Tennis Lessons

I was a tennis teaching professional for 35 years giving private lessons — first at a private club just outside of Chicago and then in the Summers while I was teaching full-time in philosophy at the university — running tennis camps, and coaching for 15 years, both men and women. My approach to private lessons was pretty much the same: hit with the pupil for a few minutes to see what his or her strengths and weaknesses were. I didn’t have a formula which I tried to force on every player. I took what they had and tried to work with it, bending the lesson to fit the pupil. I usually saw fairly quickly what they needed to do to improve their game and I would make a few suggestions to them — avoiding criticism and making sure I didn’t say something that might undermine their confidence or make them self-conscious. If what I said failed to work, I tried to say the same thing using different words: everyone is different. Eventually something I said would seem to work and I piled on the praise and relied on repetition to help groove the stroke and make it work better for the pupil.

The year after college I taught arithmetic, history, geography, and science to boys in grades 3 through 7 at a private school. I also coached football and basketball. I learned during that year to apply the same techniques I had used on the tennis court: listen carefully and observe; be patient and full of praise when the students got the message. And I tried to keep my sense of humor throughout — giving private lessons, in the classroom, or while coaching intercollegiate tennis players.

What I learned over the years is that teaching is not a science; it is an art. There are no “methods” that can be taught to every aspiring teacher that will work with all the students — or even the majority of them. This is why I have become so critical of the methods courses taught in education programs across the nation. They rest on the faulty assumption that teaching is a science. The best thing that could be done for our teachers is to encourage them to take an academic major in college — history, English, biology, chemistry, sociology, mathematics, whatever — and then take a year as an apprentice to a veteran teacher. The veteran can give the aspiring teacher tips on what has worked over the years for them — how to reach the quiet or subdued pupils in the class, for example, instead of teaching to the ones that always raise their hands. There are things that can be learned, but not sitting in a classroom in college working through a manual on “methods.”

I have come to believe that this is the best plan. I would note in passing that the teachers at the private school where I taught for that year all had legitimate college degrees and none of them (that’s right, none of them) was “certified” to teach. They were not driven away from teaching like so many bright, young people by having to take tedious and pointless “methods” courses. They learned on the go and, for the most part, were very good at what they did. Granted, the students were bright but the principle is the same. The best way to learn how to teach is to be patient, be aware of what is going on around you, and have adequate communication skills to make your point in a variety of ways in order to reach the largest number of pupils. These are not things that can be learned in a department of education. They must be natural or acquired on the job in a classroom teaching others what you yourself have learned, what excites you.

I realize that I am drawing on my own personal experience to make a general point, and I hasten to note that I do not regard myself as an outstanding teacher. I always taught to the brightest and loved most working with the best athletes. But I have observed over the years countless others who are either good or bad teachers and have tried to understand what made the difference.  And as Director of an Honors Program I saw many a bright, aspiring teacher turn away from teaching because of the boring methods courses they were required to take. To repeat, teaching is an art, not a science. And if we want to start attracting the best and brightest students to the teaching profession we need to admit that we cannot teach others how to teach.


9 thoughts on “Tennis Lessons

  1. Ah, Hugh, again, I totally agree with you. As an English teacher in public high school, I still see exactly what you are talking about. As teachers, we are told what to do and how to do it and the How to do it cycles about every 2-3. Whatever the newest guru, fad, approach, lingo is out there, we have to listen to it and apply it. While some of the information can and has been helpful, much of it is just recycled and repackaged and much of it doesn’t work practically in the classroom. I too struggle with trying to understand why we don’t utilize our most valuable resource in education – the master teachers themselves!! Turnover rates for teachers with 5 or less years is still sky high as it has been for a solid decade or more. Less and less young people are choosing to teach. And these things, at least from my perspective (and I’m an “old” teacher with only 16 years in) are really telling of the state of education. Thanks for another great read!

      • I’m just not sure why things can’t change. I realize there are so many components at play but still. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll keep getting what we get. Crazy.

      • The educational establishment is reluctant to change, the teachers seem to be preoccupied with job security (for the most part) and unaware that there is a problem. How many times have you heard teachers defend the status quo by complaining about the types of students they have to teach and the impossible conditions they are required to teach under? The complaints are warranted in most cases, but the focus ought to be on the kids and what is best for them, not on the teachers and what they want or the administrators who make the rules and protect themselves at every turn. It’s not a good situation, not one that leads to change. One must first admit there is a problem before they can address it.

  2. Hugh, your helpful and observant style of teaching is not a surprise. I value how you encourage through examples and reinforce the positive. The teachers you reference seem to fall into the same category.

    As I read, I was recalling the famous golf coach Harvey Penick who taught Ben Crenshaw and others. He also helped novices. For some reason, I remember a lesson he gave to a woman who was going to play in a Captain’s Choice tourney the next day. Since he knew he had little time to teach her a great deal, he taught her some simple rules about chipping and putting that would allow her to contribute to the team.

    All the best, coach, Keith

  3. yes, teaching is definitely an art, and there are masters who forget what it’s like to be a student and they make horrible teachers. and there are the teachers who blend many methods, whatever it takes to best reach the students. we all remember those who bored us silly and the ones who snagged our attention and captivated us – even in subjects we cared little about. but it’s each individual student that matters, and everyone loses if that’s no longer important.

    teachers deserve to be at the top of the pay scale!

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