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Good Teaching is a Lot Like Coaching a Mule!
If you’re reading this and are from Salem, VA you might have a clue what that statement means. If you’re not from Salem you’re probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about.
A little background: High school football is a pretty big deal in Salem, just like it is in so many small towns across our country. But in Salem, Virginia, football might be a slightly bigger deal than in most towns. The Salem Spartans have had great success on the football field for many years. In the past 26 years, they’ve won 17 district, 13 region, and 6 state championships. There have been many reasons for that success, but one consistent throughout all those successful years has been the tough blue-collar play of the offensive line. And that offensive line is collectively known as The Mules.
From 2000-2004, I had the privilege of being a coach in Salem’s football program. I was at the bottom of the totem pole – middle school assistant coach – but it was tons of fun to work with the kids and to learn from the amazing coaches in the system. Willis White, the Virginia High School League Hall of Famer, was the head coach for the high school team. He liked to remind me that he had “holes in his underwear older than me.” A buddy I coached with once told me that Larry Bradley, the head coach of our middle school team, had forgotten more football than I’d ever know. There were so many excellent coaches in the program, but the one I learned the most from was Billy Miles, the coach of The Mules.
As a former high school offensive lineman who had already coached a middle school offensive line at another school, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of what it took to be a successful offensive line coach. When I was hired to coach for Salem, I sat down with Coach Miles so that he could teach me how to coach Mules. As I came to appreciate the way The Mules were coached, I also came to realize that I had a lot to learn!
The Mules were taught higher level thinking. They learned rules and philosophies which they then applied to the thousands of different situations they might encounter. They made calls, did combo blocks, read the defense, talked to one another, and changed their plans and assignments all within a matter of seconds depending on how the defense was lined up. Their ability to apply their knowledge was evident on Friday nights (and Saturdays in the playoffs) as game after game the Spartans were able to pound the ball behind The Mules and right down the opponent’s throat. Coach Miles was a phenomenal coach and an even better teacher. I had a never been around a high school offensive line that operated on that cerebral a level.
As Coach Miles taught me how to play like a Mule – a prerequisite to being able to coach Mules – I’m sure he could see that I was getting excited. I couldn’t wait to take all that I was learning and share it with the Mules of the future at our middle school. It was then that Coach Miles reminded me of something: Before I could get my players to this high level of play, I had to make sure they mastered the basics.
Coach Miles told me to stay away from teaching them how to read the defense and make calls until they could first get in a stance and could make the appropriate first step. And he told me that I needed to refresh the basics with my players every single day.
So that’s what we did. We practiced getting into a three point stance. We did it over and over again until they had mastered it. Then we did it some more. We got into three-point stances and took our first steps until they could do it in their sleep. Then we did that some more. As the season went on, we practiced the basics a little less than we did earlier in the year. After all, I needed to teach my guys how to apply their knowledge to game situations, and that takes time. But there wasn’t a single practice where we didn’t focus at least a little bit on the basics.
Occasionally I would go up to the varsity practice field to watch Coach Miles and his Mules. Man, did they work hard! If you think Marine Corps drill sergeants are tough, you must never have watched Coach Miles! He made the Marine Corps look like Sunday School! But Coach Miles loved his Mules and they respected him. It was a joy to watch them put into practice all he had taught them.
But even The Mules practiced the basics every day. That’s right – The Mules, who could read a defense and adjust their blocking schemes in a matter of seconds, still practiced getting in their stance and taking the correct first step every single day.
Coach Miles never assumed they were beyond the basics. Therefore, there was no way they would ever forget the basics. You really can’t become a cohesive and dominant offensive line if you don’t have the basics down. I suppose Coach Miles could have skipped the basics and assumed that as a varsity coach he was above that. I suppose when a player messed up the basics he could have bemoaned the woeful and inadequate coaching the players received at the middle school level. But instead, Coach Miles recognized that without the basics his team would never get to the higher level. Instead, he took the responsibility on himself to make sure his players had the skills they needed.
See how this applies to teaching?
Great teaching is just like coaching The Mules. The goal is higher level thinking. The goal is to take what has been learned and then apply it to new situations. But it all starts with the basics. Students newer to the content (like my middle school linemen) need more time focusing on the basics, but ALL STUDENTS need to continually refresh the basics if they’re going to truly reach mastery. Students more familiar with the content might not need as much time refreshing the basics, but they still need to revisit them to some degree on a regular basis.
I think sometimes we educators overlook the importance of the basics. We feel like we have too much to cover to spend time going over the basics. For example, an Algebra 2 teacher might not feel like he should have to focus on addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and using fractions. A US History teacher might not feel like she has time to focus on vocabulary not directly related to her state standards. A Science teacher might not feel as though she should have to routinely revisit proper lab procedures. And these teachers would be (in my opinion) incorrect.
I routinely hear teachers point out that a lack of basic skills prevents students from mastering their course content. I think those teachers are correct. Students often lack the basics which in turn prevents higher level mastery. My response, though, is to copy Coach Miles. If the basics are what are preventing students from having success, then focus on the basics. Perhaps part of the reason students are lacking the basics is that we have a tendency to assume they should have been learned already and as a result move away from them.
Consider your own content area for a moment. Would your students have more success if they had a better level of mastery of the basics? Would you have a greater chance of helping them reach higher levels of application if they knew the basics better? If the answer to either or both question was “yes” then the only acceptable next step (assuming you want your students to have success and to reach higher levels of application) is to figure out how to work regular reviews of the basics into the fabric of your classroom.
This is how you coach The Mules, and this is how you teach students.