Sunday, March 15, 2015

Excerpt from What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches - Introduction

Below is an excerpt from my newest book, What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches. I'm going to post a few short excerpts over the next few weeks, but I thought I'd begin with the Introduction to give readers an idea of what the book really is about. I hope you enjoy the excerpt and I hope you'll consider picking up or downloading a copy of the book.

What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches, by Nathan Barber
Copyright 2014, Routledge/Eye on Education
     What is a coach? The word coach seems to have originated in Hungary at some point in the 16th century and described a large carriage used for transportation. In the early 19th century, coach became an Oxford University slang term for a tutor who “carried” a student, as in preparation for university exams. Later in the 19th century, coach at last appeared in the vocabulary of sports as one who leads a team. An interesting thread runs through these three examples of coach. Do you see it yet?

     We can deduce that coach morphed into the verb coaching at some point during the 19th century once the associations with tutoring and leading sports teams became commonplace. Now, in the 21st century, what lies at the heart of coaching actually can be traced back to its three original, unique, yet related uses. The all-time winningest high school boys soccer coach in the United States, Terry Michler, makes an astute observation about coaching in the modern world. Michler, who coaches at Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis, Missouri, says, “[coaching] involves taking someone where they could not get on their own.” With one short phrase, Michler sums up and ties together the three original applications of the word coach. All three of the original meanings of coach involved taking someone – a passenger, a student, an athlete – somewhere he couldn’t go on his own – a distant geographic destination, the Dean’s List, the league championship. A good coach does the same today.

     Coaching is teaching. Who knows who first said this, but this phrase has been quoted and requoted countless times, and with good reason. A great coach also is a great teacher, even if the subject matter is zone defense, the pick and roll, the bunt or the art of putting. Don’t take my word for it, though. Consider what these great coaches have to say on the subject:
“The coach is first of all a teacher.” John Wooden     
“They are about as parallel as anything can be.” Terry Michler
“At the end of the day, coaching is teaching.” Brian Boland
“Coaching is teaching.  Great coaches/teachers are good communicators; start with the end in mind; stress the fundamental (little things) concepts; practice and build on those fundamental concepts daily; reteach until the concept is mastered; motivate their students; and establish positive relationships with their students.” Dale Monsey
“Coaching and teaching are one in the same in that the educator has one purpose in mind: to share knowledge with the student/athlete in the hopes of making them smarter both mentally and physically.” Patti Gerckens
“Coaching obviously is synonymous with teaching because I think great coaching is effective teaching. What you’re trying to do is to accelerate someone’s growth in the game that you’re an expert in, and you’re trying to give them the benefit of your experience by sharing with them what they can do to get to their potential.” Anson Dorrance

     Even when the subject matter differs, great coaches and great teachers have a great deal in common. Great coaches and teachers communicate effectively, harness the power of teamwork, make work meaningful, embrace technology, build a winning tradition, teach life lessons and seek continuous improvement. Drawing on the wisdom of some of the best and most successful coaches in the business today, this book draws parallels between great coaches and great teachers, between great coaching and great teaching. Using examples from the lives and experiences of these great coaches, this book illustrates the correlation between teaching in the sports world and teaching in the classroom. As you read through the book, note that coaches whose names are italicized have provided direct input for this book. Without their wisdom, this book would not have come together as such a practical yet meaningful guide to great teaching.

     Although this book could be read cover to cover in a few sittings, each section has been divided into short, easily digestible pieces to be read and pondered and then applied. Additionally, because of the way the book has been structured, reading through the sections in order is not necessary. Browse the sections, find what interests you or what you need, then read, consider and repeat. Regardless of how you read through the book, my hope is that you are challenged by the ideas presented here and that you find many of these ideas relevant and useful in your own teaching journey.

Nathan Barber

The above information is Copyright 2014 Routledge/Eye on Education and Nathan Barber

Saturday, January 31, 2015

How Do You Know Your Professional Development Was Good?

At my school, we dismiss students early one Wednesday each month so we can spend the afternoon as a faculty immersed in professional growth activities. After our last professional development early dismissal day, I had the following conversation with my freshman son.

Son: How were your meetings today?
Me: Actually, we didn't do meetings.
Son: I thought we got out early so you could have meetings.
Me: No, we did professional development sessions.
Son: Well, were they good?
Me: Actually, yes, they were really good today. Thanks for asking.
Son: How do you know they were good?

How wise is my adolescent son? He asked the million dollar question. How did I know the professional development we just finished was good? I went on to explain that I knew the professional development was meaningful in basically the same ways I know when good things are happening during classroom visits.

Here's how I knew the professional development sessions were good:
1. Learner engagement. The learners spent their time engaged. They collaborated and discussed in small groups. They collaborated and discussed in a whole group setting. They asked one another questions. They asked the lead learner questions. They challenged one another. They remained focused and on task but energetic the entire time. Their conversation, their participation, their body language and their energy all said they were engaged.
2. Learner-centered activities. The lead learner served as facilitator only. The lead learner did not wax poetic or lecture, but rather directed the learners through meaningful activities. The lead learner avoided becoming the center of attention and focused the attention instead on the learners.
3. No lull in learning. The energy level remained high throughout. Conversation and collaboration continued even beyond the allotted time for each activity. The learners really wanted the learning to keep going.
4. Post-learning conversation. The learners continued conversation about the day's topics even after the session concluded. Learners remained in the classroom casually discussing the topic. Learners walked in pairs and small groups down the hall still engaged in conversation from the learning activities. The learning and sharing extended beyond the physical space of the classroom and beyond the time allotted for the activities.
5. Learner feedback. After the learning activities, learners provided meaningful and honest feedback (some solicited and some unsolicited) about how much they learned, how effective the sessions were, how they might make adjustments the next time, and what the takeaways were. The feedback validated conclusions drawn through observation.

The brief list of ways I knew the professional developments sessions were good mirrors a list anyone in educational leadership can use to know whether learning activities have meaning and value. After all, learning activities for adult learners should be just as meaningful and intentionally designed as learning activities for kids. Likewise, just as we want to determine whether classroom activities for students have meaning and value, we should assess learning activities for adult learners in much the same way.

Consider the 14-year-old's million dollar question: "How do you know your professional development was good?"

Monday, December 22, 2014

Why School Leadership is Like Mountain Biking: Handlebars Follow Eyes

Being a high school principal challenges me more often and more intensely than I ever anticipated. I love a good challenge, though, even in my recreational activities. Perhaps that’s why I love to ride my mountain bike as often as possible when I’m not walking the halls and visiting classrooms at school. I mention these two seemingly-unrelated activities in the same paragraph because I continue to discover parallels between the two (besides the fact that they both push me to my limit with surprising regularity).

Riding trails can be physically taxing, especially when I really push myself to ride harder or faster than the last time. I love the intensity of that kind of workout. Trail riding can be mentally taxing, too. Navigating trails on my bike, especially trails I've never ridden, challenges me mentally every time I head out for a ride. Specifically, keeping my bike on the often narrow paths really pushes me to stay focused on only the path ahead. Herein lies one of the greatest parallels I’ve discovered between leading a school and riding my mountain bike: handlebars follow eyes.

The trails I ride are not designated as beginner, advanced, or anything else. They just are. Therefore, I have to be pretty careful on the trails because I never know what’s up ahead, how slick the soil is, how many roots threaten to slow me down, or how treacherous the climbs and descents will be. What I have learned – partly through near misses, partly through clipping tree trunks and roots, and partly through being launched a few times – is that handlebars follow eyes. As much as I’d love to watch some of the beautiful things around me as I ride, I absolutely must stay focused on the trail ahead. If I shift my eyes away from the trail, my handlebars follow. Where my handlebars go, the rest of my bike goes, too. When that happens, well… I speak from experience when I say that it isn't pleasant. Believe me, staying on the trail, treacherous though it may be, beats the heck out of riding off the trail.

When I ride, my one and only task is keeping the bike moving forward on the trail. I can do that only when I strategically and intentionally focus on the path ahead and resist losing focus because of distractions around me. The same is true when leading a school or any other organization. In leadership, my sole responsibility is keeping the school moving forward along a particular path. If I allow myself to become distracted, if my eyes stray from the path, the results will not be good. This is especially true because as a school leader I never what surprises the days and weeks ahead hold for my school, my  stakeholders and me. On the trail, distractions can be beautiful things like flowing water or colorful flowers, and distractions can be unpleasant things like low-hanging branches or deep ravines. Likewise, distractions for a school leader can be great things like championships and test scores, and distractions can be not-so-great things like disgruntled stakeholders or organizational instability. Either way, because handlebars follow eyes, my school can get off track if I allow myself to become distracted.

As a school leader, an extra level of difficulty lies with the challenge of keeping everyone else in the building similarly focused only on the path ahead. If things get off track when I lose focus, imagine the consequences of a building full of teachers and/or students also losing focus.

With a mountain bike on the trails or with a leadership position in a school or other organization, handlebars follow eyes. We must stay focused on the path ahead and not allow ourselves to become distracted by things that might divert our attention and cause us – and perhaps the entire organization – to wander off the path. No matter how treacherous or daunting the path may seem, staying on the path beats the heck out of wandering off the path, colliding with an immovable object or careening into a ravine.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What School Leaders Can Learn from Baylor Coach Art Briles' Rants Against the CFP and the Big 12

If, at any point in the last 24 hours, you've been paying the slightest bit of attention to the world of NCAA football, or even browsing social media, you probably know that today the NCAA unveiled the teams who will compete in the first-ever College Football Playoff system (a four-team, two-round playoff to determine an undisputed NCAA national champion). The first three teams announced (Alabama, Oregon, Florida State) would have been on most everyone's list of teams who deserved to be in the CFP. The fourth pick... not so easy. While the selection committee landed on Ohio State as the fourth and final participant in the CFP, two schools from Texas had legitimate arguments as to why they should have been considered for the final spot: TCU and Baylor.

If you aren't a sports fan, Bear with me... This is not a post about sports or football.

On Saturday, December 6, the Baylor Bears took care of business against 9th-ranked Kansas State. After the game, Baylor's fiery coach, Art Briles, made a pretty passionate argument for why Baylor should be in the CFP. You can watch that on-field, post-game interview below.

As if he couldn't get more fired up, Briles confronted the Big 12 commissioner and blasted the Big 12 Conference about how a conference whose slogan this year was "One True Champion," could declare TCU and Baylor co-champions. Briles said, You know, if you're going to slogan around and say there's 'One True Champion,' all the sudden you're gonna go out the back door instead of going out the front? Don't say one thing and do another." Briles went on to say later, "I'm not obligated to [Big 12 Commissioner Bowlsby]. I'm obligated to Baylor University and our football team." Briles appeared Sunday morning on ESPN and further made his case for being in the CFP and further knocked the scenario created by the Big 12.

Looking through the lens of football only, Briles' rants may seem like the bitterness of a coach on the outside looking in at a football party to which he was not invited. With no lens at all, perhaps Briles' words seem to come from a place of anger or even insubordination. However, looking at Briles' behavior through a leadership lens creates an entirely different perspective. 

image from
Art Briles has taken Baylor Football from the doormat of the Big 12 to the doorstep of the NCAA national championship hunt. Certainly he's done this with brilliant execution of his X's and O's game plans, but we can't discount the role his leadership ability has played in Baylor's ascension to the top of the Big 12. Anyone who knows what's been happening with Baylor University and Baylor Football knows that coaches, players, students, donors and football fans are devoted to Briles. His coaches and his players would run through walls for the former high school football coach who charms with his Texas drawl. Why does everyone adore Art Briles? Consider one of the statements quoted above: "I'm not obligated to [Big 12 Commissioner Bowlsby]. I'm obligated to Baylor University and our football team." Briles has earned undying devotion because he is willing to stand up for his team, willing to take heat for his team, and, if necessary, willing to go to the mat for his team and the university they represent.

A school leader often find himself in situations where he must quietly take bullets from many directions, including from above. A school leader often must enforce directives, instructions, policies or procedures he dislikes, and often must abide by philosophies and ideas of which he does not approve. However, there are times when a school leader must tip-toe (or, as Art Briles has done, dash full-speed) out to the edge of the dangerzone and speak up on behalf of those he serves and leads. When a school leader can do this passionately and authentically, even if it means drawing the ire of those above him, his team will rally. His team will go to the mat for him just as he went to the mat for them. 

What Art Briles said about the CFP and the Big 12 had absolutely no bearing on the selection committee's final decision. Briles probably knew that ahead of time. However, Briles publicly and passionately challenged the system on behalf of his school and his team. By standing in the gap for his school and his team, he furthered cemented his position as a leader who has the undying support of those who coach and play for him. A school leader would do well to follow Art Briles' example and take a stand for those he leads. In return he will earn the trust and devotion of his own team. When a school leader has that kind of devotion from his team, he can take them from being doormats to being on the doorstep of greatness and beyond.