Ch. 14: How to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles

If teachers were allowed to be coaches,
our schools would become centers of learning populated by happy,
inspired students and their happy teachers.

 In Tony Holler’s thirty-eight years as a high school teacher, he’s seen the best and worst of public education. Tony taught honors chemistry at Plainfield North High in the greater Chicago area.

Now retired, he laments the way teachers today are hamstrung by the mandate for a core curriculum, and by national policies such as “No Child Left Behind” that force students into a standardized, lock-step education that ignores their individual needs.

Tony says, “Schools force-feed the curriculum to students every single day. The political ‘war on education’ has forced schools into an all-consuming quest for higher ACT and SAT scores, disregarding the toll it takes on the students.

“I work at an excellent school. My principal asked the teachers what our school was doing well. My answer: ‘The trains run on time.’

“This was not the answer my principal expected. I would give my school an A-plus for organization and discipline. It’s the education that bothers me…. My own best teachers were artists. They didn’t paint by the numbers.”

Tony’s views on education are biting, but they are fueled by a desire to see young people thrive and be successful and happy, and a distaste for the obstacles that politically motivated policies place in their way.

Tony Holler with nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis at a training consortium where they were featured speakers. Tony’s ideas on training sprinters reflect his beliefs about learning in the classroom: it should be challenging and fun, but not grimly stressful or drearily mechanical.

For Tony, the flipside is that he’s intimately familiar with a side of public education where happy, motivated students learn to perform at high levels of excellence every single day.

The methods used on that side of the high school campus look remarkably like the Education for Life principles of the Living Wisdom Schools. The problem is, you will rarely find these extremely successful, comprehensively proven methods practiced in the classroom.

Tony believes that if teachers were allowed to adopt coaching principles, it would transform our schools overnight into vibrant centers of learning, populated by happy, motivated students.

Those methods are on display daily, right under the noses of the school administrators and government policy makers — yet nobody is paying attention.

When Tony coached freshman football from 2010 to 2015, his teams went 49-4, averaging 44-plus points per game. When he taught at Harrisburg (Illinois) High School, his track teams won the state title in the 4×100 a remarkable four times. In 2018, his Plainfield North High track team won the 4×100 title in an Illinois state record time of 41.29. An hour later, a 15-year-old PNHS sprinter ran a state record in the 100 meters (10.31). The team won four gold medals and placed third, close behind two larger track powerhouse high schools.

Tony knows what it takes to produce winners on the track and in the classroom. What follows is his overview of the principles that earned him election to the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame, and that he believes should be adopted in school classrooms everywhere.

  1. Sports are not a graduation requirement. Kids play sports because they are challenging and fun. Advanced Placement courses should similarly “sell” themselves, and not be forced upon all of the students by government decree.
  2. Coaches don’t spend 80 percent of their time with the 20 percent of kids who can’t do the work. Students should be helped to succeed at their own level. A one-size-fits-all definition of success is ridiculous and is bound to fail.
  3. Coaches aren’t told how to coach. Schools should give teachers the freedom to adapt the curriculum to the needs of the individual student.
  4. Kids play sports because they hear rumors about the great team culture on a football, basketball, baseball, or track team. Teachers should be allowed to make their courses exciting and attractive to the students — whatever it takes.
  5. You play to win the game. Too many schools are diploma mills. Schools should set themselves no less a goal than to help every single student experience the greatest possible success at their own, individual level of ability.
  6. All men are not created equal. Every student is talented, but not in the same way as others. This obvious fact of individual differences should be given primary consideration in the classroom.
  7. Coaches don’t give grades. Grades are meaningful only as they measure the individual students’ progress. Grades should not be held up as a goal, or used as a motivator or, much worse, as a punishment.
  8. Failure is not an option. Great coaches make sure every player has daily experiences of success. This is the way to create excitement and enthusiasm for learning. How to give each student daily success experiences? By challenging them daily at their own level.
  9. Coaches are leaders, not bosses. Rigid, authoritarian teachers are obsolete. Teachers must be given the freedom, skills, and experience to make learning exciting and to introduce every student to the thrill of overcoming challenges again and again, every day.
  10. Coaches don’t need advanced degrees. The value of an advanced degree has been artificially inflated in the teaching profession. Good teachers know how to help kids succeed regardless of their academic credentials.

Tony concludes:

“I’ve spent thirty-eight of my fifty-nine years going to high school and hanging out with teenagers. As I enter the twilight of my teaching career, I dream of better schools. I dream of independent students who are bold and assertive. I dream of students who have the enthusiasm of athletes. I dream of teachers who run their classrooms like coaches, tailoring courses to the talents and interests of their students. If schools were more like sports, maybe kids would love school.”

(Adapted with permission from “Ten Ways to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles,” by Tony Holler:

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.