Double Duty

As the teaching profession becomes more demanding, it’s getting tougher and tougher to find teachers also willing to coach. But, with the right sales pitch and some flexibility in scheduling, you can lure almost any new faculty member onto the court.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 14.6, October/November 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1406/doubleduty.htm

Crunch time was closing in on Mike Radebaugh. The Athletic Director at central Florida’s Okeechobee High School, Radebaugh had two fall head coaching positions left to fill, including that for cross country, a team whose first practice loomed just four days away.

Many athletic directors might panic. But Radebaugh had been to the orientation for new teachers, talking up coaching to the rookies. One seemed interested in cross country, and Radebaugh called her the next day. She had some reservations—about paperwork, transportation, fund-raising, dealing with parents. Radebaugh assured her that he would help with all that, as well as with how to coach the sport.

The assurances worked. Three days after new-teacher orientation, he offered her the job and she took it. Radebaugh was also able to fill his second vacancy, in swimming, later that week, with a teacher whose interview with the principal he’d joined in search of potential coaches. (Florida high schools swim in the fall.)

“They’re both first-year teachers and looking to make our school better,” Radebaugh says. “I sold them on the idea that extracurricular activities make their students better.”

There’s near-universal consensus that, all else being equal, high school coaching jobs are best filled with on-campus teachers. Their schedules match that of student-athletes, they’re already part of the school community, and most important, teachers are professionally and temperamentally prepared to work with young people.

“If you can find teachers to coach, it creates fewer headaches for you because the people coming in understand it’s about the kids first,” says Ted O’Connor, Athletic Director at Cardinal Gibbons School, a Catholic boys’ school of 380 students in Baltimore. “That’s why they’re in the profession that they’re in.”

“The more teachers exposed to all extracurricular activities, not just athletics, the better,” says Dale French, Athletic Director at Valley Catholic High School in Beaverton, Ore. “It creates more of a shared environment across the kids’ high school experience.”

But it’s getting tougher. Teachers have more demands placed on them today than a generation or even a decade ago: higher academic expectations of students, more scrutiny by parents and communities, more continuing education requirements for themselves, and personal conflicts from two-earner households with growing families.

A general de-emphasis on physical education means there are fewer teachers emerging from college formally trained in coaching. And high school sports in most places is more competitive, requiring an even greater commitment from coaches. Only about half of American high school coaches are also teachers, says Tim Flannery, Assistant Director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and liaison to the NFHS Coaches Association.

In this article, we talk with athletics administrators about how they persuade teachers to try coaching. It’s a combination of salesmanship, human relations, psychology, luck, and hard work. The keys, it seems, are seeking out teachers receptive to the idea, getting them involved early in their careers, and helping them handle the obstacles of coaching and enjoy its rewards.

Best Bet: New Teachers
There’s near consensus that, while not impossible, it’s very hard to convince veteran teachers who haven’t coached or have no experience as a sports participant to try coaching. There are undoubtedly conversion stories out there, but most administrators say your time would be better spent sowing the more fertile ground of teachers who are still relatively new to the profession.

“It’s the adage that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks,” says French. “If you’ve been away from interscholastic athletics for a long time and you’re used to a certain kind of routine for the year, you safeguard that a little bit more than if you’re a couple years out of college and you remember playing intramurals and maybe some varsity ball. Younger folks often have much more energy and are less removed from actually being a competitor. It’s a lot easier to rekindle that competitive edge and get them out on the field or on the court.”

Thus, a big part of the task is getting to teachers when they apply to your school or district. If an applicant passes the initial interview screening at Lowell (Ind.) High School, Director of Athletics Don Bales joins in and asks if the prospective teacher has interests in extracurricular involvement.

“Then I go about my interview process, asking about their background, what they truly are interested in doing, and why they would even consider coaching,” says Bales. “I talk about how there are several opportunities to coach and how important it is to be involved with the kids, not only as a teacher but in a multitude of ways.”

Often, Bales says, a new teacher will express interest in coaching but defer while getting his or her feet wet either in the profession or at a new school. He makes note of those people and prepares to ask again later; exactly when depends on the person and the athletic program’s needs.

Jane Rones, Athletic Director at Pikesville (Md.) High School, benefits from a similar process. Rones supplies her principal with a continually updated list of openings beginning in early spring. The principal appreciates the importance of having teachers who are willing to coach and, in interviews with prospects, always mentions coaching opportunities.

“If a person interviews well, the principal will see to it that I am brought in at the end of the interview to discuss our program and its need for coaches,” Rones says. “She does this before any mention of a job offer. After giving them a tour of our athletic facilities, I meet again with the principal, and give her my input.

“This system lets me into the interview process,” she continues, “and prevents my principal from ‘dangling the carrot’ of a coaching position to a teaching candidate before I have had a chance to meet them. And that’s important, because before this process was in place, I sometimes had to accept a coach whom I never would have chosen on my own.”

Accessing new teachers is just as possible for athletics administrators who aren’t part of the initial candidate screening and interview process. Many go to new-teacher orientations. But some get to them even earlier.

Athletic Director Jean Kinn Ashen is a member of the faculty Sunshine Committee, a kind of Welcome Wagon for new staffers at North Salinas (Calif.) High School. Through the group, she makes contact with all new teachers, even those who haven’t expressed an interest in athletics.

“I get our new teachers’ names along with their telephone numbers and e-mail addresses,” she explains. “I call them all up, introduce myself, and as a Sunshine Committee person, ask if they need help relocating or want a tour—all that kind of stuff. And then I kind of sneak in, ‘And by the way, do you have any athletic background?’ A lot of times they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, I coached such and such.’ Or maybe they didn’t coach but they played something in high school.

“I make contact in the summer, when it’s not so hectic,” continues Kinn Ashen. “They can talk freely and not feel like I’m just calling them to get them to do something, but rather that I’m offering them something in return. I’ve gotten some pretty good coaches doing that.”

Mid-Year Finds
Even if you fill all known coaching vacancies from summer contacts and orientations, you will inevitably have other positions open mid-year. The solution, say administrators, is to be in tune with faculty year-round.

At Valley Catholic, French has two disadvantages. Because he doesn’t teach, French lacks the classroom common ground with teachers. And his office is in the school’s athletic complex, away from academics. So he makes it a point to do all his photocopying in the teachers’ lounge. It’s there he might hear about the teacher who’s running a 10K next weekend and might be willing to help out with track or cross country.

French has also found that supporting the other out-of-the-classroom activities teachers are involved in is a pervasive tool. “Whether it be supporting the arts, music, drama, or any other extracurricular activities, we, as the athletic staff, have to be at those events, just as we encourage them to be involved in ours,” he says. ”Sometimes it helps to extend our hand first and support their activities so that they know we’re not just living in the gym.”

You might also be on the lookout for athletic connections that aren’t as obvious. For instance, Craig Perry, Director of Athletics for the Grand Forks, N.D., public school district, has had some success getting current coaches to try sports new to them. He’s also brought on teachers who didn’t play a particular sport but became familiar with it through their children’s involvement in youth leagues. With a clinic or two, Perry says they can usually coach it at school, at least below the varsity level. This is particularly true for sports that have gained popularity since many teachers were in school as students, such as soccer and, in North Dakota, girls’ ice hockey.

“They’ve been able to come in and serve in an assistant-coach capacity,” Perry says. “They gain a certain amount of knowledge from watching their child in practices and games in youth programs.”

After generating these types of leads, you should informally screen candidates. The first requirement, many say, is enthusiasm about the sport and about coaching. Without it, even a well-qualified teacher might not be the best pick because the student-athletes will soon discover the coach’s heart isn’t in it.

“What I look for is a teacher who’s full of energy and excited about making our school a better place in general,” Radebaugh says. “Over my years of coaching and teaching, I’ve noticed that if your coaches are excited about coaching and about teaching, then the rest of the faculty gets excited about the team, as do the community, the parents, and the kids. It all starts with someone excited to coach.”

Making the Sales Pitch
With some leads in hand, it’s time to sell. First, some don’ts. Number one is avoid stressing the money. Even the largest coaching stipends are only a small supplement to a teacher’s salary. And when figured on a per-hour basis, they may barely surpass minimum wage. Plus, do you want a person mainly concerned with money?

“When the first question out of a prospective coach’s mouth is, ‘Well, how much will I make?’ you’ve got a problem,” says Perry. “You want to make sure they want the job and want to be with the kids for the right reasons. Obviously, they’re doing it because there’s a salary with it, but you don’t want that to be the primary reason.”

And, while a supportive central administration is certainly helpful, be wary of trying to kick the sales job upstairs to the principal or superintendent. “Everybody agrees, I think, that teachers spend a lot of time in the classroom and do a lot of work for what they’re paid,” says French. “So to have the principal kind of force teachers to be more involved is tough. There’s a chance for some resentment with that. I have always had success being the one to extend the effort first.”

What are some positive ways to sell the job? Many athletic directors score points by pointing out that coaching can make a teacher a better educator.

“If you’re a teacher, you’ve got to be pretty serious during class time,” O’Connor says. “You’ve got to make sure your lesson plans get done and the curriculum that’s put forth gets taught. When you’re out there on the athletic fields, you still have goals you want to accomplish and practice schedules you have to follow, but the atmosphere’s a little bit more relaxed than in the classroom.

“If the kids can see the teacher in that venue, it adds not just to his or her popularity, but the student-athletes can appreciate a little more what the teacher does in the classroom,” he continues. “They see this person isn’t totally square, that he or she’s trying to work with them and make them the best they can be in everything they do.”

Kinn Ashen sells coaching as a way to join a professional support group that will help a teacher start his or her career or become familiar with a new school. “The number-one predictor of success for high school students is their involvement on campus—I believe that is true with teachers, too. And for a new teacher at a site, one of the best support groups can be our coaching staff,” she says.

“If I’m a teacher, especially at the high school level, we’re not all sitting down having lunch together like elementary school,” Kinn Ashen continues. “In a high school, I might be down a hallway where I never see anybody. So I try to sell the support aspect: ‘You have this group of people who are going to be with you and have fun with you.’”

You can also promote whatever advantages your school has, be they excellent facilities, good booster and parent support, or a winning tradition. Alternatively, you can play up a new program or one that can only improve and lacks lots of outside pressure. O’Connor mentions to prospective coaches that the facilities are available to hold summer sports camps, which can be a significant source of income for some coaches.

“You can tell coaches that if they work hard, they have the tools to build a pretty solid program here,” O’Connor says. “I say, ‘Here are some of the advantages we offer at Cardinal Gibbons that some other school may not be able to offer you.’ Those are the kinds of things that open their eyes a little.”

Confronting Obstacles
As any good salesperson will tell you, planting an idea is only the start. You have to be prepared to respond to obstacles your prospects might raise. As an athletic director, you probably already know what they are: time and confidence.

The time problem is a growing one, and athletic directors suggest thinking about creative solutions—before coaches show up in your office with their hair on end. For example, Radebaugh knew that his rookie teacher-coaches would have frequent mandatory after-school workshops, so he scheduled meets around the meetings. And Kinn Ashen split the coaching of boys’ tennis last year between two teachers.

The confidence problem can be addressed through the promise of on-the-job or before-the-job training. The NFHS has an extensive coaching education program used in many states and is developing a series of sport-specific courses, says Flannery.

But there are other sources of coaching education, including local colleges, videos, books, and the Internet. Assuming there’s adequate lead time before tryouts and practices begin, these can greatly build a neophyte coach’s confidence.

“One of the first things I hear is ‘I don’t know enough about the sport,’” says Kinn Ashen. “What I try to talk to them about is, ‘Can you relate to kids and are you willing to put some time into it? If you are, here’s your first book, here’s a video. How about if I send you across town to go to the pro shop or over to the tennis club and watch a lesson? Let me introduce you to our number-one and number-two kids because those kids are going to be a resource for you.’

“Our volleyball coach is a perfect example of this,” she continues. “She teaches wood shop here. She really didn’t have a lot of volleyball background. But she was out there last year shanking balls with those kids every day and getting better with them. That involvement is more important to the kids than just expertise. Yes, you want someone with some expertise, but I can develop that expertise with time and study and experience.”

“We try to find different sport clinics around the area,” says French. “We make an effort to get new coaches to those things, and that gives them more and more confidence and keeps them excited about it.”

And don’t overlook the resources close at hand. At Okeechobee, the previous swimming and cross country coaches remain at the school and are willing to help tutor their replacements, Radebaugh says.

But athletic directors do note the importance of easing rookies into coaching. The new teachers taking over swimming and cross country at Okeechobee will be leading relatively small teams—an advantage for new coaches. With a larger team, it might be better to have new coaches work as assistants paired with experienced head coaches willing to serve as mentors—itself a potential selling point.

O’Connor, too, likes to start new-to-coaching teachers in lower-profile positions. “If someone comes to me and says, ‘I want to be involved with the athletic program but I really don’t have a lot of experience,’ I’m going to encourage them to start as something like an assistant with the j.v.,” O’Connor says.

“You never want to put an adult in a situation where they feel like they’re not competent,” O’Connor continues. “I think the best thing is to ease them into your athletic program based on their experience level. If they haven’t coached before, you want to start them on your undersquads and work them up based on how quickly they adapt.”

Sell Yourself
Providing support for new coaches leads to the final, and perhaps most important, selling point: Yourself. If you’re a good administrator, meaning that you provide training and mentoring, build camaraderie among the staff, have sound facilities, help with paperwork when you can, and run interference with difficult parents, word will get out that you’re good to work for. Before you know it, selling coaching will be a piece of cake.

“If you’ve never coached before at this level and you look at it from the outside, it is a bit overwhelming,” says Radebaugh. “Having a good support system and administration will go miles to ease the anxiety that a new coach may feel.”

Bales echoes that sentiment. “Your job as administrator of athletics doesn’t end when you hire that person,” he says. “You better stay in touch with them as much as you can. Get out on the fields, see what they’re doing, let them know you’re interested. Listen to them at a time that’s not really convenient for you but maybe a little more convenient for them, and be very aware of what they’re saying.”

O’Connor, for instance, starts the year with a coaches’ meeting where he outlines policies and procedures and makes it a social event. “We’ll have it at a restaurant, and we’ll pay for the food,” he explains.

Working with rookie coaches takes a little more nurturing, but it’s worth it. “The coaches you have on staff become your ambassadors,” says Bales. “They get the message out on how things are handled, on how the program operates.”

And that makes it easier the next time you need a new coach.