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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Courtly Courage: Applying Athletic Tenacity to Academic Efforts

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

My family and I were witnesses to a magnificent display of courage and fortitude last year as our Natalia Independent School District girls' and boys' basketball teams faced the teams from the nearby Lutheran school.

The varsity girl Mustangs dominated the Lutheran girls for most of the first half of the game. The Lady Mustangs are a small team, both physically and in numbers. But the players worked well together, and they could respond quickly and hustle for the ball.

However, having few substitutes on the bench also meant that they needed to be careful about fouls and that they were more likely to become fatigued as the game went on. The other team didn't have those problems. As our girls tired, the lead dwindled, and then disappeared entirely. Undaunted, our exhausted players continued pressing on against the Lutheran team's fresh and rested players. The game became a test of endurance for our girls.

After that hard-fought game, the Lady Mustangs could hold their heads high because they faced a team with twice as many players who were also a lot bigger. But the dismay of losing that game turned to alarm when we saw the Lutheran boys' team enter the gym.

They looked like professional basketball players: At least three of the boys topped 6 feet 10 inches, and four others were over 6 feet 6 inches. They towered over our Mustangs, who all measured under 6 feet. The only thing I could think of while the teams warmed up was, "We are going to get creamed!"

Our boys looked miniscule as they positioned themselves for the jump ball. Our player nearly got the ball from his very tall opponent, who barely jumped at all, but then the Lutheran team scored the first basket without much trouble. It would have been easy for our Mustangs to let their enormous competition dishearten them.

But surprisingly, when our boys got the ball, they didn't let the size of the other players intimidate them. You should have seen the look on Frank's face when he scored in spite of the other team's towering guards -- a look of surprise when the ball went in turned into a feral grin as he realized that the Mustangs really could do this.

The Mustangs' speed and agility kept the Lutheran team struggling for every point, and the opponents learned they weren't assured of rebounds simply because of their height. Mustangs can jump! Our boys played them point for point by keeping the ball low to the ground and playing to their strengths. These young men on the Natalia basketball team inspired the entire audience with their spunk and determination. Even though we lost according to the points, no one would have called our boys losers. It was an exciting game.

Why can't we create that kind of courage and tenacity in the classroom?

We teachers have adventures ahead of us just as exciting as those basketball games. We are up against towering tasks with insufficient resources, experience, and staff. Our students have more opportunities to learn than ever before, but do we provide them with enough skills to successfully confront their giants?

Endurance will be a critical factor in how we teachers measure up, day by day, as we dribble up and down the court. We have to teach and check our teaching to make sure the students are learning exactly what they need to know. Can they catch the ball when we pass it to them? When the students miss the mark on assessments, we have to fight for the rebound and try again. We cannot relax and take a breather, because there is no one to replace us.

We have to be agile and quickly adjust our teaching to match the data gained from benchmarking. We keep the basket -- our goals and objectives -- in front of us to make it difficult to get sidetracked. We put goals where the students can see them, interact with them, and surpass them. In order to win this game, we have to be smart and play fast and hard.

Our teachers are strong and valiant. So are our students, but we do the kids no favor by not challenging them. Just as I am sure that our Natalia girls' and boys' basketball teams learned a great deal that day from their losses to vastly superior teams, we must give our students the opportunity to face challenges in the classroom. We must challenge them every day in order for them to have the heart to strive for high grades, college readiness, and, yes, even high standardized test scores. Go, team! Go!

Please share your thoughts.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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