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Awhile back I caught Brian Oliu reflecting on Twitter about some of the challenges of the present semester and his view of his responsiblity to make adjustments in his teaching. It resonated strongly with my own experiences and I reached out and asked him if he'd be interested in expanding on those thoughts in essay form. I'm grateful he took me up on the offer. - JW
Coaching in the Classroom: What Nick Saban Has Taught Me About Pedagogy
My hiring as a full-time teaching faculty member at the University of Alabama coincided with Nick Saban’s first National Championship for the Crimson Tide Football program. I’d like to imagine that I am the one who really pushed the team over the top in terms of creating a college football dynasty; that when future NFL Draft picks make a pinpoint accurate throw over the safety, or seal off the edge on a pivotal fourth and short, they are thinking about how I taught them the importance of message, method, and medium in their composition and literature courses.
There is a tumultuous relationship between college athletics and academics—athletic departments and universities spend (and in only a handful of cases make) millions of dollars off of the efforts of student-athletes. Athletes risk their well-being with no guarantee of future success in their field of expertise. However, with most universities focusing entirely on recruitment and enrollment, football is deeply entrenched in academic culture. Since Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007, Alabama’s enrollment has ballooned from just under 24,000 students to over 38,000. Many of my students chose to attend Alabama because of the football program and the atmosphere it creates. I’ve learned that my love of college football has proven to be an asset in the classroom; knowing the ins and outs of the game provides me a sense of ethos in the classroom. To be in tune with the play of our offensive line is to be in tune with my students.
Nick, my pedagogical cohort, is known for being a mercurial curmudgeon. He is quick to temper. He has zero patience for any question lobbed at him that he does not believe to be worth his time. He screams at assistant coaches and referees alike, even when the team itself is firing on all cylinders. As a result of this, he is regarded as someone who is distinctly stuck in his ways. The talk of Tuscaloosa is always about his rituals: two Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies and a cup of coffee every day for breakfast, a Caesar Salad for lunch. Always watching the Weather Channel. A Coke bottle at every press conference.
And yet, the truth of the matter is that he is extremely adaptable. When teams began running the spread offense exclusively, Saban railed against it, asking famously “Is this what we want football to be?” Fast forward five years, and the Crimson Tide offense has changed toward a more spread-like technique, and the team has gathered more hardware as a result. When asked about it, Saban retorted “It's unbelievable how much the game has changed, and it's really hard to coach defense now. But hey, it's on me—regardless of the way I think football should be played—if I don't change with it.”
Recently, I feel as if I have been at a crossroads with my teaching. I have taught hundreds of students—athletes and non-athletes alike. I like to imagine that I learn something brand new every single class—something that prepares me for the following semester. There is a belief that teaching is linear; the more that you do something, the better you get at it. While I find this to be true in certain senses, I also feel that just because I’ve gotten better at giving the same lectures to my students with the same jokes and same references, it doesn’t mean I’ve gotten better at actually teachingthe students. Many times we think of teaching as “performance,” which it undoubtedly is—but what good is a polished performance when the audience doesn’t feel anything? There are times that I believe that Saban is simply acting as a gruff coach because that is what is expected of him. I do this too: I put on my teaching persona. I go through the motions. I present myself as a “good teacher”. But in the same way acting stand-offish doesn’t make Saban an elite level coach, my teaching performance alone doesn’t bring success.
The same tricks that worked on one batch of students don’t always translate to working with a different batch of students. Over sushi, my wife, who has the same job I do, mentioned how she wonders if our students know we spend so much of our time worrying about them. Every time I feel as if I have this profession figured out, the variables shift, and I am left feeling inadequate as a teacher. I am a loud and gregarious teacher and I lean on the fact that my enthusiasm, even in my early morning classes, will eventually rub off. This semester, my attempts to connect to them are typically met with silence. I have a hard time discerning whether or not my students say they understand how a topic sentence works just to get me to move onto something else, or if they actually believe they comprehend this idea, only to fall short in their final papers.
I think it is easy to take things out on the students in this case. I’ve hypothesized over why my students haven’t engaged as much this semester than they have in past semesters: we’ve run the gamut between believing this batch is the first “true” Generation Z students, to malaise and exhaustion over the political climate, to a massive influx of out-of-state students with different priorities. While I can’t point to one exact thing, I do know that I need to do things differently than I have done in the past. Not only that, but I have to adapt on the fly—to call audibles in the classroom, to know when to recognize something isn’t working and attempt to try something new and daring. It’d be so easy to just teach the same way that I’ve been teaching and expect the same results, but that’s how one gets jaded.
For all of the flack that Nick Saban gets for being a grumpy malcontent (and rightfully so!), one thing I’ve always admired is that he never throws his athletes under the bus. When they underperform, he is first to say that the coaches and the staff need to prepare them better in order to set them up for success. This is what I find most commendable about him and is something that I take to heart—on those moments where my students’ papers are filled with lower order concerns, or I find myself repeating the instructions to an assignment for the fifth time, I recognize that it is on me to motivate my students and to get them to achieve their goals. While we all desire to create the most flawless syllabus that lasts from August until Finals Week, there is a challenge and an outright joy in getting to know your students’ collective strengths and weaknesses and tailoring the semester around those things.
I have taken another of Professor Emeritus Saban’s mantras to heart: that of “The Process.” Instead of emphasizing wins and losses, Saban focuses on the smaller things: instilling good habits and correcting errors, as well as providing instant feedback. He states, “If you don’t get result-oriented with the kids, you can focus on the things in the process that are important to them being successful.” In my classes, this translates to slowing the paper writing process down to a microlevel: after realizing that my students rarely read their final paper comments, I created a long list of checkpoints—first sentences, outlines, bibliographies, etc, that we would work on together in class, where I was able to provide feedback as they worked. If my goal is to have my students write the best paper that they possibly can, step-by-step assessment is the key. I’ve started holding more one-on-one conferences. I’ve had to learn when to instruct and when to simply get out of the students’ way and let their talent and work ethic take over. This also fits with theories on how to teach Generation Z students—presenting them with larger goals, with smaller checkpoints and giving rewards (in the form of feedback and less-weighted grades) along the way.
Next semester will undoubtedly present another set of challenges, the same way student-athlete turnover creates a brand-new secondary that needs to be broken in. Syllabi will be rendered obsolete by Week 4. But by reading the students individually and as a whole, you can set them up for success in the future. And that’s just as rewarding as bringing another championship trophy to Tuscaloosa.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, most recently the lyric-memoir i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), and Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press), a collection of essays on NBA Jam. Recent essays on topics ranging from long distance running to professional wrestling appear in The Collagist, Catapult, The Rumpus, Runner's World, Unruly Bodies, and elsewhere. Find him on twitter talking about running, football, WWE, and pedagogy @beoliu.