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What I learned about teaching from a terrible NFL playoff game.

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Photo courtesy of theodessyonline.com

I’m a big football fan. In fact, my very first blog post was also focused on what I learn about writing from football. This past weekend’s game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, though, has had me in deep contemplation. You see, my Cincinnati team suffered a terrible loss. While I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of their self-destruction, I will say that the disappointment is still with me. So, here are my “teaching moment” takeaways…

1. It’s never too late to screw things up. Now, this is a lesson we often forget. In the game, our team had thought they’d sealed the deal with only a minute and a half left and possession of the ball. (Bengals fans are forever optimistic.) But, turns out, you can lose a game in the last seconds. You make a bad play, turn over the ball, and suddenly you’re crying in your cheese dip.

The same can happen in the classroom. We’re two weeks from the end of a course, and everything is smooth sailing from here. Or is it? My students complete final group projects, and I used to wait until the last days for them to present their materials. Until one night when all of my groups presented, and I realized they’d completely missed the mark. I had been checking in on them regularly. I’d provided them all of the materials they needed to succeed. I’d asked them questions and met with them individually. I honestly don’t know what happened between weeks 15 and 16, but something did. So what do you do?

This is the takeaway here. Now, after learning my lesson, my due dates are several days before the last day of classes or exams which allows time for course correction.

2. Don’t show your worst side in the face of adversity. Stay classy, right? Sunday night, when our team started losing and the pressure started rising, the football wheels fell off—of both teams. Honestly, I’ve never seen such a lousy display of sportsmanship on a field.

But, I’ve seen similar acts of childishness and anger at work, too. Football field or academic institution, I’ve seen so many students, faculty, and staff lose their cool when the pressure was on. Deep breaths. Calm thinking. Strategic next moves. Nothing good ever comes from losing it when you need it the most.

And let hot-head Bengal Vontaze Burfict teach you a lesson. Your actions have consequences. At the least, they leave you with a reputation. Whether he’s right in the mix or defending another player, Burfict is going to be the guy everyone turns to as the instigator and troublemaker. Is that the reputation you want?

3. Sometimes you get it right. Sometimes you get it wrong. But you make the call. As a former athlete, I try to give referees, line judges, umpires, whatever the benefit of the doubt. Why? Well, they’re human. I tell my kids, no team ever leaves a field and says, “Man, those refs got it all right.” I started thinking about this when I read Joe Posnanski’s article “Official Decision” on NBS’c Sportsworld. Referees are what they are. They make the calls which sometimes make the game. They have the tough skin to leave a game and know the decision they made is final.

As the instructor of the course, you are the referee. Your call goes. All you have to do is follow the rules as best you can. Now, here’s the question. Are your rules clear? When you lay out your syllabus, are you clear about what you expect and how you will manage the course? It’s to your advantage and that of all of your students to do so. Don’t force yourself to make calls on the fly. Lay it out. Be clear. And be decisive.

4. Let everyone know why you call the plays you do. In so many football games, we fans wonder why coaches call certain plays. To the outsider, they make no sense at all. Why call a run play when a pass is “clearly” best? Why go for the extra two when there’s plenty of time left? We fans all have these moments.

But, do not leave your students wondering why. Why is my course set up like this? Why are we doing this assignment? Why does my teacher post things in that way? Communication is key for students. Explain how to navigate your course. How you’ll communicate with them. Where to find information, assignments, grades and feedback. Don’t leave your students in the dark about why your class is the way it is. Frequent and regular communication with explanations and details (rubrics, too) help students understand why and how the course (and you) works the way it does.

So, that’s about it. Yes, I’m still sad and angry and disappointed. But, as an optimistic Bengal and teacher, there’s always next year, and there’s always another semester.



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