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Full-Contact Teaching: Connecting with Hearts and Minds

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Last week our school celebrated homecoming football week. All week long, students, teachers and community members participated in pep rallies, parades, and school decoration, while the football teams unceasingly practiced. The much-anticipated homecoming game was well attended, even in pouring rain. For the fans, their excitement was as palpable as their soggy shoes and wet clothing. The real exciting things, however, were occurring on the muddy field below. Both teams were engaged in a physical and mental contest, aided by their coaches, but carried out entirely by the athletes.

The athletes demonstrated their prowess in handling the ball and the opposing teams, just as they had practiced so often. Adjustments had to be made mid-stream in order to find the right plays that would work against their opponent's defense. In this case, because of the weather, "up-the-middle" running plays were the favorite of our team, while the opposing team frequently took our players by surprise with "quarter back hand-offs." Being a full-contact sport, football enjoys a wide audience. Full contact requires the mind, the body and the heart and soul of an athlete.

As teachers, we are engaged in a "full-contact" competition. We are competing for the attention and academic success of our students and it requires our minds, bodies, and our entire heart and soul to be successful.

We are approaching our first full six weeks grading period and it is obvious that the initial excitement and enthusiasm of the beginning of school is wearing off. The daily grind of lesson planning, preparation, grading, and discipline takes its toll on us as if we were front-linemen. But every day we "suit-up" and keep at it. But to win our full-contact sport requires more than blocking and controlling the students' behaviors. We have to make contact with student's minds. Ok, that sounds a bit trite, but it is true. The real trick is how to do it.

I was in a history class yesterday and witnessed a teacher being successful at this. He was energetic and enthusiastic, and he was sharing with the students his eclectic wealth of knowledge. He made connections to why history was important for students to understand and how historical events prompted significant consequences in the world. A few weeks ago, I saw physics teachers with their students in the hallways, on the floor, lining up dominoes so the students could explore the equations related to time and motion. I saw Spanish teachers, while speaking no English, engage students in Spanish during the 16th of September commemorations by organizing cultural food potlucks and dealing with the full-contact mess and cleanup.

Full-contact teaching also involves targeting individual students that need help, finding out what their challenges are, getting to know them, and offering invitations and opportunities to succeed. Yes, RTI comes into play here, and so does differentiated instruction. But there is still more.

If each teacher would pick five students that are struggling in their class and do extra to make them successful, (doing what we know works -- calling home, praise, individual attention, tutoring, targeted instruction, etc.), then we will start seeing some real progress in those students. Once we get them going, then we choose five more. Just as in full-contact football, in full-contact teaching, we have to deal with what is in front of us, one thing (or five things) at a time.

Our team won the game, and the exuberance still lingers. Our teachers preparing for the final grades and exams, still feel the excitement of rolling up their sleeves and facing instructional challenges head on, and are looking forward to their students performing beyond expectations. After all is said and done, the scars and bruises gained from full-contact instruction (and sports) are worth it. Please share your full-contact teaching experiences.

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Jennifer Northrop's picture
Jennifer Northrop
New certified teacher, graduate student and current paraprofessional in CT

As a new teacher and graduate student I was excited by the title of this blog. I especially loved the comment that teaching "...requires our minds, bodies, and our entire heart and soul to be successful." What a great way to think of teaching! I see so many struggling students in the school I currently work in, and although I am new to the teaching profession (and currently working as a paraprofessional) I can see the great potential for teachers and staff to work together to help our students succeed. I think that choosing particular students who are struggling and making it a priority to work together to find a way for them to succeed could definitely work. What an amazing concept. In fact, after reading this I am inspired to do just that. I cannot wait to meet with the teachers I work with on a regular basis to collaborate on how to accomplish this. Thank you for your insights!

Karen C.'s picture
Karen C.
Eleventh-grade English Teacher from Wilmington, DE

I certainly agree with your philosophy that teachers must be willing to give themselves fully to their students (mind, heart, soul) in order to encourage students to engage in learning and to be willing to take educational risks.

I especially like your recommendation of starting one's "full-contact" support with five students. Your suggestion is manageable; it is something that teachers can do. Even if a teacher starts with three students at a time, change will occur. The students who now feel more confident will in turn help other students who need additional assistance, creating a strong classroom and school community. And the things we do to encourage do not have to be huge gestures. It is the small things we do on a regular basis that can make the difference.

I had a past student come back two years ago to see me. He is now in law school. He did not take the direct route, but he remained faithful to his dream and persevered. When he came to see me, he thanked me for reaching out to him during his junior year. He said he was having a difficult time, and he remembered a time when I asked him why he was hesitant to go to lunch. After he explained that he did not feel that he belonged, he said that he has always remembered what I said to him: You will find your way. Sometimes you will feel that you have been sidetracked, but you have to keep going and find another path.

I had no recollection of what I had actually said, and I was shocked that he remembered. My statement was not glamorous, but it was what he needed to hear at that time. I was reminded that teachers have much more impact in the little things we do than the big things. I remember him eating lunch in my room while he studied and I graded papers. Progressively over the year, he spent less time eating lunch in my room and more time with his peers.

Since then, he and I have stayed in touch. (I have found that I do like Facebook after all.) He will be graduating from law school in a year, and he just completed a successful internship for a Washington, D.C. judge. He is so deserving of the success that he is now having. I am happy to have been able to be perhaps a little spark that helped him get there.

Your post reminded me of a practice that I need to resurrect. Our school used to have postcards entitled, "Good News from Raider Country." A teacher could write a positive note and then mail it home. We no longer have the postcards, but I want to get back in the habit of sending out these cards. Writing these small notes are easy to do throughout the day, and the impact can be profound.

Thank you for your blog post!

Erin Merritt's picture
Erin Merritt
Secondary English Teacher

I loved this post and its timeliness to the football/Homecoming/season of school spirit that is so much a part of the fun of back to school. I agree that the shine begins to wear off, but that the full-contact effort of teachers must continue to keep that brass ring shiny. Helping students realize their goals - even when they weren't aware of what those specifics may be - is more valuable than any content that we can teach. Of course the content is an important piece, but it is one that must mesh with the rest of the team, the rest of the school and its mission. Reading this reminded me of a video clip I have shown every year for the past few, right around this time, when football season crescendos and the first major unit tests start arriving. I'm sure many have seen it, but going back to "Facing the Giants" is something I do regularly. I am a full-contact teacher, and maybe a little "in your face" now and then. Any pep talk I can give, right? We need a few cheerleaders out there as well. Here is the YouTube clip I love about the Death Crawl:
Thanks for the inspiration!
Erin Merritt

Stephanie Aliment's picture
Stephanie Aliment
4th Grade Teacher

This article really touches me. I think that it is so important to understand what the kids are interested in and what engages them. Students are always going to have something on their mind additional to school work. It is so important to figure this out and utilize it in your teaching. As a younger teacher, I find it really easy to connect with my students and discover their interests. I then share them with my grade level team because they find it very effective. I am learning that sometimes this means accommodating an assignment to help a struggling student. For example, I have a student who refuses to do his homework every week. His mom and I tried so many strategies. I found out what interested him, football, and went with a theme. I created work in reading, writing, and math that related to football and now he does the homework. A simple interest to engage the students can be so successful!

Lori Winkleman's picture
Lori Winkleman
Career & Technology Education Teacher

I found your blog post very inspiring. Our homecoming is next week and we just had interim reports. There are students in several of my classes with the "I can't" and "computers are too hard" mentality who are not doing very well. A lot of the students I am talking about are economically disadvantaged and have not had the benefit of growing up with a computer in their house. So, I have been contemplating how to best help these students. Computer Applications can be such a dry subject at times. Your post reminded me that sometimes we need to think outside of the box to what will grab students attention.

A few years ago, I taught middle school math and one of the problems was students understanding the different between the Associative Property and the Communicative Property. At the time I came up with analogies. We live near Washington, D.C. so all the students know about commuters. So I drew a car around one of the numbers and showed it "commuting" to another location. This of course led to jokes about my car being a junker. For the Associative Property, we talked about associating things together like law practices. In this case, we talked about one number (a girl) associating with another number (a boy). The girl number decided she did not want to associate (be friends with) the boy number anymore and found a new number to hang out with, using parenthesis to show the new associates grouped together. That year, none of my students missed those two properties on the state tests.

Thanks for writing a blog that reminded me not to just "teach" or "lecture", but to also include a component that the students can relate too.

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