Dick Cherry coached me

Last night, for the second Saturday in a long time, Don Cherry held court in front of millions of Canadians.  Don, as hockey fans among you will know, (and I didn’t until I looked it up) only played one hockey game in the NHL.  But his brother Dick played 149 NHL games, and then he left and became an elementary school principal.  Both Don and Dick coached hockey players, but Dick also coached students and teachers.

In beginning to focus on our National Research Project, Inspiring Excellence, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of feedback in learning, and additionally, the need for administrators to give meaningful feedback to teachers.  And this is where Dick Cherry comes in….

Dick Cherry coached me to be a better teacher.  Twenty years ago, when I was a student teacher, I had a teaching placement in a JK-8 school in the Kingston area, and Dick Cherry was the Principal.  Like his brother, he was larger than life. (keep in mind that I knew nothing of his NHL hockey career.)  He was playful and exuded passion.  I remember that he played the banjo at the school, and on snowy days when outdoor recess was cancelled, he had the kids square dancing in the gym.  I remember standing at the back of an assembly once and seeing him, when no one else could, sprint down the hall then stop outside the doors, pull himself together and saunter into the gym to address the kids.  It might have been my first glimpse into the behind the scenes life of an administrator.

Once when I was teaching a grade seven class, Dick stood in the doorway watching me.  Later that day, he said something to me like, “You let your feelings show when you get stressed and these kids will eat you alive if you don’t learn to mask your emotions.”  He took me across the hall, to the grade eight classroom, and asked me what I observed.  The class was a bit chaotic – I think it was almost recess – but the kids were engaged and the teacher was in charge.  Dick whispered, “Watch him now.  He is directing them, and telling them off if you listen carefully; but he uses humour and he doesn’t let them get to him.”

Another time, he stood in the doorway of my classroom right before the end-of-day bell.  As the kids were packing up, Dick got their attention.  He asked my class,  “What did you learn today?”  The kids came to life – clearly they were used to being asked this question.  He listened and bantered about the odd comment, and when the bell rang, the kids left in a buzz.  Then he said to me, “What is the first thing parents ask kids when they see them?  This routine helps them have a fresh answer everyday.”  Lesson learned?  Remind kids – and their parents – of the value of learning.  Other lesson learned?  Much can be learned from watching the pros.

With the proliferation and increased quality of online learning, the future of great teaching will depend on those who are masterful at engaging with and inspiring kids.

What isn’t changing is the need for great administrators – like Dick Cherry – to spend time standing in doors, coaching teachers.

Today, Dick Cherry is 75 years old and still coaching hockey; I wonder if he’d take up the call to coach teachers too?

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