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Chemical Eye on Teaching Teaching
by Preston MacDougall


December 10, 2007
Monday AM

No matter what she wears - or doesn't wear - Paris Hilton will never be quite the international sensation she was in "One Night in Paris". Even though I haven't seen the infamous home video, I am confident in my prediction because I know two things: sex sells, and you can't sex-up sex.

Likewise, you can't coach coaching. Vince Lombardi is regarded as the greatest football coach ever, and he was a business major in college. Before making history on the sidelines, he taught high school Latin, algebra, physics and chemistry. The latter requires more than a smattering of the others for true mastery, but I fail to see how it could be a prerequisite to the Hall of Fame.

True, Knute Rockne was also a chemistry teacher (at Notre Dame, where he had majored in the central science), but Lombardi was never coached by Rockne - in chemistry or coaching.

Pat Summitt is the legendary coach of the Lady Vols basketball team at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and her NCAA career winning record surpasses all others, male or female. She is an alumna of the University of Tennessee at Martin.

jpg Coaching, teaching, and inspiring

Coaching, teaching, and inspiring in Texas.
While this coach is related to the commentary, he is not related to the commentator.

For a small state-supported school, UT Martin has a very strong chemistry program. And for over 40 years Professor S. K. Airee has coached the most consistently outstanding Chemistry Club in the country, in addition to his primary teaching duties. The Lady Vols are famous for their "team chemistry", but as far as I know, Pat Summitt was not a chemistry major. I actually don't know what her major was, but I am sure it wasn't coaching.

If you have ever interacted with a great coach, you already know that there is no B.S. in Coaching (pun intended). I can't help it if this sounds corny, and it is more than a little convenient since his 70th birthday is next month and I am short on any other gift ideas, but the best coach that I ever had was my father, Bill MacDougall.

He was a four-year graduate of the CFL, majoring in Offensive Guard. After two years, he transferred from the Tiger Cats at Hamilton to the Lions at British Columbia, but neither of these institutions made him the great coach I know him to be. I am sure he learned the execution of key techniques (and how to get away with illegal ones), effective training methods, and maybe a little bit about how to put them all together into winning strategies. But I suspect he learned most of his coaching skills when he wasn't wearing pads.

After graduating from the CFL, he became a coach himself. In the early '60s, he was an assistant coach, under Nick Volpe, for the Lakeshore Bears, a Toronto team in the semi-pro Ontario Football Conference. My dad must have learned a lot about the mechanics of coaching when they went to the conference championship, but again, you can't coach coaching.

You can't bottle it either. This is a good thing, because the coaching skill that he demonstrated, both in the semi-pro league and later in the recreational league where my friends and I played for him, were not "bottled-up" in the game of football. He achieved far greater success, in several countries on either side of the Pacific Ocean, as a sales and management coach in the insurance industry.

My father was never certified to teach, but his semi-pro coaching boss, Nick Volpe was. Mr. Volpe had a successful second career as a teacher and administrator with the Peel Board of Education, where I was starting to learn about the world of chemistry, not to mention taking beginner classes in "sex education".

It's a small world, especially when you look back on it from the future. Until I wrote this commentary, I didn't know who Nick Volpe was. I don't think he taught chemistry, like Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi did. If he had, my father probably would have mentioned it.

Certainly when it comes to chemistry and football, there seems to be an intriguing overlap between teaching and coaching. The distinction between teaching and training is a common theme for essays that are required of scholarship hopefuls, and I've read plenty.

The distinction between teaching and coaching has received considerably less "air time", and if there is a difference, I can't quite put my shoulder pad on it at the moment. Perhaps later.

In the meantime, Phil Bredesen, the Harvard-educated Governor of Tennessee who majored in physics and entered politics as a second career, has proposed his "Teach Tennessee" initiative to draw from mid-career professionals in order to boost the thin ranks of high-school teachers who can inspire/teach/coach students in the areas of math and science.

It is not enough to simply hand-off content - the Internet can do that for free. Great teaching is an art that you can't learn by simply sitting in a classroom, or even by watching on the sidelines as an intern. While I can teach any student how to diagram the chemical play of an acid passing a proton to a base, and then execute it, you can't teach teaching to just anyone.

In math and science, we need greater numbers of passionate teachers and effective coaches, wherever and however they learned their craft, so that our country can continue to compete, and win, on the international playing field.


On the Web:

Chemical Eye On... Columns by Preston MacDougall

Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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Ketchikan, Alaska