The Old College Try: Coaching in the Classroom.


I’m going into my fifth year of teaching so I still consider myself something of a neophyte teacher.  Still, I’m fortunate to have some non-traditional background that I bring with me into my classroom–particularly that of having been in the military and also a wrestling coach.  Normally, I don’t think most people would associate these experiences with informing how one teaches students English reading and writing skills, but I do think there is a very real place for them.

The Army motto is “Mission First, People Always.”  This sort mindset rather speaks to my teaching:  End-results are important, but developing students is foremost.  As a cadet and then young lieutenant, I was sometimes slow to many tasks at first and so, I simply trained and trained and trained until I finally got it right, taking what I learned from each successive failure and adding it to my next attempt until I found success.  I had fellow soliders, noncommissioned officers, and senior officers to aid me in each attempt–firm but clear and supportive.  After leaving the service and beginning my teaching career, I had the wonderful opportunity to coach a high school wrestling team.  What I learned quickly about the wrestling community is that one could still earn respect (from one’s opponents and him or herself) despite a loss:  it was all about the “fight s/he brought to the mat.”  These young warriors reinforced the notion that while the wins are the only ways a wrestler scores points for his/her team, the celebration of the sport was in the process that each wrestler brought forth.

In the short five years I’ve taught developmental English, I’ve noticed some of the following demographics in the student population: learning disabled (documented and disclosed or not officially diagnosed), non-native speakers, adult learners, and “bad” students (i.e. those who–for one reason or another–did not have successful high school experiences).  I use the last term quite loosely.  What I find most of these different groups of students have in common is a lack of confidence… though this tends to manifest in different ways with each group. Students can be apathetic and disinterested, others show themselves to be outright defiant in their lack of effort / performance, while still others are noticeably timid and shy to varying degrees.  It seems as though they merely expect my class to reinforce the previous experiences they had before.  This is the aspect of the class where I find coaching students tends to fall outside of my curriculum’s learning objectives but falls squarely into my scope of responsibility as their instructor.

I believe in coaching students in their performance as students, and not necessarily just equipping them with further learning strategies they can ply in their various reading and writing assignments.  I try to hold high standards, show how to meet those standards, and then provide feedback on how to correct their previous attempts. More often than not, I’m more likely to focus on the process of whatever we’re doing over the result.  NOT that results don’t count or factor into one’s grade, but I want them to know their engagement in doing what we’re talking about it as equally important, i.e. giving an informed answer over a correct one, demonstrating organization and development in an essay even if the examples aren’t always the best.  And I’m really not a believer in “candy coating” things, however, as I want them to be respected–even if it doesn’t make them *feel* warm and fuzzy immediately afterwards (i.e. good process but the results weren’t enough to pass).  But instead of focusing on the failure, I try to reorient them to what lessons they can learn and use it to improve the next time around (whether finding better, more salient examples on the next essay to reapplying the reading strategy in conjunction with a note-taking strategy as test prep).  I realize that many of my past students would probably label me something of a hard ass, but much it comes from a desire / need / compulsion to ensure that they are not left lacking when they leave my classroom.

Perhaps much of what I’m going on much too long about is self-evident.  I just can’t help but be struck with how much need there is for these students to get more than just the content-specific instruction (particularly after this morning and afternoon’s classes I just finished meeting with).  Coaching these students in the “ways of the Jedi–er, student” is sometimes (I think) just as important as the reading and writing strategies themselves.

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About fhelvie

I live in CT with my wife and two sons. I am also writing my doctoral dissertation, which is focused on the relationship between American literature and comic book superheroes. I have served as a panelist at a number of conferences discussing my research in comics, medieval literature, and pedagogy. Most recently, I had the good fortune to present at the New York Comic Con. In addition to my work in comics scholarship, I'm also a full-time professor of developmental English.
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