Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Wizard of Westwood

Today is the 99th birthday of the greatest basketball coach of all time and, in my opinion, one of the greatest men to have lived during the 20th Century, John Wooden.

John Wooden was the coach of the UCLA Bruins from 1948 to 1975.  During his tenure at UCLA, Coach Wooden lead his team to 10 NCAA championships in an 11 year span.  The next closest coaches have each won 3 championships.  He had a career winning percentage of 80% (664 wins with 180 loses).  He was the first person to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, an honor that only two other people have accomplished.

The LA Times has an excellent article in celebration of his 99th birthday, where they inform of 99 things about John Wooden.

Yet all of these accomplishments pale in comparison to who he was as a man and the way he lived his life as a husband, coach, and teacher.

I first learned about Coach Wooden 30+ years after he retired from coaching.  I was in college and stumbled upon a television show on PBS entitled "Values, Victory, and Peace of Mind".  In this program, John presents his philosophy for success in life.  He gives a history of his childhood, his early teaching career, and his success as a basketball coach.  During this show, he walks the viewer through the genesis and development of what would eventually be called the Pyramid of Success. 

Following the program, I went to the bookstore and found a copy of the book "Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court".  This book would become my foundation for my brief, but successful, career as an elementary school teacher.  I learned more about pedagogy and classroom management from this book than I did in 5 years at a teacher college.

Because of my libertarian world view, I structured my classroom differently than most of my co-workers.  I didn't want to have to police my students or my classroom, so I did not have "rules" in the traditional sense.  Rules are made to be broken, the saying goes, and when a rule is broken, it is not a good thing.  So instead, I set up goals, with built in supports for reaching those goals, because when a goal is "broken", it is a good thing.  And when a goal isn't met, it is a teaching opportunity; it is a time for learning.

While I always had this classroom "management" philosophy in the back of my mind, it wasn't until I read the "Wooden" book that I was able to figure out how to implement it into my classroom.  The first two years of teaching, I read out of the book to my class, but it never seemed to quite work out like I'd envisioned it.  The concepts were too abstract for them.  The pyramid was built with words that they couldn't understand.  So, I was pleased to discover, before my third year, that John Wooden had taken his previous books and had developed them into a children's book, "Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success".

The first two weeks of my third year in teaching were structured around the reading and discussing of this book.  Each day we read about and discussed each of the blocks of the Pyramid of Success, and then added each block to a bulletin board on our back wall, which we would refer back to often throughout the rest of the year.

Using Coach Wooden's simplified definition of success, trying their hardest to be the best they could possibly be, I hoped to help them develop a self-awareness and the ability to reflect on their effort, to determine on their own whether or not they were successful.  I didn't want them to rely on other people to determine their success.  I wanted them to know in their hearts and minds whether or not they were successful.

Coach Wooden is a man filled with wisdom.  His books and speeches give us a glimpse of the mind of one of the greatest motivators of our time.  

So, happy birthday Coach Wooden.


  1. Thats great how you incorporated his "Pyramid of Success" into your classroom. My library doesn't have that book, maybe you could lend me your copy.

  2. I actually gave my copy to one of my students the last year I taught. Thought he needed it more than I did. Who knows where it is now.