of them have coaching styles different from his. For example, some, like Andy Reid, are less demanding and more friendly in their approach. Others are highly charged emotionally on the sideline, jumping and yelling frequently. Coaches will do what they find successful in leading their teams to victories. Just as there are many styles of successful coaching, there are also many styles of successful teaching. Every teacher has to find what works best for them and stick to it. Take advice and learn from many, incorporating a little from each into what works well for you. When we learn something from another teacher, and then don’t find success with it for ourselves, we need to dismiss it, not because it was a bad idea, but because it was a good idea for someone else, but not us. But learn from successful people. Belichick explained, “don’t be afraid to use a good idea, even if nobody has used it before. If you believe it’s a good idea, don’t be afraid to use it.”
Discipline is another signpost of success. Organizations that tolerate or ignore sloppy habits tend to fall further and further away from success. Do not tolerate lax attention to rules. If someone doesn’t take a starting time seriously, have them leave. Don’t run a program where sloppiness and inattentiveness to rules and expectations is allowed. Belichick stated his philosophy of leadership as, “do your job, be attentive, pay attention to details, put the team first.” That statement is consistent with everyone knowing what to do, and then executing with precision and excellence. Gleaning other comments about coaching and applying them to teaching, we should interact positively with your students. Build in community building activities in addition to instructional time. Take outside distractions out of the equation of what you are working together to accomplish. We need to remind and in some cases convince our students that if you are teachable, you can learn and improve what you do. We should instill in them the “growth mindset.”
Finally, to paraphrase the coach once more, good students can’t overcome bad teaching, so it’s important to reflect on what we do at the end of every day, identify teaching mistakes, and correct them. This blog began as a personal written reflection that I began making at the end of most of may teaching days, and that I eventually decided to share. It is a record of my thoughts and observations of my own teaching and of the learning journeys of my students. Learning goals need to be seen as attainable, both for students and teachers. Make each short term goal the focus, and achieving those short term goals, one after the other will lead you to achieving the big long term goals. You can watch the whole interview on which this article was based below.