“It’s Not About You” – Lessons from the Football Field and the Classroom

It would take more than a set of separate individual efforts to help their kids achieve greatness.
Friday, February 1, 2013

On Sunday, I’ll watch two groups of men seek their own chance to make history in Super Bowl XLVII. As a football coach, I’ll watch each team’s strategy, their formations, the players’ techniques. As a Teach For America alum, I’ll be thinking about two lessons I learned when I joined the corps in 2005, and that I will try to instill in my players at Cornell.


A middle-aged man with short brown hair, a black visor, and a white polo shirt looks to the left at a football game in front of a team in red uniforms.


Photo courtesy of David Archer 

The first lesson is about having a “sense of possibility” – the belief that you and the people around you are capable, no matter the odds, of achieving greatness. I learned about sense of possibility at Institute, but just a few weeks into my first year teaching eighth grade at Dr. William H. Horton Elementary School in Newark, mine had eroded.

I was frustrated because I couldn’t get my students to do their homework, and I remember telling my TFA program director, Rebecca Kockler (Greater Newark ’03), what I was up against. Her response surprised me. Instead of asking “how do I get my kids to do their homework,” she said I should be asking, “how can I help my kids become lifelong lovers of learning?”

“That’s not happening,” I said, showing right away how far I had fallen since Institute. But as we talked, I realized that Rebecca was right. Why was I thinking about the narrow issue of homework when I could be focusing on how I could really help these kids turn around their lives?

Around the same time that Rebecca helped me see past the homework challenge, my colleague Bridgit Cusato-Rosa responded to another bout of frustration by reminding me, very simply, “it’s not about you. You have the chance to help these kids change their lives, and it’s not all about you.”

Bridgit was teaching me the value of team. I was lucky to get to work with some absolutely outstanding teachers, including Ms. Cusato-Rosa, Brian Smith, Kathleen Murphy-Butler, Wilma Rosikiewicz, Abner Rivera, Vice Principal Trish Baldwin and two amazing TFA alumnae, Jessica Mitchell (Greater Newark ’97) and Chiara Cowan (Greater Newark ’99). I cannot overstate how awesome these teachers were for their kids, not least because they recognized that it would take more than a set of separate individual efforts to help their kids achieve greatness.

Last year, I had the chance to watch my buddy and former linemate Kevin Boothe compete in and win his second Super Bowl. Being there live, I could see just how intense the experience is – the hype, the commercials, the halftime show, the more than 100 million people worldwide watching your every move.

But once the ball was snapped, Kevin and his teammates were, in many ways, not all that different from me and my fellow teachers at Horton Elementary. We had to block out the noise (hype, poverty) and focus on the task at hand (winning the Super Bowl, helping kids become lifelong learners). And we had to have faith in our teammates to work together as a single unit in pursuit of our goal.

When you watch the Ravens and Niners, each working as a team this weekend, think of Ms. Cusato-Rosa, Ms. Murphy-Butler, Ms. Cowan and other amazing teachers like them – leaders whose sense of possibility and commitment to working as a team prove that we are all capable of achieving greatness.

David Archer (Greater Newark ’05) is the head football coach at his alma mater, Cornell University, and the youngest Division I football coach in the country. He taught eighth grade language arts literacy and a self-contained fourth grade class at The Dr. William H. Horton Elementary School in Newark’s North Ward.


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