Monday, July 7, 2014

Helping Teachers Avoid (And Recover From) The Big Miss

Most days I wear two hats: principal and dad. I've been a dad a few years longer than I've been a principal, but some days I'm not sure which is more challenging. Today provides a great example.

When my son - an average golfer - plays in tournaments, I love nothing more than riding along in my cart and watching him for nine or eighteen holes. Because I know nothing about the mechanics of the golf swing, I couldn't offer him advice during the course of play even if I wanted to assist him. I do try to help him with some of the mental aspects of the game off the course, though. Specifically, I draw on my coaching background to help him understand mental toughness and dealing with adversity, among other things.

One of the things he and I have discussed numerous times, based largely on Hank Haney's book The Big Miss, is the importance of what Haney calls **"The Big Miss." Golf is a game of misses. Even pros miss fairways, greens in regulation, and putts, but Haney says the key lies in avoiding "The Big Miss." For example, missing a fairway by a few feet or yards may not necessarily spell disaster for a golfer. Missing a fairway by landing your ball on the fairway of a different hole... yes, that's a "Big Miss" and that's a problem. A "Big Miss" can be problematic in its own right, but a "Big Miss" often causes an undisciplined golfer to make a second mistake while trying to correct the "Big Miss," then another and so on, until an ugly 8, 9 or 10 lands on the scorecard.

As I watched my son make two "Big Misses" on separate holes this morning, I knew I could do absolutely nothing but sit and watch. Even if I had wanted to, even if I had known what to tell him, the rules of golf tournament play prohibit my strolling onto the course and calling a timeout to offer advice. Sure enough, after his each of his "Big Misses," he made costly mistake after costly mistake trying to compensate for the "Big Miss." Do I even need to tell you that those two holes inflated his score like a balloon?

Even when I have on my dad hat, I often have my principal hat on at the same time. The two "Big Misses" and the helpless feeling I had sitting on the cart path today reminded me of teachers and the possibility of teacher-style "Big Misses"  during the school year (i.e. poor choice of words with a student or class, an ill-advised email home, poor preparation and execution of a parent conference, poor judgment with grading, poor execution of a unit, failing to reteach when necessary, etc.). Thankfully, I know reasonably more about teaching, learning and school than I do about golf. As principals, we must. Like other principals, my job centers on making teachers better and helping them avoid not only the "Big Miss" but also costly mistakes that can follow in the wake of a "Big Miss." Principals do this through meaningful professional development, strategic and intentional conversations, suggesting reading(s), encouraging collaboration, providing meaningful feedback after observations, and more. Even with great coaching, though, teachers occasionally suffer the "Big Miss." Principals see "Big Misses" most often from new or inexperienced teachers but, like golfers, no one is immune to the "Big Miss" (principals included).

The major difference between my position this morning and the position of principals is this: while I had no way of calling a timeout to help after a "Big Miss" on the golf course, a principal has the opportunity and, in fact, the obligation to stroll calmly onto the proverbial golf course and do whatever is necessary to help. It goes without saying that if a principal is to coach the teacher out of the jam, he must first be able to identify not only the "Big Miss" but also the mistake that caused it. A principal may need to give a teacher a do-over with no penalty. A principal may need to talk the teacher through what the next step or steps need to be. A principal may need to carry the teacher's clubs for a while (figuratively, of course). A principal may need to spend time one-on-one with the teacher on the fundamentals, the approach, the mental game or some other issue. Truly, there's no limit to what a great principal will do to coach and support a teacher. The important thing is that a principal never sits in the comfort of the cart on the shaded cart path and mark penalty strokes on the scorecard.

**The Big Miss serves as a great analogy for life as well as for golf. The book chronicle's Haney's experiences with Tiger Woods, but Haney offers both golf lessons and life lessons in the book. I recommend it for golfers and non-golfers alike. Great read.

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