An Athletic Mindset: Creating Growth Through Accountability and Collaboration

by EdCircuit Staff

Spotlight: Piedmont School District has great success
implementing a system of accountability.

If you were to picture athletics in small-town rural Alabama, what would you see? Would you see a Friday Night Lights-Esque drama? Or would it be a small community gathering during the week to support their local athletes? In reality, small-town athletics is made up of student-athletes giving their all and communities rallying behind them and providing them with the support they need to succeed. In many communities, athletics defines success. Not that athletes are the only successful people, but that they represent the qualities that create success. From toughness to teamwork, athletic achievement represents a mindsight that finds a goal and works towards achieving it. In the small rural community of Piedmont, Alabama, they are known for their athletic prowess. For example, in 2021, their high school football team won their 5th state championship since 2009. This victory let their community know that hard work, toughness, and willingness to compete despite socioeconomic struggles were still a badge they proudly wore. However, just down the road from the State Championship high school, the 6th-8th grade students of Piedmont Middle School were harnessing their own competitive spirit, not competing on the field or the court but in the classroom. 


In his 5th year as principal, Chris Hanson knew that the competitive spirit of his community would get Piedmont Middle School through remote learning and subsequent learning loss. In every measure, students were falling behind, and he wanted to install a sense of accountability in his students. 

“One word that describes it is drive. We are a very competitive school when it comes to athletics, so we try to take athletics and go back to the classroom and bring some drive to the classroom.” 

In long conversations with the educators in the building and other administrators, Piedmont Middle set up a system of accountability that would drive their students to the next level. Using a tool called iReady by Curriculum Associates, the students of Piedmont Middle School were set to hit a certain benchmark of time, and a number of lessons passed in order to fill a percentage of their grade. At the beginning of the process, Principal Chris Hanson saw a decent amount of pushback due to attaching a grade to the new system, but in his time as a coach, Principal Hanson realized that by creating a tangible amount of accountability in his students, they would reach their potential as learners. And it worked, astonishingly. 

The number of Grade 6 students performing Mid or Above Grade Level in math increased from four percent after first diagnostics to 32 percent at the end of the year, while the number of students performing Three or More Grade Levels Below decreased from fifteen percent to just four percent between fall 2020 and spring 2021.

Support and Collaboration

Part of this success was due to the support that teachers and administrators gave to their students. As any coach or athlete knows, unconditional accountability can lead to stress and unwanted combativeness, but students, like athletes can find collaboration and community with support. The first measure they took to support their students was understanding that every learner is different and put measures in place for every student to succeed in their way. Secondly, the educators at Piedmont began setting pathways through testing every student, ensuring that their success was individual and not based on unrealistic expectations. Thirdly they gave students one-on-one training and data chats to discuss opportunities for finding areas for individual growth. Finally, they incentivized goal achievement through rewards like parties, treats, and prizes for individuals and whole classes, as every middle school teacher knows, a pizza party can often feel like a championship trophy to their students. 

They found the drive they were looking for, and it exceeded individual success. Taking their lessons from athletics, classes began feeling like teamwork environments where individual students could take charge of their own learning and support their classmates who may be struggling to find the motivation or unsure of certain material. They found that students were collaborating on unprecedented levels, particularly using communication to find struggling students and support them. One teacher at Piedmont middle recounts the peer-to-peer learning that sprung up from their accountability measures and incentives. “My students checked in with one another to see who had not passed the lesson yet and were willing to help one another with hard concepts so the whole class could be successful,” said Cheyenne Crider, a 7th-grade math teacher. 

Acknowledging A Supportive Environment

“Our community wants to see success in the academics just like we are seeing in athletics,” said Principal Chris Hanson. And that is exactly what they saw when their school was honored by the state of Alabama. This learning environment, built on the principles of accountability, support, and collaboration, found Piedmont among the top schools in Alabama for ELA and Math proficiency despite their socioeconomic barriers, earning them the title of “High Flyer School” in 2021. Like the athletic achievements of their school, this marking achievement was noticed by their community. 

For those who are not athletes or are familiar with athletics, it may seem negative to say a school has an athletic mindset for its academic goals. Some might see that as students competing against each other or propping up a negative culture. However, as we’ve seen with Piedmont Middle School, the opposite is true. The old adage from NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young rings true in their story: “The principle is competing against yourself. It’s about self-improvement, being better than you were the day before.” 

At Piedmont Middle School, when students were held accountable for their goals, supported by their administration and classmates, and acknowledged for their hard work, students felt proud of for bringing their athletic mindset into the classroom. 

About the Author 

JT Godfrey is a writer and author based out of Cleveland, OH. JT writes on a variety of subjects across education but has a particular interest in stories concerning equity. An Oberlin College alum, JT found his passion for writing while working as a news writer for The Oberlin Review. In addition to writing for edCircuit, JT is also a published short story author. Outside of his work, JT enjoys reading, performing live comedy, and olympic weightlifting.


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