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Courtly Courage: Applying Athletic Tenacity to Academic Efforts

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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William Muhn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think the problem with in the classroom comes from lack of student motivation and interest. Out on the court or field, you have students who want to be there and in some cases have paid to be out there (pay to play schools). Imagine your classroom if you only had the top 10 students like you do on the basketball team. The problem is that you do not have this option so it is up to the teacher to motivate the students and connected the curriculum to the student's daily lives and interests.

Greg Collins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a basketball coach, I enjoyed your analogy. I agree that students need to be challenged so that they can go beyond any self-imposed limitations. However, I am not sure that your illustration applies to the average classroom. I am sure that everyone on the basketball team made a decision to participate based on some talent for or affinity to basketball. Therefore, there will not be people on the team that do not want to be there. This is not the case in most classrooms.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You are bang on target. The students "gottawanna" be in class for them to really learn. When a teacher, and you have seen it even in "required" classes, creates a high performance learning team--ie all students in the class work together to achieve rigorous learning standards-- that is when amazing things can happen. The traditional school and classroom situation has trained students to not wanna go to class because they see the same old thing, done in the same old way. I would say that a poor coach can even kill a voluntary basket ball program in the same way. So the real key is to not only be able to inspire the students so they can stand up to those giants but to give them the will to actually do it. Once again the sport analogy has the answer. It is the students doing all the work on the court, but what do students do in most required classes? They sit and watch the teacher do all the work. Flip that around in the classroom and now the students can see progress and they feel like they have some control about what and how they learn. I am not saying to lower the standards--rather increase them and give the students the chance to find solutions to real problem or to investigate, or explore. You sound like someone who can do just that.

Best Regard,
Ben Johnson, (author)
Natalia, TX

Dan Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the analogy with sports. I have been a football coach and a teacher now for 6 years. I use sports in my classroom almost everyday. The part of the story that stuck out is the brief part where the non-starters were needed to play and the team stuck with the tired starters most of the time. In the classroom the starters are easy to get ready for the game. Its the bench players that we have the most trouble getting ready to play. On the practice field my starters get most of the reps because they will be playing most of the game, but those bench players will eventually have to play and they need their reps also. In the classroom it is easy to give most of the reps to the starters but I have to remember all the players(students) will have to play in the game.

Jodi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My question is how do you motivate a student to be in a classroom when all they want to do is be somewhere else? I agree with the comments on how students want to be on the sports teams, but have to be in the classroom. The idea there is that they want to be there. I have a few friends that have admitted to performing poorly in school because they simply didn't like the structure of a school. They are by nature "outdoors" people and would rather be doing jobs of manual labor than being stuck in the structure of a classroom. It is hard to find any motivation for students like my friends.

Ben Johsnon (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


How do you get a student to want to be in school? When you can effectively answer that question as a teacher, you will have arrive at a place that many teachers never reach. So let me give you a head start.

Establishing a personal relationship with the student is vital. Knowing a little about the students helps, but the most powerful concept is simply stated: try to create a learning environment that engages students personally. That is called relevance. Why do I need to know this now?

Most students now-a-days are bodily kinesthetic learners. What does that mean? Well, it means that their brain is connected to their body and that when their body is active, their brain is learning (this fits your outdoors friends). What do most teachers ask students to do most often? Sit down and shut up. The antithesis of what most students need. So when the students find it hard to comply, we view that as insubordination and we impose discipline. Some students are able to adapt, but typically by the fourth grade, students know that if that is what school is all about, then they don't like it and will fight it any way they can, or simply try to stay under the radar and do nothing.

If a teacher is simply talking to the students and telling them how important it is to know how to put out a fire, he might as well be talking underwater. That will not establish relevance. However, if the teacher starts a fire in the middle of the room and screams for help. Students will understand the lesson immediately by putting out the fire. Urgent relevance has been established. After putting out the fire, the teacher can then engage the students in correlated activities that are intrinsically relevant- firefighting careers, chemical fire retardants, safety, emergency preparedness...involving science, math, history and English all at the same time. (This is an exaggerated example and I do not suggest that you start a fire in your classroom)

A creative and dedicated teacher can establish a learning environment that requires the students to be engaged in order to come to a resolution and solve a real problem. Sensitive teachers will design such learning activities around specific student interests.

Great question and this is the beginning of an answer to it. Good luck in figuring out the rest. After all, that is one of the joys of teaching!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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