What Can Teachers Learn From Football?

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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We have just survived January and the cold winter is reaching its height.

If you are reading this blog in the northern hemisphere, the chances are your days are short and the nights are long …

At this time of the year, perhaps behaviour is also causing you a challenge in the classroom? Coupled with looming controlled assessment deadlines and interventions sessions before and after school. It will probably be feeling like a challenging point in the year.

Whatever you are feeling, I’m confident that the subtle pressure of examinations is increasing for you and your colleagues. The students may also feel the strain too …

It’s that time of year when the exam season starts to pick up a gear.

As I write this, there are only 50+ schools days left until the first GCSE examination in the summer.

Photo Credit: DafneCholet via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: DafneCholet via Compfight cc


As we reach the mid-point of the academic year and precious curriculum time is dissipating, I’d like pitch a few motivational quotes for yourself; your students and your school, using the football and examination season as comparison.

To poke fun at our profession, I will essentially use football clichés and translate these into typical teacher-clichés commonly used in (for example) parental meetings; classrooms or clichés found in school reports sent home to parents and corridor conversations.

A good fun read; something light-hearted and far-removed for previous pedagogical blogs.

Example analogy:

Let me start with one of my own school reports from March 1989. It says:

“Ross has continued to work steadily. I feel that there are large areas of basic work which needs attention and time is short. I wish he had been in the set for longer in order to have covered more of these areas. However, he does try and is providing himself with a good base on which to build. There is still 3 months to go.”

Mathematics report 1989
GCSE Mathematics report – 1989

And the football equivalent for this report would read:

“Ross is far from top of his game. There are large areas of his play that need attention and with the help from back-room staff, he can be a great player. But, the season is almost over. I wish he had been top of his peak months ago and had covered more of these areas on the training pitch. However, he does try and is reliable week-in, week-out.”

Football vs. Educational quips:

Below, I offer classic football language; puns and vocabulary generally used in the game, alongside their educational counterparts (in blue). Feel free to use any of them in your next line-management meeting; a school report; a parents evening; or even your next encounter with your headteacher!

I apologise in advance, if your favorite teacher/football cliché is not included. However, I have tried to provide no football (team) bias.

BASICS (teaching: the school)
  • a match = two teams playing against each other in a 90-minute game of football
  • a fight = two students pitched against each other over a pre-determined lunch break.
  • a pitch = the area where footballers play a match
  • the playground = the area where students relax; gossip and state their social status.
  • a referee= the person who makes sure that the players follow the rules. Normally wears a black shirt and shorts, and has a whistle.
  • the headteacher = the person who makes sure, everyone follows the rules.
  • a linesman (referee’s assistant) = the person whose main duty it is to indicate with a flag when the ball has gone out of play or when a player is offside
  • the senior leadership team = the person(s) whose main duty is to indicate when a teacher or student is offside.
  • a goalkeeper= the player in goal who has to stop the ball from crossing the goal-line. The only player who is allowed to handle the ball during open play.
  • the caretaker = the only adult on site who can go anywhere on site; do what they want and break any rule.
Photo Credit: calca via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: calca via Compfight cc
  • a defender= a player who plays in the part of the football team which tries to prevent the other team from scoring goals
  • the blocker = the person who says no to all your great ideas.
  • a midfielder = a midfielder – a player who plays mainly in the middle part of the pitch
  • a middle-leader = a teacher who plays their part throughout the school.
  • an attacker= also called a forward; a player whose duty it is to score goals
  • the classroom teacher = the person who scores goals; everyday; in every single lesson.
  • a skipper= the player who leads a team, also called the captain.
  • the head of department = the person who leads sub-schools within the greater school.
  • a substitute= a player who sits on the bench ready to replace another team-mate on the pitch.
  • the supply teacher = the cover teacher or supply called in last-minute to replace the attacker (the classroom teacher)
Photo Credit: Maenie via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Maenie via Compfight cc
  • a manager= the person in charge of a team and responsible for training, new players and transfers.
  • the appraiser = the person who is supposed to guide you in your training needs in order to reach your appraisal targets.
  • a foul = a violation of the rules.
  • a sanction = swearing; running in the corridors; play-fighting etc.
  • a booking= a yellow card shown to a player by the referee for a serious foul. Two bookings or yellow cards result in a red card or sending-off
  • a detention = a sanction for foul-play; possible leading to a longer detention;  seclusion or exclusion.
  • full-time= the point of the game when the referee blows the final whistle and the match is over. Normally after 90 minutes and any added injury or stoppage time
  • the school day = typically 3pm; but recently becoming longer for most.
  • injury time= also called stoppage time, added minutes at the end of the regular playing time at half-time or full-time.
  • extra-curricular or intervention = additional hours (sometimes paid) by the school ot extend the curriculum for students.
  • extra time = if a match has no winner at full-time, 2 x 15 minutes of extra time may be played in some competitions
  • half-term and Easter revision = catch-up sessions offered; mainly for examination classes to provide extra time to compete at their best level.
  • offside = in a position which is not allowed by the rules of the game, i.e. when an attacking player is closer to the opposing team’s goal-line at the moment the ball is passed to him or her than the last defender apart from the goalkeeper.
  • behavioural policy = often over-complicated and confusing for many classroom teachers

Photo Credit: joncandy via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: joncandy via Compfight cc
SCORING (target setting)
  • the score= the record of goals that indicates who is winning. The final score is the result that decides who has won the match.
  • the data = what grades and levels of progress students are making.
  • to concede= to allow a goal in, the opposite of scoring a goal.
  • underachieve = to allow a student to complete less than expected classwork/target grade.
  • a goal = a successful attempt at scoring achieved by putting the ball over the goal line into the goal past the goalkeeper.
  • target grade = a successful attempt by a student in achieving a target grade.
  • an own goal= a goal scored accidentally by a member of the defending team that counts in favour of the attacking team.
  • low-level behaviour = to allow another student to distract other students from learning and ignore it.
  • the lead= when a team scores first it is “in the lead”, i.e. winning the match at the point of scoring.
  • attainment = a student achieving their target grade.
Photo Credit: eser.karadag via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: eser.karadag via Compfight cc
  • an equaliser= a goal that cancels out the opposing team’s lead and leaves the match tied or drawn.
  • achievement = a student achieving the expected grade and little or no levels of progress.
  • to win= a match in which a team is victorious and beats the other team.
  • class data = you are pleased that your class residual scores are higher than your colleague(s).
  • a draw= a match that ends in a tie, i.e. has no winner or loser.
  • class data = you accept that your class residuals break-even and are at least, not negative value.
  • a defeat = a match that is lost, the opposite of a win.
  • class data = your class residuals are negative value.
  • to knock out= to eliminate another team from a competition.
  • to be excluded!
Photo Credit: the_junes via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: the_junes via Compfight cc
  • a penalty shoot-out= in a knock-out competition, a penalty shoot-out takes place if a match is a draw after full-time or extra-time.
  • early/late entries = if students do not achieve expected results. There is another last throw of the dice…
  • a goal difference= If team A has scored four goals and team B one, the goal difference is three
  • Residuals = positive or negative.
  • a head-to-head= a way of deciding which team is ranked higher if two teams are level (or equal) on points.
  • interviews = who is the best candidate for the job.
  • a play-off= an extra match to decide which of two or more teams should go through to the next round.
  • a written task = the futile exercise set at interviews, rarely used to consider the final decision in appointing the ‘right’ applicant.
  • the away-goal rule= a rule that rewards teams for scoring away from home over two legs (or matches).
  • prior-knowledge = what you may know about a candidate prior to interview.

Photo Credit: the_junes via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: the_junes via Compfight cc
TYPES OF SHOT (lesson observations)
  • to kick = to hit something, or somebody, with your foot. In football, the players kick the ball.
  • classwork = working towards completing the task.
  • to shoot = to kick the ball towards the net at one end of the pitch (the goal) in an attempt to score a goal
  • the objective = hoping all student achieve their learning objectives.
  • the kick-off = the first kick of the game when two players from the same team in the centre circle play the ball and start the match.
  • the start = of the lesson.
  • a goal-kick = a kick taken from the 6-yard line by the defending team after the ball has been put over the goal line by the attacking team
  • the big picture = informing students of prior learning; intentions and outcomes.
  • a free-kick = the kick awarded to a team by the referee after a foul has been committed against it.
  • point of reference = the moment you stop the class to clarify; praise or sanction.
Photo Credit: Elentari86 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Elentari86 via Compfight cc
  • a penalty = a free shot at goal from 12 yards
  • questioning = a closed question and chance to redeem oneself.
  • a corner = a kick from the corner flag awarded to the attacking team when the ball has crossed the goal-line.
  • reflection = a chance to approach the learning outcomes from another perspective.
  • a throw-in = a throw is taken from the sideline (or touchline) after the ball has gone out of play.
  • an objective lifeline = an inoffensive approach to supporting students discreetly from other positions in the classroom.
  • a pass = a kick of the ball from one player to another.
  • bounce = an answered question passed onto another student for verification.
  • a cross = a pass from the side of the pitch into the penalty area in an attempt to find an attacker and score a goal.
  • ask a friend = to give a student another opportunity to find the answer.
Photo Credit: Chris Turner Photography via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Chris Turner Photography via Compfight cc
  • a one-two = a passing move in which player 1 passes the football to player 2, who immediately passes it back to player 1.
  • group work = working in pairs (or more) to work towards a combined objective.
  • a header = the “sho that occurs when a player touches and guides the ball with his or her head.
  • thinking hat = when a student gets the answer. Almost a ‘eureka’ moment from nowhere!
  • a back-heel = a kick where the ball is hit with the heel (or the back) of the foot.
  • a show-off  = moment in the classroom by student or teacher. That moment of magic.
  • to volley = to kick a moving ball from the air before it hits the ground.
  • above and beyond = a special set of resources that manages to engage every student.
  • a clearance = a defensive kick that is intended to put the ball out of danger.
  • a curve-ball = to distract students’ attention from the task or a misdemeanor.

Photo Credit: gordon2208 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: gordon2208 via Compfight cc
READING THE PRESS (teaching-persona)
  • one-touch football = an often admiring reference to a style of football in which a team can pass the ball quickly from one player to another without the need to control it with more than one touch.
  • independent learning = intuitive learning from one student to another.
  • the long-ball game= an often disapproving reference to a style of football in which a team prefers to play long balls in the hope that an attacking player will get them, flick them on or score.
  • “That’s long sir” = a student opting for the quickest approach in completing a set task.
  • keep possession= to be able to keep the ball and prevent the opposing team from touching it. The opposite of “lose possession” or “give the ball away”
  • the delay = a student taking their time on a task, to avoid further work.
  • they are dangerous on the counter-attack= referring to a team that can switch quickly from defence to attack and score goals in that way.
  • a gifted and talented student = who ups their game when it suits.
  • put eleven men behind the ball = referring to a team that defends with all the players and is not very interested in scoring goals.
  • a form class = that continues to behave in the same way from lesson to lesson; regardless of their teacher/subject. Mob-mentality.
Image credit: myosource.com
Image credit: myosource.com
  • send the keeper the wrong way = refers to the way in which a player can fool the goalkeeper and pretend to shoot at one side of the goal while the ball goes in another direction. This expression is used often during penalties
  • the teacher-wool = a student pulls the wool over a teacher’s eyes and fobs them off with a mediocre excuse that you fall for in order to keep the peace/avoid challenge.
  • a clinical finish= referring to a well-placed, controlled shot from a scoring position that ends in a goal.
  • the perfect lesson = that time you taught a truly outstanding lessons and every child left the room ‘thanking you’ for the pleasure.
  • his/her first touch let him/her down = this means a player was unable to control the ball (or pass) with his or her first touch and as a result lost precious time or even possession.
  • redrafting = the need to start the task again, because the work was not quite up to scratch.
  • they are strong in the air = referring to a team that has a lot of (tall) players who can head the ball very well.
  • active learning = a group of students who prefer to work out of their seats.
  • they have a big physical presence = referring to a team that has a lot of big and physically strong players.
  • a big lad = you know the type; a (gentle) student who is physically bigger than you and could clearly knock you down.
Image credit: Manchester Evening News
Image credit: Manchester Evening News
  • the goalkeeper is quick off his/her line = referring to a goalkeeper who is fast and makes quick (and normally correct) decisions as to when to leave the goal in order to prevent an attacking player from reaching a pass or cross.
  • see caretaker definition above = the caretaker is quick to resolve any premises issues and occasionally leaves you with shock and awe.
  • that shot stung the goalkeeper’s palms = referring to a shot on goal that is so hard that the goalkeeper might well have felt pain when he/she stopped it with his/her hands.
  • see caretaker definition above = the caretaker is a little miffed that the work request you have made, will leave their hands aching from hard-graft over the weekend/holidays.
  • a prolific goal scorer = referring to a player, normally a striker, who scores or has scored a lot of goals.
  • see goal definition above = the student who consistently achieves (above) their target grades in all subjects and is talk of the school.
  • the foul earned him/her a suspension = referring to a foul that is punished by a yellow or red card and results in the player being banned from playing in the next game(s).
  • see foul definition above = typically removal from class.

Image credit: The Mirror
Image credit: The Mirror
TALKING WITH FRIENDS (colleagues; parents)
  • put it in the back of the net = to score a goal.
  • target setting = this is the minimum target you should reach.
  • man on! = shout during a football match to warn a team-mate that a player of the other team is right behind.
  • look out = that member of staff you do not want to see!
  • a nutmeg = a trick or technique in which a player passes the ball through an opponent’s legs and then collects it from the other side.
  • common-sense = when a colleague helps you out and you soon realise that you failed to tun the ‘power’ button on.
  • bang it in the mixer! = a shout to encourage a player to play a long ball into the penalty area (i.e. the “mixer”) in the hope that an attacking player will get on the end of it and score.
  • get on with it = stop avoiding the issue and deal with behaviour; deadlines. Especially marking.
  • we was robbed= an expression to signal that a defeat was unjust, possibly due to an injustice committed by somebody else.
  • detentions = for the whole class!
Image credit: Ian Cunningham
  • “Save!” s/he pulled off a great save = referring to a very strong, quick or acrobatic stop of a shot by the goalkeeper.
  • See goalkeeper definition = when the caretaker pulls of something quite remarkable for the whole-school. e.g/ building works under a tight schedule.
  • they hit the woodwork = the crossbar or the post of the goal. This expression means a team kicked the ball against the crossbar or post and was very unlucky not to score.
  • Grade D = a student achieves a grade D in their exam and misses out by 1 point!
  • they got stuck in = referring to a team whose players showed a lot of determination and fought very hard during a match
  • students = they try hard but just can’t get the result they need.
  • s/he ran the defence ragged = referring to an attacking player who made the defence work very hard and made the defenders look uncomfortable or unprofessional
  • teacher = the teacher has challenged and work the students very hard.
  • s/he’s got a lot of pace = this player is very fast
  • student = works very hard.
Image credit: worldsport.blogs.cnn.com
Image credit: worldsport.blogs.cnn.com
  • the goalkeeper made a howler = this means the goalkeeper made a very basic mistake (and probably let in a goal)
  • caretaker = yes, they got it wrong again.
  • to switch play= to change direction of play and pass the ball from one side of the pitch to the other. For example, she switched play from left to right-wing (the left-hand side of the pitch to the right-hand-side)
  • schemes of work = to change the pathway at any point to consolidate; veer off or cram curriculum content.
  • s/he made a nuisance of herself/himself = referring to a player, normally a striker, who fought very hard and used his physical presence to put the defenders under pressure and forced them to make mistakes
  • student or teacher = who doesn’t follow the norm. Typically, a maverick.
  • it’s a game of two halves = an expression referring to the fact that a football match can change unexpectedly over 90 minutes, and especially between the first half and second half of the match
  • observations = what happens in the room (with an observer) and what typically happens over time (without an observer).

Image credit: www.dutchreferee.com
Image credit: www.dutchreferee.com

Football vocabulary, courtesy of BBC World Service.

I am sure I have missed out many others; so apologies if I have missed your favourite. Below I have gathered some football and educational puns not used above.

Other educational puns:

  • Could do better
  • Listen more
  • Disappointed in him/her
  • I expect more of you.
  • Opened his account for the season – first assessment/exam done
  • Shows promise all term, but bad results
  • Missed a sitter – a mistake in lesson by student/teacher
  • Take a bow son – a teacher who gets outstanding
  • He’s a fantastic deliverer of the ball – great teaching
  • They’re at sixes and sevens – teachers on the last day before Christmas
  • In the relegation zone – at risk of being moved down
  • He’s lost the dressing room – staff are annoyed at new plans/parents fall out with teacher
  • It was a great ball in, but there was no-one on the end of it – good idea ignored/student didn’t take advice.
  • He goes missing in big games – bad observation/student messes up

Other football puns:

  • We’ve gone quiet
  • Straight In
  • All Day
  • Box ’em In!
  • [Shirt Colour or Name] Head on this!
  • Away!
  • Time!
  • Ref! How long?
  • One of you!
  • Don’t let it bounce!
  • Where’s the shout?
  • It’s end-to-end stuff
  • It’s a funny old game
  • For a big lad, he’s good with his feet
  • There’s no easy game in international football
  • This game needs a goal
  • On paper…
  • At the end of the day (Source)

Collaborative-Tweeter ideas:

When I first put out a request to gather this information, I was inundated with offers. This may be the largest collaborative post ever! I have forgotten many tweets and ideas from teachers who have contributed; so please let me know if this was you and I will add you to the list of thank you’s below:

Thank you:

  • @benfeathers
  • @MR_M02
  • @jamiefries108

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