I don’t know who first said it, but there’s an oft-quoted saying along the lines of, “Anyone can coach the willing.” Meaning, it’s not hard to coach a group of athletes that want to train, want to compete, want to win. Any coach can motivate and lead that type of team. It’s when the going gets tough, and the athletes aren’t intrinsically motivated or naturally skilled, that the skills needed for true coaching comes through.
My husband lives this truth. In his work as an athletic director, he is charged with finding and hiring coaches. It’s not hard to find someone who is willing to coach. The difficult part is finding someone who gets as much pleasure coaching in tough times—challenging athletes, losing teams—as in good times, when the athletes are eager, the parents are supportive, and the wins come easy.
The same is true for teaching and for leading.
As a young teacher, I was always great with the students who were eager to learn. They hung onto my every word and threw themselves enthusiastically into the activities and assignments I gave them. But when a kid would come along who really didn’t want to do anything, I would find myself caught off-guard. I didn’t have an extensive toolkit from which to pull ideas and I didn’t know how to challenge my reluctant learners. How could I get them to like reading and writing? What if they didn’t learn all the things I needed to teach them—grammar, punctuation, parts of speech? Would I be the reason they’d fail academically?
But I’ve come to know that the academics side wasn’t the point at all. I should have been asking, How can I get them to like me and my classroom? To like learning? To be curious and interested about stuff that’s happening around them?
In other words, it’s not about the academic endpoint. It’s about the relationship endpoint. If we can connect with kids—to have them know us, respect us, and—yes—like us, we’re well on our way to success.
If all the students came to school every day, smiling and well-fed and eager to work to achieve learning goals, it wouldn’t be a difficult job. Anyone can teach the willing.
But, as we all know, they aren’t all willing. They come sleepy, and hungry, and angry, and anxious, and all messed up in the head from whatever is going on in their lives. They have good days, but they have terrible days, too. Even the most well-cared-for, well-adjusted child runs into roadblocks. But we can soften the impact of this hard stuff by building connections with our kids and slowly, carefully, lovingly leading them… to willingness.