Coach’s Definition of Success

Life lessons are sometimes best told by others.

Our parents tried their best and perhaps later in life we learn to appreciate their intentions. Sometimes we don’t.

At the start of the academic year I outline classroom rules. Then I begin to share stories that best answer the question why we do what we do.

Why they’re sitting in our classroom. Why we’re at the front teaching those that are sitting.

Some years ago my colleague made a concerted effort to begin including videos that would positively impact his students. It was, naturally, a great idea that I too adopted. Students loved the break in the routine of academics, while I secretly plotted how I might make a difference in a way they weren’t expecting.

I included some of them in a past post about videos you should show your class.

One of those videos that I didn’t share was about a college basketball coach who just happened to have won more NCAA championships than any other coach before and since.

Yesterday while thinking about how to impart the lesson of doing things well to my students, I thought about the lesson this coach taught about teaching his freshmen players how to put on their socks and shoes during their first Bruins practice.

It’s a lesson about doing the simple things right. Doing right what you can control, so that the things which you can’t control have a better chance of being one’s success as well.

I looked up Coach Wooden knowing there must be more to learn and I am grateful to have found the following TED video that highlights the lessons he taught as a teacher, and not necessary what made his team a success.

Within the video are lessons that might inspire you, my fellow teachers, to continue in what I believe is our noble profession.

There are days in which it seems the classroom clock is moving much too fast as our year end assessments approach. This man has seemingly thought long and hard about what determined success in his English classroom.

Perhaps your definition and his are the same.

I hope you enjoyed it.

I’m curious what lessons he shared were impressed upon you. Which lessons resonated with you.

Please feel free to comment.

A Simple Story About A Farmer And A Pig

This is a simple story about a farmer and a pig.

Last Wednesday my class had just finished another benchmark assessment which was intended to determine who was progressing adequately according to our county’s learning objectives.

My students had taken them on laptops and gotten their results immediately, so they knew their score and knew which specific problems had stumped them.

This is the story I told to my class the next morning which I remembered first hearing from my former colleague Will. It seemed appropriate and timely.

This is a simple story about a farmer and a pig.

You see, a farmer doesn’t buy a pig or doesn’t allow a piglet to be born in his barn without a reason.

He feeds that pig and over time that pig gets larger – some would say fat.

The farmer keeps doing what he’s doing and waits it out. There’s cleaning, there’s worry about the cold or heat, and there’s quite a bit of anticipation.

And every day: food and time, food and time.

And then one day the farmer decides that enough time and feed has been fed to that now very large pig. The time has come.

The time has come to make sausage.

Because, again, the farmer doesn’t just raise that little piglet to become a very large pig because he likes pigs, or thinks pigs are cute, or is a fan of Charlotte’s Web.

The farmer instead knows that with enough time and enough food, his pig will one day be ready to become some very yummy sausage that he will use to feed his family.

Teachers are like farmers is what I told my class.

We spend a lot of time and a lot of effort on students. We spend this kind of energy because we have a goal too.

Our goal is to get you to learn and understand.

And we do it all kind of ways.

We do it by being creative in our lessons, having you help one another, and having you complete projects. We talk in front of you, tell funny stories, use videos, remind you to stay on task, and ask you a lot of questions.

We do it because we know that time will run out and if we’ve done our job, you’re supposed to know what you have been taught.

And then it will be time to make some sausage.

Except the sausage we’re making will be how you do on your SOLs.

I expect all of our effort to pay off.

I’ve worked hard every day, listened to when you didn’t understand, and tried again in a different way to help you understand better.

Now the farmer out on the farm might be able to spend some more time getting that pig ready. Maybe give that pig some more feed. Maybe wait just another couple of weeks or months.

We can’t do that here at school – and I know that might seem pretty unfair.

So instead I need you to understand that we only have so much time to finish what needs to be done.

Our day of sausage-making will be here soon and I guarantee you and I will both be disappointed if all this effort won’t have worked.

Just like you can imagine the disappointment of the farmer whose pig isn’t ready, even after caring for him for months and months.

So if you know you’re not ready to sit down in front of a computer and prove what you know answering forty questions about math or reading. If you feel like you haven’t understood it no matter how hard you’ve tried.

Well, then it’s time to spend more time asking questions and trying to understand why you don’t understand.

Oh, and let’s forget about the SOLs for a second.

If you haven’t left this classroom understanding more than when you came into this classroom in September. If you have been waiting for time to just tick on by every day instead of really trying your best. If you still aren’t kinder toward other people in this class because you’re now a whole year older than you were last year…

Do you think that you’re ready for 4th grade?

I ask each of you that question because I cared about each of you since the first day of school when you walked into our classroom. Each day since I’ve done my best to make our classroom a place you would want to come to.

If that didn’t help you get ready for what’s coming in the 4th grade then I either didn’t do my job, or you didn’t do yours.

Which do you think it is? And would it be fair to you if we sent you to the 4th grade and you weren’t ready.

This is really, just a very simple little story about a farmer and pig.

It’s about working day after day and getting ready for something much bigger. It’s about working on yourself to be better tomorrow, than you were today.

So, how will you spend today?

Faith in the Classroom

Almost every week we find ourselves in about the same place.

Four rows from the front of the auditorium, stage left.

My wife and I are fortunate to have found the type of church that when the sermon is over, we’re glad we went because the message spoke to us. It is almost always exactly what we needed, at exactly the right time.

It’s after the three songs are sung, the offering is made, and the pastor begins that I get out my phone.

Not to check Facebook or Instagram, but instead to try and keep up with the thoughts running through my head. Whatever ideas surface are jotted down.

This usually doesn’t happen immediately after the sermon begins, but after some time thinking about, well, what I’m thinking about as I try to keep listening to the message from the stage.

It’s the only time this happens during the week.

Perhaps because I get so little time to think about what’s going on in my little head.

I’ve read about listening to God’s message.

I’m no evangelist.

I don’t hold signs on your neighborhood corner. In fact I’m careful to not put others in uncomfortable positions because of my faith – I’m convinced that’s not the intent of faith.

In class I recognize that I teach in a public school and so faith doesn’t come up in conversation – as it shouldn’t.

Instead I hold it close like a great hand of poker.

When anxiety hits teachers and students alike, when those around me worry about what might be coming in the days, weeks, or months ahead, I turn to my faith. I know that I’m not alone in battling the often overwhelming feeling of panic. I have some help.

I also remind myself that what’s ahead these next few months as we get ever closer to the SOLs has been achieved before.

This isn’t my first year, this isn’t my first rodeo.

Call it an act of faith, or call it my attempt at keeping anxiety at bay. It’s what I do as the weather warms and the calendar reminds me that while summer is closer, so is this year’s testing.

And if I knew the magic involved in getting every student to be awesome, every day of every year, I would share it right here with anyone who would take a moment to read it.

However I’m not a magician and I don’t have that kind of skill level or knowledge. In fact there are many days in which the awesomeness doesn’t happen. However what I do have is a bit of time at the front.

I place value in the side conversations about interesting facts. I believe in listening to a child’s story.

I know it’s important to remind students that no challenge is too great, no obstacle too overwhelming.

I place faith in the fact that while there are days in which my lessons are followed and completed without compromise, there are also days in which there’s real value in getting off track and sharing a funny story.

Here’s why.

The success in my class doesn’t come from repeatedly and consistently presenting an endless of amount of information. It doesn’t come from a barrage of facts that must be memorized.

Some teachers do exactly that, but I believe that doing so eliminates the fact that we’re in an endeavor involving human beings who want nothing more than to be happy and feel valued.

Instead I believe that if my students prove successful on a state assessment, it’s because they believed they could be and I played a part in reminding them that they had the ability within themselves to overcome. I have faith that my incessant desire to have them understand their abilities will in the end prove successful in a world of naysayers.

It will prove valuable far after they leave my classroom.

And that’s something I believe in wholeheartedly.

The Most Important Lesson

Each year I make the same deal with my students.

If they tell me it’s their birthday, and they make the request, I will make the hat.

This is no ordinary hat.

This is a custom, made to fit, and designed for just one student hat.

In fact, when some of my former students will visit me, often on Back to School Night, and I ask them if they still have their hat, they tell it’s still sitting on their bedroom dresser. For many of them this is many years after it was first made.

Why do they hold on to something made out of simple construction paper?

Perhaps it’s because no hat is alike.

Some hats dangle in all directions. Some are excessively tall while others are short and even slide down to sit on their nose – complete with eye holes. Some practically drag the sidewalk behind them. They’re decorated with names, stories and perhaps even ponies – if that’s what the birthday student loves. There are math equations, science terms and history lessons, but only if each somehow connected with the student. I’ll write questions on the hat in hopes that others will ask them about the dog they love or their little sister that makes them crazy.

Each time I begin one of these hats, I worry about the amount of time the production requires. In between science and reading, math problems and historical accounts. In between lunch and recess, resource and the bus loop… I staple, resize, crimp, fold, and cut.

Students watch me from their seats as they look up from completing a quiz or from behind their worksheets.

It takes more time than I care to admit. There’s constant cutting and even a resizing in the midst of the build. This all takes some time. Time away from what some would, no question, argue is a distraction from what’s expected to happen in the classroom.

So why does their smile stretch across their face when I sit that hat upon their head when I’ve finished?

While I think yes, it is because each is individually made just for them, I also believe it’s because of what I obsess over – the time it takes to make each one.

In an era of testing, meeting lesson objectives, remediation, and student anxiety; in a time when students are forced to acclimate to test taking strategies — all they want to do is share a story about what happened at the ball field or during last night’s sleepover with friends. They want us to make an effort to hear their story.

So seeing them proudly wear their hat as they follow me down the bus loop and get on the bus, is a memory for both student and teacher to remember.

When students know that you care enough about them to spend the time to make them happy – that’s a realization not quickly forgotten and quite possibly the most important lesson we can impart.

Escaping Classroom Failure

I try to be that teacher.

The one you wish you had. The one that you might have had long ago and wish you had again.

Funny, impactful, caring, sincere, kind, patient, and understanding. I’ve had a few I still remember all these years later. They were helpful, insightful, introspective, and said the right thing at the exact right time.

I admit it. I admit it to you now with humility.

I am not that teacher every moment of every day.

I fall short. I fall short a lot.

I share this because not being the teacher I wanted (and want) to be  really annoys me. Perhaps writing about it will bring some solutions. Maybe my sharing will ease my annoyance with myself.  I think about my failures as I stagger down my trailer’s stairs at the end of the day. I reflect on them as I drive home. They introduce doubt.

And then I try to remember about who sits in my classroom each day and I remind myself that each of my students is not a widget to be sold or a cog that’s part of a bigger machine.

Each of my students is a little human with all sorts of history of which they themselves don’t realize. Their parents in turn have a life of which I know very close to nothing. Combined, all of it leads to a myriad of experiences with which students enter the classroom each morning.

So maybe who I am and how I do it is exactly what some of them need. If they’re little people who come wrapped in so many different packages, then being different than the next teacher, then doing it differently than my colleagues who I know are excellent – is ok.

Yet the doubt still creeps in.

What happens after they get on the bus at four in the afternoon and when they come back the next school day at nine in the morning?

I don’t know.

I can tell you about what happens during the school day and I try my best, my very best, to be understanding that each is a human being in the process of changing into a not so little person anymore.

Some days, I proudly confess, I am successful. Happily successful.

I reach my students and not only teach them, but I connect with them. That’s when I know that teaching is what I’m meant to do. When I pick up on a student’s displeasure or confusion and help bring a dose of confidence or reassurance – all is right in the world. When I change my teaching mid-lesson and the end result far outshines what I was planning to do initially – I am happy.

Then there are the other days when the awesomeness doesn’t happen, regardless of what I try. Jokes fall flat. Encouragement doesn’t encourage. My happiness does not sprout more of the same. Plainly said, students can be a tough crowd and sometimes aren’t at all receptive to the best of intentions.

Here’s where I think being stubborn is a good thing. It’s on these days that I do some of the following.

Option One: Mercilessly Plow Ahead

I gather steam and haphazardly continue what my lesson plans require of me without second guessing any of my antics. The jokes will continue regardless of how badly they are received. In fact, I may just amp up the zany in hopes of breaking through the tired-don’t-care-please-don’t-make-me personalities sitting in my room.

This is exhausting. This is a gamble. When it works, it’s like finally reaching the top of a long climb and seeing the vista. It’s completely worth it.

Option Two: The Sound of Silence

Fall back to my quiet place. Sometimes quiet really is the best medicine. In fact the sound of silence is a great remedy to recenter both teacher and student.

I don’t like the quiet in a classroom. I enjoy hearing their laughing too much. I love our conversations. I appreciate a good story – whether theirs or when I get to tell my own. Quiet is tough on me, but I continue to learn that some of my students work best when their teacher doesn’t interrupt them with a story about that morning’s crazy realization or what happened at my own home the night before.

Either approach isn’t foolproof, but deviating from what expected often works.

Option Three: The Honest Truth

What I think works best is what I find myself doing when I’m at a loss for how to proceed.

And it’s what I did yesterday – I was just plain ol’ honest with them.

I’m a believer that every teacher has to draw a line in the sand and share some real honesty. Whether their writing hasn’t been up to par, it’s obvious that they aren’t following directions regardless of prompting, they aren’t using time to catch up, or their efforts have been lackluster.

Yesterday I stopped all charades and worried less about balancing positive with criticism. With my filter set on a lower setting than usual, I let my worries and concerns known.

How I end the sugar coatin’ changes depending on what I think will work.

Sometimes it’s a letter I write and let them read as the morning begins. Other times I remind each student what I am impressed by and what each needs to improve upon. Occasionally I will sit in front of them all and share with them the thoughts that woke me well before my alarm began – this morning it was 2 am.

That last one. The one about being super honest while I tell them what thoughts spin in the teacher’s head – that’s what I did yesterday.

Effective? Today they were much more civil with one another. Their efforts improved. The writing looked to be done with more attention to detail and more missing work arrived on my desk. Not all of my students, but most of them. But most of my students heard what I had to say, so today I left feeling like I earned that paycheck again.

Fingers crossed for tomorrow.

Resolving to Reach the Unreachable and Ignored

Until I took a trip to Campeche, Mexico in my junior summer of high school, I was that kid who thought little of himself.

It would take six weeks in a foreign country, living with a family I didn’t know, understanding not a word of Spanish and surrounded by a very attractive group of girls to convince me that I might actually have something within me that others find interesting.

Why that group of girls chose to pick me up in that tiny VW Beetle and take me with them to the discotheque I have no earthly idea. I will of course admit to you, it left quite the impression.

Before that trip, and the events of which still confounds my mother to this day, I was the quiet one.

In school, I would hide behind the student in front of me.

I kept my hand down and cast my eyes downward when the teacher asked for a response.

If there was ever a chance to voice discontent or share an unpopular opinion, it definitely wouldn’t be coming from me.

I did not cause trouble and did not cause my teachers any grief. Because of this demeanor, it was rare that I held the attention of my teachers. I did not appear on their radar as unruly or as someone that needed to be confronted. In fact, thinking back, I can’t think of many teachers who made an effort to get to know me.

Except for Mr. David Saunders. My sixth grade teacher made it a point to ask me for help with German, a class he was taking. I felt special being called upon by my teacher for academic help. He made science an adventure as he included me in his plans to confound my fellow students with remote control contraptions for which only I had the remote. He left a great impression on how to bring out the best in this student.

And now that I’m that teacher calling on students, I know that the same kind of student sits in my classroom.

In what has become an annual tradition, New Year’s Eve survivors now either hold tightly to their resolutions or have in these last few days resolved to admit that they were shared in a moment of weakness.

I therefore refuse to do the same and attempt to continue what I sometimes do fairly well.

Sometimes, but not nearly enough.

I will do a better job of being that teacher who calls on the person sitting on their hands.

I will more often ask the shy one to step forward and share with the class how they successfully solved a problem.

I will attempt to have an honest conversation with the student who wants no part of sharing why he or she is so defiant.

I will keep trying to force a smile upon my quietest students with a joke or self-deprecating humor. I will summon from my list of nicknames till one fits so well they begin to use it on the top of their papers.

I will do a better job at focusing on those who would rather not be focused upon.

In doing so I will remember that sometimes we all need some time alone with a good book or a brain break by doing something creative.

We all need a break, teachers included, from what can become a monotonous classroom. It is then that I will introduce a game, a stretch break, a song or perhaps evoke the timeless thrill of story time – or even show and tell.

I will remember the students who aren’t always at the top of their class, nor in danger of failing their state assessments.

I resolve to reach the unreachable and ignored.

This of course does not happen anywhere near as much as it should. After thirteen years, you would think I’ve got a successful plan that hits on all cylinders.

Sadly, you’d be wrong.

Caught in the zeal to get to the end of my lesson plans I’m too often relieved that there weren’t too many questions. I assume that means the students learned enough to be able to continue to the next lesson.

Yes, I know.

Assumptions aren’t a good practice to rely upon.

As this new year begins, as I enter the dark classroom in the morning and turn on the computer that sit on my desk, as I write down the morning message that my students will read when they arrive, I will do a better job paying attention when I haven’t in the past.

I will reach out and do more than teach – I will connect with those who are hiding and hoping that they can quietly sit and remain anonymous.

I won’t allow them to be unreachable or ignored. I won’t let them be who I so faithfully tried to be.

This is not a resolution that will fall by the wayside as other priorities find their way to the top of my to do list.

This is simply a promise to my students.


What resolutions or promises have you made to your students this year? What is your hope for your classroom and why? I would love to hear them, and would appreciate your sharing them in the comments section.

Encouraging smiles, reflection and laughter hoping to inspire teachers to do it again tomorrow.