Sunday, February 24, 2013

Jumping Out of the Comfort Zone

Before moving to administration, I had the pleasure of coaching basketball.  During every practice, I required players to get out of their comfort zones. We dedicated several minutes every practice to individual improvement. During this segment after practicing and mastering basic moves, players were required to “get out of their comfort zones” and try something more difficult and new.

Easier said than done.

It didn’t take long to figure out that my players were not pushing themselves to get better. Even worse, practice slowed to a crawl.

My players, like everyone else, were creatures of habit. They liked routines and didn’t like change. And they certainly didn’t like looking bad and feeling worse.

So why the reluctance to get out of what was comfortable?
1.     Embarrassment
2.     Anxiety
3.     Lack of confidence and inability to get past “I’m not good enough”

Knowing we wouldn’t get significantly better if we didn’t improve and knowing the only way to truly improve was to challenge ourselves in practice, I made a couple of changes.

First, I closed practice; no more spectators. The logic was simple: the players would be more comfortable to take risks in front of only their teammates, who they trusted. Further, I explained that get out of your comfort-zone portion of practice was a non-judgmental portion of practice. The only requirement was for players to work hard. It didn’t matter if you’re making or missing shots.

Although, I was anti-music during practice, during this stage, I allowed a player to choose a CD to be played during this portion. This loosened the mood a little. As coaches, we made a deliberate decision to offer only words of encouragement with occasional coaching tips. No criticisms were allowed. We shared stories, videos and quotes about hard work, grit, and improvement.

After the “get out of your comfort zone” drill portion, we immediately transitioned into a drill that players were comfortable with to ensure players weren’t caught up in any residual negatives from a tough couple of minutes. This was usually followed by a water break. During the water break, my assistant coach and I offered specific praise to each player and asked a question that required a certain amount of positive reflection (“Did you feel yourself getting more comfortable with...”or “Do you see yourself getting better?).

Slowly our student-athletes became more and more comfortable with getting out of their comfort zones. They became better players and we became a better team.

My next blog post will focus on how I encouraged risk-taking in my classroom.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Maintaining Standards in a Time of Standardization

Do standardized tests constrain teachers? Without a doubt.

Many teachers fear the slightest deviation from government standards and some schools require teachers to follow an extremely structured curriculum. I remember in the second year of Virginia’s SOL (Standards of Learning) tests,  my administrators, unhappy with our scores, required us to refrain from teaching anything not in the state’s frameworks. We were directed, “If it’s not explicitly mentioned in the state’s standards, it should not even be mentioned in class.” At the time, Winston Churchill was not included in the World History II Curriculum. How can one teach World War II without mentioning Churchill?

Fortunately, most schools have moved away from such arbitrary policies. But, many teachers still feel handcuffed. They argue that their individualism, creativity and expertise have been stripped from them.

For a few, this probably is true. But are they the best teachers? The best teachers still provide students with authentic learning experiences. Students in these classes use project-based learning, evaluate and relate to real-world issues, conduct labs, and constantly analyze information. Students build an understanding of their world beyond the established standards.

Teaching to the test is the bare minimum. The great teachers teach above the test.