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Reflections on Teacher Leaders: From a Pro Football Coach

It’s 2006 at a Minnesota Vikings practice. Darren Sharper, a ninth-year veteran and star player, is loafing at practice.

A voice calls out: “Hey Sharper, you ain’t immune to this.... Get your ass over here.” Sharper glares. Silence.

Then Sharper walks over, grabs a helmet, and starts the drill.

The challenge came from Kevin Williams, a fellow Vikings player, in just his third year. The relieved young coach, absorbing the whole exchange? Brendan Daly.

“Kevin Williams was an all-in team guy,” Daly recalls. “He was an on-field coach, not afraid to challenge guys. A leader. He just commanded respect.”

When Daly joined the New England Patriots as a coach in 2014, he found another player like that. “We had Vince Wilfork anchoring our defensive line. He was the whole package: a no-nonsense star who set the tone. If you have a leader like Vince, you can add a couple of other guys who might have some [things] to deal with, because Vince will get them right.”

Every teacher hopes for a Vince Wilfork: a respected student who can set a positive tone for other kids, who can counteract a ringleader who nudges the classroom culture towards disaffection or disorder.

Similarly, every principal hopes for a Kevin Williams on his teaching team: a respected educator who holds his peers accountable, who pushes for a focus on achievement, who can counteract a ringleader who complains frequently.

The New England Patriots don’t just hope for these types. They seek them out.

*

I interviewed Daly in a coffee shop back in April, two months after the Pats won Super Bowl LI.  Before becoming a coach, Daly spent a brief stint as a school teacher." Coaches are teachers," he said. "That’s all it is. We just teach a different subject than the stuff in school."

Even though it was the off-season, Daly had been scouting.

“We’re looking for players who will call out other guys when needed,” he explained, “and who won’t just leave that to coaches.

"We believe the best way for learning to happen is when small groups of players are studying hard, without coaches…that’s what we prefer," Daly tells me. It sounds obvious. But isn’t. Anyone will choose a leader-with-talent over a non-leader-with-equal-talent. The question is: Will you sacrifice athletic talent for better leadership?

“We’re no different than any other sport,” explains Daly, turning to basketball. “Lebron James clearly sets expectation about defensive intensity, so his teammates notice. Isaiah Thomas does the bare minimum on defense, in the most obvious way. We need leaders in our meetings, in our film sessions, in our practices…and most of all when we [the coaches] aren’t around.”

This reminds me of the best teachers, who get students “owning” the work, wrestling with the key questions in small groups or alone, rather than with the teacher spoon-feeding it. Coaches want the same thing: players “owning” the preparation work.

*

“How do you scout leadership?” I ask Daly.

"Leadership is definitely the hardest quality to assess," he says. “I can see the player’s technique on film. I can read their physical scores. But I learn about leadership by talking to coaches and assistant coaches. Some I trust. Some I don’t. Some trust me and will tell me what they really think. Others probably don’t.

"Bear in mind, when a head football coach is fired or leaves, all the assistants typically get fired—because a new coach doesn’t want to deal with people they don’t know and trust. Probably not true in schools—if a principal leaves, the teachers and assistant principal don’t leave as well. So football is culture where 'who you know' matters a lot for new jobs. That in turn affects scouting, and makes it more relationship-driven."

I’m reminded here of teacher hiring. In many schools, the process is: resumes are sorted, then the interview process does the heavy lifting, with a throw-in reference check at the end, where someone reads a few glowing references to make sure the word “axe-murderer” is not in there.

In many charter school networks, however, the teacher hiring process is inverted. They use LinkedIn to find a first or second-degree acquaintance who really knows the candidate, and seeks out a candid blind reference. That information is gold. It goes to what the teacher is “really like” in the staff room, in meetings, in the hallways, during summer professional development.

Only after praise in that reference check does the interview process unfold, and even there the tone might be, "We’re already impressed and want to make you a job offer, so this discussion is more answering your questions to assess if you think our school is the right fit.”

There’s an aspect of Daly’s recruiting work that involves decoding language.

“If I hear ‘Leads by example,’ often that’s faint praise. ‘Will say something if needed’—okay, based on that comment, maybe it’s not a natural leadership, but the player is at least making an attempt. The phrase ‘More feared than respected by teammates’ is different from ‘He confronts other guys, he jumps on their ass, and demands a certain level of performance.’ That last part sounds promising.

Tom Brady is vocal during games,” Daly continues. “Fans see that. What’s unseen is [his leadership] all the other hours of the week.”

Status matters, too.  "Trey Flowers is not a vocal guy. But from an intangibles standpoint, doing what the coaching staff wants in terms of preparation, he’s as good as it gets.  In 2015, some saw Trey as a sorry rookie. By 2016 he had quickly gained the respect of the other players, because of his on-field performance as a D-lineman. That matters. Players don’t listen as much to the leaders who aren’t also top performers. If you’re a great leader who doesn’t play much, that’s some value, but not the same.”

There's been a focus on strengthening teacher evaluation in recent years. That's great. In the past, most "evaluations" were meaningless. One thing I would love researchers to explore: whether there is a measurable “teacher leadership” effect, something that shows up perhaps in student test score gains or faculty retention—the way it does on the scoreboard on Sundays in the NFL.

Mike Goldstein, a FutureEd senior fellow, is the founder of Match Education in Boston.