When I was a Varsity soccer coach, we spent a very busy week before school started doing twice-a-day pre-season workouts (as all sports now routinely do). The goals were simple: get people back in shape, and find out who could do what. In other words, almost everything about that first week involved pre-assessment: What kind of shape are we in? Who wants to play where? Who can play best at which position? There was little thought of doing a great deal of teaching: the turnout was large – double the size of the eventual team since some would go to JV and others might even gravitate to other sports – and because I just knew as a coach it was best to understand who we had and what they might do than just jump into teaching stuff.

Needless to say, I rarely did this as an English teacher. Indeed, after the opening class of pleasantries and sharing of names, we were off and running – straight into Catcher in the Rye, Chapters 1 -3 for homework; study the first paragraph carefully, please… One day during pre-season, my old buddy Jim wondered aloud in the faculty locker room: How come we don’t do in class what we do out on the field? Much of my professional career in education has involved thinking that questions through.

Why, indeed? Why wouldn’t we spend a great deal of time finding out who could do what, and what every student’s strengths and weaknesses were? Why wouldn’t we thus do two or three ungraded pre-assessments in reading and writing, to find out where everyone stood upon entering the class? I know, I know, “we don’t have enough time…” Huh? Surely that is myopic at best, dumb at worst. No time to find out what students are good and not so good at in terms of your long-term goals? That confuses teacher coverage with student learning; any time “lost” in pre-assessment will be “found” in more efficient and effective teaching.

I titled this piece as I did – pre-assessment is the 2nd best use of initial class time – because the best use of time, of course, is to find out who the students are regardless of your teaching agenda. What interests and talents do they bring to this class? What is their attitude toward reading, writing, speaking, listening, history, math? What do they think their strengths and weaknesses are as learners? This not only establishes rapport and mutual respect, it enables you to make small as well as large useful adjustments in the syllabus, based on this information. You can, for example, substitute some readings for others based on tastes; you can propose projects based on talents; you can offer options in writing assignments to reflect interests. Perhaps you can ask students to make a deal with you: you’ll shape the course to better reflect who they are and what they need, if they will commit to making a serious attempt to become better learners.

Perhaps the greatest shame of teaching is that we are so busy worrying about what we are going to teach and how we are going to teach that we forget the valuable lesson coaching has to offer: you are not in the teaching business; you are in the talent finding and talent development business. As a coach, you are always thinking about a player’s and a team’s potential: what they need to be better, whether that involves a different regimen, a change of position, or a different approach on your part as a coach.

I too infrequently thought this way as a teacher, I admit; like so many secondary and college-level teachers I tended to merely notice strengths and (especially) deficits cast solely in terms of how they fared on my assignments. I was too busy worrying about my agenda, to slow down to STOP. LOOK. LISTEN to understand the class’ and individual students’ potential and how to nurture it. Yet, I realized that as a coach my favorite moments were watching kids try to play the game in scrimmages or for real while I watched fairly quietly (!) from the sideline, seeing how I could maximize our talent. To know kids (and to reach your goals) you have to stop teaching and start learning. That is crucial if you want to become a really good teacher-coach. However, if you do most of the talking then obviously you are not going to find out what potential they have – especially if you are too busy listening for right and wrong answers.

To do any such pre- and ongoing assessment of current ability and future potential requires self-sustaining and engaging work for students to do, so that you can be freed up to observe. That’s a blog entry for another day….

A useful PS: in addition to such pre-assessments, do what my colleague Duane used to do every Friday: hand out a 5 x 7 index card and ask for feedback under the following 2 questions: on one side, answer briefly what worked for you this week? On the other what didn’t work for you this week? Say why in both cases. Then, do what I did: ask students to self-assess their performance for the week in terms of the 4 key goals for the year (which I discussed with them in the early days).

Pre-assessment, surveys of interests and abilities, ongoing feedback, self-assessment – an unbeatable way to build trust, mutual respect, and better individual as well as team performance.