Students First in the Age of Accountability: What Teachers Can Learn from Dean Smith

Students First in the Age of Accountability: What Teachers Can Learn from Dean Smith

The death of former basketball coach Dean Smith has lessons for us as teachers. A common theme has emerged in the career of Dean Smith, which is that of the “player first” coach. Former players interviewed about their coach talk little about what he taught them regarding being basketball players and more about how he shaped them into being outstanding men. The players recount how it did not matter if they were a star player like Michael Jordan or an unknown walk-on player; Dean Smith treated each one as important and cared about them all. Dean Smith did this despite his career being based on his number of wins. His willingness to focus on what was important, and having that focus actually enhance, not detract, from his success at the game, offers an important lesson for us as teachers. Had Dean Smith not focused on the whole player, but instead focused only on winning the games, would he have been the winningest coach of his time?

As teachers, there is much talk that we are in an era of accountability. Our measure is not our number of wins, but instead student performance on assessments. Unfortunately, the focus on assessment performance has deterred some teachers from being “student first” teachers and has instead fostered an “assessment first” philosophy. However, if we do not put students first, not only are we not doing the right thing as teachers, but we are also less likely to get students to perform well on the assessments. Accountability does not make teaching to the whole child less important, but actually makes it more important than ever before. In order for students to be successful on the assessments, we must not lose shaping them into outstanding lifelong learners and citizens.

Sports commentators have emphasized Dean Smith’s practices more than they have focused on his games. The practices, according to reporters and former players, were carefully planned. He alsodid not hesitate to be innovative, informed by his knowledge of his players and their strengths and weaknesses. As teachers, we need to focus less on the assessments themselves and more on the lessons that lead to the assessments. We, like Smith, must carefully plan every minute of instruction and we must also make sure that we know our students and creatively maximize their strengths to overcome their weaknesses. What is our level of effectiveness in day-to-day lessons? Are we willing to be innovative and take risks?

Former National Player of the Year Jerry Stackhouse, when reflecting on Dean Smith, said, “It was always about the players.” There is no doubt that Dean Smith wanted to win and, in fact, had to in order to keep his position as head coach, but he did not let the accountability detract from what he needed to be to his players. As teachers, we must not forget it should always be about the students, not about the assessments. We must be what we need to be for our students—not just for the stars or those who struggle, but for each and every student. All students needs to know that we put them first.  Will your students reflect on your teaching and say it was always about the students?

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