The intersection of progressive education and athletic coaching

I had an odd moment this morning while I was running around in the cold moving the car.  I was walking back from having parked too far away from my building.  As I am prone to doing, I started kind of talking to myself.  The topic this morning was thinking about what I’ll say at the end of the year athletics banquet when I have to get up and give the remarks about this year’s season with my girl’s soccer team.  I started thinking (talking about) the challenges I faced, the girls I have on the team, and how we made it through another season by accomplishing things together.  But my area of focus the longer I talked (it was a long walk) was the challenge I faced trying to mesh my ideals as a progressive educator and my ideas of what it means to be a soccer coach.

When it comes to soccer I come from, but am not necessarily married to, a bit of the old school.  When coach speaks, you act.  Practice is priority one, and is not to be missed.  Being a part of the team takes precedence in all the best ways.  There is no question about effort level: always the max.  Teammates are like family.

This list, and more, are what drove me in competitive sports growing up, and to some degree still do.  I believe that competitive sports offer something that few other things can, and in a way are a microcosm of real life cause-and-effect that few other settings can replicate as accurately.  The ball will do what the ball’s going to do.

And this is increasingly true as we struggle to figure out what it means to educate and develop a human being.  I feel like people used to see education as a more black and white issue.  Students were buckets, and teachers filled them.  And discipline and conformity were job one for the student.  As we have learned that those things might not be as true as we thought, especially for the changing world, the world of “school” is trying to adapt and change.  Students now are growing up in a very different world than the one their grandparents and even parents did.  I’m sure this is true of most generations to some degree, but the ideals I mentioned for sports are some that aren’t being gotten in the same ways as they were when I was in school.  Of course, this may all just be one aging man’s perspective, but I don’t see as much overlap as I did when I was in high school and college and at the peak of my school/sports crossover.  The attitudes of students/players aren’t the same as the ones I encountered then.  Both school and sports seem to be more of an afterthought to them.  I’m not saying this is all bad, mind you.  I think my players are more well-rounded as human beings and much more independent thinkers than we were as student athletes.  It’s just different.

But I think that emphasizes the importance of each arena separately now.  School offers something different than the sports team, and vice versa.  There are differences that I, even as someone who has experience in both arenas, am just now learning.  Here are a few that I  have noted:

1) The concept of team – In the classroom we use cooperative learning, but the focus us still on individual outcomes.  Sport is one of the few areas where individual outcome is truly secondary.  Your role in a play lasts split seconds.  Your sum total role in a game will most likely be a tiny fraction of the minutes played.  Outcomes are judged almost solely on team achievements.

2) The physical nature – A physical action is different from a mental exercise.  There are many different ways to achieve the thought process behind many mathematical operations and still achieve the same outcome.  The perfect shot or pass has a narrow range of kinesthetic forgiveness to be correct.  Repetition and observation are vital to getting that right.  It’s not really a “do it whatever way makes sense” kind of thing.

3) The power to poison the well – Players are like apples: one truly bad one can destroy everything.  A player’s attitude and approach are everything, and they all have to be in synch to make a team hum.  In a classroom this is true to some degree, but you can remove a student from the environment and get back to work.  Individual outcomes are key after all.  But even a few weeks into practice, a team dynamic comes to rely on all the talents and personalities in it.  Even bench players have a massively important role in dynamic.  If you remove one player it sends waves of messages and losses that can affect the team, and it takes time to reestablish identity even if the move was for the best.

And so it is with these things in mind that I am trying to bring consistency to my approaches.  It wouldn’t make sense for me to do everything the same, no, especially not after having said what I did about the differences.  But at least a consistency of belief.  If I see them as independent thinkers and individuals in the whole sense, rather than just buckets to be filled, I can’t treat them that way in the classroom and then expect them to just be good little soldiers on the field.  “Do what your told” goes against my beliefs as a teacher, so it would be hypocritical of me to use that approach as their coach.  I’m still figuring it all out, but it was a big focus for me this season.  I’ve still got a lot more improvement to make, and a long way to go both as a teacher and a coach, but here’s a few things I’ve come up with.  These are a mix of similarities and differences that I think are all notable in making me the best, and most consistant, teacher/coach combo I can be:

1) High expectations in the class and on the field – Expectations do not determine pedagogy.  Just expecting a lot out of my students and my players doesn’t determine if I take a traditional approach or a progressive approach… authoritative or authoritarian.  The actual methodology can be many things, but expectation comes first, and must be clear.  I want my players to be giving maximum effort and taking maximum pride and benefit, the same way I want my students to.  I cannot and should not back off on expectation just because I’m afraid of drifting too far into an authoritarian approach.  Conversely, I cannot allow myself to be convinced that having high expectations is a sign of a traditional or authoritarian approach by outside sources.  That’s just good coaching…and good teaching.

2) When you have to achieve together, sometimes you have to fall in line – As I’ve pointed out, in the classroom the emphasis is on individual outcomes.  If a student’s group is sabotaging that individual’s ability to achieve, or if the group is poisonous to achievement over all, sometimes one student can either take that group on their back and do the lion’s share of the work, or they can withdraw and complete something that shows that they’re still achieving.  While the group won’t have been as successful, that one student will still succeed and learn.  An athletic team has to grow together, or not at all.  I can’t make the right run or the right pass, have everyone else do the wrong thing, and still wind up with a positive outcome.  Sometimes there are moments of individual brilliance that benefit the team: a great individual shot or dribble ending in a goal, a beautiful individual defensive play that saves an otherwise dragging squad, a heroic goalkeeping effort that turns a game on it’s head, but a team can’t achieve on the back of those kinds of moments alone.  Sometimes the MVP is what’s crippling the team.  In order to make any kind of growth and achievement as a team sometimes the individual needs or wants have to go by the wayside.  You may not feel like practicing today, but if you aren’t there then the dynamic for your team will be completely different then what you’ll see on game day.  The team can’t practice the right scenarios to grow.  In a classroom it’s individuals working at max capacity that makes a group strong, but you walk away with different individual levels of success.   Teams live and die by the team.  Individuals work at max capacity to make the team strong, but you walk away with the same outcomes.  The team has a right to ask your individuality to take a bit of a back seat where it doesn’t step on you as a person.

3) The experience factor – In both classroom and on pitch we who are in charge of the education of these young people are trying to develop them in the best way possible to be competent in what they do.  But we are coming at it from a perspective of vast experience in these fields.  I’m currently 32.  I’ve been playing soccer since I was 12.  That’s 20 years of experience and knowledge about this game.  When I’m dealing with a 15 year old player, or even an 18 year old player, it can be hard for me to realize that the concept I’m trying to teach them has developed in me over a long period of time.  They’re not going to get it to the same depth I have in that 2 hour training session, and probably not over the 8-10 week season either.  Possibly not even in the 4 seasons I’ll have most of them.  But it’s easy to get over zealous in trying to convey information.  It’s also easy to mistake mimicry for mastery.  i.e. – If they can make the good pass that splits the defense in practice those few times when I yelled at them to see it, they can now read the game and see it on their own, they’re looking for it and understand when to attempt it or not.   The same holds true in the classroom, but I think teachers tend to be way more patient than coaches.  I will give a student multiple classes, multiple weeks, sometimes even months, to demonstrate that they are starting to master a concept, and then it’s much easier (I feel) to keep in mind that they will continue to build on this their whole lives.  We’re trying to recreate for them, in both settings, our vast experience and expertise.  But you cannot create experience without patience.  Experience by it’s definition, by it’s very nature, takes time.  They go hand in hand.  And not surprisingly, it seems to go hand in hand with failure as well, and I mean that in the best possible way.  Failure is an important part of experience, which is the best teacher.  In the classroom this is easy to set up and understand.  On the field less so because we are waiting for things to click.  When they don’t it can be frustrating because it means more repetition, and that’s hard on our attention spans.

Good coaching, I think, balances repetition and focus.  And doing that, while respecting your individuals but getting them to fall in with the team’s objectives, and holding everyone to a high standard, is the essence and beginning, I believe, of being both a progressive educator and an athletic coach.

If you stumble across this and happen to have read this far, please please feel free to comment and give me your thoughts on this subject that I’m immensely interested in and yet still seeking my own thoughts and best practice on.  I am open and interested in all view points on both education and coaching.

Thoughts on being a high school coach

I’m in my second season as the varsity girl’s coach at a Manhattan school, and a couple things are occurring to me that I thought I’d punch out in case anyone out there has anything to share in return…

The season is one week old, with three weeks of preseason had before that.  We are a private school, so historically commitment and attendance has been a concern, and in some regards is this season.  But we have new things to deal with that we didn’t last season.  Last season I had a roster of 15 girls, which would have been perfect if they’d all shown up at one time…ever.  I traveled to games often with 11, had no goalkeeper to speak of, held practice with 6-8 girls, had no field space, and struggled to build any kind of work ethic or tenacity with in the team.  They just didn’t take pride in their efforts.  This season I have a roster of 23 girls, and for the most part they show up.  They still aren’t the most tenacious group, but there are some who have caught on to the commitment and desire, and who respect the idea of working hard and it’s pay off.  I have a whole host of new girls, both to the team and to the game, many of whom are either freshmen or sophomores.  They don’t really have the internal drive to push themselves in drills, and often kinda half@$$ it through practice, gripe about the harder things they have to do, and constantly complain about what positions I want to use them in if it isn’t the one they had in mind for themselves.  I’ve got more girls than I can play, less pure talent than we need, and still have no regular field space to practice on.

But my biggest issue isn’t really with any of that.  My biggest issue is with myself.

I’ve been playing soccer since I was little, and had both moderate success and crushing failure.  The game has given me a lot, and taken a lot out of me as well.  I love being a coach now because it gives me a chance to be part of the game in a whole different way than I’ve previously been able to.  I think I’m a little bit of an over-thinker to be a high school girl’s coach at a school with a small program, but I’ll take it.  I’m not saying I believe I’d be more successful at a larger school or that I think I’m too “big” for the school I’m at (quite the opposite actually), just that I’m a strategy-junky amongst a group that hasn’t quite gotten that far in their understanding of the game yet.  But I think I have a shallow bag of tricks right now.  As I said, this is my second year, and my third year as a varsity coach over all.  I’ve been working coaching soccer on some level since I was in the 9th grade, but I’m discovering that my knowledge of drills, my ability to run a drill, to find just the right drill for a particular need, and how to build practices so that we’ve worked on basic skills effectively before they’re expected to use them to learn other things…is all still growing.  My practices this year are steps beyond my practices last year, but my preseason practices were all planned to a T, even if they didn’t all go off exactly that way, and now that I’m going more with the flow of what’s needed the practices are less effective I think.  Granted a lot of what I can do is limited by what amount of space I have that day (23 girls in a tiny gym isn’t exactly a recipe for successful practices) but the days I do have a field are below where I want to be both as a team and a coach.  I am still developing the finessed understanding of what it means to be a coach.

Executive functions: suddenly we begin to understand

Ever since we moved away from the archaic idiom, “children should be seen and not heard,” teachers have been asking themselves how they can better engage students in learning.  Once we gave students a voice in the classroom, many of them chose to use it to say, “this is boring”.  The struggle to bring learning to a place where the students will engage with it in the modern school setting has become one of the top struggles in the world of education.  We now refer to many of these changes that are taking place as 21st century skills.  But in the end, regardless of what we’re teaching students content or skill-wise within the walls of the classroom, we have to admit that classroom learning and real world application are two rather different worlds.  We are just now really beginning to understand what it means to actually learn in a meaningful way that can transcend initial circumstances and become true skill that is aiding the human in moving forward.  Essentially, in the classroom we are trying to shortcut the process of gaining experience (the only truly proven teacher) so that a student leaves the academic world with the knowledge of experiences that it would have been extremely difficult, if not otherwise impossible, to gain by seeking out true experience with this knowledge and skill base.

In our attempts to engage we struggle with the predilection of youth to be disorganized, to jump from topic to topic, to be far more interested in what they perceive as ‘play’ over what they perceive as ‘work’ (even if the two were the same thing), impulsivity, and a host of other things that we as adults consider impediments to learning…often lumped together and called ‘issues’ in staff meetings.  Very often these things are what lead us to consider a student as a candidate for testing of learning disabilities, which in and of itself can cause us to over react to the student as a ‘Special Ed case’. But all too frequently these things are chalked up to them being young and inconsiderate or non-serious students.  What if there was another option?  What if these students were in fact serious students with enormous creative potential, who had a deep capacity to succeed, and whose presence could in fact be a benefit not only to themselves but to our learning environments, but their tool box was not functioning properly?

See, the tool box is a handyman’s life blood that contains the basics.  A handyman can keep the tool box with them at all times and can draw from it to accomplish all the basic tasks they might need to do.  True, some specialized jobs require specialized or large equipment that doesn’t fit in the toolbox, but those jobs are often done by specialists or more experienced handymen.  But every handyman has a tool box.  If the tool box wasn’t equipped properly, or equipped with tools that weren’t up to the job, then they wouldn’t be able to complete even the most basic jobs, regardless of their other skills.  In this metaphor, as related to students, the executive functions are the tool box.

Tasks such as focus, task-initiation, emotional regulation, remembering, decision making, organization, self-monitoring, and a whole host of others that are necessary to utilize to even approach most school assignments fall under the heading of executive functions, which are regulated most often in the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain, an area which doesn’t fully develop until later in adolescence, are things that are often overlooked when dealing with trouble with classroom tasks.  Even in students who don’t have trouble with them, they are often overlooked in the actual instruction of a classroom.  These skills are the gateways or bridges which have to be open and functioning for a student to even access the learning potential stored in their brain.

Imagine this scenario: you place a math test in front of two students.  Student A exibits no E.F. deficiencies and is able to skim the test, prioritize which problems they are most comfortable with and begin.  Student A is then able to move onto the problems they were more uncertain about, breaks them down into steps and tackles them.  Student A is organized enough to use their existing knowledge to work through these problems, and their work on the paper is clean and useful to them.  After finishing, Student A is organized enough to remember to give a quick glance back over the test, check to see that their name is on it, and hands it in.  No problems.  Student B has multiple E.F. struggles and looks at the number of problems on the test and is immediately overwhelmed.  Their working memory slots are nearly full up with other distractions and what happened that morning before school, so they are having a hard time accessing their memories of the studying they did.  Student B also has a hard time organizing their work in the page, so even the problems he/she is thinking through correctly aren’t coming out right on the paper.  Student B struggles with prioritizing, so they just begin with problem 1 and work from there, but problem 2 proved especially difficult, so they spent way too long there.  By the time they finished, they were exhausted mentally and running out of time.  They rush through a lot of the rest of the test, even skipping problems that they could normally do, but that they are blanking on where to start.  They forget to put their name on the test, which is filled with errors that the quickest glance back would catch (but it doesn’t occur to them), and they sit silently frustrated until you take the paper from them at the end of the class.  In this scenario you would grade Student A’s test, and have a reasonable understanding of what they know on the topic.  Student B’s test would seem to reveal a deep and profound trouble with whatever mathematical concept you were testing for, when in reality his struggle had nothing to do with the math itself!

Executive function skills are too often overlooked because so many of us developed these skills over time as our frontal lobes developed, or because they are hidden under a larger diagnosis in students that overwhelms us as teachers while that student is in our room.  If a student has an ADHD diagnosis, we’re apt to be focused on the ADHD symptoms and actions rather than looking at each executive function skill to differentiate for each individual struggle.  In the long run even a student who is able to manage their ADHD with medication will still struggle with their E.F. and therefore with school.  We have to begin to change the way we look at the struggles of our students, and we can do that first and foremost by adjusting how we look at teaching itself.  No teacher should have the burden of an overcrowded classroom and a solitary setting.  Team teaching or smaller class sizes allow for more personal understanding of not only the work students are turning in, but the way in which that work is getting done.

In the next post I’ll talk more about some specific executive function skills, and how to differentiate for some of the common struggles students have with them.

The “special education” myth (imho)

I teach (therefore I am?).  And on top of that fact, which says something about both my character and my tolerance for pain, I teach Montessori.

I also talk to myself.  Periodically I will find myself in the car speaking out loud to the nobody callously ignoring their seatbelt in the passenger’s side of the car.  In addition, I usually have little memory of how I got into a self-discussion on whatever topic I’m pontificating on.  I’m not sure if this is a sign of insanity, but I’m pretty sure it makes me a very verbal person.  But I digress.

Just yesterday I found myself going through a one-sided discourse on the idea of full-inclusion and special education.  It may have been tied to a thought I had about why educational theory is even relevant to the average teacher, which in turn came from something else, but I’m not sure.  Anyway, I know that the idea of full-inclusion verses pull-out teaching is a bit of a hot button issue.  My housemate happens to have a Master’s in special education, and is a damn-fine educator.  If I’m not mistaken, he has expressed the opinion that a full-inclusion environment is not best for students with learning disabilities.  To be fair, he works in a traditional-education model charter school.  In that case, I agree with him.

But here’s my rant:

The idea of “special education” as it currently stands bothers me.  Let’s address the stigma attached to the term first.  When I say “special education” the concept that first comes to most people’s mind is students with learning disabilities…those students who are not learning on an ‘average’ level.  Why?  Why is it that the gifted and talented student is not included in these initial reactions?  Because far more focus and effort is given to this first category of students.  This is the category that the majority teachers find most frustrating.  When I talk to a teacher who works at another “Full-Inclusion” (notice the capitals) school, what they’re referring to is that they accept students with learning disabilities (although there are almost always qualifiers attached – “We don’t work with behavioral students.  We don’t work with students on the Autism spectrum.  Etc…).  But why shouldn’t students who need the challenge to progress be given this same amount of effort?  Why do we so often reward their innate academic abilities and curious nature by ignoring them to focus on those who aren’t as naturally academic?  And even further, why aren’t we challenging them to be peer-teaching the students who need help from and modeling of skills just like theirs?  It’s not like we as teachers can take credit for these student’s natural skills, but we can certainly take advantage of them, if we allow for it to not bruise our egos that a student might be a better teacher of a topic or skill in a particular instance within the day.  Students who find school comes more naturally to them should be given the same focus as any other student, and should even be an integral part of our teaching strategies.

With this premise now we find ourselves with 2/3 of our possible student population being qualified “special education”.  The remaining 1/3 are the normal students–but what the hell does that mean?  Is “normal” those students that meet our expectations at a reasonable pace?  Are they meeting state standards at a pace that allows them to get through the 7th grade standards within the 7th grade year?  Seems very arbitrary to me.  Besides, an educator in the state of California once told me that he did the math for the standards, and if you started on day 1 with standard 1.0 and worked systematically through the standards till the last day and the last standard, you’d have just seconds to cover each.  That certainly doesn’t seem reasonable.  Are they the students you have to pay attention to the least?  I don’t know of any teachers that would admit to not paying attention to a full third of their class…even if they wanted to.  In fact, if you talk about individual students with most teachers you would discover that almost every student falls to one side of that concept of “normal”…further, most students cross the divide and have BOTH talents that give them an advantage in certain areas, and difficulties that cause them to struggle in certain areas.  The concept of the normal student is not a category of students in your class, but rather an imaginary pivot point on a number-line like spectrum of your students.  It is is a hypothetical, conceptual, and practically non-existent idea of a student.

What I’m proposing is NOT that we do away with the study of and understanding of learning disabilities, or how to recognize the gifted and talented students, or the strategies as to how to work with both.  What I’m proposing is that we adjust the way we’re thinking about these things until we see that these exact strategies can be applied to almost every student in existence.  I’m arguing for the end of the concept of “Special” education, and the beginning of differentiation as the standard model for classrooms.  In this way, I am for inclusion in all but the most extreme cases.  As a colleague of mine once said, “We may write them for students with LD, but what student couldn’t use an IEP (Individualized Education Plan)?”  If we stop tracking our classrooms to have students all move at the same pace we eliminate the concept of the student who is “behind” or “ahead”, and instead create a differentiated environment where every student can be exactly where they need to be.  We accomplish this by encouraging peer-teaching so that any student who needs help has access to it at any given time, regardless of the current responsibilities of the teacher or the knowledge of the teacher.  We can give open-ended topics of study that allow students to create their own projects and decide how far they want to go with that topic, rather than simply assigning projects that are single-objective over and over again until we have touched on every standard.  We can stop giving grades that encourage students to work only until they have reached a rating that is satisfactory to them, and instead encourage them to pursue knowledge of a topic until they have slaked their own thirst for knowing, which we carefully cultivated through an air of excitement for learning and respect for knowledge.  We as teachers can focus on the skills the students are learning in the projects rather than the informational bits they are getting.  We’re in an age where the conversation about the doubling of all human knowledge is taking place, and that very event will probably happen many times within their lifetime.  It’s impossible to teach them everything they need to know about any subject.  The skills to learn on their own are far, far more important.  This frees them up to choose topics of interest which will drive them to a higher work level.  And lastly, although there are plenty more, we can make it part of the culture of our class to respect that each student will be in different places, both because of learning styles and interests.  This serves many purposes, but mostly it allows us to differentiate for students within the social structure of the class with no other thought than what is best for that student’s learning of that given skill.

Differentiation must become our standard approach to education, and we must eschew the current concept of special education, if we hope to teach the modern student to achieve their full potential.  As we move towards an ever broadening cluster of future opportunities and challenges students need to be moved out of the pidgin holes that the currently operating idea of special education mandates we put them in.

Please feel free to help me to a better understanding if you feel I have missed something.