Teaching Using What They Love

After reading a great post by George Couros about how we sometimes hold students hostage, withholding what they are passionate about to motivate them to do what they can’t stand, I felt I needed to offer a counterpoint. Well maybe not a counterpoint, but simply a different point of view.

I have coached basketball since I was in university, coaching both boys and girls from grades 8-12, and now I am working as an assistant at a small college in Edmonton. Coaching basketball is a passion of mine, something I spend 9-10 months of the year doing, and through coaching I have connected with hundreds of students and been rewarded with numerous memorable moments. One thing I have never forgotten during my coaching has been that I am a teacher first and a coach second.

My first teaching job was in Drumheller, Alberta and when I got there they did not have much of a basketball program. Out of a completely selfish motivation, I started working hard to change the program in Drumheller because if I was going to live in a town for a few years, I wanted the basketball to be decent. Over the next couple years, two more teachers with a passion for basketball moved to Drumheller, and the three of us worked together to build our program. As we worked hard and improved, we tried to develop an identity for our team. We decided tough defense would be our calling card and became the focus of our coaching, but some other key characteristics were also developed in our players – hard work, teamwork, sportsmanship and accountability. I don’t need to go into the 6 year storyline, but I can tell you that our team ended up winning two provincial medals and spent a great deal of time ranked as the number one team in the province in our class (2A). Those results were great, but the pride I have in the time I spent in Drumheller focuses on much more than wins, trophies, medals and rankings. I was much more proud of the type of player that graduated from our school each year.

As we coached, we taught, and our players picked up more than basketball skills, they acquired life skills. Our players learned that with hard work came results. Our players learned that they had to play as a team to be successful, and that individual statistics were not nearly as important as team results. Our players learned that if they knocked an opposing player down during a play that they help that player back up. They learned to respect the officials, the opposition and the game. They learned that they had responsibilities as part of a team, and that if they didn’t take care of their job, their teammates would suffer. Our boys were committed to what their coaches taught them and because of that, they learned and were very successful.

What I have always said about coaching is that it provides me with an opportunity to teach in a completely different way. I have “students” in an environment they want to be in, learning skills and ideas they want to learn, creating a learning environment where I can place high expectations and demands on them. Within the game of basketball I also have the opportunity to teach completely transferable skills that they can use for the rest of their lives. I can teach empathy, compassion, integrity, accountability, work ethic, responsibility, and team work. For many of these kids, this is the optimal place to introduce these ideas, because it is in a context they can relate to. You take a tough 17 year old kid and try to teach him compassion or empathy using the Diary of Anne Frank and you might not get much in the way of an emotional reaction, but you talk to team of 17 year old players after a 1 point overtime playoff loss and trust me, you will see emotion.

Taking away the thing they love, to motivate them to do the thing they hate is probably not the right thing to do, on that point I agree with George. But when George beats himself up about letting down his player, I believe that his positive impact on that student should also be commended. George modeled responsibility, hard work and commitment to that young man. As coaches, we provide a voice to our players that at times has far more impact than a teacher or even a parent. If we take the time to teach as we coach, we may instill the skills and ideas that we want to see in our students.


That University Feeling

When I left the University of Victoria to embark on my teaching career, I had just spent 5 years surrounded by other students, all there for the same reason: to learn, to share and to grow.  I loved being around like-minded people, with whom I discussed big issues like politics, religion, health care, the economy and of course, education. I always had the means to learning at my fingertips or in the coffee shops and campus pubs. To me, there is nothing like the feeling of being part of that group of young, motivated, eager and enthusiastic learners, sharing ideas, experiences and knowledge… and having a little fun mixed in there too.

I left University and ended up having to travel quite a distance to get my first teaching job in Drumheller, AB. Over the course of the last 8 years I have enjoyed many great experiences as an educator, working in exciting buildings with amazing educators and learning a great deal. Even in the midst of developing as an educator, and the excitement of my new career, it did not take long to realize that I was no longer amongst the same group of people I had spent the last 5 years with.

Happy in my new role as teacher, I still had a void that I found very difficult to fill. I didn’t have that peer group with whom I could discuss the latest world issues. I didn’t have four library floors of journals, books and magazines that provided the answers to many questions or the direction for a topic of study. I didn’t have professors that I could ask questions of or converse with. I was no longer immersed in that culture, no longer part of that critical mass, no longer a campus coffee shop away from enthralling conversation or collaborative learning.

Over the past few years I seemed to let that time of my life go. I romanticized it as the “Good Ol’ Days” and reminisced about the pinnacle of my time as a learner, often boasting about how “there was nothing like it”. I would spend time thinking about going back to school, probably for my Master’s, but knew it would probably end up being by distance or online courses and that it would never be the same as that special time in my life. I started to think that it was a time when I really felt alive, but a feeling I would never get back.

Well it was late this last August that George Couros, a man many of you know of quite well now because of things like blogs and Twitter, introduced ME to blogs and Twitter. It was that conversation and the subsequent 2 months of experiment, connection and collaboration that has once again brought me back to that “University Feeling”. I connect with so many passionate educators on a daily basis, discussing issues, sharing resources and stories, all because of this new-found connection to Social Media. I may not share a cup of coffee or University class with these people, but I do have the opportunity to hear their stories and ideas, to offer them mine, and together we share, we learn and we grow. I feel alive again, I feel I am once again learning and growing, and it energizes me as I go each day and ask the same from my students.

Need a reason for blogging? For joining Twitter? For getting involved as an educator with Social Media to build your own Personal Learning Network? I can’t think of a better one.


The Next Step

As anyone that has read my blog knows, I am in the first couple months of my first year as an assistant principal. My job is challenging, which was a big reason I applied for it in the first place. I am constantly put in to situations where I don’t have answers and need to learn something new. I am also heading out to a large number of PD sessions, or getting involved in division initiatives where I get the chance to learn even more. My introduction to blogging and twitter has opened my eyes to even more. It is a great feeling, sometimes overwhelming, but always exciting, to be learning all the time.

The next step in my progression as an educator I feel is to start to investigate programs for my Master’s degree. I look forward to entering a Master’s program and having the opportunity to develop skills and knowledge in an area that will have a major impact on my career. On the flip side, the process of selecting a program intimidates me. I feel like I get one chance to do this, if kids and a house are in my wife’s and my future, and I don’t want to make the wrong choice.

I believe that I need to decide a number of things that affect my choice, and prioritize them to help with my decision.

1)    I Have To Love It – I have the opportunity to dive into an area of study and immerse myself into the community that focuses on that area. If I am going to do that, I have to love it. I am going to dedicate myself to this endeavor and I want to be excited about every paper, every project, every lecture and every discussion.
2)    I Want Doors To Open – I want my Master’s program to open doors, not close them. I want the possibility of pursuing a Ph. D to be there when I have completed the program. I want the process to open more career doors, not pigeonhole me into an area that one day I might want to move on from.
3)    I Want To Be Able To Apply What I Learn – I want to take what I learn from my program and apply it in a practical way almost immediately. I want to gain skills that I feel confident utilizing and that can help me assist teachers and/or students.  I would like it if the skills were ones I could pass on to other in some capacity as well.
4)    I Want The Program To Help Me Towards My Goal – My dream is to one day educate future or current teachers, be it as a consultant, PD speaker, or professor. Meeting Alec Couros recently made that dream a little daunting, but I still want to pursue it. I want this program to help me provide teachers with skills or strategies to utilize in their every day teaching.

So, why am I blogging about this? Well I realize a large number of people I have connected with on twitter and through my blog have already completed their Master’s and many have completed Ph. Ds. I am looking for advice and maybe some critique on my method of program selection. I am looking for stories of how others selected their programs, I am hoping to hear about how interesting and exciting your program was, and I am looking to hear about how your program changed your career and your life. So I guess what I should say is that this blog post was written for some pretty selfish reasons. I hope some of you out there can offer me some comments, and thanks in advance.

The First Year

I have had many people tell me this year that “The first couple weeks are the hardest”. Then it became “The first couple months”, and eventually “The first year”. I know this, it has been tough. So many transitions, so many new expectations both for me and from me, and so many eye-opening experiences. I thought I would write about a few of the changes with the hopes that some of you that read this will offer some insight, some advice or share some of your experiences.


This is has been a tough one, and I have written a bit about this already, but I honestly feel it is the best place to start. I have had some trouble with the way the students have reacted to my new position. I want them to treat me exactly the way they did before, when I taught Gr. 9 Math, PE and coached the basketball team. When I was in this position it was easy to connect with kids, talk about anything, and really get to know them. The students I had built relationships with still treat me the same way, and I really appreciate it, but since I haven’t taught or coached 95% of them, it isn’t the norm. I get bummed by the way some of them see me and immediately assume trouble, or feel they need to explain themselves. I hate the uncomfortable tension that exists when I walk up to a group of them in the hall. I am working very hard to break down the expectation the students have for me, but I know it will take time.


I became the assistant principal in the same school I taught in for 3 years prior. The staff members are my colleagues and friends with whom I have shared many great moments. Our relationship has naturally had to change, and I have had to learn how to handle that. I have received amazing support from so many in the form of kind words, excellent advice, compassion and understanding as I find my way in my new position. I have found the transition awkward at times when I struggle with my colleagues coming to me for answers to questions, advice with problems, or looking for my support. Had I been approached as a teacher I probably would have handled these moments much more smoothly, but at times now I fumble with my response, intimidated by expectations, most of the time unrealistic, that I place on myself. I want to please the staff so badly that I make myself crazy over analyzing situations that are far simpler than I make them. I want to help and be someone they are proud to work with, but I need to temper that with reasonable goals for myself.


I realize this position carries a lot of weight with parents. When it comes to their children, they want the administration to be hardworking, trustworthy and committed to their child’s success and well-being. As a teacher and coach, I found most of my relationships with parents to be strong. I worked hard and they knew I was committed to helping their child. This year I have seen a whole new level of what parents expect from me. I believe I can be there for their children and that I can meet their needs as an administrator, but it is a little intimidating. I have found that in a parent’s mind, administration is that last line of defense at school, and they want to be sure they trust that the school is well represented and their children are in good hands. When it comes to parents, I really am going to have to work hard to connect with them so that I can feel like I am doing enough to earn their trust.

I always want to challenge myself, and taking this job, I knew this would be another great challenge. I wasn’t completely prepared for all the differences, but I feel like I have got my head around what I have to do, and change, to be successful. I want to take the time to thank all the people who have commented on my blog with great advice or to share an experience. You have helped me immensely, and I hope you will continue to share with me your insights into education and administration.


On Twitter, a fellow educator mentioned to me the Sir Ken Robinson speech from TED this year, a video I have probably watched 10 times but it never gets old. This time, it was the part about passion that affected to me. He spoke about how it is a shame that more people don’t have a career that is focused on what they are passionate about. I agree with him, and I believe it is a key part of something I have struggled with in my new position.

I live to work with kids, I know that is what I am passionate about. In my current position as a first year assistant principal, I see a lot of kids each day. I teach a couple classes during the course of a week, including a Web Design option and a Basketball option class, two courses I enjoy teaching a great deal. Even though I spend a lot of time each day with students, it just doesn’t compare to working every day as a classroom teacher. I miss teaching a core course in the classroom (I have taught the four, Science, Social, Math and Language Arts) and helping students tackle the important curriculum materials day in and day out. There is something to be said for taking on that challenge with a group of young people and helping them make the journey from course outline to final exam. I miss the immense amount of time you get to spend with your classes, providing ample opportunity to connect with students, to take time to discuss their interests and really get a sense of who they are, while they get a true sense of who I am. I find myself keeping the students I do interact with be it on supervision, in my office or in the hallways, a little too long as I try to fill the void created by my missing out on these connections.

I don’t have to be reminded that the work I do helps the teachers and education assistants in our building get the chance to work closely with kids, I get that. I also know that I have found a passion in working to assist some teachers in my building, sharing strategies or advice when I have some to offer. I can see that the work I do is important and is helpful, but I struggle with missing the real connection with kids that motivated me to become an educator in the first place.

I wonder what Ken Robinson would tell me? What I have done for the past 8 years has been my passion and part of who I am, would he think that I will receive the same reward from this position in the future? Will a similar inspiration come from working indirectly with kids rather than directly? Will a passion grow for me from the work I do as an administrator?

What do you think about this issue? Are there administrators out there that had difficulty with this same issue? Are there teachers out there that can empathize with the loss of constant student connection?

I would appreciate feedback, so please leave a comment if you have something to share.

What if?

I sent this late night email to a couple colleagues recently, and one of them suggested it would make a good blog post. She said that there are sites out there now that are starting something like this, but I guess I just wondered why this resource doesn’t already exist.

“Too long for a twitter message…

What if there was a website that took the key learning outcomes to a course, and developed multiple online ways for a student to show their ability to exhibit that outcome. What if that site offered this service to teachers to utilize in their classroom AND to students to access at home? What if that site could connect teachers and students so that learning could be shared and discussed? What if students could utilize this website as a tool to learn and to showcase their learning in the way of their choosing while not waiting for a teacher to provide them with this opportunity? What if this website offered teachers differentiated instruction, differentiated assessment and class collaboration all while requiring little or no prep work on the teachers behalf? What if all the best parts of blogging, twitter, e-portfolios and social media were incorporated into this site?

Wouldn’t you want to access this for your staff?

Wouldn’t parents want their kids to access this resource?

Wouldn’t teachers jump at the chance to provide the best learning for their students?

Why can’t we make this happen?

Learning is not about where it happens, when it happens or why it happens but rather THAT it happens. We should do this.

Multiple pathways to learning, multiple pathways to assessing learning, multiple pathways to displaying what students have learned.

Am I crazy?”

This site, as it exists in my imagination, would help students, teachers and parents. Imagine a parent who feels they can’t help their child with Math, working through an online learning experience that guides them, enables the student to use a medium they are most comfortable with and the parent and child connect in a moment of educational success. I hope that if someone is developing this resource, that they see the potential a site like this could have on changing how, where, and when education would take place. I hope someone far smarter than I am is working at creating sites that change the role of the teacher from the keeper of knowledge, to the guide presenting pathways to students.

If you know about a site like this or know of someone working on a site like this, post a comment and let me know. I would love to hear about this.