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Mastering the Teaching Game

Carol Tomlinson

Professor at the University of Virginia
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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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Carol Tomlinson

Professor at the University of Virginia

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


One of the schools where I subbed and taught longer sessions for sick or infant-nursing teachers asked me if I'd help coach the girl's soccer team. Naively, I said what the heck. It was a sudden shock to learn that most of the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade girls on the team had never played organized soccer before.

They were cute and all in their new cleats and bubbly, pre-season attitudes, but I also found out, very quickly, such as in the first seconds of our first practice, that most of the girls had never experienced someone raising their voice at them. Running laps and sprints was new to them, too. Someone blowing a whistle real loudly in their vicinity freaked them out. Someone pretty much telling them what to do and exactly when to do it was extremely unnerving to most of them. Their eye rolling and bickering and questioning and whining and mood swinging and complaining was brain melting--for four afternoons a week for two and a half months. But the head coach and I never stopped blowing our whistles and raising our voices and telling them how to play and practice the character-building game of middle school girl's soccer.

We got through the season without too many tears...mine and theirs...and finished second in our school's sports league. I was proud of them. But I have to admit: after the last game of the year, before I started for home, I sat in my truck, and while breathing a sigh of relief that would have filled the Goodyear blimp, I questioned--out loud--my existence on Earth.


Todd's teaching memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," at corkscrew turns hilarious, heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, will be published this fall by Stairway Press.

Akanksha Garg's picture
Akanksha Garg
E-learning Consultant-G-Cube

Games in learning are coming up in a big way - in education as well as corporate training. With advancements in technology, games are now more sophisticated and appeal better to the senses. Both learning games and entertainment games provide a life-like experience to the learners. But for learning games to be effective they cannot focus just on the experience - then only will they be impactful in learning. Here are some ways to ensure that games in learning are made effective -

Barbara's picture
Language Arts Teacher

I like these ideas, but note the differences between coaching one or two students who voluntarily participate in a sport and teaching 150 students for whom school is mandatory. Unlike tennis students, students in my classroom may or may not have an interest and driving ambition to excel in the "sport" of language arts. The principles you lay out above are certainly laudable. I just wish I had the capability of sitting down and drinking tea individually with all 150 of my students.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Good point, Barbara. When I was teaching (9-12th grade English, speech and theatre), I often had that many students and I agree that take on the role of coach when you have a whole bunch of kids can be...challenging. When I started using PBL (and other, similar methods), I found that was able to move into a coaching stance, even with 40+ kids in one class. It had more to do with classroom culture and careful, gradual release of responsibility than numbers. In fact, I found that sometimes my smaller classes were tougher because of the mix of personalities and the lack of options when it came to groupings.

Brownbag Academics's picture
Brownbag Academics
author of Brownbag Academics blog

I appreciate that you mentioned that teaching is in the service industry. We're not here to fill up our students' minds with knowledge. Teaching like this simply doesn't work like it used to. Rather, we're here to teach them how to think, analyze, and reflect. Through that, they will gain knowledge.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

One day a student asked me why we go to school. She said, I have always wondered why we have to go to school and be educated. She was a good girl, but school wasn't her thing. She didn't make everybody else miserable about it, though, like a few others who didn't dig the wonderful grind. She was kind and respectful, fairly quiet, too, but when she spoke up she usually offered up some thoughtful zingers.

I turned away from the chalkboard, paused for effect, and said...So we can become articulate. That's really it. So you become articulate. That's why we go to school. She chewed on that for a moment, and then said, But can I become articulate on my own...and not go to school?

I said sure you can, but you wouldn't have awesome teachers and your friends to support you every day to make sure you're doing it right.


Todd's teaching memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," at corkscrew turns hilarious, heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, will be published this fall by Stairway Press.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

You said it all when you said "I'm in a service industry". Your writing could just as easily have been to those in the business world as educators. I am grateful for teachers like yourself who share your insight with parents, other teachers, and the world at large.

Carol Tomlinson's picture
Carol Tomlinson
Professor at the University of Virginia

When I was a first year teacher, Mrs. Gardner taught next door to me. She was about to retire and was as excellent as I was lame with teaching. She was a great mentor for me. She never blamed or preached, but rather quietly planted an idea for my consideration as we stood in the hall during class changes or shared an afternoon conversation. On one of those occasions, she said to me, "I consider that I've had a good day at school if every one of my students has a personal Mrs. Gardner story to share at home that evening." All I could think of was, "How do you do that with 150 students??!" The comment stayed with me, though, and over time I not only understood how to connect with each of my students on most days, but saw the power of doing so as well. I don't recall having tea with any of them, but am now a great believer that a year-long collection of one-on-one moments can have transformative power. However brief, the message matters. "I see you. I believe in you. I want to be part of making things better for you." I think it's the message, not its length or setting that young (and older) human beings hold on to.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


What a wonderful story. Way to go, Mrs. Gardner ... and you! Have a great school year everyone!


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