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Triple Responsibility: Its Problems and Imperatives

By Dave Stuart Jr.

John Wooden, who, even at 94, referred to his career as that of a teacher rather than a coach, taught his “students” many things, but the one I'd like to examine today is the concept of double responsibility.

From Coach Wooden's Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks for a Better Life:

I… talked to my players about double responsibility–mine and theirs. As coach, my responsibility was the practices. I decided what drills to use, how long to use them, in what part of the practice to place them, how things are arranged and how long we would run. Their responsibility was between practices. I said, “You can tear down more between practices than we can build up during practices. A lack of proper conduct, deficient rest and an improper diet will keep you from attaining and maintaining desirable conditioning. You can improve your condition, maybe, and lack some of these, but you can't attain the desirable without the physical conditioning being preceded by mental and moral conditioning.”

For Wooden, it went like this:

Wooden's responsibilities:

  • Planning the best practices possible, striving for the optimal use of every single moment (he even planned where the ball carts would be so that time wouldn't be wasted chasing balls).
  • Studying success, in basketball and in life, and teaching that to his students as well as he was able.

Wooden's players' responsibilities:

  • Doing nothing to negatively affect their condition while they weren't at practice.
  • Striving for their absolute best in every practice and in every game.

Triple Responsibility: The Reality of Teaching Secondary Students [1]

The clear difference between Wooden's basketball players and our students is that there is a third party responsible for success: the adult(s) in our students' homes. Here's how the triple responsibility works in my mind.

My responsibilities:

  • Craft the best lessons I am capable of, striving for the optimal investment of every single moment.
  • Study success, in and beyond my students' grade level, and teach that to my students.
  • Teach my students to manage their responsibility.
  • Communicate to parents what I think their core responsibilities are at my grade level.

My ninth graders' responsibilities:

  • Take care of themselves — diet, exercise, refraining from substance use, getting enough sleep, not frying their brains 10 hours a day on electronics.
  • Complete their school work in the most distraction-free environment they are capable of creating, with as much effort and attention to quality as they can muster.
  • Use the learning strategies I teach them.
  • Monitor one's mental health.

My students' parents/guardians' responsibilities:

  • Take care of their kids, keep them safe, set boundaries for rest, food and electronics use.
  • Provide a distraction-free environment for schoolwork.
  • Provide accountability for schoolwork and grades in a manner that doesn't needlessly destroy a positive parent-child relationship but does communicate the importance of academic performance.
  • Monitor the mental health of their child.

*Note: I don't hold parents/guardians responsible for teaching my content, helping with my homework, or teaching their children learning strategies. My particular grade level (ninth grade) is about transitioning adolescents into a flourishing adulthood, and part of that involves the phasing out of some forms of parental aid. Ninth grade teachers ought to be experts at teaching kids to grapple with content (on their own and with teacher support) and to develop learning strategies; however, ninth grade teachers cannot travel to the home of each child and ensure that every fourteen-year-old has been given clear boundaries about when and where homework is to be completed.

Not adversarial; not about blame

An important point to stress here is that Wooden didn't use double responsibility as a beating stick; this wasn't his way of making sure everyone knew what was and wasn't his fault. Rather, he understood reality — I just really, absolutely, in-the-known-universe-we-live-in cannot ensure that every kid succeeds. It is not 100% in my power. Instead, it's a three-party journey. As the teacher, I have expertise the parent typically doesn't have, and so too does the parent have expertise I don't have, and so too does the student have expertise (and agency) we adults lack.

Cooperation isn't a nice idea in such a situation; it's essential.

Which brings us to the problems and imperatives bit.

The Problems and Imperatives of Triple Responsibility

The issue with triple responsibility is that the theory breaks down in practice. Certainly, in the ideal world, triple responsibility would be embraced and upheld with perfect consistency — it's logical, and it's what's best for kids. But in the real world, there are students who come to us damaged, behind grade level, unsupported, unchallenged, or unfazed; there are parents who don't exist, who don't seem to care, who are already working harder than humanly possible to keep the family afloat, or who enable poor student behaviors; and there are teachers who mean well but do poorly, or who blame all poor results on the home or the kid, or who directly have contributed to student feelings of helplessness or non-belonging in school.

To deal with these realities, first of all we must expect them. It shouldn't shock us when, inevitably, Marly attacks and the kids on our roster aren't perfect robots that do our bidding and grow as expected. Expecting breakdowns in triple responsibility is step one.

Step two is to recall our single, driving, enduring standard: that we promote the long-term flourishing of our students. This is our end; this is what we want as the cumulative effect of our labors — that kids are more likely to build good, choice-filled lives because they've spent time with us in our class.

And finally, with our expectations grounded in reality and our eyes set on Everest, we do what we can to repair triple responsibility where we see it broken. Practically, this at least means:

  • Communicating, in a respectful, humble yet direct manner with parents, particularly about this concept of triple responsibility once you've made any appropriate adjustments for your grade level. (Read my “Working Better with Parents” post here.)
  • Coaching our students on the creation of a Best-Possible Learning Space at home.
  • Teaching not just our content but also the best learning strategies for our content.

These aren't silver bullets, but they are a start.


  1. I am assuming it's the same (or very similar) for students in the primary grades, but having never taught these grades I can't say.

Thank you to John Wooden, who, despite his unparalleled success in coaching, considered himself a teacher until the day he died.

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