Volume XXXVIII, No. 14 | April 29, 2016
Educating Through Coaching: Defining Your Role and Instilling a Dynamic Classroom Environment
“Pressure Is a Privilege.”—Billie Jean King
Think back to the very first moment you received confirmation that you are officially a “teacher.” Whether that was an affirming call from your department’s dean, an email from your college’s human resources department, or a handshake with the person who just finished interviewing you, each of these moments signify the split second your world has changed forever. Aside from the hustle and bustle that comes from needing to fill out freshly-printed new employee forms, scheduling orientation sessions, and developing your course syllabi, the most important element you need to meticulously plan, develop, and prepare is YOU!
What kind of teacher will you be—the “strict one” who rigorously challenges students, or a “pushover” who gives out easy A’s to keep your class numbers high? How will you dress—what type of image do you want to portray to your students? How will you ask your students to address you—by your first name, “Professor,” “Mr./Ms.,” something else? What kinds of rules will you enforce within your classroom? Sure, your college has specific guidelines for everyone to follow, but what will be your specific attendance policy or procedure for handling it if a student breaks the cardinal rule of educational professionalism: plagiarism/cheating? How will you create a classroom environment that not only captures students’ attention and fosters learning, but most importantly, allows your students to retain the information you teach them?
While one can methodically attempt to prepare for every little detail leading up to the first day of class, nothing will prepare a teacher for the rollercoaster ride of student-related factors that stem from aspects outside of your classroom that you cannot control. As a former head coach for an NJCAA Division 1 Women’s Sports team, I learned—fast—that the title you have after your name does not even scratch the surface of the role you play in your students’ lives. You see, while the plaques in my office read “Coach of the Year,” they actually should say: “Coach/Parent/Friend/Disciplinarian/Listener/Mentor/Educator of the Year.” Think about each of these words; think about their role, connotation, and effectiveness. Now think about a teacher who has made a difference in your life. Would you apply any of these words to him or her, or would you just limit that person’s role to the term “teacher?” More likely than not, the teachers who are standing out for you embody some, if not all, of the abovementioned words.
With this in mind, I would like to digress for a moment to share a story about my first two weeks at the helm of a collegiate sports team.
It was the first day of August, and the weather was, as expected, warm. I had just returned to the office after walking off the courts from the first day of tryouts. I had just seen a diligent group of college freshmen working very hard outside in the August heat. No complaints; all raring-to-go attitudes. I remember thinking to myself, “This is a good group of recruits. We will do alright this season.”
The next day I get to practice and find out that one of the athletes will not be there. After lecturing about a strict attendance policy just the day before, I was quite unnerved by the seemingly blatant form of disrespect. However, I shook it off and focused on the people who were standing in front of me and waiting to begin the second day in the heat. To my surprise, by the end of practice, the player (who originally did not attend) showed up completely disheveled—she had gotten into a car accident the day before. Thankfully it was not too serious, but my heart still sank for her. We began the process of unrattling her nerves and focusing on school and the upcoming season.
A couple of days later, I received a phone call that two more athletes would not attend practice. A bit more prepared, I expected the worst, but hoped for the best. As it turned out, these two players had also gotten into a minor car accident. Three student-athletes, three car accidents, and all in a span of about a week.
Just when I thought our team’s luck could not get any worse, the day before our first game, I received another phone call that a fourth player had gotten into a minor car accident. Mind you, I only had seven athletes on my squad. And four of them had been involved with car accidents—all in the initial two-and-a-half weeks of my first season as a head collegiate coach. I thought for sure someone had a voodoo doll out for our team. Despite all of this, I had to learn to no longer be the coach who made my players run laps and do drills. They—the ones who had suffered from the car accidents and the three who were left wondering what could possibly happen next—needed more from me than that. The events made me more empathetic as a coach, and us more unified as a team. We went on to lose only one game the entire season.
While on my resume it does not look like “Head College Coach” is relevant for a “Professor” position, it is this very title that has shaped my entire teaching pedagogy. I do not consider myself as a coach-turned-teacher, but rather as a teacher who coaches her students. With the notion of simultaneously being a coach, parent, friend, disciplinarian, listener, mentor, andeducator, I shape my teaching style in a way that can be adaptable to all my students. Here are some simple, yet highly effective, ways that you can, too.
I began this piece with a quote from tennis legend Billie Jean King. She stated, “Pressure is a privilege.” For me, this phrase is the epitome of our role—from professors to coaches to administration—in education. We are under a great deal of pressure to not only teach our students, but also to retain them. Think about the dropout rates of colleges across America, or even on a smaller scale, the number of classes that get cancelled due to low student enrollment. Especially in higher education, we are under a great deal of pressure to make sure our students succeed. With this pressure comes great responsibility. But you know what, with our jobs—especially as educators—we are privileged to have the opportunity to work with our students and see them use what we teach them in society. After all, isn’t that the point of why our students go to college in the first place: to get some type of degree or obtain a certain skill set so they are prepared for the real world? It may be game time, and there may be pressure on the line, but consider yourself privileged to be in a position to be there, at the very least, as a coach who is motivating your students by speaking to their diverse set of learning styles. But more than likely, as a person who is applying diverse roles as a parent, friend, disciplinarian, listener, mentor, and educator for your students to succeed.
Nicole Selvaggio, Adjunct Professor, English/Composition
For further information, please contact the author at Moraine Valley Community College, 9000 W. College Pkwy, Palos Hills, IL 60465-2478. Email: email@example.com
When teachers tell me about some new strategy or approach they’ve implemented, I usually ask how they found out about it and almost always get the same response: “Oh, a colleague told me about it.” I continue to be amazed by the amount of pedagogical knowledge that is shared verbally (and electronically) between colleagues.
And I’m equally impressed by the spirit of sharing. Even if it’s an idea I thought up myself, one I’ve spent time and energy developing that I could ostensibly copyright or patent, if you want to use it—go right ahead. It’s yours. There are no intellectual property rights on good teaching ideas, and that’s a beautiful part of our culture.
Some new and impressive research verifies the strong role social interaction plays in our exchange of pedagogical knowledge. The study has a very specific context involving an elaborate interview design. The researchers collected data from 35 physics faculty members at a range of institutions. They were asked about their understanding and use of Peer Instruction, capitalized because it refers not to generic student collaboration but rather to the protocol of individual answer, discussion, answer again, developed by Harvard physicist and educator Eric Mazur (and highlighted in a previous Teaching Professor blog post). Almost 60% of those interviewed said they had first heard about Peer Instruction via an informal discussion with a colleague. Only 8% said they had found out about it by reading, however many of those interviewed noted that they turn to written materials and presentations to deepen their understanding.
The researchers report that “Informal, social interactions among colleagues are a key mechanism of communication about reforms” (010110-14). But there are some downsides to learning about teaching through conversations with colleagues. The researchers identified nine features that characterize Mazur’s brand of Peer Instruction, and they queried faculty about each. They discovered that almost half of their cohort, who had been selected because they reported familiarity with Peer Instruction, “did not indicate awareness of any specific features of PI [Peer Instruction] beyond getting students to work together.” (101011-9)
When pedagogical innovations are passed from someone who got the idea from someone else, the fidelity of the information is bound to erode. The point isn’t that faculty must use an instructional approach exactly as it was originally prescribed. We teach different content and different types of students in unique instructional settings. But as these researchers point out, when an instructional intervention, such as Peer Instruction (or team-based learning, or cooperative learning, or lots of others), has been studied but some of its essential features are modified or removed, the results identified in the research may not occur. It’s now up to the teacher to ascertain whether the new form of the intervention is producing the desired effects.
Three final points: We can and do learn from each other, but when it comes to implementing something new, we should look beyond what we’ve heard about from others. Fortunately, there’s a treasure trove of information on almost every instructional intervention. It’s fine to go ahead and adapt these different approaches to teaching—to do what we think needs to be done to make the change work—but as the researchers discovered, the faculty in their cohort was making changes pretty much willy-nilly. True, there probably isn’t going to be a readily available study that explores the changes exactly as you’re proposing to make them, but there is likely more to be learned from others who implemented the innovation as well as from those who’ve studied it.
We often get after our students who try to participate in discussion without enough background knowledge, related experience, or having done the reading. The lack of preparation affects the quality of the discussion. The same critique could be leveled against us. If all our pedagogical exchanges happen on the fly as we pass each other in the hall or pause in the mailroom, we’re not having conversations that match the caliber of what we’re trying to accomplish in the classroom. We can and should be learning more from each other.
And finally, here’s a point I’ve made previously. We need to choose pedagogical colleagues carefully. We select our research partners by employing high standards, but pedagogical colleagues? Too often we exchange ideas with and obtain information from whomever happens to be nearby. But not all teachers have the same level of pedagogical wisdom. You will learn more from someone who knows more.
Reference: Dancy, M., Henderson, C., & Turpen, C. (2016). How faculty learn about and implement research-based instructional strategies: The case of Peer Instruction. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12, 010110.