It has often been said that good coaches are good teachers. Indeed, good coaches teach their players how to practice, manage their time, work with their teammates, handle adversity, etc. But, after more than ten years of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that one of the major problems with our educational system is that teachers do far too little coaching.

What do I mean by coaching?

First of all, I am not suggesting that teachers should go all Bobby Knight on their students, though I sometimes see the allure. OK, to be honest, I have dreamed of cutting lose with a profanity-laced tirade while I am handing back a batch of mediocre papers. “You will not put me through another round of papers like the last ones. You will think the grades I gave last time were (expletive) generous if you continue to hand in this (expletive). . . .” I did once tell my students that, “I don’t see any blood, I don’t see any sweat, I don’t see any tears in these (existentialism) papers,” and proceeded to throw them all over the front desk. The subsequent papers were better, but I don’t think my theatrics rose above the level of entertainment.

Good coaches are able to motivate their pupils because they form deep relationships with them. Sometimes that does mean getting in someone’s grill, though I don’t think there is ever a need for Knight’s pedagogical techniques. Other times it means encouraging or putting your arms around a player. A good coach knows when to step in and when to step back. Knight, for example, often refused to call a timeout because he wanted to let his players to solve the problems they had created.

The point is that a good coach knows what buttons to push because she or he has an intimate relationship with his players. That is when the most effective classroom teaching occurs, too.

I was taking German in the ninth grade and the teacher (believe it or not his name was Herr Algae) and I talked about sports after almost every class. He warned all of us that we needed to spend at least an hour a night doing homework, but I wasn’t even coming close. In fact, I didn’t even study for the first exam because I was watching Monday Night Football (the Raiders beat the Chiefs, if memory serves). I got the C- I deserved, but what stunned me–and changed my life–was the way Herr Algae laid into me, in front of the whole class.

“Kenny got a C- because he was watching Monday Night Football,” he announced, and then warned, “I am going to continue to announce his grades out loud until he gets his priorities in order.” He never had to make good on that threat because I started doing by damn homework. I knew he was right and that I would never allow myself to be embarrassed like that again.

I took German with Herr Algae for four years. Lots of other students did poorly on exams, but I was the only one he ever publicly called out. Why? Why did he single out me and ignore all the others? My best educated guess is that he took that chance because he had taken the time to get to know me. He knew that I was underachieving and he believed I would respond to, rather than run from, his blunt criticism. The relationship we formed outside of the classroom allowed him to coach me.

I am not blaming teachers for this failure.

I teach ethics and focus on the big questions: What is happiness? How should one attempt to come to terms with tragic suffering? How does the Holocaust differ from other genocides? What can we do to stave off the possibility of ecological catastrophe? I would like to think I compel students to think about their place in the world, but what I do rarely rises to the level of coaching. I may reach the few students a quarter who come to office hours (the ones who are doing more than angling for a better grade), but the other 55 in each class seem all too happy to settle for a lecture. They don’t want to be pushed, let alone risk embarrassment.

Our classrooms are too bloated and many of the students simply don’t care enough about what they are being taught. We live in a society where more than 100 million people tune in for the Super Bowl while most don’t ever watch C-Span. They volunteer to play sports but only take courses like mine because they are required. I am happy that a lot of coaches get a chance to mold so many young women and men, but it would be nice if coaching also played a pivotal role in the classroom.

~ Ken Pendleton