The Magic is in the Cutback….

When I coached running backs, I always used the phrase “the magic is in the cutback”.  The meaning is that while an offensive play was always sound on paper, and with strategic and well-practiced execution would yield a successful outcome, the magical play came when the runner took the basic play, and added talent, awareness, vision and skill to see the cutback opening and turn a solid gain into a scoring play.

This concept acts as a perfect metaphor for the relationship between a sound curriculum, well-executed instruction, and a scoring learning experience.   Any coach worth his/her salt can draw a play that works on paper. The skilled coach can drill and practice the play, but the truly inspiring educator can connect with his/her players to work to infuse the athlete’s talent into the process thus making the play magical.   The same holds true in the classroom.

A good teacher can take a solid curriculum and get basic, sound results.  But the skilled and inspiring teacher can deliver high quality instruction to students with whom he/she is strongly connected to create the magical learning experience.  There is such variety in curricular programs, and oftentimes, we allow ourselves to be romanticized by the marketing of some of them.  In high quality schools, where everyone in the building is invested in achieving the mission of the school, the difference is not in the curricular options, but in the execution of instruction.  A nimble thinker can take the basics, add creativity, passion, and enthusiasm to the process that is shared through a strong relationship to yield the magical, scoring, winning experience.

Centers, stations, grouping, and targeting

Regardless of the mission, approach, philosophies or goals of a school, all schools seek to provide high quality instruction and experiences from which our students will grow and succeed.   While the definition of “growth” and “success” will vary, at their core, instructional strategies don’t need to be mutually exclusive to a particular type of school.  Traditional, progressive, parochial, public, Montessori, urban, rural, boarding- it does not matter. Quality instruction is quality instruction.  The most creative, passionate, attuned, nimble,  and skillful teachers will thrive regardless of environment.

Increasingly in the last score years, the heterogeneity of classroom populations has led to the evolution of instructional strategies aimed at meeting each student where she/he is, crafting activities and practices that nurture continued growth, and increasing attention to the development of skills we extrapolate as being integral in our future (21st Century Skills etc.).

With the advancements in technology, and the growing application of flipped classroom practices, using grouping strategies in the classroom to meet each student where he/she is has become easier to manage for teachers.  Creating centers or stations, and grouping students according to a variety of criteria or methods, and then targeting specific skills or expectations to reach within those groups, utilizing an instruction or activity within a set amount of time is increasingly accessible in educational environs.  In fact, due to the growing accessibility of such practices, for which their is an ever-expanding body of research that supports the effectiveness of them,  educators have a burgeoning responsibility to incorporate these strategies in their schools and classrooms.

While change can be hard, especially for veteran teachers who grasp onto their traditional practices (which remain effective), the onus is on educational leaders to help all teachers recognize how to incorporate these strategies in ways that are comfortable, manageable, and familiar.  Just as one size doesn’t fit all when we provide instruction and activities for our students, the implementation of grouping strategies, and stations creation will vary teacher to teacher, school to school, grade level to grade level and discipline to discipline.

If you are interested in discussing how to apply some of these strategies, please drop me a note and I am happy to work with you on doing so.

A Player’s Coach On and Off the Field

I started coaching when I was still in high school;  whether it was helping train classmates for their respective sports, coaching at summer camp or working with kids in the neighborhood, I began developing my coaching style at a young age.  Fortunately, I had some great role models to emulate. Primarily, Coach Bill Long has been tremendously influential in my growth as a coach.  From him I learned professionalism, focus on a mission & preparation, and the importance of strong relationships.  After 25 years coaching athletics,   I am still coaching today, although the arena has changed from playing fields to classrooms, hallways, schools, and offices (although I still find time to get to all practices for the fall sports, and I intend on coaching our basketball teams this winter).  Likewise, my players are adults who teach, coaches who coach, students who learn, athletes who compete, and parents who advocate.  About 10 years ago, a friend gave me a book by then USA Women’s Soccer Coach Tony DiCicco called “Catch ‘Em Being Good”.   The primary message in the book is that as coaches and leaders, we must strive every day to catch our people doing great things, point those things out, praise them, show them as examples, and talk about why those things are great.  So often, the only times some leaders communicate with their people is to point out the bad, the things that need correction, in a reactive way.   Each morning when I walk onto campus, I look for every opportunity to communicate something really positive with my people.  Whether I let a teacher know how much I enjoyed a lesson (being sure to always include some very specific and anecdotal details in my praise), or taking the time to tell a student how kind or respectful he/ she was in relating to a peer or adult, or even taking a couple minutes to write an email to a parent of a student who has perhaps made a nice turnaround, or even a small improvement.  These relationship building, and equity building practices are both enjoyable for me, and important for when we have to share more challenging information.   The time spent on the front end  is well worth it.

In addition to the good climate that catching people being good creates, especially since it is an infectious practice, the approach also improves the team work among all the people in the school community.  Good relationships lead to good teamwork.  This teamwork benefits everyone- students, teachers, administration, and parents.  At the end of the day, we are in schools to help our children have the best experiences possible.  A full 360 degree support by a team of adults and peers can help us maintain such a positive climate wherein great experience can be had by our students.  DiCicco also talked about the relay paradigm in his book.  Essentially Gestalt theory, the concept is that together we can achieve more than each of us individually would achieve on our own.  Whether this achievement is academic, athletic, artistic, emotional- it matters little.  Again, the team is the powerful catalyst.

As I mentioned, catching them being good, and sharing our positive feedback makes sharing constructive feedback, or even more difficult information more palatable for those on the receiving end.  When we talk about communication with those in our community, we talk about “sandwiching” our message.  We always start with the good- the positive elements (again, using specific, anecdotal details that will resonate on a more personal level), then we share our concerns or the difficult portion of the sandwich, but ultimately, we finish with a growth-minded strategy to improve the condition.   The message is more easily digested in this way, and the practice of sharing strategies for improvement once again reinforces the team component of working together.  (*I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are some conversations that are significantly more difficult that are crafted in a different way- a topic for another post).

Finally, a key attitude that is requisite in being able to execute many of these positive emotional climate building practices is that we must be present in our day, with our people, and in our actions.  Awareness comes from being attuned to all that is happening. Good relationships come from being present- and attentive to our environs.

I have always thought myself to be a player’s coach. These approaches to my every day life have led me to continue to keep my focus on the people I work with and to always look to catch them being good.

DiCicco, T., Hacker, C., & Salzberg, C. (2002). Catch them being good. New York: Viking.