The Pedagogy of Antoine Roussel

Roussel Thumbs Up

Most of you are probably unfamiliar with the name “Antoine Roussel.”

He’s not a traditional educator – or an educator at all. He’s a professional hockey player. A personal favorite of mine, actually. 

And I have the t-shirts to prove it. 

French Taunter - Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Pro hockey, like any other high-end form of athletic entertainment, is home to the elite. That’s why we pay big money to watch them – because they’re better than everyone else at what they do. Lots better. 

Ridiculously better.

Nevertheless, there is much to learn from Roussel for those of us in a very different world. A world in which many people do what we do, for not very much money. A world in which it’s eternally debatable whether we’re winning or losing, and no one can seem to agree about exactly what our job is, let alone whether or not we’re doing it well.

I’d like to introduce you to the man fans call the Feisty Frenchman, the Rousster, or DangeRouss – all names I’m pretty sure he hates. In fact, if it comes up, don’t tell him I shared those, covenu

I’d like to tell you why he’s one of my edu-heroes. And yes, it’s a list. Like cargo pants or cover bands, contrived blog-lists never quite go out of style. 

1. Have a plan, but be ready to follow unexpected paths. 

With Great Power...

Roussel was born in Roubaix, France. For those of you who don’t follow God’s Favorite Game, professional hockey players don’t generally come from France. Rouss is one of only three currently playing in the NHL. 

He played rugby as a youngster. It was hot out there on the field, so he kept going to the sidelines to get water. Once Antoine went, teammates followed.

We all have that kid in class – not necessarily intentionally disruptive, but a natural leader who often chooses directions we wish they wouldn’t. And they never go alone.  

It made his coach crazy, and eventually it was clear rugby wasn’t going to work. His mother figured hockey would be cooler – like, literally. 

He played in France, and eventually came to North America. For several years he bounced around in the minor leagues, sometimes getting looks from NHL affiliates, but not quite finding his role. 

Antoine Roussel and Draft Day

The Dallas Stars underwent a major rebuild several years ago, and in 2012 picked up this relative unknown for his reputation as a gritty, in-your-face presence on the ice. It wasn’t long before he was a fan favorite not only for his skill set, but his infectious grin and borderline psychotic drive towards success. 

Was it his destiny? Who cares? It’s where he is – and he’s making it count. Apply this as you like to your professional journey, your learning journey, or any given lesson or unit. Sometimes you take it where you decide; sometimes you let it go where it wishes. 

2. Standards matter, but growth matters more. Value effort and meaningful gains. 

It’s disingenuous to suggest that natural talent doesn’t matter – in hockey, in teaching, in being a student. It does. Whatever combination of genetics and upbringing and luck make for success, sometimes it just… is what it is. 

But there’s much to be said for sheer force of will. It’s not a guarantee, but determination sure changes the odds. Sometimes exponentially. 

Rouss Work Ethic

Most of us have a soft spot for that kid who gives 137% whether or not they become the most brilliant student or the most talented player as a result. That mindset stirs greatness. It changes the game not only for that player, but for everyone around them. It changes attitudes, and perceptions, and those intangibles that make everything better. 

You want a growth mindset? Don't be so quick to celebrate lazy excellence – student work that meets your basic requirements but cost them little to do so. Acknowledge their gifts, but ask them how they could stretch themselves productively. 

You want a growth mindset? Know when to embrace faltering steps forward from those short on talent, passion, or both. Recognize widows' mites when they're given. 

I know there’s a whole ‘grit’ argument still raging on the more legit blogs, and that’s fine. What I’m talking about, though, isn’t externally imposed discipline or inflicted hardships. It’s simply recognizing the long-term value of deciding to keep going. To work harder. To figure things out. It’s finding ways to make yourself better and demand of the universe that progress will occur – with or without its cooperation.

That's you, too, teacher-type. Roussel’s energy is exceptional even among the elite – it’s productive, and diverse. When things are good, he takes it up a notch. When things are bad, he takes it up two.

Don’t give up. Don’t stop trying things. Qui n’avance pas, recule.

3. Students can’t excel if they feel bound by directions; teachers can’t excel if they’re always worried about breaking the rules. 

Roussel plays on the edge, sometimes past it. There are times I’d rather he made better decisions in the moment. But that same fearlessness that gets him into trouble also makes him a perpetual force for good on the ice. Coach Ruff is periodically asked after a game how he’ll address something Rouss did that in retrospect hurt the team more than it helped, and his answer is always the same. “It was the wrong decision, and we’ll look at that. But he’s out there every day giving us everything he has. I’m not going to quash that.”

I’m not suggesting it’s ever OK to be unethical. It’s never OK to hurt or misuse your kids, for any reason. But every great teacher knows that you can’t build the relationships you need to draw out the best in some students, or establish the dynamics required of a productive classroom, if your primary concern at every step is whether or not everything you say or do would play well at a disciplinary hearing. 

Know the content, and the pedagogy. Know the standards, and the policies. But when it’s time to make things happen, follow your gut and do what’s best for learning and for kids – not what’s safest for you. 

As to assignments and other directions, give students enough guidance that they have structure, and support. Unclear expectations can be crippling. But don’t let the rules take over like evil robots in bad sci-fi. The rubrics were made to support the learning; the learning isn’t there to satisfy the rubrics. 

Roussel assists Michalek on line change with hit

4. Sometimes it’s OK to irritate other people. 

Roussel is not what you'd call a ‘goon,’ but he is an agitator. He thrives on targeting top players on the other team and annoying the hell out of them. Why? Because their focus starts to become him, rather than playing the game. They make stupid mistakes which work to his team’s advantage. 

In terms of education, it’s rarely useful to irritate people just for kicks. But the idea that we should never annoy leadership, or parents, or political power, or one another, is silly. Sometimes the pot needs stirring so the dross rises to the top. Sometimes insight requires provocation. 

I personally learn a great deal by lobbing a few conversational hand grenades when I meet new people and seeing what happens. I don’t always make new friends that way, but I sure do learn a great deal. And the friends I do have tend to be smarter than me, bluntly honest, and quick to call me out. Why have them otherwise?

December 3 2013 Antoine Roussel trolls Chicago fans

(And it's ALWAYS OK to taunt Chicago, I assure you. They eat it up and give back twelve baskets-full.) 

5. Recognize outbursts of greatness when they occur. 

Roussel signed with the Stars in 2012 and scored in his first game. That makes a mark. He’s rarely a top scorer on the team, but he’s often in the top dozen players in the LEAGUE in terms of game-winning goals. He always leads the team and sometimes the entire NHL in penalty minutes, but he’s getting better at picking and choosing which penalties are worth taking, and in what circumstances. 

As a teacher, be good every day if you can. Never give less than your best. But be great sometimes. Step up when it matters most. 

More importantly, you want to keep kids with you even a little? Recognize the good moments. Treat those random bits of brilliance as the natural greatness you always suspected they were hiding. Be genuinely thankful for the bits of each kid that make them interesting, or fun, or worth tolerating for one more day. You’ll accomplish more and last way longer. 

6. People always matter.

Roussel is a fan favorite for his on-ice performance. Off the ice, however, he’s one of the most approachable and grateful professionals in the league. He avoids the easy clichés many players fall into doing countless interviews, instead giving his real self for every reporter, every time. At away games, Rouss will find the green jerseys in the crowd and celebrate with them when the Stars score. It’s a simple thing – a small, silly thing – but the kind that changes people’s entire experience.

Dangerouss

When fans line up for autographs as the team leaves the practice arena, most players are professionally polite. Rouss is approachable and charming. My wife and I were caught off guard in the stands one day as he came up to fetch a couple of friends sitting nearby.

“Oh! Um… Rouss!”  

It would have been easy to feel awkward or foolish, but he grinned like we were doing him some huge favor by noticing him at all. That’s not about us – that’s just how he treats people. All of them. 

It’s adorable. 

You know the clichés in education. They don’t care how much you know, etc. People always matter. Always. First. Every time. Small people. Make it happen, or you have no business trying to teach them anything.  

7. Do what needs doing, as best you can do it. That's good enough. You are good enough. 

As in many sports, hockey players tend to grow into certain ‘roles’ they’re expected to play. Sometimes circumstances change, and flexibility is required.

Not being pegged into a single role has actually benefitted the winger. Though Roussel often plays on the Dallas Stars' checking line, {he’s recently} found himself providing support to his team's top players such as Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp and Ales Hemsky.

"I'm not a top-line guy, but I've been up and down the lineup, just helping the team do whatever we need," Roussel said. "If it's playing on the fourth line or the top, I can do it all. It's a good confidence {Coach Lindy Ruff} has given me sometimes. I appreciate that."

Be realistic, and advocate for yourself – absolutely. But once planted, bloom like you mean it. That manure they’re dumping is just more fertilizer, baby – and that rain is just, well… rain. 

Conclusion

Nothing I do is nearly as entertaining or impressive as Roussel or any other elite performer, although I like to think it has value in its own larger way. We live vicariously through those we cheer, and whether he’s winning or losing at the moment, I can’t help but draw hope and encouragement from a wild-eyed Frenchman on skates, who simply doesn’t know when to quit. 

You may, of course, choose someone else as your role model if you like – but mine can probably beat yours up. 

Antoine Roussel : so dangerouss

Holy Grail 2nd french taunting

Comments

When you get the chance, check out the commercials for the custom car shop in Dallas... always the wrong vehicle (e.g. sanding next to a Suburban, calling it a Miata) and linking in Minou, his cat (who has his own Twitter feed) to the cars description. Glad I'm not the only Hockey fan around here who love how the kid plays. Loved his hat-trick celly Saturday night too...

Cheers!
Ryan

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