Lessons Learned from the LeBronathon. . .

In case you haven’t heard (some people still live in caves, you know), the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers lost LeBron James—a hometown boy with the potential to go down in history as one of the best players of all time—to the Miami Heat last week.

The media frenzy over LeBron’s decision has been pretty ridiculous, hasn’t it? 

Even today—days after LeBron’s decision was announced to fanfare in Miami and fires in Cleveland—I can’t go more than a few minutes without seeing a bit on the telly or hearing a bit on the radio about the entire fiasco. 

It’s frustrating for a guy like me who hasn’t watched an NBA game in 10 years, but it’s also instructive! 

That’s right:  Educators and the policymakers working hard to find ways to recruit teachers to high needs schools can learn a TON from the LeBronathon if they’re willing to look carefully and listen.

Here are three lessons I think we can learn from LeBron:

Talented people want to work in circumstances where they know that they’ve got a chance to succeed: 

One of the first lessons that policymakers working to staff high needs schools can learn from LeBron is that money is rarely the deciding factor when talented people are choosing where to work. 

I mean, think about it:  LeBron—in an era when athletes are literally rolling in cash and trying to outdo every new contract signed by their peers—could’ve made anywhere from $10-30 MILLION dollars MORE had he stayed with the Cavaliers or gone to the New York Knicks.

But money wasn’t the key factor in LeBron’s decision.  Instead, he wanted the chance to win a title—many titles, actually—and that meant moving to a team where he knew that he’d be ‘working’ with other remarkably talented players. 

That’s instructive, considering how often our efforts to recruit teachers to high needs schools are built on meager cash incentive plans. 

Most teachers that I know laugh at the nickels used to entice us to high poverty buildings—not because we aren’t thankful that someone recognizes that teachers deserve to be paid more for working in challenging communities, but because cash is the least of our worries.

Instead, we want to work for accomplished principals and with accomplished teachers.  There’s a professional synergy in a building that’s stacked with Amar’e Stoudamires and Dwayne Wades

(Jennifer Anistons, Mariah Careys, Robert Oppenheimers, Albert Einsteins, Elmos and Big Birds, for those of you who don’t watch hoop). 

We want to win, too—and we know that winning in a high needs building isn’t a solo act.  It’s dependent on the support of our peers—something that we’d happily trade bonuses for.

No one person is talented enough to turn around any enterprise 

Can you name even ONE other player who has played for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the past 8 years?

Right.  Neither can I.  They’re LeBron’s team.  He’s the King and everyone else isn’t even worth remembering.

But here’s the problem:  Even though they’ve had the services of a seriously remarkable talent for 8 years, the Cavaliers STILL haven’t won anything worth winning. 

Sure, they’ve had a few seasons of sold out games and made it into the paper a few times, but LeBron wasn’t enough to bring a title to a team and a city that has been pining for celebration for a really long time.

And now that he’s gone, that pining is going to get super painful!  After all, who is going to fill the hoop—and the seats—now that basketball’s Elvis has left the building? 

The fact of the matter is that the Cavaliers put all of their hopes in one person.  That’s poor planning at best and downright lunacy at the worst.

But it’s exactly what we do when we try to staff high needs schools, isn’t it?  “If only we could get Ron Clark to come and teach here, we’d have a chance at reaching every child!” we think.  “Look at what Rafe Esquith did in tough circumstances.”

Our poorest communities don’t need Ron Clarks or Rafe Esquiths, y’all.  They need broad coalitions of likeminded individuals that are working towards a shared mission and vision of excellent teaching and learning. 

That’s the only way to guarantee that a school continues to succeed even after their stars move on to other places and positions. 

Belittling and berating are really poor recruiting strategies 

My favorite person in the whole LeBronathon has been Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who blew a holy gasket after LeBron announced that he wasn’t coming back to his hometown team.

I mean, Gilbert’s rant is one for the ages:  He called LeBron a ‘former hero’ and his decision to move on a ‘heartless and callous action.’  He used the word ‘betrayal’ so many times in his email to fans that I’ll bet the Y-A-L keys are falling off of his computer today.

And in one of the best jabs at a former player ever, he reduced the price of LeBron James Fathead posters—a company that he owns—to $17.41. 

Why such an odd number? 1741 is the year that notorious US Traitor Benedict Arnold was born.

Now, I’ve gotta admit that I love a history driven hater—come on, did you think about 1741 when you were last betrayed?—but commentators are now arguing that Gilbert’s rant has done more harm than good for the Cavaliers. 

After all, what free agent is going to want to sign with a team where the owner has shown such open scorn towards talent? 

If you were a basketball player with the ability to choose between several different teams that all wanted your services, would you head to Cleveland to play in a community where hate has been spewed toward others with ability and opinions?

So why do we expect teachers to ‘sign with’ schools that we heap with scorn? 

Is it really a surprise that good people don’t want to work in places where they’re labeled failures by the community year-after-year?  Would you want to wake up every morning to stories in the paper about just how bad you really are and having your every intention and/or motivation questioned?

Didn’t think so.

And neither do many of our best teachers.  Instead, they’ll take their talents elsewhere because they can.

Altruism is a really poor recruiting strategy, too 

I’ve heard LeBron completely castigated more times than I can count in the last few days because he’s chosen to move away from his hometown team.  “That’s selfish!” Cleveland fans are crying.  “How could he possibly turn his back on us, knowing just how badly we need him.”

Well guess what, folks:  We’re ALL selfish, aren’t we?  Don’t we all look carefully at what’s in our best interest when we’re making major life choices? 

And if we weren’t, wouldn’t our wives and husbands be completely hacked off at us?!

Sure it would have been nice if LeBron had set aside his own interests to save the city of Cleveland—and sure it would be nice if our best teachers set aside their own interests to work in the most challenging buildings in our nation—but the last I checked, individuals still have the right to make their own choices in this here country.

If you really want to see high needs schools staffed by the best and the brightest, you’re going to have to rely on something more than altruism, hope and shame as your recruiting strategies.


What’s the moral of this story? 

Talented teachers are really no different than the most talented members of any profession.  We want to work in places where we know that we can succeed, we’re not driven by cash, we can’t reform schools all on our own, and belittling ain’t going to encourage any of us to move to more difficult buildings.

These aren’t difficult concepts, y’all

We just need to be as willing to apply them to our profession as we are to accept them when we see them demonstrated in other professions.

8 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from the LeBronathon. . .

  1. john bauer

    This sounds like a good start. If we can get teachers talking to one another maybe some great ideas may come from this. Too many times school boards do not take the teachers view point to heart and tend to work on their own agendas instead. They need to hee the teachers wisdom.

  2. Jon Becker

    I feel like a priest who just listened to your confession, Bill 🙂
    Seriously, though, I appreciate the honesty.
    Also, while I agree with your point about Pat Riley (i.e. that a strong, convincing leader can attract great talent), I’m not sure Riley actually had much to do with this. IMHO, the perfect storm put the Heat in this position.

  3. wmchamberlain

    Bill, let me offer the other side to your professional shame. I choose to work in a very poor, rural school in a district that is locally sneered at because of the perceived quality of education. That in and of itself is not really that important, but I work in this district and I live locally, that means my children attend this district too.
    Don’t feel ashamed of the path you choose, don’t your students deserve good teachers too? I know mine do. Will my children suffer because they do not attend a more reputable school? I think not. My children are taught early that there is more to learn and more important too than that which is taught at school. Something I like to point out to my students as well.
    Yes, I work very hard in my school as do all the teachers I work with. I truly believe you work just as hard, perhaps in a different way though. Don’t make the mistake of continuing to believe you are doing less than you should, that will not make you a better teacher and your students deserve you at your best.

  4. paul bogush

    After teaching for ten years in one district I changed towns because I was about to hit the part of the salary schedule that would make me undesirable to any other district–talent or not. Now after teaching for 20 years I simply cannot afford the pay cut that would come with a move. I know I am stuck in my current district for the rest of my life 😉 Funny how Lebron can move and make millions, and if I moved I would have to lose tens of thousands.

  5. Kevin Karplus

    I agree with your reasoning here (though the basketball analogy means nothing to me, never having heard of the player mentioned).
    Certainly as a professor I’ve chosen positions by how much I could get done and how comfortable I would be with colleagues, not by money.

  6. Bill Ferriter

    Jon wrote:
    In the realm of education, couldn’t we point to folks who move from a hard-to-staff school to a “better” situation, citing, perhaps, better working conditions when the real truth is that they won’t have to work as hard to be successful?
    I’m not talking about big numbers of teachers/leaders, but still…
    Really glad that you stopped by, Jon…I was thinking of you when I wrote the post. Figured it might catch your eye.
    And I agree with your analogy completely because in many ways, I’m living it. That’s been a source of professional shame for a long while for me.
    I haven’t moved to a high needs school because I know just how hard the work is going to be and I’m just not willing to do it.
    I think that’s the curse of knowledge—-accomplished teachers have a more nuanced understanding of what it will take in order for high needs schools to be turned around AND they are often pretty skeptical about the will of a community to make those kinds of investments in underprivileged kids, so they stay away.
    I always feel bad when I admit that to anyone about myself simply because we’ve got this mythology about “teacher as servant” to live up to, but then I always point out that the real shame belongs to policymakers who seem hell-bent on treating every school equally, which is nothing more than code for keeping affluent voters and supporters on their side.
    Another analogy running through my mind is the role that Pat Riley has played in LeBron’s decision. Like accomplished teachers, good basketball players want to play for good leaders/coaches.
    Lesson for policymakers: Find ways to get the best principals into struggling buildings and you’re likely to see them attracting LeBrons in no time.
    In the end, that’s probably a more cost-effective strategy because you only need to find bonuses for a handful of talented principals rather than a pile of talented teachers.
    Any of this make sense?

  7. Jon Becker

    Bill, when I saw the title of this post, I was skeptical. I thought, “oh boy, this is going to be a stretch…” But, I like it. Quite a bit. Especially because, as I’m sure you know, there’s a good bit of empirical evidence supporting your knowledge claims. Good working conditions and relational trust are things educators crave most.
    I do wonder, though, what happens if we stretch the analogy a bit…what about the claims that Lebron shied away from a challenge…that he went to a place where his work would be easier? He won’t have to be “the man” night in and night out and his team can still be very successful.
    In the realm of education, couldn’t we point to folks who move from a hard-to-staff school to a “better” situation, citing, perhaps, better working conditions when the real truth is that they won’t have to work as hard to be successful? I’m not talking about big numbers of teachers/leaders, but still…
    What’s to be learned from that take on the narrative?

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