Baseball and Teaching

As I was watching one of my favorite baseball players hang his head and make the long walk back to the dugout after striking out in front of 30,000 fans, I recalled how I feel after a disappointing class meeting.

I strike out when I assign tedious readings, give confusing directions for a class exercise, keep lecturing even though students’ eyes are glazing over, ask uninspiring discussion questions, or botch the answer to an unexpected student question. I do these things fairly frequently. It’s not a good feeling.

Perhaps I can take solace in the fact that many star baseball players strike out a quarter or more of the time. In fact, an outstanding rate for successfully getting on base is 40% of the time (think Mike Trout or Vladimir Guerrero Jr.). To be successful, great athletes must be able to bounce back from their frequent small failures. We instructors must too.

Because it’s summer and I’m an ardent baseball fan, I got to thinking about other ways teaching resembles baseball.

Even the best professionals go through slumps, and during those slumps, it’s wise to seek advice.

We faculty may drop the ball for a week, have an entire course that just didn’t work the way we hoped, or even endure a bad semester. When that happens, “coaches” can help us determine which things to keep doing the same way and which adjustments to try. The needed adjustments might be minor (when batting, raise your elbow; when teaching, take the time to plan clear directions and good discussion prompts).

It’s always wise to consult an appropriate coach. A baseball player struggling with batting shouldn’t seek out a pitching coach; slumping instructors should consult teaching center staff or an especially wise colleague instead of a bitter colleague who blames students when things don’t go well.

Stats matter.

Baseball general managers obsess over statistics. They measure all sorts of things with the goal of figuring out which players should be drafted, how to defeat an opponent (it’s helpful to know an opposing player can’t hit curveballs), or where their own team members should improve. Some players and fans dislike this emphasis on stats. They prefer to trust their perceptions and instincts, or they think that focusing on statistics spoils the fun of the game.

Stats sometimes matter for instructors too, especially the numbers from survey instruments that solicit student perceptions of teaching. How much these data matter varies at different institutions, and not all institutions are transparent about what constitutes “excellent” or “acceptable” ratings. As in baseball, an overemphasis on these statistics can be disheartening and spoil the fun of teaching.

At the same time, sometimes the numbers can help us identify areas where we’re less successful, and then we can probe more deeply into what’s going on beneath the numbers by talking more with students, utilizing mid-semester focus groups, and/or having a class observed. We might also consider “stats” to be information we glean from student performance on our exams, essays, and other assessments, which can indicate the content students are struggling with. Knowing this helps direct our future efforts.

People appreciate a good teammate.

In baseball, a team player might selflessly hit the ball to right field in order to advance a runner or execute what’s called a sacrifice fly or bunt. However, some players resist such actions because they’d rather focus only on their own glory instead of the team’s well-being. “Clubhouse cancer” is the term for arrogant jerks who don’t support their teammates. Teams can succeed in spite of some internal conflicts, but the baseball season is long, and everyone is happier when all the players feel a shared mission and make an effort to be good teammates.

What’s the comp in academia? Faculty who never volunteer for departmental service, insist on special treatment, and hijack the discussion when they do bother to show up for meetings? Lone wolfs who are nationally known in the profession but don’t get to know their colleagues? Profs who see TAs as servant-graders rather than apprentices or partners in teaching?

Academic years and careers can be long like baseball seasons, and studies suggest that that getting along with colleagues matters (O’Meara et al.). Professional relationships and a sense of community not only help departmental morale but contribute to an individual faculty member’s satisfaction and productivity. Alternatively, we might think of our “teammates” as being our students. Scholars involved in Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning assert that partnering with students in respectful, reciprocal learning relationships with shared responsibilities leads to all sorts of great outcomes, including improved student engagement, agency, motivation, awareness, and confidence.

Success depends on mastering certain fundamentals.

In baseball, scouts refer to five basic tools that contribute to a player’s potential to excel: fielding, running, hitting for average, hitting for power, and throwing. Recently some organizations have begun prioritizing other attributes, such as a “good eye” (the ability to quickly recognize discern what kind of pitch has been thrown), or a player’s coachability, mental makeup, sustained effort, or understanding of the subtleties of the game.

I’ve enjoyed pondering which five fundamental “tools” I’d be looking for in a teacher. I wondered whether the big five should mainly consist of skills (e.g., the ability to explain things clearly, facilitate active learning, or design assessments), or whether attitudes and dispositions (e.g., openness, commitment to equity and inclusion, desire for improvement) are more important.

Teaching’s Five Tools

Here’s my first attempt at a list:

  • Passion for and knowledge about the course content
  • Deep concern for all students and their learning
  • Ability to organize and plan
  • Clarity and transparency (in every aspect of teaching)
  • Dedication to honing one’s craft

What do you think? Which “five tools” are the essential ones for excellence in teaching? Does the baseball metaphor work? Are there more appropriate metaphors?

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KerryAnn O’Meara, et al., Faculty Careers and Work Lives: A Professional Growth Perspective, 2008, p. 32.

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