How to Lose: Failing with a Pedagogy of Competition

Note: This year in my 11th grade English class, I am experimenting with “Plan A”: If every student cooperates instead of competes, gives full effort every day, and takes responsibility for their own learning, then everyone is promised an A. I’m not doing this to be nice; I’m doing it because I think it will help student learning. For more details about Plan A, see the first blog post.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the competitive atmosphere I fostered when I coached baseball and taught AP English at SLO High. In an nutshell, there were hundreds of mini-competitions, awards, punishments, scoldings, celebrations, champions, and difficult challenges. Each assistant coach “bet a cheeseburger” on their own practice team at least four times a week. The teams and classes were not only a lot of fun, but we won several league championships, several players went on to play in college and/or professionally, and many of my students went to the university of their choice (and would tell me the English classes at their college were much easier than mine). I felt really good about myself.

Then I transferred to Morro Bay High to coach their varsity boys basketball team. The team had just won two straight league championships, but due to all the graduating players, they said I might be lucky to win three or four games in my first season. I was naturally excited by the challenge and fully confident that I would bring the team back to a championship calibre within two or three years. We did in fact win ten games in my first season, but we went 2-24 in my second season, and I subsequently resigned before the whole program completely fell apart.

Meanwhile, I taught some “college prep” classes that were even more disastrous than the team. Certainly there were some individual lessons that bombed, but I had one entire class where over half the students failed and we had all pretty much given up with three weeks to go in the school year.

You might be thinking, what was this psycho-teacher doing? Exactly the same things I was doing at SLO HIgh. If anything, since my reputation hadn’t been established at this new school, I was more careful with everyone’s feelings. I was humbled; I monitored, adjusted, scaffolded, and differentiated. Some experiments led to minor improvements, but still — my best lessons were bombing, student learning was minimal, and we kept losing basketball games. I occasionally doubled down on my disciplinary ways (just to see if I wasn’t being tough enough), which almost always backfired; mostly, I asked the students/players themselves what I could do to help them.

No seriously, you might be asking, can you be honest and tell us what you were doing wrong? Yes, but I’ll stick with basketball since it’s more dramatic. I told our star he needed to bend his knees more on defense, he talked back, and so I put in a sub; the team didn’t seem to like this. Another player, after a few warnings about pouting, snubbed our assistant coach while coming back to the bench; I told him he didn’t have to be here, so he left and sat the crowd; at halftime I told him return to the bench or give me his uniform permanently, and he returned to the bench — barely. One player missed a league game to go to Hawaii, so I benched him the first game back. I once called it “embarrassing” when a player just stood there and didn’t run back on defense, and his parents were furious and followed me from the locker room to the bus after the game, lecturing me then entire way. I repeatedly (and nicely) asked the seniors to play in some summer basketball games with the team, and they didn’t appreciate the “pressure.” I recorded player stats and set up certain benchmarks during the offseason to qualify for certain types of playing time (for example, you had to make a certain percentage of three-pointers before you could shoot in a game); the returning seniors did not appreciate this.

More baffling to me, even when I had completely shifted from “mostly positive” to “completely positive,” the players and parents were still observably rattled. In fact, they were much more vocally upset when I thanked two specific parents for earning $3,000 with their volunteering efforts, when I got excited about what I considered an all-star starting lineup, and when I was enthusiastic about a low-post offense that revolved around our young 7-foot center that nobody in the league could measure up to — they called this “favoritism.”

The wheels starting coming off in the first week of our second season. A popular senior told me that he couldn’t make it to our game because he had to go to a “mandatory” football award banquet. Note that no coach I have ever talked with has ever heard of a player making this choice. I was really nice with him, and we talked for about 15 minutes, and I explained to him how hard his teammates had worked while he was playing football, I talked about leading by example, and I ultimately told him that we expected him to choose the game over the banquet unless he didn’t want to play basketball this season. If I wanted to save the season, this was probably the biggest mistake of my career. He went to the banquet, and then quit the team (very respectfully) the next day. One of his friends (a star on the team) quit an hour later (very respectfully). I asked if he wanted to talk about anything, and he said no. Another starter quit the next day (the same pouter I mentioned previously); he said he didn’t like how I treated the player who wanted to go to the banquet. Two days later, another senior quit, citing the same reason. And finally, our star center got a 59% in an art class, which kept him from being academically eligible.

I was deflated, but I took it for granted that the younger players would happily step up (especially the ones who took offense at not being in that starting lineup I was touting) and we would go through another rebuilding year. But when it came time to leave town for a tournament, five different players suddenly couldn’t go “because of school” (they would have to miss a day of school). I barely scraped together a team of six players — two were from the JV team and one from the freshman team).

Later on in the regular season, there were tears after we played great and almost beat the sixth-place team; there was almost no excitement when we earned two victories — in fact, one senior who didn’t play a lot stormed out and went on a rampage on Twitter. This will be an important clue later.

At the end of the season, the 7-footer (he was about to become a junior) told me very respectfully that he was considering transferring to a prep school on the east coast. He wanted my input. I told him how important he was to our team, and how important he could become to our school and even our community. He had put on 40 pounds over the past year, and was finally becoming a phenomenon. I told him that there was no ceiling to how he could lead us in so many ways, as a player and as a person. He announced his transfer two hours later. A two-time returning starter quit a week later, and another starter quit a week after that. In order to save the program, I resigned soon after that, hoping a new coach could re-kindle, recruit, and rebuild.

So what went wrong? What could I have done differently? I was baffled and beaten. Then I read an article on the Pedagogy of Belonging, and suddenly everything started making sense. Immediately and ever since, I started connecting dots and more and more the whole season made perfect sense. Soon I began to understand why over half my class failed.

The whole article was life-changing for me, but in a nutshell, it points out that, “like it or not, the rapidly changing demographics of U.S. society have shattered traditional sources of belonging,” and school is now the central source for relationships and acceptance. It quotes Glasser, who says that hungry students need to eat, and lonely students need friends.

At SLO High, the kids I coached and taught tended to have a very secure family life, with similarly blessed friends, and they all seemed very connected with their church and community in general. The team (or AP class) was something extra for them — if they succeeded, great; if they failed, nobody cared. The former principal used to laugh, “Nobody gets over a loss quicker than SLO High.” More obviously, they really liked to stand out. They felt secure in their central group, and they wanted to stand out as an individual. They dressed to be noticed, and they fought hard for awards and public recognition. But if they didn’t, oh well. Life was still good. And most importantly, I’m now realizing, is this becomes the culture — if you want to look normal, you should try to stand out.

At Morro Bay, the students aren’t as fortunate — one of my players was literally hungry every day. Without that security of belonging, they weren’t ready to stand out, even if it was in a positive way. Everyone at the school wears blue hoodies. The two parents didn’t like it when I singled them out for praise; none of the players ever liked when I praised them in front of their teammates. Nobody wanted to take big shot, nobody argued with the officials, and if their name was ever in the newspaper, I believe they would purposely lay low in the subsequent game. I noticed at a school-wide academic awards assembly, each recipient looked ashamed, and stood apart from their teacher. The banquet was chosen over the game. Friendships were favored over starting positions. When one guy quit, four guys quit. And when four popular players quit, the central purpose of participating on the team was largely destroyed.

The exceptions seem to prove the rule. I mentioned that we won ten games in the first season. This was mostly on the back of our one senior, who had no friends on the team, who loved scoring 30 points a game, who always took the big shot (even when he was triple-teamed), who set the career record for most technical fouls for arguing with refs, who once took his jersey off after fouling out, and who had a very secure home life with two (wealthy, I think) parents.

Everything I did was based on competition and stratification, and this was (I realize now) in opposition to the culture at Morro Bay. They wanted to belong. All my constructive criticism and individual praise, all my skills tests, this was all antithetical to want they wanted. Team losses made them cry, but wins based on heroic individual efforts didn’t mean very much, not even to the individual hero.

I knew what I needed to do as a coach, but I also feared it was too late — the trust in belonging to a “family of basketball players” (with me as their father) was long gone, and I decided they needed a new leader to bring them back together again. So I resigned.

But my classes — that was a different story. I get new students every year.

I understood the same lessons could apply to my struggling classes — they didn’t want to stand out at all, even if it was for “good” reasons. They literally didn’t want to win the competition. I even let them play Pictionary for one goof-around day and was exasperated when they wouldn’t take the game seriously enough to try to win. And if most of the kids weren’t doing the homework (or the classwork), nobody wanted to get noticed doing the work. They’d rather get a low grade, if that helps them belong.

On the other hand, they didn’t want to fail at something that nobody else was failing at. Thus, I came up with “Plan A.” If everyone is getting an A, then everyone wants an A. And if everyone wants an A, then we have a chance to get some learning done.

Next post: What happens when I say “Everyone gets an A, if everyone cooperates.” (The experiment is ongoing.)

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