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Thursday, November 21, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden IX

We've met Ronald Gallimore in each of the previous posts. As you saw in the past few weeks, he continued his work studying John Wooden and his methods. But he then co-wrote a book (2010) with Swen Nater, a former player for Wooden at UCLA, You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned, and I can highly recommend it.
Nater played at UCLA for three years (he was a community college All-American before that), recruited by Wooden specifically to be a reserve, backing up Bill Walton, who would to on to be a 3-time NCAA player of the year. Wooden was honest about what Nater's role would likely be, telling him that while he'd rarely play, he felt that when he graduated he'd be able to get a pro contract. He did, in fact, get a pro contract (drafted in the first round), rookie of the year in the ABA in 1974, led the league in rebounding in 1975, the same in the NBA in 1980, and in the Italian League in 1985. He subsequently taught algebra, sports psychology, and coached at Christian Heritage College (in 1990 co-coaching them to their first NCAA championship), and co-wrote a book with Wooden. Since 1997 he has worked for Costco.
Let me start with something that's much easier to accomplish with a basketball team (where Wooden had 12 players on the squad) than a choir, where we typically have more singers (sometimes many more) . . . and many of us conduct more than one choir. That has to do with ability to individualize what we do with our singers and how we treat them. William Copper, in a comment a few posts ago, mentioned how much it seemed Wooden was able to individualize instruction, and that he'd never gotten individual feedback from a conductor. So, while I have some ideas, I'm more interested in what kinds of things you've done to give feedback to your singers.
Chapter One of the book is titled, "They are all Different: Teacher-Student Relationships are the Foundation of Effective Teaching." They quote Wooden from a personal communication in 2002:
They are all different. There is no formula. I could name players, all who were spirited, but in a different way. You can't work with them exactly the same way. You've got to analyze and study each individual and find out what makes them tick. Some you may have to put on the bench more. Others you've got to pat on the back more. I wish there was a formula. The same thing won't work with every team. It depends on the personnel. The same thing was true in my English classes. So you have to know the individuals you are working with.
Nater describes the development of his own relationship with Wooden, how he dealt with his frustrations at lack of playing time, and how Wooden was honest with him. Coach Wooden explained how he needed him to push Walton to be his best--so that Walton would find that the toughest center he played against all season was in practice every day. Swen accepted this and then found that Wooden, instead of backing off, pushed him even harder to improve his play.
This is not something that most of us can do with every one of our students. I have around 70 different students in my two choirs at UNT (a few sing in both) and I know many of you have more, some many more.
But this does make me think about how I can do more.
I wrote earlier about the change at UNT for me last year from a smaller choir to a larger one. One of the things I did was have individuals sing quite a bit in rehearsals. I've moved away from that this year and think it was a mistake. If I do that more often, I know much more about what the singers are doing, where their skill level is, how they respond, and it does give me the opportunity to give feedback, sometimes in the rehearsal itself, and sometimes outside and individually. It also motivates them in a different way. I know I will do more of this next semester and experiment with other ideas as well (I'll report after I've done it).
If any of you have ways you develop relationships with your students and know them better as individuals, and give them feedback, please comment or write me privately.
Wooden was also concerned with respect and fairness. Once again, however, fairness didn't mean everyone is treated the same. A quote from Wooden explains this (this and the next one are again from private communications with the coach): "I believe, in order to be fair to all students, a teacher must give each individual student the treatment he earns and deserves. The most unfair thing to do is to treat them all the same."
And they also give an example of his pre-season speech to the team about this so the players understood how the system worked:
I am not going to treat you players all the same. Giving you the same treatment does not make sense because you're all different. The good Lord, in his infinite wisdom, did not make us all the same. Goodness gracious, if he had, this would be a boring world, don't you think? You are different from each other in height, weight, background, intelligence, talent, and many other ways. For that reason, each one of you deserves individual treatment that is best for you. I will decide what that treatment will be. It may take the form of gentle encouragement or something a little stronger. That depends on you. It may also take the form of discipline. But remember, all discipline will be earned by you based on what you have done prior. So, I'm not going to treat you all the same, but I will give you the treatment you earn and deserve.
This is a challenging statement, particularly in implementing it in a choral situation.
Nater then gives examples of how Wooden treated his players differently. I can't summarize this (again, I'd encourage you to get the book), but it makes sense, and I need to sort out how to best make sense of this given my situation and the rules I want to enforce.
The final section of the chapter is titled, "Relationship are the Ends, not the Means." In it, Nater explains how demanding Wooden was, using the example of talking with someone at an airport who asked what it was like to work with the coach. He tells the person how demanding the coach was, not only in terms of playing, but in behavior outside practice and games as well. Shocked, they then say, "I had no idea John Wooden was like that. I always thought you guys liked him."
And Swen responds, "But we do! We love him. We loved him then and we love him now. I don't know how to explain it, but it's true."
Most of us have experiences with extraordinarily demanding teachers and, if you're like me, they're the teachers we remember most and who may have been among our favorites. The question is, will we be that demanding teacher, expecting the best out of every student, or will we simply be forgotten as a so-so teacher who didn't expect very much? Nater also mentions that Wooden never tried to build a personal relationship with him his first year, but that:
The relationship was born in his commitment to and steadfastness in teaching me, in responding to my concerns, and in careful tracking of my progress. Our relationship was forged slowly over time, and strengthened by the combination of the intense fire of his high expectations and my determination to learn.
These ideas can be applied to good use by teachers and school administrators. Rather than beginning with relationship-building, relationships evolve out of getting something done that everyone agrees is important to accomplish. . . . Productive relationships and powerful learning communities are found in those situations where teachers and administrators set realistic goals to work toward, track their progress, and don't give up until they have found a way to help students learn better.
I think these last quotes summarize what it is to build relationships between conductor and members of the choir--it isn't something we do directly and initially, but those relationships will come out of our caring for the progress our students make, the standards we set, and the oftimes demanding expectations we enforce.
Please let us know what teachers inspired you and how they did it! Or speak to how you treat your singers in the way they "earn and deserve."

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