For Educators: More Lessons from the Gridiron

In a recent blog post, I shared an interview I did with New England Patriots coach Brendan Daly, a former teacher, on coaching and teacher leadership. But Daly had a lot more to say about preparing for football games that related to education. Here are a few more of his thoughts—and mine.

1. Game Film

NFL players and coaches spend a ton of time watching game film—of themselves and opponents. I asked Daly how he uses film to help his players. His response:

“I won’t say to a player that you need to get better at 15 to 20 things. I’ll pick one. Maybe swim move. Maybe stab progression. I will give him tape that exactly what we’re looking for. Often it’s a clip of him doing it bad, and other players doing it good. I can show him clips from a drill, him against a sled, him against one blocker, him in 11-on-11 drills, him in a game.” 

“We have a video department, but I do a lot of this myself. To me it’s time worth spending. Details matter. If I’m showing tape of a bull rush to Alan Branch (a mammoth defensive tackle at 350 pounds), I can’t show him (a relatively nimble) 260-pound Rob Ninkovich doing the same move. Just like it probably doesn’t help a soft-spoken new teacher to see game film of the revered, 30-year veteran. It’s just not a good comparison.

I mentioned to Daly that author Doug Lemov and others have led an effort to have teachers improve in similar ways.

“I wish someone had sat me down like that when I first became a teacher,” Daly told me. “I was a history major at Drake University, got certified to teach, and taught briefly in Tampa and Baltimore before I got into coaching. Maybe we’ve got a kid who is chronic issue in every class, Mrs. Smith handles it well, and Mr. Thompson struggles. If I’d gotten coaching like that and could see the tape, I would avoided some issues that I created as a teacher.”

2. Nutrition/Rest

 Daly says he’s come to appreciate the role of nutrition, sleep, rest, recovery and rejuvenation.

“Years ago this was not even discussed in the NFL. Now we got a sleep room, float tanks, and since last year when the Players Association allowed it, lots of analytics measuring all that, with GPS tracking.” 

I think there’s an important analog to teaching, particularly for newer teachers. Rest matters! The benefit of late night Google search to add to tomorrow’s lesson plan is low, and the cost tomorrow might be a sleepy and over-caffeinated teacher who is irritable or jumpy with the students. One bad interaction might undo the whole lesson.

I’d love to see an experiment where teachers were allowed to take their whole year’s allotment of professional development funding and instead use it to hire a personal trainer who’d work on fitness.  If done as a randomized control trial, I’d bet a dollar on the students of the “fit, less stressed” teachers learning more than the teachers who got more business-as-usual training.

3. Grading Players

Just like students, football players receive constant feedback on their performance, Daly says.

“We grade every play—not just in games, in practice, too. There’s a simple plus/minus system, with different grades for technique and production. We don’t want rookies to feel ‘paralysis by analysis,’ so I combine all this feedback with an overall message of ‘You’ll make mistakes, just don’t make the same mistakes.’ 

“I wait to give out my grading sheets to the D-line until after the all defense meeting, which is typically more about scheme. I don’t want my players looking at their score sheets while he’s focused on something else. Veteran players can probably self-grade pretty accurately. 

The Gates Foundation recently announced it was scaling back its multi-year effort to improve teacher evaluation. That’s too bad, because I thought the foundation unearthed some valuable ideas, but I understand that the politics were just too tough.

So: The status quo—a typical teacher is formally observed somewhere between zero and one time a year, with 99 percent being “satisfactory”—remains in too many places. And there’s rarely enough focus on the role that teacher leaders play in inspiring better performance from others.

Per my earlier blog post, and paging [Brown University researcher] Matt Kraft: I would like to see a researcher examine whether there is a measurable “teacher leadership” effect, something that shows up perhaps in student test score gains or faculty retention.

4. Want more scouting? Then cut meetings

 Daly credits Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick for keeping meetings to a minimum.

“One refreshing thing about Bill: He doesn’t do lots of meetings where you sit and talk through every player’s performance. We have a few quick hitters, he may make a few comments, ‘That guy was brutal, get him out of there,’ but it doesn’t drag. Same with the draft process: One of our scouts told me that in Denver and Arizona, they gather every scout and position coach, the GM and head coach—and everyone sits as they discuss every possible collegiate prospect. This lasts a week! Not Bill.

I thought of my own time as a school leader, sometimes scheduling meetings that seemed important to me but probably were less so to others. I didn’t adequately factor in the opportunity cost, where the teacher could have been doing more valuable solo preparation than being in a group meeting.

5. Putting it together

This is just my commentary as a Pats fan, and not from Daly. The Pats are unusual in the NFL for several reasons.  Here are two.

First, while practice time is carefully regulated and limited by the league to be the same for all teams, film study is not limited. And so the Pats are not limited from trying to get players to do more of this. Which evidently happens. One result of that extra player preparation is that the Pats seem to improve during the season more than other teams.

Second, the Pats eschew “an identity” that has them playing the same way each week. They prefer to shift identities based on each week’s opponent, which means players simply need to “learn more stuff.”

It’s easy to see how those two characteristics combine: you have to have the first (willingness by players to put in the extra time), before you can do the second (change strategies each week). That leads to an obvious need: The Pats must get players willing to burn the midnight oil, and they must get at least some player leaders willing to push one another to focus more during practice, during meetings, and on their own. The coaches don’t have enough leverage to enforce that norm on their own.

So what’s the lesson for schools?

Some schools use the Pats’ strategy (a transparent expectation of “extra work” from staff, combined with pedagogic strategies that require that “extra work”), like Success Academies. Some schools deploy a simpler pedagogical approach that doesn’t require “extra work,” and those schools also have the benefit of being aligned.

Where I think schools get caught in the middle sometimes is one without the other.  The football version is when a coach tries to copy the Pats’ habit of changing identities each week; without the team’s work ethic and player leadership, the coach just confuses players, and they’re worse off than if they just kept things plain vanilla. The school version is asking teachers for time-intensive ways of teaching (using data, communicating more with parents, differentiating instruction, adding projects, integrating technology), without securing any agreement on working the additional hours. So the result is muddled.  (I’ve been a prime offender in this arena).

[Read more: Reflection on Teacher Leaders: From a Pro Football Coach]