“Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

CC Photo Credit

Sydney Crosby, Rory McIlroy, Rafeal Nadal, Lindsey Vonn, Dr. Atul Gawande, Itzhak Perlman, and Usain Bolt share a number of commonalities. Each has reached the upper echelon of their chosen profession — be it sports, music, or medicine.  Yet, despite being at the pinnacle of their individual professions, recognized as true models of excellence, they each also have a coach.

As an educator, my professional practice has been shifting away from the traditional paradigm of a teacher, to become more of an instructional coach for the students who bound into school each day.  As an educator, much of my day is spent offering and developing specific, targeted, and deliberate practice / feedback so that students can develop the depth and breadth of abilities they will require for future success.  Simply, learners improve by working on what they are not good at.

I would like to see more of an instructional coaching model help improve my professional practice, shape the growth and development of my profession, and ultimately strengthen student learning.  Teaching and learning is simply too complex to be able to be successful in isolation.  Without another set of eyes, offering a different perspective, people are unable to achieve and maintain their personal best.  The idea that once you graduate, from something like middle school, high school, university, driver’s ed, or cooking school, that you no longer require instruction, is simply outdated.

CC Photo Credit

As an educator, I know that I will always have something to work on.  As a professional, I recognize that each of my colleagues will always have something to work on.  As an educational leader, I will always value the role coaching contributes to the journey of continuous improvement.  As the husband of a learning coach, I see the importance of letting teacher’s, like students, take ownership for learning and choose their individualized path; be it keeping a mini-lesson truly mini, developing improved questioning, making better use of assessment data, organizing better collaborative meetings, or adopting new classroom management strategies.  The list is and should be, truly endless.

I see coaching being an essential role of every school administrator.  The most effective learning leaders are those who observe, judge, and help facilitate professional learning.  They enable their colleagues to become more competent; to move through the four stages of competence.

It’s certainly true that some background knowledge and expertise is important to be an effective coach, but the best players do not necessarily make the best coaches.  The great violinist, Itzhak Perlman is a case in point.  His wife is his coach.  Coaches don’t need to know it all.

“She is an extra ear.” She’d tell him if a passage was too fast or too tight or too mechanical—if there was something that needed fixing. Sometimes she has had to puzzle out what might be wrong, asking another expert to describe what she heard as he played”.

Gehry Excellence

CC Photo Credit

It is in this context that I find myself wondering, how do principals and headmasters stay at their best?  I think looking to the world of sports, medicine and the model that already exists in education, offers great opportunity. Instructional coaches are becoming increasingly common in our schools.  Perhaps it is time that formal educational leaders tap into the potential that coaching offers to further support their work.

To close, I wanted to leave you with one of my favourite quotations. It’s one of the values that my family emphasized while I was growing up and is one that I hope to impart in my three sons, and the kids who I work with every day.

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

I’ve never really known who originated the quote, but according to a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, it’s attributed to one of the great Greek philosophers.  Thanks to coaches like Maggie Moon, Pam Harper, Justin Medved, and Tom Baker, I know that coaching helps ensure that the work you do is your personal best, helps a school strive towards excellence,  and helps improve student learning.

Hey, Coach!


Originally Posted October 2010

Last night was a great night.  I spent a wonderful two hours under the lights, on a lush green pitch, in a very arid Saudi Arabia, starting to learn how to be a little league soccer coach.  For the past two years, I have “supposedly” been coaching my son’s soccer teams.  In reality, the actual coaching was left to those who ran practice, introduced specific skills, and gave timely feedback.  My turn as coach, came in on game days and I’d have to characterize my role as more of a cheerleader, moderator, medic, and “cat herder” than coach.

Throughout my training session, I couldn’t help but see strong parallels between my role as a soccer coach and my daily life as an elementary teacher.  The soccer skills program has a clearly defined set of skills that are outlined over time, and build upon skills that already exist.  The program was designed with the end in mind, has success criteria that are specific, easy to understand, and of a high standard.  A scope and sequence is in place, and timely feedback is expected.  There is even a common lesson structure :

  • explain what to do
  • model what to do
  • have the kids do it
  • provide precise, immediate corrective feedback
  • allow opportunities for repeated practice
  • when they can do it, move on

Is this the type of learning environment you’d expect for yourself or your family?  Is this a type of learning environment that you’d be interested in joining?  Does this remind you of any school that you know?

As a literacy teacher, like many of my colleagues, I’ve adopted a workshop model for instruction, and my reading and writing lessons have a similar lesson structure to those my son’s soccer practices.  As hard as it is, I strive to keep my mini lessons, “mini” — allowing myself 10 -12 minutes to explain and model the lesson’s focus.  I know that any longer, and  “ … teacher talk results in cognitive overload, student anxiety, and valuable information going in one ear and out the other.” (Jones)  Most of my class time is spent with kids having the opportunity to independently practice and grow particular concepts or skills.  To become a better readers, students need to read.  To become better writers, students need to write.  Like an effective soccer coach, my role is to closely watch my students and provide timely complimentary and corrective individual feedback.  Conferences and guided flexible groupings allow me do to this.  The power of conferencing with students and talking to them about their learning is clearly effective.

I find myself reflecting on my professional practice, wondering how lessons from youth soccer transfer from the pitch into the classroom or school, and thinking about how schools compare to youth soccer.  I wonder how many schools have a clearly articulated, guaranteed, and viable curriculum like the soccer program?  How can I do a better job of providing timely, individualized, corrective feedback to my students like I do at soccer?   Feedback at soccer certainly drives instruction.  As a teacher, are my assessments primarily OF learning or FOR learning?  During a curriculum course at the PTC in Miami this summer, we discussed agreed upon instructional strategies and the power of common lesson structures.  They are in place at the soccer academy.  Could I say the same about the different teams, divisions, and schools where I’ve worked?  What about other international schools?

Taking the time to coach little league soccer is great.  Not only am I learning a lot about coaching and soccer, but it is helping me reflect on my professional life, grow as an educator, and most importantly, I get to spend time with my son doing something that he loves.

CC Photo Credit