Friday, 10 May 2013

Taking teaching tips from Sir Alex

Taking teaching tips from Sir Alex Ferguson

In the ruthless world of Premier League football, many managers find their experiences of top flight football to be precariously short.

That fact alone would make Sir Alex Ferguson’s quarter-century an extraordinary feat but, after announcing his retirement on Wednesday evening (9th May), many pundits and sports commentators have hailed his decision as marking the end of an era.

Ferguson’s longevity is far from the most compelling reason for this. Within his 27-year stint as manager of one of the most successful clubs in world football, he led his team to 13 major titles and was the first manager to win the treble in the 1988−89 season.

Shortly after the heroics of the Champions League final – which saw Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Teddy Sherringham pull back a 1−0 deficit against Bayern Munich in injury time, Sir Alex Ferguson became only the eighth manager to be knighted for his services to football.

Today, Manchester United is one of the wealthiest and most widely supported clubs in the world.

Commenting this week, Prime Minister David Cameron hailed Sir Alex as ‘a remarkable man in British football who has had an extraordinary, successful career.’

At the end of a reign so sustained and successful it is easy to forget how hard-fought the initial victories were and how unlikely their domination that followed was.

Outlasting prime ministers, archbishops and even popes, Ferguson turned the fortunes of a side that hadn’t won a league title in the two decades prior to his appointment.  But what can we learn from his charisma, drive and zeal as a manager, or more so as a leader and trainer?

While many first consider the lessons to be learned from a business sense, there are also tips that we as educators can draw from Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure.

Support and discipline

Ferguson was famous for staying close to his players, but also being able to discipline them when they didn’t

Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United
play up to the standards he expected.
Setting aside the trophies, the honours and accolades in world football, Alex Ferguson has maintained an ethos that the best way to judge yourself and your performance is in what you believe in, and the satisfaction that you get out of achieving those beliefs.

Ferguson was notorious for his ability to discipline players who put themselves before the team, but he also demonstrated the importance of staying close to his players.

He never shied away from venting his emotions to get his point across, something Mark Bosnich was made all too aware of one particular, cold November evening.

Bosnich, then 18 years old, let in a free-kick from the edge of his 18-yard box. Ferguson had been watching from the sidelines, following his son’s development in the team and after seeing the goal conceded he marched over to Mark and thundered,

‘How did you let that go in on your side!’

Scouts at the game and onlookers were somewhat surprised at Ferguson’s ferocity as he continued shouting, ‘And if you don’t take those pants off, I’ll send you up to [Scottish club] Aberdeen on loan and make sure you train in shorts all the time. This is not Bondi Beach, buddy – get those pants off and you better make sure we win, second-half!’

Mark’s attitude and performance changed instantly and led to the team’s win, for which Bosnich was rewarded with a wink from Ferguson.

While I’m not suggesting that teachers reprimand students so sternly, combining fair discipline with generosity and recognition can establish a level of authority while encouraging and supporting students to strive for higher levels of excellence.

Ferguson also maintained a clear chain of command and equality, whereby no matter who the player was, what they were being paid or what reputation they brought with them, they had to play for the team, otherwise they would not last long.

The classroom is no different; whether a student is underperforming or you have the highest year-group achiever in your class, it’s imperative that your time is shared and that each individual student has the opportunity to contribute. Often times it will be the same students causing disruption, and the same students putting their hands up and offering to start off group discussions.

Ferguson was able to get their buy-in, from the outset – whether starting as a new player for Man Utd or starting a new season, players would have to share his beliefs, his vision for the club and his desire to do well. Student-teacher contracts, an informal document that outlines what principles and standards of behaviour students have to maintain in class are a useful way of telling students what you expect, to outline the boundaries and also to add incentives that will reward sustained performance.

Hard work and regular praise

In managing a team of 30 millionaires, fragile confidence levels and inflated egos are commonplace and something that would be a challenge for even the most adept leaders. In an interview with the BBC, Sir Alex Ferguson revealed his secret as creating an ethos of ‘hard work’ and maintaining an expectation that his players need to ‘work harder than anyone else’.

He also revealed that his most commonly used phrase was ‘Well done’. Unsurprising to many but something that we as educators can undervalue or take for granted.

In a recent study into the factors supporting academic performance and behaviour, student connectedness and positive recognition were identified as the two key factors (Weiss, Cunningham, Lewis & Clark, 2005). Thus by enhancing student connectedness through student leadership programmes and recognition of a student’s contribution to the class or their school work pays dividends.

So what can you do to create and cultivate a climate of hard work in your classroom?

Well, celebrate students’ contributions to the school on a regular basis − end of term, end of the week, even at the end of a lesson. Providing opportunities to recognise good performance and high levels of achievement reinforces school connectedness between the pupil and teacher, and it is this that is likely to continue to raise performance and reinforcement, encouraging others to strive for a similar reward.


Chris Solieri (Blog Editor)

After 5 years of higher education graduating with a BA Hons from RHUL and an MA from Durham University, Chris has somehow retained an indubitable passion for education.

Now, the lead blog editor for LearnersCloud, a unique e-learning GCSE resource provider, Chris’s passion for innovative technologies has flourished and with it, a desire to share his own insights, reviews and experiences on integrating effective technologies within the classroom.