What Assistant Coaching Has Taught Me About Teaching

I’ve become the Assistant Coach for my school’s Debate Team, which basically means I let the team practice in my room after school and drive them to their meets on the weekends. Every once in a while, I supplement one of their arguments with some piece of the ol’ college learning. It’s a good arrangement. I enjoy being around a group of intellectual students who enjoy discussing black feminism and highly theoretical concepts like “the view from nowhere.” And they teach me things.

Students and teachers are at their best when students have something specific that they know they want to learn.

I don’t interrupt my team’s practices or post-meet discussions often, but when I do, all six members of my team will stop whatever they are doing and listen. I don’t have to call for attention. I don’t have to lecture them about being quiet. They know that if I’m opening my mouth it’s for something important and they respect me enough to know that I actually know what I’m talking about when it comes to theory. There have been several instances where I’ve been shocked by this power. It’s so contrary to what I experience in the classroom.

As I’ve contemplated on my debaters willingness to listen, I’ve thought about what makes this relationship different than the one that I have with most of my students. I think there are three differences. First, my debaters are great kids. They are all great students, many of whom are staring down scholarship offers to go debate at the college level. Some of their ability to learn from other people is probably a natural or learned talent that has nothing to do with me.

Second, my debaters know that I have knowledge that they want. Whether that knowledge is about theory or about college applications, my input is seen as important. In my classroom, when I’m standing in front of twenty ninth graders to whom I’m trying to teach algebraic equations, that desire for my knowledge is basically nonexistent. This is a place I need to improve for sure. It’s not about making algebra fun (although fun can be important sometimes), nor about making sure every single one of my concepts has a problem with money in it (although money is a great way to make concepts relevant). It’s about getting students hooked on algebra in a way that they get hooked on sports or music or technology.  It’s about getting them to a place where they demand my knowledge about how to solve equations with variables on both sides from me, where they are anticipating my next-day’s lessons with their questions.

I’m beginning to attempt strategies for creating this effect. I’ve noticed that students are much more curious when studying material that is just above their current ability level. I’m going to start designating a day every week where students can work on whatever that one thing right above their ability level is. This is going to require an elaborate system and tight organization but as I’ve started planning it I’m positive I can pull it off.

The last half this problem is orienting the math around something more than “here are a bunch of numbers.” I’m not sure yet how I’m going to do that. I’d like to orient each week, or unit, around a specific real-world problem that that unit can solve. But this is still something that requires more research and planning. Not something that I can implement immediately.

Third, my debaters get to see me as something more than just a teacher. They get to see me as a flawed human being who often has questions of his own, but who knows more than just math. One-hour-and-a-half van rides is plenty of time to sing along to popular songs on the radio, to contribute to conversations surrounding social lives, and to discover that we have interests that overlap. To add to these experiences, they are part of rather than in contrast to my goal with them. These conversations about interests happen naturally as we discuss debate topics.

For my algebra students, they sometimes see me outside of the classroom (in the hallway, at a school-wide carnival, at football games), but they don’t necessarily connect my behaviors at those places to my persona in the classroom. My algebra students, then, see two Mr. Smith’s. The one that is trying to teach them math and the one that has fun. They are not the same. And this affects their willingness to learn from me.

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