Please Don’t Call Me Coach

Referring to teachers as Coaches has been in vogue for the last dozen years or so. Instead of being “Sages on the Stage,” teachers became “Guides on the Side.” Better yet, they were “Coaches” who brought out the best in their students. “Coach” was understood to be a high compliment, a term of great respect. It carried the message that this particular teacher understood individual differences among his or her students and had the skills to bring out the best in each kid. That was then…..

Times have changed, and, if I were still teaching, I don’t think I would want people calling me “Coach.”

Here’s why: the bottom line mentality is increasingly in charge in public education, with 25 states (and counting) judging teachers according to their students’ test scores. That’s a key provision of the federal government’s “Race to the Top” program as well.

This bottom line philosophy is built on the concept of winners and losers, profit and loss. In education the bottom line is, of course, test scores. And the Coach is responsible for the bottom line.

And, so, to me anyway, calling a teacher “Coach” is less a compliment and more a way of setting her up to fail. Football and basketball coaches have win-loss records that determine whether they keep their job or get fired, and I fear that’s the road education is rushing down.

So what kind of Coach will you be, teacher? Will you be the NFL’s David Shula, with a win-loss record of 19 and 52? Or the NBA’s Tim Floyd, with a career record of 90-231? You certainly don’t want to be compared to college football coaches like Kansas State’s Stan Parrish (2-30-1), Northwestern’s Rick Venturi (1-31-1) or Richard Varis of the University of Virginia (1-29). But all teachers can’t be Alabama’s Bear Bryant or Nick Saban and deliver national championships, can they?

Athletic coaches, whether their teams win or lose, are hardly solely responsible for how the games turn out. Nick Saban relies on his assistant coaches, but so did Richard Varis on his way to that 1-29 overall record. Saban gets the praise, Varis the blame, even though that’s hardly fair.

Just like athletics, schooling is a team sport, but there are significant differences. Football is a zero-sum game in which one team wins and the other loses. At its finest, however, schooling is a sport where almost all kids can win–if we define winning as performing to the best of one’s ability, learning a wide range of skills (including social skills), and developing character, grit and community spirit.

Rather than working to punish and weed out schooling’s losing “Coaches,” we ought to be finding more ways of helping schools, students and teachers succeed.

14 thoughts on “Please Don’t Call Me Coach

  1. John,

    I get what you’re saying here and am in essential agreement with you. But two things come to mind:

    1. Coaches are revered in our society as people who contribute deeply and sincerely to the lives of the people they coach. I remember almost ALL of my sports coaches from when I was a kid. Superb human beings, every one. And even now, for the last 15 years, someone has coached me very well in life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. I owe this guy quite a lot. He has had a hugely positive impact on my life.

    2. I’ve had much success in my teaching, and in training teachers, with a “coaching metaphor”. I set things up as “practice, technique, and play”. So there’s a short practice session, usually a few minutes for a fluency-building activity of some kind. Then there’s a “lesson” or “strategy” or “technique” that I model and explain and work through with the class, and then about half of our time is reserved for “play” as in “It’s game time, ladies and gentleman. Let’s put our heart and soul into this and apply everything we know and be as successful as we can be.”

    I don’t think of myself as a “coach”. I think of myself, just as your piece here ends, as someone who is “finding more ways of helping schools, students, and teachers succeed.”

    I don’t think teachers should be called coaches. I’m rather fond of the old-fashioned “professor” myself. But the label is probably less important than the meaning people attach to it.

    One thing I notice is that almost every adult I know has a “coach” just like I do. And all of us agree that “coaching” from these people has been enormously valuable to us and that we hold these people in very high esteem. We also pay them extremely well.

    Perhaps I’ve been lucky never to have had that “bottom line” kind of coach you mention—something that certainly exists. (John Calipari comes to mind.) But even the very famous people I’ve known who do count their lives in wins and losses have always appeared to me to be extraordinary and extraordinarily decent people who give much of themselves to their “players”.

    The question I ponder in thinking through your wise words here is this: What identity does a given teacher want? And to what extent does that person allow others to define that identity?

    Many teachers have expressed to me their offense at being labeled a “coach” or a “facilitator”. But I often wonder what identity they would most value—and, if they could communicate it to me in positive terms—how I could best validate that identity when I work with them.

    Thanks for your always-thought-provoking words.

    Best regards,

    Steve Peha


  2. Not wanting to be called “coach” for the reasoning you provide is not much different to my thinking than calling them “teacher” – still ordered to or feel they must push facts that might yield higher test scores. We know for a fact that no one learns – at least for retention – when taught or coached which facts they need to know. Only when the student is intrinsically motivated to learn and “the adult(s) in the classroom” FACILITATE (but don’t seek to control) their efforts will effective learning occur.

    By the way, I have no problem with “coach” for the person facilitating skills development – for educators, students, or administrators.


  3. I think the main point of this wasn’t so much the word coach but the point of the winners and losers, if I’m understaning correctly. Here’s what I’ve seen in the few years I’ve been teaching:

    – Non-educators (politicians, business folk, well-connected leaders of non-profits) have convinced the American public that American public education is failing. I believe it’s been failing in areas of high-poverty for the most part, and it’s more complicated than just the schools themselves, but these non-educators have convinced Americans failure is everywhere. (Let me remind everyone that this rhetoric has been stated for decades. Remember a Nation at Risk in the early 80’s?)

    – These same non-educators have dismissed educators’ viewpoints, since it’s the educators that are failing, in their minds, so they feel like “something different must be done to challenge the status quo.”

    – These non-educators have used their influence to implement negative policies on America’s education system. They believe that by creating competition and winners and losers in the school system, that through the power of the free market all schools will improve.

    – Educators have been trying to tell the public that these reforms are not good for students. But then the public believes the very powerful non-educators that educators are the problem, so no one cares what the educators think.

    I don’t know why anyone would want to be a public school teacher anymore. It’s sad for me to realize this. I hope your blog and the readers can muster up the energy to speak up. However, the elite politicians and wealthy non-educators have so much power and influence, especially in the media, that it’s hard to convince them of anything else.


    • Yes, that is my point. Creating the winner/loser mentality in the classroom and in teachers’ heads is a slippery slope. If I am going to be judged a winner or a loser based on my students’ scores, then I might just want to teach in Greenwich, CT or Palo Alto CA and not the South Bronx or East Palo Alto.
      Or I might devote even more time to teaching kids how to take tests
      Or I might figure out ways to (wink wink) make certain my kids do well on those tests.
      It’s not hard to see who the losers are in that scenario


      • The counter-argument to using test scores in evaluating teachers is to use “value-added” scores. So….if you have weak students coming in and you bring them up a little, then the value-added calculations will take that into account. But there’s a lot of research that speaks against this, with some calling it junk science. But then the pro value-added people cite other research that shows you can use value-added. So who are we to believe? Which research? I don’t know.

        All I know is — do we really know that higher standardized test scores is good for society? I’m not so convinced. See the research by Professor Yong Zhao, who studies education systems around the world. It’s ironic that “high scoring” nations are trying to get their education systems to look more like America’s, while we in America are trying to get our systems to look more like other nations.


  4. When “coach” is a more revered position than “teacher,” you *know* we’ve already lost. I understand that many adults have people who help them, and they refer to those people as “coaches”; but that we would reference sports instead of school when we identify these people who are helping us tells us what we as a society value more.


  5. speaking as one who has coached both boys and girls soccer as well as taught, and often had the same students on my teams as in my classes, there is a world of difference.

    If an athlete refuses to do what a coach tells her, she can be benched, suspended from the team, removed from the team, regardless of the raw ability.

    If an athlete is too selfish in a team game like soccer, no matter how gifted the teammates may not want to play with him.

    In the classroom just because a student does not try the teacher has less leverage than does the coach.

    Oh and then there is this – on the soccer field I want my players helping one another. In the classroom if they do someone (not me) is going to accuse them of cheating.

    A good coach is a teacher.

    A good teacher helps the student to perform at her peak.

    But the roles are very different because the purpose is – or at least should be – different


  6. I think that we need to differentiate coach from teacher. To most folks coaches are individuals or groups that help to facilitate better results and referred to mostly in sports. They are not normally involved with a child on a 24/7 basis. They are focused most of the time on winning. Teachers are focused on teaching many skills and developing the whole person with emphasis on learning how to read and write. Yes, coaches do help young people develop character and understand the competitive world, but coach doesn’t entail teaching all facets of life and the whole person. The sad part of the coach and teacher analysis is that coaches have a higher ranking than teachers in most peoples minds. We all know good coaches, but don’t we really remember our best teachers?


  7. Dear John,
    Invoking the current usage of the word “coach” enables us to see how corporate models and metaphors have very successfully permeated our thinking and speaking about both education and sports. Measurable objectives and performance ratings in corporate settings have everything to do with profitable returns to private or public investors through the labor of those employed and almost nothing to do with the enhancement of employees engaged in the enterprise. In this regard major league ball always deserved to be looked at through a corporate model. It is about ROI and not about the enhancement of the players unless they are highly paid, entrepreneurial superstars. Unfortunately the money and the metaphor morphed into college and even high school althletics.

    I believe the corporate metaphor starting morphing into educational thinking and speech as early as the 1970’s when lesson plans were required to have SMART, specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timed, objectives. In 1980 I wrote my dissertation on teachers’ metaphors for the classroom environment. I did a descriptive study and trained interviewers to collect teachers’ language, which revealed their metaphors, in settings from kindergarten to the university. Factor analysis showed that even in 1980 teachers were already split between two camps. About half the teachers in the study thought that when they were in a classroom they were leading their students on a journey of discovery. The roles these teachers defined were collaborative and egalitarian and the rules they outlined were about taking educated risks to move individual and group exploration forward. The other half of teachers thought they were supervising a preset distance race around a flat and fixed track. The roles were hierarchical and fixed, the rules were proscribed and unbendable; the course and outcome were known. This is a factory model in which the job of the teacher is to see that everyone gets to the finish line. In 1980 the finish line was the end of the school year and plausable completion of the mandated curriculum to enable at least social promotion. In 2013 it’s more of a factory model than ever with the ROI the cumulative scores on the standardized tests.

    My dissertation got a lot of attention at NYU at the time. I used to ask people which teacher they would prefer to learn with or have their children learn with. Did I even need to ask the question?


    • This is very thoughtful and illuminating. I appreciate the historical perspective, akin to “Education and the Cult of Efficiency.” I wonder if anyone in power has your perspective?


  8. Dear John….

    “Winning” is not the only outcome effective sport coaches pursue, and not the only lesson they provide. Academic researchers Jean Côté and Wade Gilbert argue effective coaches aim for developmental growth, what they label the 4 Cs: competence, confidence, cooperation, and character. These outcomes were the goals for ESPN’s coach of the 20th century, UCLA’s John Wooden. He insisted that effective coaching is teaching. Most called him Coach. He called himself a teacher. He attributed his teams’ successes to what he had learned in the 1930s as a high school English teacher––the importance of continuous improvement. He liked to point out it took 16 years of incremental teaching improvements before UCLA basketball earned a national title. Analyzing Wooden’s continuous improvement process, researcher Brad Ermeling identified four elements that teachers of all kinds could put to good use:

    1. Identify critical instructional issues.
    2. Prepare and implement instructional plans.
    3. Use evidence to drive reflection, analysis, and next steps.
    4. Persistently seek detectable improvements in learners’ performance. 

    Wooden never talked about winning or wins to his players. He defined success not as winning but as that “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” He believed helping learners achieve that peace of mind is a byproduct of teachers teaching for the 4 Cs. There are many teachers already doing that, and they don’t care what you call them. “Call me teacher, coach, avatar, whatever, please just tone down the talk of scoring testing points and let them get on developing better lessons. The students will be at school tomorrow.”

    Ronald Gallimore


    • That is my point, exactly. Tone down the talk. My fear is that teachers are being set up. Calling them Coaches leads next to examining their won-lost records and firing the ones who don’t ‘win’ often enough. Teaching is a team sport and, very often, so is learning. And there are a lot of circumstances beyond a teacher’s control that must be acknowledged even as teachers work to overcome them.


      • Lots of us researcher types think a key to improving teaching is to capitalize on John’s point about it being a team sport. Laura Hamilton of RAND surveyed 2350 teachers in 2007 to determine their opinion of the testing-based accountability policies coming on line. Teachers reported making efforts to improve their teaching practices in response to these new pressures. But, and it is a big one, teachers were not converging on common and effective instruction. Sadly, teachers within schools were trying new approaches on their own, rather than working with colleagues to develop or select more effective practices.

        Another study my colleagues and I did indicated that given about 150 minutes a month to collaborate, grade-level teams in 9 Title I schools in Los Angeles improved teaching enough to significantly improve student learning over 3 years. A comparable group of 6 schools chose one of several well known school improvement models and made no gains over the same interval.

        There is a caveat, however. Simply providing the time to meet 3 times a month was not enough. We identified 5 keys to effective grade-level learning teams:

        • Job-alike teams of 3 to 7 teachers who teach the same grade level, course, or subject. Teams with common instructional and learning focus plus common teaching responsibilities collaborated more effectively.
        • Published protocols that guide—but do not prescribe—the teacher team’s improvement efforts. Basically the protocol included the same 4 features described my original post about Coach Wooden’s continuous improvement process. In addition to guiding the team’s work, the protocol created recurring opportunities for teachers to contribute their knowledge, creativity, and skills.
        • Trained peer facilitators—point people—to guide their colleagues over time. Because peer facilitators try out in their classrooms the same lessons as everyone else, they are uniquely and credibly positioned to model intellectual curiosity, frame the work as an investigation, explain protocol steps, and encourage the group to stick with a problem until it is solved.
        • Stable settings dedicated to improving instruction and learning. Both the teacher teams and the facilitator teams need stable settings in which to work if they’re to improve achievement. Teacher teams need at least three hours each month dedicated to instructional inquiry and improvement, while facilitators need about two hours each month with an engaged administrator to plan ongoing assistance and leadership for teacher teams.
        • Perseverance until there’s progress on key student performance indicators. Whatever goals the teacher learning teams choose, it’s critical that they stick with them until their students make progress on critical performance indicators. It might be a grade-level or department concern, such as understanding unlike fractions or writing coherent paragraphs, or it might be a district-wide or school-wide focus identified in assessments.

        Once they see tangible student gains, teachers are less likely to assume “I planned and taught the lesson, but they didn’t get it,” and more likely to adopt the more-productive assumption that “you haven’t taught until they’ve learned.” Incidentally “you haven’t taught until they’ve learned” was one of Coach Wooden’s oft repeated aphorisms.


  9. My students called me Coach G, and I felt honored by this. Not because of how it sounded, but because it reflected my approach toward running a classroom. An approach informed by my experience as a sports coach and corporate manager prior to becoming an educator and reinforced by my experience as an educator.

    I now train and coach teachers and school leaders on my “coach approach,” and they’re extremely receptive to it. More important, their students (mostly low-income) are benefiting from it. Please see my new post on Ed Week, Coach Teachers Rather Than Teach Them, for video of a teacher whose students soared when he stopped teaching them, and started coaching them:


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