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Academic fights ‘little spot of laziness’

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

In his methodical way, Arthur Berchin loves to win.

Back in school, he says, someone else’s higher achievement wouldn’t discourage him. Instead, he’d say “I think I can do better.”

His method worked, first for him and now for his students. Berchin went on to earn a doctorate in education administration and chair a 33-member high school English department. As coach of this year’s academic decathlon team at William Howard Taft High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., Berchin in April led the school to its third national title.

In case you’re wondering how important Berchin’s leadership is to his team, consider that, in his seven years away from coaching, Taft never advanced beyond the district level.

Here’s how Berchin does it:
  • He works hard. When Berchin started teaching, he thought he’d write screenplays during his summers off. But his summers are “on.” He finds teaching overwhelming, and no wonder: Last spring, he taught 10 courses at Taft and two community colleges.

  • He knows his limits. Berchin coaches bright people, but he recognizes that he’s no expert in any subject other than English, while his students take advanced music, math, history and science courses.

  • He builds teams. Because decathlon rules require each nine-student team to have an equal number of A, B and C students, Berchin must figure out which kids will make each other better. It’s not about who’s most intelligent.

  • He prepares, knowing that front-end work will pay off later.

  • He pushes. Persuading students to study an hour more a night and memorize a few extra facts, Berchin says, takes overcoming “that little spot of laziness we all have to fight against. It’s that desire to take it easy for a little while, and you can’t do that.”

  • He ballyhoos his team. This year’s winners rode onto the school’s football field in convertibles, were feted by the mayor of Los Angeles, spoke to 3,000 fellow students and basked in as much fanfare as sports champions.
The decathlon isn’t just about scholarships, says a former teammate: If “we can keep learning, we can keep winning.”

—Adapted from “Give Arthur Berchin an A-Plus,” Alan R. Elliott, Investor’s Business Daily.

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