Publication Date

May 1, 2005

CoachA friend recently shared a story concerning her experience taking an American history course in college. Concerned about her low grade at midterm, she visited with her professor and expressed surprise at her low grade because she always had made good grades in history while in high school. The professor smiled and exclaimed, “I’m sure you did; and your teacher was a coach, wasn’t he?” Yes, she replied sheepishly, he was. The professor’s obvious implication was that her background in history was less than rigorous because her teacher was also a coach, and that coaches who double as teachers give out easy grades in soft courses. While this impression of the public school teacher-coach is a stereotype, the young woman’s story is all too typical of the experiences of many college students who find themselves in over their heads when taking history courses in college. Are coaches necessarily poor teachers? Hardly, when the amount of instruction that actually takes place in sports is considered. Yet we know that some of the most successful coaches in terms of winning percentages may be unsuccessful when it comes to preparing students for future studies in history. What is the reason for this dichotomy and what can be done to alleviate the discrepancies in the teaching? And, as historians bemoan, why history?

Why Coaches Teach History

Perhaps the answer to the last question is best answered with another question: Why not history? For the most part, people who become coaches do so out of love for a particular sport or for sports in general. But coaching also entails teaching, so coaching candidates must choose a teaching field and many choose history. While not all those hoping to be coaches choose history, certainly, there are varied reasons why coaches seem to gravitate to this field: (a) they enjoyed it when they were in school; (b) teaching about people and the past doesn't seem overly complicated; and (c) in all likelihood, their history teachers were coaches, too. Because we tend to teach in the manner in which we were taught, many coaches who teach history tend to lecture and rely on the textbook, because that is what they remember their college professors and high school teachers doing. This sets the stage for what is facetiously referred to as "the coach's lesson plan": Monday: read the chapter in the textbook; Tuesday: outline the chapter and take notes; Wednesday: take a quiz on the chapter; Thursday: study for the chapter test; Friday: take the chapter test. Simple? Yes. Effective? Most assuredly not. To walk into the classroom, pass out worksheets and recycled tests, and "entertain the troops" for 55 minutes is no longer acceptable, especially in this age of standardized testing and teacher accountability.

It needs to be said that there are a great number of highly effective teacher-coaches who deviate from the tried
and tested instructional strategies and whose students are showing significant achievement in history. These teacher-coaches see the practicality of utilizing their coaching techniques in the classroom. A successful coach understands that if an athlete does not understand pertinent content related to the sport, or if the athlete cannot master a related skill, the coach must adjust and come up with a multiplicity of alternative ways to teach the content or skill until the athlete has obtained mastery. The successful teacher-coach applies this instructional principle of “monitor and adjust” in the classroom as well.

Not every history teacher-coach, however, applies the strategies that are used in sports to the classroom, and this is why historians lament the knowledge and skills that many of their students bring with them to college. Professional historians may throw up their hands in horror at the thought of underqualified coaches teaching high school history and seek to have them removed from their responsibilities, but that option is not available. The merger of school systems and athletics programs is the norm of our society and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Rather than shake our heads mournfully and regret the loss of the historical education of our public school students, we have decided to work with coaches to provide them with the best professional development in history that we can. These coaches have incredible skills in working with students; the need, however, is to aid them in combining the skills they have with the knowledge of the content of history. Therefore, in an effort to level the playing field, so to speak, the Coaching History Playbook was developed. Coaching History is an attempt to help teacher-coaches in Texas understand effective teaching of history in terms and parlance with which they can identify; namely, football. In the hope that others will see it as a useful model that can be adapted for their own situations, we present here a brief summary of the playbook.

The Coaching History Playbook

The Coaching History Playbook seeks to demonstrate to the teacher-coach in Texas not only the importance of teaching history, but also the best methods of doing so. The first step in this process is to identify what has to be taught in the statewide curriculum. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) guidelines set out by the Texas Education Agency (available online at provide direction to the teacher-coach as to the historical content and cognitive levels of the curriculum, but by no means bind the instruction to a narrow path of facts. The TEKS guidelines have a strong history component that guides the secondary grade levels in U.S., Texas, and world history. Coaching History helps the teacher-coach work with the curriculum to plan lessons that allow students to investigate history, form their own interpretations, and to present their findings. Coaching History gives teacher-coaches research-based strategies to implement classroom history instruction through primary sources, local and oral history, and cooperative learning that incorporates and demonstrates multiple points of view.

The uniqueness ofThe Coaching History Playbook lies in its overall approach to teaching history and its analogy to coaching football. Many teacher-coaches who lack a strong educational background for teaching in the core subjects quickly find themselves lost in the small world of the classroom. The Coaching History Playbook shows the teacher-coaches the total picture of their responsibilities to the students and the subject through graphics, illustrations, activities, and self-evaluations. The analogy to football merely gives the teachers a familiar frame of reference that would enable them to see the distinct areas of responsibilities and ways of meeting them.

The first two areas addressed in Coaching History are the “Feeder Programs,” or vertical alignment, and “Scouting Reports,” or data-driven analysis. Coaches remain connected to the feeder programs so that they know beforehand what the players are capable of when they reach the upper levels. The reasoning for teaching history is the same: the teacher-coach must know what content the students have already been taught and to what level their skills have been developed. This will enable the teacher to build the curricular program more effectively. Without an awareness of the importance of the vertical curriculum, teachers will be instructing students at levels far below their capabilities and, therefore, boring them with useless facts and activities. All coaches also know that they must consult the scouting reports to understand what their teams will have to face Friday night. For example, at the end of the school year, Texas students in the 8th, 10th, and 11th grade levels must take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test. Indeed, at the end of grade 11, they must pass this assessment to graduate from high school. For a teacher not to use the data from this test (How has the student done on the previous test? How do the assessment tools measure the learning objectives?) would be like a coach not looking at the opposing team’s statistics or not trying to find out what type of offense or defense the opposing coach uses.

The next two areas of responsibility for the teacher-coach are "Game Plans," or curriculum articulation, and "Drives," or unit planning. The teacher-coach must possess breadth and depth of knowledge of the learning objectives in the curriculum and the level of cognition at which those objectives must be delivered and assessed. Using the framework provided by H. Lynn Erickson's Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul and Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design, these two sections in the Playbook aid the teacher-coach in controlling the curriculum’s concepts, content, skills, and resources that dictate the success of the class. The teacher-coach must also weave together units of study that place the importance of curriculum objectives with the proper emphasis in the activities that will best lead to student understanding. Not considering curriculum articulation or unit planning would be tantamount to a sports coach having absolutely no plan or overall strategy for the team.

The heart of The Coaching History Playbook rests with the “Plays” or classroom strategies. Every coach knows that to move the ball down the field a variety of plays must be used for the different situations the team faces. Similarly, the teacher-coach should realize that different elements of the curriculum require various modes of interaction between the students and the material. Many classroom strategies have parallels on the football field. With a “trap play” the students think for themselves through inquiry learning. The “off-tackle” is a play that every team processes and uses in different situations; therefore, brainstorming gives the same versatility in the classroom. The “quick pitch” goes around the normal curriculum by using primary sources. The “reverse” turns the curriculum around from one form to another by applying a variety of graphic organizers. As the quarterback reads the defense and calls an “audible,” so must the student of history be able to read many types of secondary and primary sources. As a “punt” turns over the ball to the opposing team, projects turn the responsibility of learning over to the students. In the old play “student body right,” each player has an assignment, just as in cooperative learning each student has a responsibility to fulfill for the learning to be successful. There are more ideas for teacher-coaches such as “home field advantage” or local history, the “deep pass” or individual research topics, and “in the bleachers” or service learning projects. The playbook’s 18 strategies give the teacher-coach ideas for an active, student-centered classroom with a repertoire of activities to draw from.

The next two sections of the Playbook, "Special Teams" and "Half Time Adjustments," deal with how the teacher-coach should be interacting with students with special needs and colleagues. Integration can occur in many forms, such as collaborating with English teachers on a book study, such as The Jungle or The Witch of Black Bird Pond, or working with the technology coordinator to merge the history curriculum with the technology standards that the student must master. Every teacher-coach faces the challenge of students who have various learning styles and are not able to comprehend the content on the initial instructional activity. Remediation techniques, strategies, and resources are provided to ensure that teacher-coaches understand that they can tailor learning to different student groups to ensure their control of the content.

Finally, the playbook addresses the topics of assessment in "Friday Night" and program evaluation at the "Sports Banquet." Just as there are multiple strategies for delivering the curriculum, there are multiple strategies to assess the student's level of understanding of the content that should match the cognitive level of standards and activity. The standard multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and short-answer tests serve their purpose, but if the teacher-coaches wish to create a student-centered class they must begin to use a variety of tools such as rubrics, performance-based products, and portfolios. The playbook concludes with recommendations for program evaluation to ensure that the teacher-coach understands where they have been successful and in what areas more professional development will be required to improve their weaknesses.

Looking to the Future

The Coaching History Playbook, while certainly more detailed than presented here, has met with success in seminars and staff-development workshops. It should be noted that a great number of history teachers who do not coach, much less coach football, have also found the strategies and analogies highly beneficial. Perhaps one day history professors will be able to identify students who had a well-trained teacher-coach in their past by the student's attention to detail, knowledge of related content, and mastery of appropriate skills—characteristics they developed in the classroom as well as on the football field.

The Coaching History Playbook may be downloaded from the following web site:

—Bill Shuttlesworth is the social studies specialist in the Education Service Center, Region VI of Huntsville, Texas.

—William Edgington teaches in the department of curriculum and instruction at Sam Houston State University.


Erickson, Lynn. Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul: Redefining Curriculum and Instruction, 2nd edition (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press, Inc., 2001).

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998).

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