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What can teachers learn from a good coach?

December 21, 2013

In the October 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review, Anita Elberse interviewed Sir Alex Ferguson, the famous and accomplished coach and manager of Manchester United, the English football (soccer) club considered by many to be one of the most successful sport’s franchises in the world.  Her interview, Ferguson’s Formula, covers Sir Ferguson’s eight principles or lessons for being an effective leader of an organization.   While all eight lessons offer great insight into the process of effective leadership, I wanted to focus on his first lesson which is extremely relevant to teachers, who assume the role of coach to his or her students.  By the way, Ms. Elberse’s preparation for this article involved extensive interviews with Sir Ferguson and other people he works with, as well as observations over a period of time.  From her work, she developed a case study for a Harvard Business School class on leadership that she teaches.

His first lesson is “start with the foundation.” (see page 118)  As Ms. Elberse describes Sir Ferguson came to United Manchester to build a club not just a team.  From his experience, he knew that if he built a strong foundation of youth football then young people would aspire to develop their skills, strive to fulfill their dreams, and contribute to the larger goal he envisioned.  This quote from the interview with Sir Ferguson illustrates his personal philosophy.

I always take great pride in seeing younger players develop.  The job of a manager, like that of a teacher, is to inspire people to be better.  Give them better technical skills, make them winners, make them better people, and they can go anywhere in life.  When you give young people a chance, you not only create a longer life span for the team, you also create loyalty.  They will always remember that you were the manager who give them their first opportunity.  Once they know you are batting for them, they will accept you way.  You’re really fostering a sense of family.  If you give young people your attention and an opportunity to succeed, it is amazing how much they will surprise you. (page 118)

When I think of teachers, most importantly the excellent teachers I had as a student or as colleagues, I am struck by how similar Sir Ferguson’s description is with my own experiences.  He references that his job as a manager was not unlike the job of a teacher working with a classroom full of students.  In that sense, it is our job as teachers to give all our students a chance to learn.  Help make them become “winners” and “better people.”

On the website, How Youth Learn, the book, The Motivation Equation, assembles some powerful ideas for how teachers can motivate students to learn and become “winners.”  This book offers insights supported by current research from neuroscience, child psychology, and educational theory.  Throughout the book, they link thoughts about what motivates students to student interviews that probe for answers to why they are motivated with certain teachers or in certain classes.  The fictional character in the book, Ned, references his eight conditions that facilitate every child being “ready to learn.”  They are:

I feel okay (I feel safe)

It matters (The curriculum is relevant and interesting)

It’s active (I am asked to do things)

It stretches me (but not too much)

I have a coach (the teacher coaches me)

I have to use it (apply what I learned in new and interesting ways)

I think back on it (I am given time to reflect on what I learn)

I plan my next steps (where will I go with what I learn)

It strikes me this list of eight conditions helps ‘ready’ a student to learn.  We give students a fighting chance to master the content and skills if we adhere to these eight conditions in designing our lessons.  It always comes back to providing students with relevant curricula that has meaning to them and invites them to actively engage with the ideas.  Once engaged, we have to stretch them, as well as put them in positions to use what they learn.  As the learning process unfolds, we also need to give them time to reflect and revise.  Finally, offer them the opportunity to decide where they will go with what they have learned.  In some respects, this is a learning cycle that offers the best chance for students to become confident “winners.”  With individual success at learning comes a sense-of-self that is motivated to contribute more to the learning environment.  The potential is for students to become “better people” as a result.

We all need a good coach to help us navigate the challenges we confront.  We should strive to coach our classrooms the way Sir Alex Ferguson coached Manchester United football using Ned’s eight conditions for designing our classrooms.

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