The Pedagogical Paradox of Ted Lasso
By Brian Oliu
There’s a moment in the Season 2 Premiere of Ted Lasso that I’ve been thinking about as yet another semester of uncertainty begins its fall campaign.
In this scene, Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, a sports psychologist hired to help out the otherwise cheerful Dani Rojas after an unfortunate accident involving the AFC Richmond canine mascot and an errant penalty kick going awry, meets Ted for the first time in his office.
After an awkward exchange of pleasantries (including a song and dance, naturally), Dr. Fieldstone drops the line I’ve been thinking about for weeks:
“Are you good at your job?”
The other day I made a tongue-in-cheek joke on Twitter about how I was having “another day trying to be the Ted Lasso of the English Department” as I updated attendance ultimatums and reconsidered late work policies as I prepared to head back into the physical classroom after a year and a half of “hybrid” teaching. Many people have positively compared themselves to Ted, a cheery and whimsical goofball that seems to get the job done—Business Insider released a list of “Five Ways Ted Lasso Shows Effective Leadership,” which read as extremely mundane and basic for most educators: learn everyone’s name, be attentive, etc. Ted Lasso, for many of us, is goals—pun intended.
But the truth of the matter is that Ted is bad at his job. He is vastly underprepared for managing a world-class football club, coming from an entirely different discipline. Under his tutelage, AFC Richmond has been relegated, and in the second-division, (where his team of Premiership talent should dominate), he has started his campaign with eight straight ties—an absolute disaster if the Greyhounds of Nelson Road weren’t fictional. The situation is not unlike my own teaching beginnings: a second-year graduate student with a background in creative writing being thrust into a role that seems entirely separate from my expertise. I was a student who had placed out of composition courses due to my major, and thus had little idea of what a first-year writing classroom looks like—quizzing myself on basic terminology ala Ted: the rhetorical triangle substituting itself for the triangular ball movement in a 4-3-3 formation.
Instead, I defaulted to what I did know: I knew how to show empathy to my students and try to relate to where their lives were going. I made a lot of bad jokes and references that went over their heads. I showed kindness in the hopes that some sort of gentle steering can produce an actual product—some wins, some losses. Fifteen years after stepping into a classroom for the first time, I have a different role: that of running a teaching practicum course for graduate students who were once in the exact same position as I was. I worry that I do them a disservice; my affability can steer into the toxic positivity realm that Ted is susceptible to—receiving pushback from characters on the show as well as television critics who have grown tired of his schtick. Kindness is something that has been regarded as something that is easy to do—that there is a flattening associated with the act—that even the act itself is regarded as simple. But kindness is complex—it is not one note. Viewers of the show can see cracks in Ted’s philosophy—giving certain characters too long of a leash is sowing seeds of discontent. There are cracks in Ted too, as he has become deeply locked into his “Coach Lasso” persona while ignoring internal conflict. Both Ted’s kindness and my own can be used as a mask and come across as ingenuine. I know this past year I have had to sacrifice a lot of my own personal happiness and comfort for others—I worry that it is a switch I can turn on and off. Teaching is highly performative, and true warm-heartedness cannot be a performance.
And so when I joke about being like Ted Lasso in the classroom, I am thinking less of kindness and more of what I believe is his main coaching philosophy: forgiveness. The most satisfying and shocking moment of the first season is when a Chekov’s gun in the form of a potentially devastating tabloid photo is turned into an absolute non-factor by Ted simply forgiving Rebecca. While I have always considered myself someone to put my students first, this past year made me recognize that some of my built-in assessments that I had always assumed were part of a regular college experience could be punitive—for example, tying daily grades to attendance in the middle of a pandemic that has caused students to fall ill and be forced to quarantine for multiple class sessions at a time.
Teaching sometimes can seem like eight straight ties—good play throughout but not a result that you hoped for. The issue here is that not all goals are the same—I have an ultimate goal that is presented to me through First-Year Writing policy and student learning outcome initiative. But there are moments where I feel as if I must abandon my quest for students demonstrating correctness in written conventions of the university discourse in order to make sure that students are able to register for the right classes the following semester, or helping them get a new laptop from the SupeStore, or listening to tangents about college life, roommate issues, and all of the wonderful lessons that are learned by moving away from home for the first time. I find myself emphasizing touchstones and checkpoints—as I have tried my best to deemphasize final results in favor of a more labor-based approach. I pay extra attention to outlines and proposals. I am a big proponent of holistic concepts in learning and I like to imagine myself as a teacher that continually meets students where they are at—trying to figure out what it is they need from me and getting them to the finish line. I can hope that these skills translate to a final product but there are no guarantees; sometimes you just don’t find the back of the net.
Another Lasso-ism is to “Be A Goldfish”—to forget previous mistakes and move on. This is where Ted and I disagree. I believe deeply in assessment and reflection. I ask my students to think about their process in writing a paper—not only what they worked on but what else they need from me in order to be successful. This also requires self-reflection as a teacher, which brings me back to the line that has permeated through this season and this semester: “Are you good at your job?” Ted hesitantly answers: “Um, yes.” As for me, I’m not so sure. But there are aspects of my job I would like to think that I am good at: I can be kind. I can be forgiving. I can think about what purpose that serves. And I can continue to work on forgiving myself as an educator those times when that goal seems so far away.
Brian Oliu is a Senior Instructor and Assistant Director of First-Year Writing at the University of Alabama. His newest book, “Body Drop: Notes on Fandom and Pain in Professional Wrestling” was released in September 2021 by The University of North Carolina Press. A chapbook with the poet Jason McCall, “What Shot Did You Ever Take,” was released by The Hunger Press in June 2021. Find him on Twitter talking about running, football, wrestling, and pedagogy @BrianOliu.