More Lessons from the LeBronathon

Back when King Bron-Bron was preening on national television, dangling his talents in front of a handful of hopeful cities and generally inflating his own ego, I wrote a bit titled Lessons Learned from the LeBronathon that compared his situation to the teacher recruitment and retention challenges faced by high needs schools.

Considering the stink that LeBron caused when he returned to Cleveland for the first time this week, I figured it was time to revisit the Bronfest and see if there was anything new that we could learn from the NBA’s longest running soap opera about recruiting talent to our neediest communities . 

Here’s a few new lessons that I think might just be applicable.

Talented people are not automatically successful in every situation:

After watching the fandemonium that broke out in Miami after they paired their newest superstars—Lebron and Chris Bosh—with the ubertalented Dwayne Wade, you gotta believe that just about everyone in South Beach was betting on big numbers from their three amigos

But spend some time poking through the NBA’s statistics, and you’ll find that’s just not the case. 

In fact, LeBron currently ranks seventh in the league in scoring—trailing guys like Russell Westbrook and Monta Ellis who have no hope of ever landing their own ESPN prime time specials—and Bosh ain’t even in the top 25.

Look through other important basketball statistics—double-doubles, steals, assists—and the story only gets worse: LeBron ranks no higher than tenth in any category. 

Heck, the guy is currently ranked 67th in rebounding despite being built like a brick.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Our talent-loving culture wants to believe that successful people are automatically going to succeed no matter where they practice their craft, but that’s just not true. 

LeBron and Bosh are both struggling in new circumstances because they’re being asked to learn new roles that they’re not comfortable with yet.

The same is true for teachers. 

“Talent” looks different depending on the circumstances that you’re working in.  The skills and behaviors that are necessary for helping students in high poverty schools are different from the skills and behaviors necessary for stretching students in the suburbs.

And while most talented practitioners of any craft will eventually figure out how to succeed in their new roles—LeBron and Bosh will see their rankings rise over the course of their time together in Miami—it takes time and training even for the best in any field to succeed when they move into new situations.

A few talented people can’t change an entire organization on their own:

Imagine how peeved Heat owner Micky Arison must be after spending bajillions to pair together three of the NBA’s preeminent superstars—who then spent their first days together bragging about how many titles they’d win together—only to find his team in eleventh place in the NBA right now. 

Ask any coach, however, and they probably wouldn’t be surprised at all.  You see, to make a splash, Ol’ Micky signed three stars and then filled the rest of his roster with professional nobodies. 

That’s a recipie for disaster in any profession.

You see, talented people working in individual roles can make a pretty big difference in their own small settings—LeBron did score 38 points all by himself in his return to Cleveland this week—but seeing real, systemic change across an entire organization requires more than a small handful of stars doing their own thing.

We’re making the same mistakes in many of our conversations about schools by focusing our time and attention on identifying and rewarding small handfuls of accomplished teachers. 

Instead, we should focus on improving the capacity of the vast majority of teachers who fall in the middle of our profession. Even small improvements in practice in these teachers can result in huge gains for the students in our poorest communities.

It’s an economy of scale kind of thing.

A great leader is worth more than a great player any day:

No offense to embattled Miami Heat coach Eric Spolestra, but the guy is in over his head right now. 

He’s a decent coach, but he just can’t figure out how to deal with his new superstars or to find a way to make the most of the rest of the blokes that he’s got to work with.

The thing is that’s his job

Someone has to choreograph the dance that is five humans working on the floor towards the same objective—even when three of those five guys are supposed to be freaking amazing.

Someone has to set a vision for the team.  Someone has to get everyone on board and working in the same direction.  Someone has to figure out who works best in which positions.

And all of that work—which we call leadership—requires the trust and respect of those who are being led, something that Spolestra doesn’t have.

That’s an all-too-familiar problem in high needs schools—who often have a revolving door in the principal’s office—and the results are just as disastrous. 

Sure, there might be talented teachers in every high needs building, but they haven’t got a clear, consistent direction to follow. 

Sure, there might be talented teachers in every high needs building, but they don’t believe in their leadership and end up walking away frustrated.

Sure, there might be talented teachers in every high needs building, but they are forced to work in systems that don’t take advantage of their individual strengths and skills.

So how do we fix the problem?

Start spending more money on the leaders of our neediest schools.  Find principals with proven track records in high needs communities and pay them serious cabbage to go to the buildings where they’re needed the most.

Invest in principal mentoring and professional development programs.  Stop believing that you can balance budgets on the backs of programs designed to support school leaders.

The fact of the matter is that good coaches are almost always more important to the success of any team than good players. 

When will educational policymakers start to recognize and to act on that reality?

So whaddya’ think? 

Do my newest Lessons Learned from the LeBronathon make any sense?  Am I right that our focus on finding individual talents for our highest needs schools is yet another failed policy just waiting to happen?

5 thoughts on “More Lessons from the LeBronathon

  1. Curmudgeon

    Here’s another thought … the talented people might not want to live in the neighborhood with the lousy school and not want to commute very far. I own a house and the distance/time is always a big part of any decision I will ever make.
    Then, LB and Wade are not having a great year so far. It’s not the coach’s fault. The two superstars are identical and it takes complementary players to make a team, not identical ones. Carrying this analogy to school: there are students who do better with me than with other math teachers, and students who do better with those other teachers than with me. Having complementary teachers means that we can give an appropriate experience to every kid.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Paul wrote:
    I have to remember what you’ve shared here: that an effective teacher is a product of training, experience, leadership, and environment
    This is a brilliant quote, Paul—and it’s the reason that we can’t ever see real improvements in teaching quality in our country.
    Think about it: Change efforts often focus on one of your four factors, right? But they never systematically address all four factors at once.
    Until we become more systematic about focused reform in all four categories, we’re doomed.
    I know…dramatic language, but I’m pretty convinced that the scrap heap of innovation has proven it to be true.
    Thanks for making me think.
    We need to get a drink…
    Bill

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Mr. Station wrote:
    I think you’ve fallen for the cult of the CEO, a particularly pernicious misunderstanding of leadership that has almost destroyed this country.
    Wow. If that’s the message that comes across in my post, I’ve got some revising to do!
    And if you ask the principals and teachers I’ve worked with, they’ll tell you that I’m not a big fan of the principal as superhero model of leadership by any means.
    That being said, I’ve worked in buildings with strong leaders who have been able to get the most out of their faculties by leveraging human relationships and doggedly ensuring a singular focus on a clear vision.
    Those schools are always successful.
    And I’ve worked in buildings with weak leaders who aren’t sure how to use relationships to drive change and who haven’t got a clear vision for what exactly they want their players to accomplish or what system of play will work the best for their teams.
    Those schools are always unsuccessful.
    As much as I hate to admit it, the actions of the building principal are really the key to whether or not schools will succeed or not.
    And as such, I think that reform efforts should focus on finding and rewarding the best school leaders when they’re willing to tackle the hardest assignments.
    Does this make sense at all?
    Bill

  4. twitter.com/mrscienceteach

    Bill,
    I find myself suffering from the “grass is always greener” mindset far too often. I consider switching schools because I believe that the success I have enjoyed in my current learning community will simply transfer with me to any new location. I have to remember what you’ve shared here: that an effective teacher is a product of training, experience, leadership, and environment.
    Also, I think “gasstation” has got it wrong. Bill isn’t suggesting that business leadership is solution to what ails American education. On the contrary, he’s saying that there may be parallels, but the principles are not universal.
    Or, am I completely wrong?

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