Saturday, September 15, 2012

Blog Action Day - "What Makes A Good Coach/Instructor"

Due to Hurricane Isaac cleanup issues, I missed the September 5th deadline for this 3rd Blog Action Day topic, but I want to write on the topic anyway.  I also posted my Blog Action Day Takeaways here (the favorite parts of the other essays I read).  My own thoughts go thus:

There are no great atheletes out there without a coach.

Watching any sport on TV, it becomes obvious that coaches are necessary. . . . . every athelete has a coach on the sidelines, watching every move, encouraging, rising and falling with the athelete's rise and fall. We see how every olympic figure skater or gymnast without exception gets the pep talk before going into the ring, and afterwards. Every ball game has a coach shouting orders, making notes, giving pep talks.

What makes the athelete great is, first of all, their willingness to be coached throughout their career. If you are unwilling to be coached, you'll never get far.

Finding/being the right coach is another matter.  The great coaches I see out there are not themselves always able to perform the skill. The olympic figure skater's coach is often portly, never in skates, the ballet teachers aren't at the bar practicing, football coaches aren't out there getting tackled.  The coach, it seems, just understands the sequence of steps required to advance, and makes sure your training includes every foundational element you need.  They see things from the sidelines you can't see. They do their best to leave nothing out. A great coach has time to focus on the details of YOUR training, not being caught up in theirs.  The great coach encourages you through multiple failures, places rewards along the way, has an eye for small improvements, builds upon your strengths, works around your weaknesses, and helps you set realistic goals. It's an art form. The great coach understands that the closer you approach excellence, the more sophisticated your skills, the closer to the edge of perfection you strive to get, the easier it will be to fail. The great coach embraces failure as part of the program, and is there for you to try on another day.

It takes another pair of eyes to look objectively at what you are doing. Unfortunately, finding someone willing to watch you that closely, whose opinion you really trust, for that long, isn't easy. It doesn't always require a close personal bond between coach and student.  The coach just needs to know what they are doing, inspire effort, and inspire trust.  Inspiration is 50% of the learning battle.

A teacher all my adult life, my teaching philosophy has drawn more from my many bad, uninspiring teachers than from the very few teachers I consider "excellent". Teaching/coaching in an inspiring way is so extremely rare.

We've all had these experiences in grade school.  The teacher
  • ignores you when you raise your hand with the answer, and calls on you when your mind is blank.  What's up with this?  Do they purposely try to embarass you?
  • has favorites who get all the acccolades and attention, while the other students are ignored.
  • lets some kids slide while being hard on others for the same thing.
  • is unprepared, doesn't know what they are talking about.
  • makes their subject so boring you don't want to learn it.
  • sets the pace by the slowest students, boring the advanced students to death.
  • constantly praises the fastest students, making the slower students feel dumb.
  • takes offense at questions, dislikes creativity, fails to recognize innovation, etc.
Let's face it.  Our whole A-F school system encourages our teachers to look for and punish errors, not reward what's right.  What if, instead of marking papers down from 100, we changed their point of view and marked papers up from 0.  70% right instead of 30% wrong.  What if students just got to repeat the failed parts of the test until they aced it, and teachers used their students' failing marks as clues where to teach to.  On my agility NQ's, for example, I usually get 18 out of 19 right.  Once I learned to feel good about how much I get right, I felt more empowered and encouraged to isolate and fix the errors. 

I've pretty much done my best to forget school, but there are indelible memories that stand out, including both good and bad ones:

Praise: My 5th grade civics teacher changed my self-concept within about 5 minutes when towards the end of class, in an idle moment, he played a little word game with the class. He stuck his hand in his pocket and said, "If I say I ain't got no money in my pocket, do I have money in my pocket or not?" Everyone in class insisted he didn't, except me. He finally acknowledged me as the only one who got it right, and made me stand up to explain the double negative, that NOT having NO MONEY, meant he did have money. I finally felt I had some brains. In 5 minutes a teacher can change your self-concept.

Enthusiasm:  My 7th grade geometry teacher was short and dumpy with horn rim glasses and a high pitched voice.  30 kids in her class, and no assistant.  The 2 bad boys sitting at the back made such fun of her, one of them threw an eraser that hit her in the back of the head one day, leaving a dust of chalk in her dark mop of thick fuzzy hair.  She was so busy at the chalkboard extolling the virtues of geometry, she didn't even notice!  "Geometry is everywhere", she exclaimed with her arms open wide on our first day, and set us a homework assignment of counting how many triangles, rectangles and circles we could identify in our houses.  I had never really noticed shapes before.  I was totally hooked on observing my world from then on.  Proving theorums was a challenge, but if we got it wrong, she didn't give an F.  She said go back and reread the chapter, see me after class, until you get it right.  She wanted us all to pass.  I still have my geometry book, and refer to it when I'm arranging furniture, building equipment, planning my garden space, or anything else.  She wasn't personable, sweet or affectionate, but she opened my brain up to a whole new level of awareness.  Her enthusiasm conveyed to me the thrill of figuring things out, and I felt more alive, empowered, amazed, intrigued, and anxious to learn more. This feeling has never left me.  That's what a great teacher does!

Unfairness: My 7th grade biology teacher was Adonnis to me. I worshipped him. I applied myself to every lesson and made A's and B+s for him. That is, until he brought a snake to school and told us we'd get an F on our mid-term exam if we didn't hold the snake. As he approached my desk with the snake writhing in his hand, my throat closed up, I froze in fear, my brain imploded and I ran from my desk sobbing. He shook his head in disapproval, skipped me without further acknowledgment (ever), I did indeed get an F, and I loathed him from that day forward. I made C's the rest of the year. To this day I love biology, but hate snakes, and hate him for shutting me down and devising such an inappropriate test.

Skill-Building and Pride Building: My 4 years of Honors English in High School introduced me to classical literature, writing, diagraming sentences, studying style, devices, etc.  The 2 teachers were hard on us.   Every punctuation or spelling error lowered our grade point.  We learned to pay attention real quickly because anyone who dropped below a C average was bumped out of Honors and someone else given your spot.  It was devilishly hard and there was lots of homework but we didn't want to get bumped -- it was an honor to be in there.  These teachers, while curt, stuck up, opinionated, and sometimes playing favorites, awakened a sense of pride in us of being intelligent, captains of our fate, masters of our souls, responsible for civilization.  They made life seem extremely precious and important. On the last day of High School, the last words Ms. Gomez spoke to us was "Good Bye, Good Luck, and remember the world is your oyster, make of it what you will".  48 years later, I'm still pondering what she meant by these words.

Communications: My11th grade chemistry teacher was so dry, dull and boring, I flunked the course. My only report card F in high school. Of course my parents blamed me for not applying myself but I still maintain, it was his fault entirely. Chemistry is a fascinating topic to me to this day, he was simply unintelligible.  His communications skills were so poor, his demeanor so suspicious of everyone, he was totally unsuited to teaching. 

Negativity/Defensiveness:  What is it with teachers who say, on the first day of class, that "Most of you are going to flunk this course."  I have had several college instructors tell their classes that.  They should be immediately fired.

Now on to my thoughts on agility teachers/coaches.

In agility training:
I want my teacher to create a comfortable environment where I feel safe and welcome.  I don't want be frowned at, ignored, snubbed, intimidated, yelled at, barked at, or for my teacher to waste my time.  I want to feel like the teacher knows I'm there and is glad to see me and my dog. I don't want to hear how much the teacher loves somebody else's dog or breed, or "not liking little dogs, big dogs, long-haired dogs, or whatever". I don't want my one hour class or all day seminar to consist mostly of sitting around waiting for my turn.  Get people lined up and keep the class moving. When it is my turn, I want my teacher to pay attention to me, not be off chatting with someone else.  I don't want to be interrupted during my attempt at a sequence, rather, watch me, comment on what I did, praise what's right, suggest improvements, and let me try again.  Give me pointers, but don't insult or deride me in front of my classmates.  Don't praise the star pupil every time and give them multiple turns, then say nothing to others and cut their turn short.  Likewise, don't spend all your time with the weakest/slowest student. This happens over and over. Keep the class moving.

If you're teaching a seminar, have a wireless lapel mike and PA system, so everyone on the field can hear you. Then, even while you're out on the field coaching one particular student, students on the sideline can benefit from your coaching.  It will also save your voice.  Our club has our own, but I think seminar instructors would do well to invest in this equipment.  So would judges in AKC's FAST class. It should be mandatory equipment. No telling how many times the scribe misses the judge's call. A decent system with a rechargeable battery runs around $2-300.

Ask me what my goals are.  Pick up on the nuances.  Teach me in baby steps.  Push when you see an opening, not whenever something pops into your head.  Be fair.  I know, it's a whole lot to ask of any coach/teacher, but that's what a teacher is.

I've noticed in my preschool teaching, some kids automatically present roadblocks to learning.  The can't focus, don't take even the smallest suggestions well, are too sensitive, refuse to be coached, come at everything with an "I already know how to do this so I don't need to listen to you", or "it's too hard I'll never get it right".  Whether cocky or downtrodden, the class clown or someone with an enormous chip on their shoulder, these extremes are among the hardest to teach, and both lag behind in their progress.  That's not the coach's fault, and it's hard to figure the causes because these students don't always have the biggest life challenges.  I've come to think learning attitude is partially programmed into one's DNA.

In any case, some teachers are best suited to working with gifted/talented students, older students, young children, others work better with mentally, emotionally or physically challenged kids. A great coach for one student can be a lousy coach for someone else. Also, a novice student should not expect to command the time and attention of a world class coach.  There not being too many experts at the top, the trickle down system is essential and works.  Find someone who knows more than you do.  When you learn to their level, move up.  In every case, I believe it is each teachers' responsibility to position themselves to work with the right students based on their own gifts, or be willing and able to change their tactics depending on who they are working with. Teachers unsuited to their students can do a lot of damage.

On the other hand, eventually, sadly, the student must also inspire the coach. . . . . the way our dogs inspire us. Another Blog Action Day subject might be "What Makes A Good Student."

Upwards and onward!


ViewFr4Inch said...

Love your comments regarding agility instruction. They are right on and unfortunately not the exception to the rule. We need more instructors who care about the art of teaching and less about using instruction as a platform to elevate their own visibility and status in the sport.

Mary said...

Great post, Michelle. Have you ever heard of errorless learning? The concept came up in a seminar that i attended with Bob Bailey and Parvene's Farhoody and I can't stop thinking about how it can help us be better teachers of humans and better trainers of our dogs. It builds on your idea of letting students build mastery.

I think more and more research on brain science is demonstrating how important it is to start developing understanding from the very start of learning. Whether a concept or a physical skill.