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Chemistry Class: A Teacher Looks At The 2016 Cowboys

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What leading a classroom teaches me about locker room chemistry, success as a motivator, and the right kind of guys.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

I teach high school. Teaching a classroom relies heavily on leadership. Students perceive teachers as the enemy, part of the mythical "they", that holds people down and works to make everyone’s life harder. Also, teachers, for the most part, do not get to choose their students. They must work with what they are given and find ways to engage and improve their charges across the board, from the least to the most capable.

Very difficult work and, I imagine, much like coaching, in that the job is to get the absolute most out of every single person in the room.

What I find in the classroom is that people seem to come in three types. Some students desire to disrupt. Like Alfred says in The Dark Knight, "some men just want to watch the world burn." Others — the majority — are just trying to get through the day with minimum fuss. A few want to achieve at some level and haven’t lost the desire for self-improvement and learning, or they enjoy the challenge and competition.

The tricky part is that students can move from one group to another and the single biggest reason they change groups is their perception of their chance at success. Many students come into the classroom convinced that they cannot do math, science, or whatever, and the hardest thing in the world is to get those students into the achievement-oriented group. Some come in ready to make easy "A"s (because they always have) and a course like AP Physics smacks them hard upside the head and they quickly move — even as previously high achieving students — down the ladder to "just get through the day" or even "watch the world burn."

Those disruptive influences — the "watch the world burn" types — can ruin a classroom. Every teacher has a different ability to handle those types, but all of us face a critical mass where different problems are popping up faster than we can handle them and in those situations we end up spending more time and effort trying to keep control than teaching. I recently found my own limit, as I had a class get flooded with students, and it got beyond my ability to control. Then, one — just one — of my problem students got moved out of the class and... peace. They’ve been an effective class ever since.

You see, if they can be taught to believe in their abilities and reminded of the intrinsic rewards of achievement (here I do not mean good grades and a future, but simply the satisfaction of doing something well) students can move from the worst of the "watch the world burn" group to the achievement-oriented group quite suddenly and dramatically. It doesn’t mean they will churn out great grades all of a sudden, but that they recognize the value of getting better and that they can reap those rewards... and eventually others. They can become an active part of a high achieving group, but they will fall back into old patterns easily for some time and they have to be managed consistently for a while.

So what does this all have to do with the Dallas Cowboys? I don’t think it’s excessive to presume that a locker room can work the same way as the classroom.

The Right Kind of Guy.

You’ll always have some problem people. But the balance is important. It tips one way or the other very quickly. A lack of personal or team success can create malcontents, moving people down the ladder into "watch it burn" mode. Which can cause more and deeper failures and it becomes a chore for everyone. When that happens, even the most professional and dedicated people are fighting their own natures to stay that way and the whole organization is weighed down by overcoming its own bad attitudes.

But the other way, when everyone is bought in and giving 100%, breeds success. And even the malcontents see that and want to be a part of it. Given the chance they will join in. And it becomes fun. The work isn’t work and the blood, sweat, and tears all become joy at the end of each day because everyone knows the work was well done and leads to success. That’s where this team is now.

But it also explains the mercurial nature of talented malcontents like Rolando McClain, Greg Hardy, and Terrell Owens. Why they can be touted as having the right attitude one minute and unwelcome at the facility the next. Think about it. You take these guys who have issues and you put them on successful teams and they can be a part of things. They help push things forward and are major contributors. But when things get tough and adversity strikes, they get disinterested, bored, and don’t want to push through. When they feel like they can’t create success, they slide back down the ladder: checking out, or even actively causing disruption (as has been hinted about Greg Hardy or even, years ago, Terrell Owens).

So the right kind of guy, the guy who responds to adversity by pushing through and holding the team up with him, is essential. Not that they will all be that way, but you need enough of them to lift each other when they are suffering... as the 2014 Cowboys did and 2016 Cowboys do. Dak Prescott had an awful game last Sunday, and the defense lifted him up and kept him in the game. Chris Jones ran 30 yards to keep him in the game. Terrance Williams drew a penalty to keep him in the game. The defense got him two chances to win the game in regulation. And the team held out until Dak got himself together and delivered a literally perfect passer rating in overtime to win the game. Different people stepping up at different times to bring everyone through the adversity.

But it’s also essential for another reason. Minimizing the chances that someone is going to slip into "just get by" mode. Everyone does, from time to time, need to just do what it takes to gut through. But in a competitive situation like the NFL, "just doing enough" isn’t. It takes every ounce of advantage a player can get out of every moment of preparation and rest to compete against the best. It’s death for an NFL team to lose their intrinsic motivation. The talent level in the NFL is close enough that "Want to" beats "can do" any time that "can do" doesn’t "want to." And once someone starts moving down the ladder, the team performance suffers, and others start to lose the fun. And when it becomes no fun, motivation drops. The spiral starts quickly.

And it can go deep. Dallas famously made its offense "Romo friendly" in 2009 by removing Terrell Owens. Perhaps some of the same addition by subtraction has happened in 2016. Perhaps Greg Hardy, who started 2015 very strong, lost interest in a losing team and began playing with them instead of playing with them. There are rumors that he caused trouble in the locker room and even that he sabotaged Randy Gregory. But the coaches said a lot of good things about him early on. Many thought it was his continued media presence that wore on the coaches over the season, but perhaps it was more about his attitude. Perhaps he devolved over time because he was bored and disappointed by the team performance.

Maybe he doesn’t handle adversity well.

And maybe it’s the same story with Rolando McClain. As the team struggled in 2015 he got bored again. He checked out for the entire offseason and went fishing (and engaging in other leisure activity). He never had a locker at The Star. But suddenly there’s talk he might be back? Why? Well, perhaps he smells the teams success and wants to be a part of something special again. And as long as things are going well he won’t be a problem? Maybe. Maybe he has enough talent to be worth that risk. And maybe the current locker room is able to withstand it.

But the balance is important. Be very careful about where you add weight, especially if it might become dead weight at the first signs of struggle.