I volunteered my husband to coach the basketball clinic at our children’s school. It runs for seven or eight weeks on Saturday afternoons. Kindergarten and 1st grade play from noon to 1pm; 2nd and 3rd grade from 1:15p-2:30p. He comes home tired (exhausted really) but in pretty good spirits. When I ask him how it went his reply is usually some variation of pretty good followed by, “it takes a really long time to get the kids to listen and follow directions, though.”  

My girls’ reply is similar. They politely smile and shrug and say pretty good. Sometimes I can tell there is more they want to say, but they aren’t really sure how to say it. Or maybe they don’t even know what it is they want to say. I should probe, but I don’t. I figure it has to do with the sprints he made them run at the end, or the stern voice he used when someone was having trouble listening. I assume it is a complaint. So I send them off to change their clothes and we go ahead with our day.

Because my husband KNOWS basketball. He plays it (quite well), he understands it, and he can break down the strategy into very simple concepts. He’s also extremely patient, more so than I am most days. He’s really smart and kids and animals love him. I volunteered him to coach (which he agreed to) because I just knew he’d be a great one. This is important work, I told him. You might be the difference in one of those kids’ lives, the coach that made THE difference.

So each week he plans his drills—beginning, middle, and end. He breaks down the concepts into age-appropriate activities and games. He puts on his whistle and dutifully and purposefully enters into the cacophony of 30 bouncing five-to-eight-year-old boys and girls. And their basketballs.

In my head, it is a finely, finely run basketball clinic.

Then, for the first time, I get a chance to go and watch. My husband knows the content, he is great with the kids, and his drills and activities are amazing. But instantly, I realize my mistake. I did not share what I knew (or maybe I took for granted what I knew) about some essential teaching practices—practices that provide structure (this is what I can expect), build confidence (this is what I can do now, what can I do next?), encourage risk-taking (the worst that can happen is…), give feedback (I’m on the right track here, need to adjust there), keep them coming back (I’m working hard, I’m getting better, I’m having fun).

In simple terms, these are the practices I teamed up with my husband to employ. The shift in teaching, in learning, and in listening was immediate. It was a good reminder that what has become intuitive to me as an educator is not intuitive to everyone. It also reinforced that what’s good for kids is probably good for adults too. Who wouldn’t benefit from good instructional practices? Whether we are educators or engineers or parking lot attendants, we are all teachers in one capacity or another, but not all of us have the advantage of knowing the little things that will make the biggest difference. We should share what we know.

Leave no room for guesswork: tell kids (and remind them over and over again) what the rules are for behavior and what the procedures are for interacting and for transitioning. Most of us appreciate knowing what to expect and what is expected. Make sure the parents know, too. They can help reinforce it.

  • Like morning work in a classroom, he gave the children directions for what he expected them to do when they entered the gym (find a partner, work on passing drills). Two short whistle blows indicated they were to stop what they were doing and listen; one long whistle blow meant move on to the next station. 

Introduce the lesson or activity clearly, including what they should know and be able to do once it’s over. Even better if you can model it.

  • Rather than try and explain to the kids what they were supposed to be doing as they were doing it, he used his assistant coaches to model the activity. Kids were hearing, they were seeing, and then they were practicing. You should have seen those picks and rolls!

 There’s whole group instruction, and then there is small group instruction. Use them both and use them well.

  • It was really incredible what he could pull of with all of those kids on a half court, even with another team and all of their noise practicing on the other half court. But once he started using whole group instruction to introduce and model the lesson and small group instruction (making much better use of his assistant coaches) to set up stations where the kids could practice various aspects of the skill, the half court went from looking like Times Square on New Year’s Eve to an art gallery on Saturday morning. Well, maybe not an art gallery, but you get the idea. Within this practice was a little counting off by two's and three's. Given the choice, friends paired up with friends, which not only created listening troubles, but exclusion ones too. 

 Be specific. Tell them what they are doing really well and what they could do even better.

  • As adults we want feedback. Kids are no different. The more specific we can be, the better. Specific feedback allows us to process what we have learned and the extent to which we can successfully apply it. It is information (and maybe even strategy) we can think about, make sense of, and connect with to improve. In whole-group instruction, he could talk about common patterns of strength and weakness with the kids. By using more small group instruction, he had more time to notice where certain kids were struggling—and either spend more time one-one with them or give them a different drill they could succeed at and strengthen their foundation. It also gave him the opportunity to recognize where other kids excelled, encouraging them to try it out in the scrimmage that would happen later on.

 It doesn’t have to be big and it doesn’t have to bold, but make it a big deal and make it fun.

  • The kids had always enjoyed the scrimmage part of practice. But when my husband turned it into a celebration of their hard work and persistence, it took on a whole new level of PLAY. The scrimmage wasn’t anything new, but how he used it was.

I haven’t made it to another practice, but this time I can FEEL it is a finely run clinic just by listening to my daughters’ share their experience: It was so cool when we did this… or, watch how much better I do that…I don't sense them wanting to say more, they say it all. I can TELL by watching my husband return with more energy, less brow furrowing, and a new reply. When I ask him, "how'd it go?" his reply has gone from pretty good to GREAT.

Sounds like a book title to me. Oh, wait…

Call to Action

Share with us what your essential can’t-live-without instructional practices are. Write them in the Comments section below or create a post in the Share Your Stuff section.

And, Or.

Tell us about a time when you had an a-ha moment, either about your own teaching or leading or about how you lead others in their teaching or leading.

And, Or.

Whatever is on your mind. Maybe this article reminded you of a time you volunteered someone for a job. Or a basketball clinic. We love a story.


I did not do justice to the detail and specificity that goes into each and every indicator of effective practice. There are probably ten nested into every one that I mentioned above. The great news is that you can find all of them (and the research behind them) when you log in to Indistar and access the Wise Ways (the research).

You can also find some really great resources here: http://indistar.org/gettingstarted/

photo credit: frog huddle via photopin (license)

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