From the Magazine

Leading Uncommon Greatness: His Mother’s Story

Want to transform your class from mediocrity to Super Bowl champion? Well, you don’t even need a Peyton Manning, if you have the man behind the Manning. Coach Tony Dungy has been one of the most inspiring characters in football, and now we’ll use his inspiring words and ideas to help guide your teaching careers. 

A list of Tony Dungy’s accolades could run (like Edgerin James) the length of this column, but among them are Super Bowl victories, bestselling books, and Hall of Fame-level careers in at least three different fields. But, Dungy’s football brilliance really pales in comparison to the impact he has had off the field. A philanthropist and a vocal community leader, Dungy has helped transform organizations, groups, and communities around important ethics and principles. Now, we can learn from him to transform our classrooms in much the same way. 

Dungy grew up in Jackson, Michigan, in a family of teachers. His dad, a college science professor, continues to get thank you mail, delivered now to Tony, from past students. And his mother, a high school English teacher, would let him enter grades in the grade book when Tony was a young boy. In a speech delivered to leaders at the EdgeX conference, he remembers the mantra she had when some students fell short of expectations. “A good teacher,” she would say, “helps every student earn an A.” It’s an approach to individualized greatness that Dungy has kept at the core of his coaching philosophy. 

There may well be no better example upon which to build your classroom than Coach Dungy. His methods are Socratic, his demeanor is calm, and he imagines his role as that of a guide before a leader. To do your best Dungy impersonation, there are three key components you’ll want to try and practice each day. 

First, practice your principles just like you practice plays on the field or multiplication tables or the big lesson you’re going to give next week. Second, embrace the uncommon. Make the effort to relate to every single student, find what’s unique about them, and let it flourish through your class. And, third, find the individual character through team greatness. Let your students discover their talents and abilities in the context of group work, so they can really apply them in the real world. 

Practice Your Principles

Dungy often reflects on his late mother’s favorite Bible verse. And, in typical Dungy style, even the verses he quotes challenge us more than they lecture us. Mark 8:36 asks, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul.” It sounds pretty grandiose at first blush. How often would we ever find ourselves in a situation with stakes as high as those? Dungy thinks it applies everywhere. 

For Dungy, it’s really about taking the big principles — the ones we don’t think about every single day — and making them into habits through practice. At Empowered, we challenge you to build the classroom around 8 timeless principles in much the same way. And his mother’s verse was just one among many he applies to his coaching. Think about it for a moment … Every day and in every transaction in our lives, we have the opportunity to create a “win-win.” That means we have the opportunity to gain a little bit while seeing another person gain a little bit. If we practice this, if we give it enough reps, the balance sheet of our careers (heck, our lives) will show us as the real winner. 

Embrace the Uncommon

With a focus on those daily principles in your classroom, it’s time to live up to Tony’s biggest challenge: dare to be uncommon. Dungy talks about the importance of an uncommon mindset in your approach to life. “Failure happens to everybody,” Dungy says in his “Dare to be Uncommon” series (a set of coaching and leadership training videos), “but if you’re willing to chase meaningful dreams, you have to be willing to come up short.” 

Dungy’s uncharacteristically calm coaching style was among the most productive in NFL history. That’s because Tony replaced the fire and anger with integrity, character, and determination. We can do the same in our classrooms, replacing the strict rules and harsh punishments with encouragement and a tireless adherence to those high-character principles that offer context for whatever we might be teaching. 

Individual Greatness Through Team Greatness

Perhaps Tony Dungy’s greatest strength was his ability to build cohesive teams. In order to do it, he didn’t go out and grab the best and strongest in each position. Instead, Dungy reflected on his mother’s wisdom as a teacher: a great coach will let every player earn their spot. It’s simple but powerful. It’s time to stop looking at grades as zero-sum games. Unlike the football field, grade books don’t need winners and losers. 

To be a great teacher — a Tony Dungy style teacher — means recognizing the individual greatness in each student, and giving each of them the opportunity to show it to the class. 

So, what does it all mean in real terms? It’s pretty simple, but it’s well worth a try. Build your next semester around a set of unwavering principles. Get them from Empowered or build your own. But, use them to contextualize your lessons. Let your students get the reps in with them. Then, let them explore their own greatness through projects and group work. Let them discover themselves together. 

Do that, and while you might not win the Super Bowl, you’ll definitely win the future. 

Mik Love brings the competitive fire of sport into the classroom through his work with Empowered.