June 4, 2012

We love that Basketball…

In honor of the NBA Conference Finals, I wanted to think out loud about a few parallels between sports (basketball in particular), education policy/discourse, and teaching.   It seems like the sports adage, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” has permeated into the educational discourse.  We are hell bent on “winning” (all apologies to Charlie Sheen).  What does winning mean?  Who wins?  And, as I used to implore my history students to ask, who wins and at what cost?

In an earlier blog post, I lamented about teachers, it seems like everyone from Diane Ravitch, to Randi Weingarten to the local teacher doing lunch duty of helping their children cross the street, feeling as if they  are being “bashed,” “scapegoated” or worse.  Let’s examine this current political climate and discourse through the lens of sports (sorry for those of you who are sport phobic).

If schools and their stakeholders are “teams,” who is the “owner?”  Parents?  The Community?  The District?  Let’s put the ownership aside and look at the micro level.  If teachers comprise  the “team” we have to admit, as in any sporting endeavor, that there are “superstars,” “stars,” “role players,” and “has-bens.”  On a basketball team, there are 12 players. Multiply that dynamic in a school building and you have the potential for a powder keg.   While everyone wants to believe that they are either the “superstar” or the “star” most people are “role players.”

During their unlikely and improbable run to the Eastern Conference Semi Finals, the Philadelphia 76ers were the epitome of “overachievers.”  They survived the first round of the playoffs only after the reigning MVP of the NBA, Derrick Rose went down with a season ending knee injury.  They were helped even further by an injury to another important starter and one of the biggest energy guys in the league, Joakim Noah.  The Sixers not only dispatched of the Bulls in 6 games, but in the next round, took the 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics to 7 games before succumbing.
The point of mentioning the Sixers is not to whine more about my beloved Bulls being upset in the playoffs, but to make this point.  There are teams, organizations and situations which look perfect on paper but in the practical application of events, things fall apart – in other words, stuff happens.  Could have’s begin to dominate the conversation as opposed to what actually is taking place.  In the discussion surrounding public school teachers, too many pundits and especially many "leaders" in the teachers unions would like us to believe what I said above, that there are only superstars and stars.  In the discussion surrounding education reform, no one mentions the role players or worse, the has-beens. 

What this means is that ed reformers and pundits continue to present a false dichotomy.  Whereas in sports, those of us who have played the game, or are avid fans, know that in order to make a truly great team you need a mix of players and coaches who know how to bring the best out of their teams (see Phil Jackson, or more recently Greg Popovich as examples of excellence).  

In schools therefore, it is critical that we not only be more honest about the make up and composition of our teams, but also that we help attract and foster coaches (administrators) who are able to bring the best out of their teams.  Hopefully we can begin to have the tough conversation of acknowledging that not everyone is a superstar.  But that is ok.  It takes all members to not just think they are a superstar, but to strive to be one.  Not the one who scores the most points, or gets the most endorsements, but the one who knows their role and is the best in the clutch and, most importantly, helping their team win.  It goes without saying that more successful teams allow for coaches to have the ability to create, organize and manage their own teams and members, but that discussion is for another day.

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