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Study finds college teacher-coaches skewed heavily toward coaching

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


LAWRENCE — Nearly everyone can look back on their school days and remember the teachers who also coached one of the school’s athletic teams. Fewer would have those memories about their college days, but coaches who also teach are still common, especially at Division III schools. University of Kansas professors co-wrote a study about the experiences of teacher-coaches, finding that more emphasis is placed on the coaching, which can lead to diminished educational returns. It also may be an unsustainable model.

When colleges began adding athletic programs more than a century ago, they adopted the model used by K-12 schools in which teachers would take leadership of the athletic programs. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball and KU’s first basketball coach, is a famous example. But while larger schools switched to full-time coaches, those who teach and coach still exist at many Division III institutions. Jordan Bass, associate professor of health, sport & exercise science at KU, said he and co-authors wanted to examine those dual roles.

“We were very interested in what that balance of roles looks like for teacher-coaches. We imagined they were going to be evaluated more on their success on the court,” Bass said. “And if you’re judged more by one role, how does that define how your focus on each?”

Bass and co-authors Brian Gordon, associate professor of health, sport and exercise science at KU; Claire Zvosec of Louisiana State University; Brent Oja of the University of Northern Colorado; and Sean Hyland, KU graduate, conducted a study in which they interviewed seven teacher-coaches at a Division III institution that is traditionally successful both academically and athletically. The results will be published in the Journal of the Professoriate:

  • Teacher-coaches focused up to 95 percent of their time on coaching
  • The evaluation of their teaching was minimal
  • Their contractual breakdowns underestimate the time spent coaching
  • The job search focused almost exclusively on coaching.

“The reality is the teacher-coaches we talked to were leading very successful programs with high expectations of being competitive in the field,” Bass said.

As expected, the external expectations were focused much more highly on coaching than teaching. One respondent said he had an annual 15-minute review about what he accomplished that year with perhaps one followup question. All said their evaluations with athletic directors were much more involved. Naturally, when expectations were placed much more heavily on athletics, teacher-coaches focused on coaching.

The respondents’ contracts stipulate that they are to spend 65 percent of their work time coaching and 35 percent teaching. However, in reality, none approach that ratio — some even laughed at the thought.

“If I put it in a percentage thing, it would probably be more like 80/20 even though I’m 65/35. t’s probably more 80/20. Shoot, it might be 90/10, I don’t know,” one coach said. “It’s certainly, I identify as a coach. I mean, I just do. It seems like pretty much everything revolves around the coaching.”

When the teacher-coaches were looking for jobs, most listings and related interviews focused primarily on coaching. Some reported the job listings only mentioned teaching responsibilities in fine print, with the job heading only mentioning coaching. Others said it felt like teaching was an “other duties as assigned” arrangement. Some said they were proud to have teaching qualifications and thought it made them a more attractive candidate, but that the job search process barely scratched the surface of finding highly qualified teachers.

Some respondents expressed guilt that they didn’t, or couldn’t, spend more time on teaching, and others expressed annoyance that the teaching part of their job was almost an afterthought.

“We found the teacher-coaches are likely not going to be as happy if they were required to focus solely on one aspect of the job, which leads to a lot of obvious issues,” Bass said.

That imbalance can lead to job burnout, people leaving the teaching and coaching professions, and a poorer experience, not only for teacher-coaches, but students, both athletes and nonathletes. If students are attending classes taught by individuals not giving their full focus to the work, it stands to reason they are not getting as high quality of an education as they could, the authors wrote. Additionally, the student experience is not as optimal. That presents a problem as colleges both large and small are focusing on student retention, ensuring that once students enroll, they stay on campus until they graduate.

Division III schools have placed much more emphasis on wins and losses in the last 10 years, and coaches increasingly have to spend time recruiting and competing for a finite number of student-athletes, Bass said.

Ultimately, the teacher-coach model may be unsustainable, the authors wrote. While it’s often in place for financial reasons in which athletic and academic departments share the cost of paying a full-time employee, neither department is likely getting as good of a return on their investment as they could and students are affected. While it would require more investment from schools, it would likely benefit all.

“This arrangement has a significant impact on the student-athletes of these institutions. They may not be getting as good of an experience as possible, nor are the students in the classrooms,” Bass said. “We think both sides could benefit if they weren’t in a situation where teacher-coaches were not expected to balance these roles.”

Photo credit: Pexels.com


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