Saturday, May 23, 2015

Excerpt from What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches - The Game Has Changed

Below is an excerpt from my newest book, What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches, 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


“Athletes and people are happiest when they are improving… You are either getting better or you are getting worse… I find it really tough at any level, but especially with an Olympian that’s no longer getting any better and not improving… we have to deal with some tough stuff. We do whatever we can – with technology, with feedback, with multiple coaches coming from different angles – to keep them improving, because that’s when they are performing at their best.” Marv Dunphy, member of the Volleyball Hall of Fame, Five-Time NCAA National Champion as Head Coach of Pepperdine University Men’s Volleyball, and Gold Medal Winner as Head Coach of the 1988 Olympic Team

The Game Has Changed…

            The game has changed. What game, you ask? Well, virtually every game in the modern sports world has changed since its inception. For some sports, rules have changed, gameplay has changed, equipment has changed, scoring has changed and even the length of the season has changed. The three point line in basketball, the designated hitter in baseball, and the forward pass in football each have irreversibly changed their respective sports. For other sports, the players today are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before, and the very nature of those particular sports have been forever altered because of the changes in the athletes. Usain Bolt in track and field, Lionel Messi in soccer, Tiger Woods in golf, Michael Phelps in swimming, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Brittney Griner in basketball have elevated the level of “excellence” to new heights in their respective sports. Additionally, many nuances of the major sports have changed.
            To be a successful in the sports world today, a good coach must understand change. He not only must acknowledge that his sport changes but also must take measures to keep up with the changes. He must be willing to change his practice approach and his game plan. He must be willing to approach players differently. He must be willing to approach every aspect of the game differently. If there is a coach today using the same approach, same game plan and same practice plan he did twenty years ago, chances are that his program ranks somewhere other than at the top. Because rules, equipment, scoring and even players have changed through the years, no good coach would stubbornly resist change and refuse to stay current. Imagine a basketball coach running the same plays he used before the introduction of the three-point line.
A good coach works hard to stay on top of how his particular sport continues to change or he simply gets passed by. An NCAA or National Football League defensive coordinator better put in extra time to understand how the New Orleans Saints and the Baylor Bears, engineered by Sean Payton and Art Briles, respectively, have changed the game of football offensively. A National Hockey League coach better work hard to find a way to approach Ken Hitchcock’s frustrating, defense-first style of hockey. Coaches who do not keep up with other programs’ innovations will become obsolete very quickly.
            As with the world of sports, the world of education has changed. Historically, education has changed very little until very recently. The stand-and-deliver model of teaching by lecture dominated education for centuries, dating back to the advent of universities hundreds of years ago. Even late into the 20th century and beyond, such obsolete pedagogy has managed to hang on for dear life in some schools even though the world outside the classroom walls has been changing at an incredible rate. In recent years however, the rules of education have changed, the art of teaching has changed, scoring and assessment have changed, the length of the days and years have changed, and even the students have changed. Imagine a teacher teaching science the way she taught it in the 1970s, or history, or art. Inconceivable! For a good teacher, these changes present opportunities to change with the times and explore new and exciting best practices.
            A good teacher understands that both teaching and learning have changed. Whereas classrooms once were cutting edge with one Apple IIe for students to share, many classrooms today have tablets or laptops in every student’s hands. Classrooms of days gone by used sticks of chalk with chalk boards or black boards, while today’s classrooms often boast interactive whiteboards. Blended classes, digital textbooks, state standardized testing, increasingly competitive college admissions, scores of proprietary curriculum choices, Advanced Placement courses and more have changed not only what teachers teach but how they teach. Similarly, what students learn and how they learn have changed. Research has shown repeatedly that the one-size-fits-all assembly-line method of educating students used so much throughout the 20th century leads to disinterest and disengagement with 21st century kids.
A good teacher recognizes that today’s students differ even from students ten years ago. Today’s students are more plugged in than ever. Today’s students have different life goals than students a generation ago. Today’s students face a future that is more uncertain than ever before and employment statistics that are far from encouraging. As a result, what students need in the classroom varies greatly from what students needed in past generations. A good teacher changes her game plan, or lesson plans, to accommodate these changing needs. Because students’ needs have changed and because the ways students’ learn best have changed, a good teacher stays current on changes in teaching and learning by reading, researching, observing others and experimenting with new approaches.
            A good teacher, unafraid to change with the times, rewrites his game plan as often as necessary in order to stay current with best practices. In terms of teaching quality, experience can be priceless. As recent research shows, however, there exists no direct correlation between teacher experience and teacher effectiveness. This largely results from career educators’ inability or desire not to change and update their game plans to give todays’ students what they need. The best teacher in any given building may or may not be the most experienced teacher. The best teacher in the building, though, will not be the one using the same yellowed notes he used three decades ago. The best teacher in the building will not be the one using the same exams he used back when mimeograph machines with purple toner were all the rage. The best teacher in the building will not be the one who has memorized all the lectures and can deliver them with no notes or outlines in front of him. As with coaches who hold on too long to the old ways of doing things, quite possibly, the game of teaching has passed some of these teachers by, thus rendering them obsolete in the 21st century classroom. The best teacher in the building, regardless of years of experience, does what all good teachers do: he evaluates his game plan often and rewrites his game plan as often as necessary to accommodate the changing needs of the students and the changing landscape of the real world and does not cling to obsolete pedagogies.
            Perhaps baseball coach John Cohen of Mississippi State University sums this up best. Having led his Bulldogs to not only the College World Series finals in 2013 but also to the most wins in program history in a season, Cohen understands that change and evolution are crucial to continued success. He says of his own coaching and teaching journey, “… the six most dangerous words in the English language: We’ve always done it this way. That’s dangerous because the world is changing. If we were doing it the same way that I was doing it as a young coach 20 years ago, we’d be doing the program a huge disservice. It’s a challenge to make sure you’re constantly evolving.” As Cohen will testify, the challenge certainly is worth it, for you and for those you teach.
Keeping mind that the game has changed, and will continue to change, the obvious question is, “Will you?”

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.