By Angela Burley
Among my friends, opinions on Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders are sharply divided. Those who love him LOVE HIM, and those who hate him HATE HIM. I am in the love camp; I have been a fan since college when I frequented his “Prime Time 21” club during the Dallas Cowboys’s back-to-back Super Bowl days.
You might think coaching football and teaching world cultures to a room full of 6th graders have little in common. However, now that Prime Time has become Coach Prime and I am a master teacher, I see a striking similarity in our practice: an effort to create a learning environment that is relevant and affirming of all who are in it. Students that make up the post-Millennial generation are more culturally diverse than ever before, and they are entitled to learn in an environment that affirms them rather than dismisses or discourages them. Here are some great strategies I take away from Coach Prime’s unique leadership style.
Coach Prime Promotes a Collectivist Culture
According to Zaretta Hammond, collectivist cultures, which predominantly include peoples of color, value community and relationships over independence. Coach Prime often expresses his love and appreciation for his players by embracing them as a family. Although his biological children play for the team, he refers to all players as his sons. This practice creates an environment where players feel accepted, can be vulnerable, and are responsible to one another.
As a culturally responsive teacher, I also seek ways to build positive and encouraging teacher-student and student-to-student relationships that feel like a family so that my students are comfortable making mistakes or acknowledging confusion. In my class, we abide by the motto, “We love in here.” When I hear students making fun of each other or using disparaging words, my correction begins with, “We love in here.” When we are waiting for students to answer a question, during the wait time, I always add, “We will patiently wait as Sally thinks of her answer because we love in here.” Just weeks after school started, I heard my students use our “we love in here” motto. I am already excited to see the burgeoning growth of our classroom family.
Students that make up the post-Millennial generation are more culturally diverse than ever before, and they are entitled to learn in an environment that affirms them rather than dismisses or discourages them.
Coach Prime Uses Culturally Responsive Engagement Strategies
Coach Prime engages his players using music, wordplay, and call-and-response, a strategy Christopher Emdin calls “Pentecostal Pedagogy.” During his pre-game motivational speech, he stands in the middle of his “pulpit” and rallies his players, ending with his popular refrain, “Now give me my theme music!”
As a teacher serving students of color, I use similar strategies. A favorite in my class is when I say, “Hold up!” they respond, “Wait a minute!” In my first getting-to-know-you activity, I ask students to provide their “school-friendly” theme song. I use their responses to create a class playlist that we listen to all year during student-centered activities. Because we have multiple cultures represented, students get to practice “loving” all types of music. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a classroom full of primarily non-Spanish speaking students jamming to “Despacito.”
Coach Prime Connects Intergenerationally
Despite being decades older than his players, Coach Prime stays current on popular culture. This is most evident in his use of social media. He masterfully turned a criticism from an opposing coach about wearing sunglasses during an interview into an entire social media campaign when he purchased sunglasses for every player as a symbolic gesture. Then, Coach Prime used the hype to push the team to an overtime victory against the other coach.
I am a student of my students without judgment.
I, too, use popular culture for the benefit of my students. I am a student of my students without judgment. Since the use of social media is generally frowned upon in the school setting, students are always excited to imitate its features in their work. For example, I challenge students to create memes or Snapchat-like posts as a product for a project or assignment. The best part of using a student’s social culture as a catalyst for learning is that students who don’t do the work are still engaged (and often regretful) by the other students’ work. It’s a win-win!
Intentionally or not, Coach Prime has perfected culturally relevant practices. For me, being a culturally responsive practitioner is about more than completing a list of activities or adhering to stereotypical generalizations. Instead, it is about seeking connections with my students to understand and acknowledge their values and life experiences, even if they differ vastly from mine. Watching Coach Prime’s evolution, it is clear that he has made efforts to remain connected to the needs and desires of his players. I challenge myself to do the same every day.
Angela Burley is the sixth-grade world cultures teacher leader at Dr. Frederick Douglass Todd Middle School in Dallas, TX, and is a 2023–2024 Teach Plus Senior Writing Fellow.