A Cinderella Story for Every Student

cinderella-bracketAs I mentioned a couple weeks ago, it’s March Madness and I can’t get enough of it!!  Last night while I was watching eight straight hours of basketball 🙂 I was contemplating how these games related to my day-to-day life.  I think inspiration hit as the second 12 seed of the night upset a 5 seed, in double overtime none the less.  The Trojans of small University of Arkansas-Little Rock upset a Big Ten team (Purdue) and they did it in an impressive fashion…one that got me thinking about some of our students and how we reach them.

There are a few different types of teams in the NCAA tournament and they all approach their situation differently.  Their coaches approach the games differently based on the team they have fielded in a particular year.  The fans have different attitudes about the team based on the relative strength of the players and how well they work together, as do their opponents.  The approach for each player, team and coach is situational.  It varies from season to season and game to game, it can even vary from minute to minute in certain games.  The same is true about our students and how we approach their education, flexibility is key.

A lot of people might call the Trojans or any other low-seeded team a “Cinderella story” or the “underdogs”.  However, the fact of the matter is that all of the teams in these tournaments are capable of winning any given game at any given time.  I won’t argue the fact that odds are long for some of these teams to be successful in some of these situations (for example a 16 seed has never, in the history of the NCAA tournament beaten a 1 seed).  However, just because the odds are long doesn’t mean that these teams don’t show up and try to win the game…THAT has never happened, the 16 seeds always show up for the game and they always give 100%.

The players/teams step on the floor and work to be successful, except for when they don’t.  It’s true, sometimes players/teams aren’t totally focused and their effort isn’t at the level necessary for success.  When this happens the coach needs to get involved.  Depending on the coach and situation, this can look very different – from screaming and hollering to quiet and calm words of encouragement.  The coach is responsible for their team’s performance and when they’re not living up to expectations the coach needs to get involved.

Coaches for the low seeds more often than not need to build confidence in a team that doesn’t necessarily have a realistic shot at winning the championship.  However, what kind of coach would they be if they just showed up and said, “Well, we’re going to lose, so have fun and take it easy tonight…don’t work too hard!”  Even with a team that faces long odds, coaches show up with a well thought out game plan, in game strategy, and motivational speeches ready to prepare their team for a shot at success.  The game changes for coaches who have better teams, or rather teams who face better odds.  It’s a different perspective but the same goals apply, lead your team to success.

Last night was a perfect example of the success achievable by an “underdog” who has a good plan, works hard, and never gives up.  Arkansas-Little Rock was a heavy betting underdog before the game but it didn’t take long for Trojan fans to start believing their team could possibly win that game.  They fought, tooth and nail, for a full 40 minutes (a full regulation game) and made a crazy hard shot to tie the game and head to overtime.  There was no let-down in the extra period, and in fact, they continued to play hard into the second overtime period of the game.  Eventually their hard work and patience wore down a much more (on paper) talented team and the 12 seeded Trojans upset a 5 seed.  It’s become a classic story in NCAA tournament history, the 12 seed beating the 5 seed, it happens every year.  These hard working teams who are considered underdogs by many come out on top and achieve the success many thought was impossible…we’ve got these students too, a lot of them.  Kids who face long odds but are willing to work (sometimes with proper motivation) to achieve the success that many believe they will never reach.  What kind of game plans, strategies, and motivational tactics are needed to help these students reach success?

Then you have the “favorites”, the top level achievers who’ve been successful all year and have reached the tournament with lots of praise coming at them from all levels.  They should win it all, they should be the ones setting the pace, outscoring every other team and just plain embarrassing the lesser teams.  However, as is so often the case, it doesn’t always go to plan.  The top seeds lose to teams they probably “shouldn’t” lose to.  They come out flat, they aren’t motivated, and they let opportunities pass them by.  Is it a lack of preparation?  Are their coaches overlooking the current opponent?  Are the players overlooking the opponent?  I’m sure there are lots of reasons why the “favorites” don’t always succeed.  Malcolm Gladwell will tell you that sometimes they get stuck in their routines and don’t adapt to the situation, they’re not flexible.  The classic “David and Goliath” situation happens all too often.  Overconfidence, unwillingness to adapt, sitting back in the comfort zone, and ego all play a part.  We have these students too…how do we ensure that they don’t fall into these traps?  

What can we do to make sure that EVERY student is working as hard as the “underdog” and ends with their own personal “Cinderella story”?  We’ve got every one of these students, in every class we teach.  The “favorites” who are (perhaps) overconfident, the middle seeds who see a chance but know that hard work is needed, and the “underdogs” who may believe they are doomed to fail.  How can we bring the mindsets of all of these different types of teams/students together?  What’s the magic recipe that gets every kid to have the confidence of the “favorite”, the work ethic of the middle seed, and the will and determination to overcome like the “underdog”?  

We’re the coaches…it’s our task to identify the skills of our players and bring out the best in each and every one of them to help them achieve the success that they deserve.  It’s March Madness year round for educators and frankly, I love it!  

One of the most famous and inspiring coaches of all time, Jim Valvano said it best, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up!”  Watch his extremely famous speech at the ESPY Awards here, awesome stuff.

Thanks for being the best “coach” possible for our students!!

March Madness

It’s finally March, by far my favorite month of the year…it’s March Madness!!  For those of you who aren’t sure about what that means, it’s the end of the college basketball season in USA.  As the season finishes there are league tournaments and then the big end of the year tournament to determine the National Champion.  For basketball fans it doesn’t get any better than this, the unpredictability of the tournaments creates a sense of ‘madness’ and hence the name…it’s awesome!  What does that have to do with education though??

This season my team, the University of Wisconsin Badgers, were off to a rough start.  Last year the played in the championship game (they lost unfortunately) and lost a lot of players to graduation and leaving to play in the NBA.  This season started off poorly, they lost to teams they had no business losing too.  Then, out of the blue, right in the middle of the season their legendary coach decided to retire.  He left a team who was already struggling to his long-time assistant coach and said ‘good luck’.  It was a recipe for disaster in almost everyone’s eyes.

Except there was one person in particular who believed that success was still possible…the new head coach.  The season isn’t over yet but at this point we’ve already seen an incredible turn around.  The team who started out by losing most of it’s early games has won 11 of their last 12 games and is set to finish in the top three in their league…simply amazing!  So how did they do it?

It all started with their new coach.  He went back to basics, he literally went back to the foundation.  Stories came out about how the coach brought bricks into the locker room.  Each player took one and wrote a word or phrase about what they could do to help the team.  Words like “selfless”, “heart”, and “leader” were shared.  These bricks were then placed in the locker room, a sign of the foundation that this team would stand on for their renewed effort for the season ahead.  The idea was that you can’t build anything with just one brick and if you try to build with missing pieces then your results won’t stand.  Basketball is a team game and the brick foundation is as true an analogy as any…no one can do it alone, we all need to work together.

At the end of the first semester I wrote about how it takes a village to raise a child, it couldn’t be more true.  I think the brick foundation analogy works well with that African proverb.  Together we can achieve our goals, as a department team, as a division, as a school…team work is the key to achieving our biggest goals.

We have an amazing team here at AC.  The amount of experience, knowledge, and energy that we’ve pulled together to guide our students toward success is absolutely astonishing.  Every student at this school can benefit from the collective effort of the amazing faculty and staff.  To ensure this success we need to come together to form an indestructible team.  Maybe the 80’s were just filled with so much teamwork brainwash material (Voltron, Thundercats, Ghostbusters) that I can’t help but feel that coming together as a team is the solution to all the world’s problems…perhaps it’s just my optimistic attitude 🙂  Either way, I’m confident that teamwork is the way to go.

I know many of you work closely with your department teams and other colleagues.  It’s a busy and stressful time of year for all of us.  Take care of yourself, find your balance, and ensure that your teammates are well cared for as well.  Success for the remainder of the year lies in us coming together as the dynamic and talented team that we are.  It’s never too late to stop and reevaluate the foundation…what word would you write on your brick?