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The Joy of Teaching and Coaching: Learning what students/athletes know and what they don't

On any given day, I'm simultaneously encouraged and discouraged, happy and sad, impressed and amazed, shocked and chagrined by what my students know and what they don't. While watching "In Search of Greatness," the legendary soccer player Pele admitted that he took up martial arts for two years because he needed to learn how to fall. As he spoke, the video aired clips from "Enter the Dragon." I was unsure if my students recognized either icon. When Bruce Lee came on the screen, I turned to my students and said "Do you know who that is?" They all did. I smiled.

I never assume. I always ask: Do you know...?!  This simple check-in is not to be underestimated. How? Why? Learning, education, the search for truth and the quest for knowledge is dynamic. It is an unfolding reality—both humbling and exciting. But it's not lightning in a bottle. For example, in his annual address to faculty, my friend Daniel McMahon, the principal of DeMatha High School said, "Indeed, all good teaching involves the imagination because good teaching begins with the twin tasks of assessing where a student is and then combining that with an imaginative sense of what they know and where you can begin." This is what makes teaching fun. I get to use my imagination, I plot a course, I anticipate and outcome—but what emerges in this shared journey is the tale of each class/each school year. No two are the same. Teachers and coaches know this, but reminders never hurt. Here's a fun one.

I teach Christology—the study of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. I use a variety of modalities to engage with Scripture. Given the complexity of the names in the Genealogy of Jesus (Chapter 1: 1-17), I told my class we would listen to the passage from a website, The Public Reading of Scripture. However, when I went to hit play it wasn't the same. What I had once used was no longer available and I didn't have the time to figure it out. Desperate for time (and not to read it), I typed in the passage of Matthew into YouTube search. One of the first choices available was a reading of Jesus' family tree by Johnny Cash. The man in black. Love his speaking voice. Let's do this.

Relieved to have the man in black in my pocket, I asked my students "Do you know who Johnny Cash was?" Crickets. "That's ok. I'm not totally surprised. There was a movie about his life. I Walk the Line. Does that ring a bell? Maybe one or two let on some familiarity. "Ok here we go."

Cash nailed it. What a powerful performance. Each name was given equal importance: Judah, Jehoshaphat, Boaz and Salmon, David, Solomon, Joseph and more. One begot the other, fourteen generations from 
Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah. Amen.

Students were asked to choose a word or phrase to capture what they heard. I asked them to write their answer on the board; bloodline, generations, and ancestors stood out. As we were finishing up, I returned to YouTube and typed in "Ring of Fire." I told them "this is also Johnny Cash." Audible sounds of recognition took over the room. I let it play and went from student to student to check in on a different assignment. As I moved from one table to the next I realized something: everyone was singing. Boys and girls. I had no idea. 

Because that lesson took so many unexpected turns, I found the space to just go with the flow.  I was able to enjoy the moment for what it is...for what it was. Sophomores being sophomores. Singing and actually working. Proving me wrong; proving me right. Finding a place of true symbiosis—I teach and I learn. Students learn and that noble, important task—they teach.

Fellow teachers and coaches, I invite you to be curious. Ask and assess where your students and athletes are at with an open mind and heart. Create the space things to go right and the space to your students and athletes to make them right when they go wrong. Play the music. I hope they sing.

Photo Credits
Bruce Lee
Johnny Cash New Testament




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