Win. Excel. Beat a personal best. These are the mindsets of athletes. Even those who are not athletes know that in order to meet goals such as winning or surpassing a personal record one must practice, put in hard work, train, learn technique, and take feedback to help refine performance. In addition to the aforementioned commitments, athletes know that having a good coach is just as important as putting in the reps and having the proper equipment. In many instances it can be the determining factor in landing first on the podium or scoring the winning point in overtime. There are many parallels to athletic achievement on the field, court, or course as there are to academic success in the school setting. Educators want their students to experience success in academics that yield the same dopamine highs associated with winning a game or crossing the finish line that a coach desires for his or her athletes.
With a recent emphasis on structured literacy, The Science of Reading, and Dyslexia, many school leaders are turning their focus to a systematic and school-wide approach to improving literacy. These building and district leaders are without a doubt coaches who motivate, train, counsel, and shepherd their “athlete” teachers in best practices for developing skilled readers. Just as players come to the game prepared with the proper footwear, rest, and hydration, coaches come prepared with their knowledge, encouragement, and (arguably most importantly) their playbook.
The school leader is no different from the athletic coach. Both show up at the game site early, they mentally rehearse encouraging epithets and motivating quotes, and both stay up late studying performance data. What may be missing from the school leader’s arsenal, however, is the coveted, confidential, and team or athlete-specific playbook. This priceless piece of “equipment” is the ultimate blueprint for success outlining the steps from start-to-finish as well as possible adjustments for those instances in which an opponent calls an audible….much like when a new student from two states over shows up at your front doorstep on a Monday morning mid February after having been immersed up until that point in time in a curriculum drastically different than what is covered in your school.
If you are reading this as a school leader, put the bullhorn down and grab your clipboard and pen (and even a stopwatch if you’d like) and take some notes. Here are the top ten plays you should have in your literacy acceleration playbook.
Recruit – Coaches are always working. During the offseason they are scouting talent and recruiting the future playmakers for their team. They invest in the performers who are dedicated, skilled, and passionate. It is important to remember that even winning coaches may not be able to hand pick every single player on the team. They may even have inherited some individuals who bring a bad attitude or have a history of defiance. In such instances however, adept coaches do not let those individuals impede positive energy nor the potential of the greater collective. Successful coaches invest their time and energy in the majority of team members who show up everyday with their chins held high, their shoelaces tied tight, and their eyes on the goal line.
Practice – Success in athletics can largely be attributed to the degree and amount of intentional and focused practice. A true athlete would never show up on a game day expecting a victory without putting in the reps first. Practice is all about repetition, being active in the daily routine, showing up with intention, and being dependable even when one doesn’t feel like it. Legendary coaches never skip practice for a meeting (or a phone call with a parent). They are in the action right alongside the players, often even disregarding the clear boundary lines that are strictly adhered to during games or matches. They are modeling, observing, taking notes, instructing, and giving feedback. As an instructional leader, ask yourself how much of your day is spent in actual classrooms “practicing” alongside teachers, versus how much time is spent in your office. Challenge yourself to be a visible leader, one who is always a part of the daily practice, and someone who takes the first swing to show others what is expected. Make it your goal to visit your least favored spots in the building first thing each day or week and don’t back down on your reps even during busy times of the year.
Hydrate – Serious athletes take nutrition seriously. Hydration is key not only to performance but also to mental clarity. Coaches are extremely mindful of how hydration is linked to biochemics and physical efficiency. Planning and preparing for water breaks is a key element of the playbook. As a school leader, make sure that you are refueling and pre-fueling your team with the proper and most aligned source of professional hydration as possible. Ensure that teachers are regularly and consistently consuming quality professional development, reputable texts and articles to read, and engaging media to grow their minds and prime them for peak performance in the classroom.
Fundamentals – Youth skills camps exist for a reason which is why you’ll often find coaches devoting their offseason to working with the future generation of players. No one expects to make a “hole in one” the first time they pick up a seven iron or nail a flip turn the first time they swim the backstroke. Leaders need to start small in order to accomplish big wins. Identify which basic and important skills need mastering and then narrow the focus of the building or district to practicing, refining, and perfecting those skills.
Study Your Opponent – Serious athletes and their coaches are always “eyeing up the competition.” They know who they are competing against and what that individual’s or team’s strengths and weaknesses are. You cannot overcome barriers if they remain blindspots. Just as athletic coaches study the performance of competitors, an educational leader needs to study the learning environment to know where the pitfalls exist. What are the obstacles in your building and how can you be prepared on both offense and defense to address them? As the leader, it is up to you to get to the root of the problem(s) and take the first step in preparing for stronger performance.
Watch Film – Often in education the players and coaches methodically and perhaps even subconsciously keep moving forward. Sometimes seemingly robotic, the leader and teachers move to do the very next thing, start the next day, or go to the next meeting. To an outsider they might be observed as only striving to keep the daily/weekly routine going with giving little thought to anything else. They appear to be tied to the bell, bus, and recess schedules. Athletic coaches remind us of the power of reflection. Before moving to the next game or practice, they pause and devote time to study game film. They reflect on highs and lows studying performance, and consider what could have been better and what to do differently the next time around. As the school leader ask yourself where the meeting for debriefing is, when is the reflection time scheduled for, and whether or not you provided feedback recently. Are there practices in place for studying and reflecting upon performance in your building?
Celebrate Small Victories – Respected coaches are those who are able to step away from relentless skill drills at times to embrace joy, fun, and celebration. The coaches that lead by fear and punishment create players who become resentful and burned out. School leaders should also find time to motivate, encourage, lift up, empower, and celebrate employees and the school community. If you don’t celebrate along the way, teaching and learning begins to feel like drudgery and staff and students lose the purpose for working hard to win. Celebrate small victories to keep momentum high which will yield continued participation, teamwork, camaraderie, and clear vision in the long run.
Know Your Stats – Author and acclaimed management consultant Peter Drucker reminds us that “you can’t improve what you don’t measure” (Drucker, 2018). When you think about it, there’s really no surprise as to why coaches are always carrying around a clipboard…they are compiling data on every aspect of the game and player performance. They can often recite their athlete’s stats from memory. They know these stats because they also know with crystal clear clarity the exact goal they are working towards and how close or far away from that goal they are at any given point in time. School leaders also need to set goals, both on a personal or micro level and on a professional or macro level. Reviewing one’s stats and reflecting upon performance is the only way to grow.
Get In The Game – Masterful coaches take real action. One cannot win if he/she isn’t actually in the game. Ever notice how a coach is so close to the boundary line that they risk getting a penalty from the umpire or referee? This is because experienced coaches know that to be the best leader they can be, they need to be as immersed in the activity alongside their players as possible. This is also why coaches “dress the part.” Although they aren’t permitted to actually physically perform on the field or course alongside their athletes they dress in a way that shows their team that they are “in the game” right alongside them. They are often the first one to show up on game day and the last one to leave. How are you demonstrating to your staff that you are “in the game”? What ideas have you had related to your literacy initiative that you haven’t taken action yet on for whatever reason? This is the year to set a date for that parent education night you’ve wanted to hold, to buy the new materials needed by your staff, schedule that tough meeting you’ve been avoiding or finally start doing real authentic walkthroughs in the classroom that needs some support, feedback, and guidance.
Watch the Clock – In the close games or matches the coach will always be alert to watching the clock and will know after each play exactly how much time remains. A winning coach makes bold moves with little time remaining. They rely on expertise, experience, and composure to make decisions. They are strategic in every way. Each school year only has 180 days. Therefore, the clock starts now. What action are you going to take and what decisions will you make while the clock ticks down to bring your team and students to victory. Game on!
Your literacy acceleration playbook is full and ready for utilization. The power is literally in your hands. Remember that school leaders, just like coaches, find themselves in a position of influence for a reason. Leaders and coaches have spent time refining skills and “competing” in the ranks. Others see within them the capacity to make change, drive improvement, and garner results. The decisions you make this year will give students the opportunities to build confidence, develop skills, put in the reps, and perhaps even start to develop their own leadership style. Maybe one day you’ll proudly pass down your clipboard to one of them.
Drucker, J. D. (2018, April 12). You Are What You Measure. Forbes. Retrieved June 19, 2018, from
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