What Teachers Can Learn from the Greatest College Coach

Every teacher needs regular re-fueling: insights, inspiration and encouragement that maintain our heart for the work and shine fresh light on how we teach. Among the sources I recommend are writings and videos by great sports coaches; after all, among the most successful coaches are some of the greatest teachers around. How they guide, motivate, evaluate, and unite their players can be a wellspring for those of us who practice the art of teaching and seek to master it.

Teaching has a lot in common with coaching. For one thing, teachers and coaches are leaders. They lead everyone in their charge to learn. In fact, etymologically, to educate means to lead out—that is, to lead out from ignorance and deficiency to knowledge and skill. All good teachers and coaches accomplish that with their students or players.

When I was seventeen, I met the greatest coach of the 1960s and ‘70s, and maybe of all time: the late John Wooden. There were other great coaches at the time, but no one matched his success. The proof? Between 1965 and 1974, he coached the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team to ten national championships. What is especially relevant to this reflection is that Wooden was a master of the art of teaching. He was renowned for how he broke the game down into a hundred or so crucial pieces, training his players to perfect each one—from tying one’s basketball shoes in a way that prevented blisters to making the exact pass necessary to start a successful fast break. By all accounts, his mastery as a teacher was the key to his students learning the game of basketball, uniting as a team, and accomplishing great things together.

UCLA after the 1971 NCAA Championship

UCLA after the 1971 NCAA Championship

In 1976, just over a year after his retirement, Coach Wooden spoke at a conference for high-school students. I was fortunate to be there. Shortly after he presented, he was standing alone. Nervously, I seized the opportunity to express my admiration. He turned the moment  around and seized the opportunity to have a real conversation. For the few minutes we met, he was kind and interested. It meant the world to me. Always the teacher of life, Coach Wooden encouraged me to work hard, study hard, play hard, and to stay close to my family and faith. I drank it all in and took it to heart. He was understated, mild-mannered, and remarkably short, but there was a force of character in him forged, no doubt, by decades of teaching and competing. On that day, I glimpsed why former Bruins—some of them counted among the all-time greatest players—still praise the man who led the most storied basketball program in NCAA history.

Years later, his books helped me be a better teacher—a better leader of students. Here are a few tips from his book, Wooden on Leadership:

I believe that leadership itself is largely learned.

Among other things, this means that we ought not rely only on our natal gifts. If any of us is given charge of a group of students, then we must learn how to lead them. I know that I had to grow in order to teach. Although I had two university degrees when I first started, nothing had quite prepared me for leading seminars, teaching writing, and directing plays—my main teaching duties. For each area of teaching, I had to learn new skills. In other words, the pedagogies I knew were not enough to the work at hand; I had to learn more to do my job, to bring the most out of my students.

Closely linked to learning how to lead is the need to learn in a certain way. As Coach Wooden puts it:

Whatever coaching and leadership skills I possess were learned through listening, observation, study, and then trial and error along the way.

For teachers, this means that we have to actively master the art of teaching. A few years ago, my wife and I were invited to a school where the faculty wanted help learning how to teach literature. The teachers were wonderful men and women, and they were all smart and earnest. They just needed training in the best practices for teaching effectively. To help, we directed seminars with the teachers: this was a way of modeling how to teach and a way to give the teachers a top quality experience of participating in a seminar. We observed them teaching their students and gave them coaching on what went well and what did not. On top of that, we took turns teaching their students—a second way to model for them. Finally, we stayed in touch and made ourselves available by phone and email in order to continue the coaching. Regularly, we sent them titles of articles or books to read as part of their development. Because they listened, observed, studied, gave their newfound way of teaching a good hard try, noted their successes and mistakes and learned from each, our colleagues made progress as leaders in the classroom.

What about for those of us who have been teaching for a number of years? What of the teacher who is tenured, or even the principal or headmaster—the lead teacher in a school? Here is what Coach Wooden has to say about the long run:  

For me, the process of learning leadership continued for 40 years until the day I walked off the court for the last time as head coach—March 31, 1975—following UCLA’s tenth national championship. In truth, my learning continued even after that.

That convicts all of us to keep learning, to never stop learning. I have been teaching in classical, liberal arts schools or training colleagues to do the same for thirty-six years, but I still read works on how to interpret or teach great texts. Every week I listen to podcasts or watch videos by scholars and educational pioneers. Every chance I get, I attend a museum, concert, or acting performance on stage or screen in order to expand my experience. Every time I teach a group of students, I keep a yellow legal pad by my side. It never fails: no matter how many times I have taught a text, I always learn something fresh from my students and make a note of it.

Sometimes an entire faculty needs to change their mode of leadership. One year, when I served as headmaster, I realized that our faculty was increasingly teaching to the test. They and I took a good, long look at the situation, evaluated what was going well and where improvement was needed in the learning culture of our school. Then, we set a course of change that took more than a year to effect. It had to be done. It was difficult, and many of the teachers had to significantly adjust their practices. In the end, it was worth it, since we all deepened our commitment to the role of performance—seminars, writing, labs, reports, recitals, models, stage productions, computer coding, and other expressions of student learning. We also sharpened our use of tests—not teaching to them, but using them more strategically as one useful means among many by which we afforded the students an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skill.

Let’s look at one more gem from the greatest college coach in history, and this one is at the heart of teaching or any form of leadership. According to Coach Wooden, the most important quality a leader must have is this:

I believe you must have love in your heart for the people under your leadership. I did.

Students are not under our charge chiefly for our sake; we lead them for their sake. True, we are better for the work and for contributing to a mission. Teaching is a great calling. It ennobles us. Still, what should motivate us above all is the genuine good of our students; and for that drive to be maintained, we must have love in our hearts for them.

What are some practical ways to love our students? One way I practiced love was to make sure my students had at least one good laugh during our time together. Laughter builds joy, and joy binds us together, sustains us through the challenges of learning, and gives us a brighter look towards the next day of working together.

Coach John Wooden

Coach John Wooden

I also shared my love of books, not just by leading seminars on great texts but with gifts as well. I noticed that the staff at the local public library regularly took older books out of circulation and sold them for a dollar each. At that price, I was able to buy each of my students a good read at Christmas or at the end of the school year.

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important practice I developed, I coached each student one-on-one. That means I set time aside to listen to each member of the class, to encourage what the student was doing well, and to gently but clearly guide each to improvement. Students want to be heard. They thrive under kindness and genuine interest. Personal attention builds trust and opens the way for further coaching opportunities.

These insights are only a few of what America’s greatest college coach has to offer. But if you take to heart just these four things, that will fuel your teaching. In a nutshell, here is what John Wooden holds out to teachers as leaders:  

Learn to lead. Learn actively. Never stop learning. Love the ones you lead.

That is a great game plan for all of us who teach.

Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as president of Cana Academy.