One of the things that has brought me great joy this past year is the Apple TV hit comedy, Ted Lasso. While seemingly about a U.S. football coach who is brought to England to coach professional soccer, a sport he knows nothing about, it quickly becomes a show about kindness, connection, team support, self-improvement, and believing in the potential of people. All of these are principles that resonate with me as a Student Affairs professional and scholar. Even if you are not a sports fan, Coach Lasso has much to teach us all. And, quite surprisingly, his lessons are good ones for those of us navigating the challenges of our field the last few years.
I have worked in Student Affairs for my entire 20-year career and recently made a transition to work full time in the area of assessment and evaluation. One exciting part of my new role is serving as a new instructor for Applying and Leading Assessment in Student Affairs, a free course that will be offered again starting this February.
Below I have selected some of my favorite quotes from Ted Lasso, whose outlook aligns with my current role overseeing Student Affairs assessment.
1. “‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that.”
Ted shares this quote which he attributes to poet Walt Whitman. Turns out Whitman never actually wrote this, but it nevertheless stands as a perfect mantra for anyone taking on assessment work. Effective assessment practice involves the art of asking good questions and suspending previous assumptions about potential outcomes. Often Student Affairs programs and initiatives have existed for many years and no one has examined the impact on students; a lens of inquiry, as suggested by this quote, helps bring a fresh perspective to our work, interrupting the status quo and providing an opportunity to forge new possibilities.
2. “I shouldn’t bring an umbrella to a brainstorm.”
Coach Lasso’s self-reflection provides another lesson for those of us leading assessment. Though it seems obvious, it’s often forgotten that good ideas can come from anywhere in an organization. Ted demonstrates this principle by inviting the team manager and his players to help him with game strategy. Inviting multiple stakeholders to be involved at all stages of the assessment cycle is a key tenant of this work, (especially students). As this quote reminds us, it is our job to invite the seemingly “out there” ideas and integrate perspectives other than our own. In my experience, this is often where the real innovation and magic can happen.
3. “You could fill two internets with what I don’t know about football.”
In the same vein as the quote above, those of us working on assessment are unable to be experts in all of the areas of Student Affairs or even know every assessment tool or resource. In fact, it becomes clear that Ted’s lack of knowledge and humble approach to leadership is exactly what makes him a successful coach. He’s willing to learn from others on the team and oftentimes yields his own authority to others with more knowledge. Our jobs as assessment professionals are to guide and facilitate. Sometimes we have to challenge or question those we work with, but not from a position of authority and always with a spirit of mutual collaboration and partnership. The good news is that an existing network of generous and passionate assessment professionals can be found with organizations like SAAL and AEFIS Academy.
4. “Little tip for y’all. Fries are called chips. Chips are called crisps. And bangers aren’t great songs, but they do make you feel like dancing because they’re so darn tasty.”
This quote from Coach Lasso reminds me of the importance of having a shared understanding and common language when undertaking assessment work. Ted has to adjust and integrate to a new culture when he travels to England and soon realizes though everyone is technically speaking English, there are enough differences to cause confusion between him and his team. Similarly, when learning about assessment for the first time, there can be a lot of new terminology and jargon. One function of those of us who oversee assessment is to take the time to ensure that a department or division is working from a shared framework and determine agreed-upon definitions. Because you know, sometimes what is referred to as football isn’t football for everyone, you know?
5. “For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”
This quote is the reason I believe that Ted Lasso embodies the spirit of a true Student Affairs professional. As a coach, he sees the potential of each of his players and works to provide them with an environment where they can learn and develop. His goal is not to just have them be better at soccer but to continually grow as people despite their background or circumstances. The learning and development of our students should be a central principle of assessment work. If done well, assessment should assist staff to evaluate environments, programs, and initiatives that impact students outside of the classroom. And as Ted expresses, it’s not a zero-sum game, where we are only concerned about “winning” by tracking participation numbers or generating required reports. But it’s about the continual improvement of what we provide in service to our students and how they engage and learn from their college experiences.
6. “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.”
And this final quote reminds me that assessment work is not always linear, and can feel messy and just plain hard sometimes, especially when you are trying to implement something new or change an established culture. Yet Coach Lasso reminds us that challenge is a good thing for growth and the goal is not always to do what is easiest. Pushing through what feels uncomfortable at first can really be worth it to realize critical goals and meaningful change on our campuses. And, it can’t ever hurt to have a sense of humor when facing something hard either.
So there it is….how I have found inspiration from a fictional soccer coach for my work in Student Affairs assessment. I believe I just relate to Ted Lasso because his calling is being a coach: part educator, part analyst, part motivator, part strategist, part PR communicator, and a leader who harnesses and believes in the power of individuals working towards a common goal. Those doing assessment work find themselves playing all of these coaching roles at different times. I know that I aspire to approach them with the humor, grace, collaborative spirit, and optimism of Coach Lasso.
Finally, if you enjoyed drawing connections like these and want to engage with others about assessment, consider signing up for the free self-paced open assessment course which starts in February. While we might not be quite as hilarious as the brilliant writers of Ted Lasso, you can also join me and the other instructors to learn more at the live preview session Tuesday, January 25, at 2pm EST/11am PST. And I hope to see you in person with others from SAAL and AEFIS Academy in Baltimore at the 2022 NASPA Annual Conference, March 19-23.
About the author:
Megan Bell currently works in Student Affairs Assessment at Cal State Northridge. Bell served as a Research Associate in the College of Education for the Department of Leadership, Research, and Foundations. She was responsible for directing the US Department of Education Strengthening Institutions grant. She is the former Executive Director of Community Learning and Assessment in Student Affairs, and also served as the Interim Associate Vice-Chancellor of Students Affairs. She also served as the director of assessment, policy and efficiency, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance. In her previous roles, she was responsible for the Department of Residential Life and Housing which houses about 1,700 students as well as the Family Development Center and serving as the Division Liaison to enrollment management and academic units to develop partnerships related to student success. Finally, she coordinated division-wide assessment and evaluation initiatives. Bell has also served as the assistant director and director of the University Center and as assistant director of the University Memorial Center at CU Boulder. She also has held student affairs positions at Whittier College, Whittier, California, and the University of California, Riverside.