Ch. 18: How to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles

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

In Tony Holler’s thirty-eight years as a teacher, he’s seen the best and worst of public education.

Tony teaches honors chemistry at Plainfield North High School, in the greater Chicago area. Tony 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 them to give their students a standardized, lock-step education that ignores the students’ 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.

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

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

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

Besides teaching honors chemistry, Tony coaches track and field. In sports, unlike academics as taught today, what matters isn’t test scores but solid results. On the football field, there are no test scores to distract attention from the scoreboard. Coaches must either adopt methods that bring out the best in every kid, or risk being fired.

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

Those methods are on display every single day, 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 (10.31). The team won four gold medals and placed third, close behind two much larger track powerhouse schools.

Tony knows what it takes to nurture winners on the track and in the classroom. What follows is Tony’s 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.

Sports are not graduation requirements. 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.

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.

Coaches aren’t told how to coach. Schools should give teachers the freedom to tailor the curriculum to the needs of the individual student.

Sports programs are promoted. 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.

You play to win the game. Too many schools are diploma mills. Schools should set themselves no lesser goal than to help every single student experience the greatest possible success at their own, individual level of ability.

All men are not created equal. Every student is talented, but not in the same way as other students. The obvious fact of individual differences should be given primary consideration in the classroom.

Coaches don’t give grades. Grades are meaningful only as they measure each student’s progress. Grades should not be held up as the goal, or used as a motivator—or, worse, as a punishment.

Failure is not an option. Great coaches make sure that 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 at their own level.

Coaches are leaders, not bosses. Rigid, authoritarian teachers are obsolete. Teachers must have the flexibility, skills, and experience to make learning exciting and to introduce every student to the thrill of overcoming challenges, again and again, every day.

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.”

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

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