Teaching Strategies

Mastering the Teaching Game

July 17, 2014

Recently, I heard Sven Groeneveld being interviewed on my car radio. He is one of the top tennis coaches of all times, having helped four players become grand slam winners, among many other achievements. The BBC reports that the coach can "see things in the other players, read a match, second guess what the game plan would be, what a certain player was doing wrong, and crucially how he could put it right."

My knowledge of tennis is thin, so I almost switched to another station, until I realized that Groeneveld's message was the kind of advice that I give to my young pre-service teachers at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education -- only he is more articulate and confident than I am.

There are several paraphrased points that I hope will resonate with other educators as affirmations, challenges, or both. These eight ideas synthesize what four decades in classrooms have taught me are the most important principles for teachers to understand.

1. Innate Potential

All human beings can achieve far more than they believe they can. Groeneveld holds a bedrock conviction that an individual has within him- or herself the capacity to become significantly better than he or she is at the moment. "It's not about talent," he says. "They all have enough talent to succeed.”

2. Desire to Succeed

Success comes from the desire to work hard to achieve a goal. There's a difference between a dream and a goal, Groeneveld states. A dream is just an idea in your head. A goal is something you can reach. We have to pursue goals, not dreams. Human beings were designed with motivation to grow and learn. Pursuing goals helps them do that.

3. Hard and Soft Skills

It's not enough to only teach skills. Players, Groeneveld says, have the fundamental abilities needed to achieve goals. A good coach ensures that individuals are willing to do the hard work of setting goals and refining their skills. Mechanics of the game, or hard skills need to be taught, but so do soft skills, the mental side of the game where the individual learns how to think about what he or she must do.

4. Responsibility

Make sure the player takes responsibility for his or her decisions. How they practice, how they think, when they ask for help, how they respond -- these things are absolutely coachable.

5. Overcoming Resistance

When there is resistance from a player, don't take no for an answer. It is our job to find another way of getting learners to the goal. When this is successfully achieved, it's because we have reached the core of the individual.

6. Adaptability

There's no single way to coach players. All learners are different. My work is about getting to know each one, determining the goals we share in common so that we have a path to walk together. I begin my work by talking with them over a cup of tea, listening, asking questions. Until I understand what makes them tick, I don't know how to work with them effectively. I approach every person as an individual.

7. Observation and Analysis

Being a good coach means dissecting the player's game. I have to know learners' strengths, weaknesses, and barriers. I have to discern patterns in what they do. I unfold the layers in the individual in order to understand. Then I become an architect of a better learning space, based on what I learn.

8. Service

I'm in a service industry. In the broadcast, the interviewer suggested to Groeneveld that it must be difficult to work so hard and never be celebrated by the public, whose only focus is the athlete. The coach's response was swift. "It's not about me. I give them the tools, information, and education. They have to do the work. They are being celebrated for doing that work. I have been asked to coach the players. That's the greatest compliment."

Coach Groeneveld's eight principles are the essence of powerful teaching. The teacher walks into a classroom and accepts the reality that the only way to reach students is to know them as individuals. After that, by unfolding layers to access students’ core, the shared goal setting ensues. The teacher knows the content well and can teach "mechanics" in a way that compels attention. But the instructor also realizes that until the young student thinks like a successful student, the mechanics will fall short. And so the educator -- the learning architect -- assiduously teaches each individual to take responsibility for his or her own game or learning plan. Each success empowers the next success. And these successes belong to the child. Teaching itself is reward enough.

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  • Professional Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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