5 Teaching Tips From The Coach & Educator Who Inspired Ted Lasso

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Real Ted Lasso

Basketball coach and math teacher Donnie Campbell coached Jason Sudeikis and helped inspire Ted Lasso. (Image credit: Donnie Campbell)

Donnie Campbell was walking down the hall at Lee’s Summit North High School in Missouri when a fellow teacher turned and said, “Hey, there's the famous basketball coach who inspired Ted Lasso.” 

Campbell had no idea what he was talking about. 

Almost thirty years ago, Campbell was a young basketball coach and math teacher at Shawnee Mission West High School in Kansas. Early in his career, he coached a kid named Jason Sudeikis and made quite an impression. Sudeikis never forgot Campbell’s positivity, signature Kansas kindness, and penchant for upbeat aphorisms. Eventually, Campbell became one of the inspirations for Sedeikis’ title character on Apple TV+’s award-winning show Ted Lasso

“He’d always say, ‘You guys look more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs,’” Sudeikis told a Kansas publication.

In addition to catchy feel-good-isms, or what have become known as Ted-isms, Campbell’s been in the trenches teaching throughout the pandemic and continues to teach both online and in-person. He shares tips with Tech & Learning for inspiring kids and growing as educators. 

1. Get to Know Each Student  

Step 1 for inspiring students like the real-life Ted Lasso is getting to know them and understand where they are coming from as individuals. 

“They don't really care what you know, until they know that you care,” Campbell says. “Kids really need to feel valued. I believe that in the times we're in it's even more important when you're working with your students and your players, that they understand that you care about them, and you want the best for them. That doesn't mean that you're not demanding, just don't be demeaning.” 

He adds, “We try to inspire our athletes and our students, and I think that you get a lot more with kids by being positive with them.” 

2. It’s Okay To Be Uncomfortable  

In Ted Lasso the mustached coach advises one player: “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.” 

It’s a piece of advice that Campbell gives often and which Sudeikis seemingly took to heart.  “I think sometimes all of us -- me included -- we get comfortable, and you don't improve as a teacher, as a coach, whatever field you're in, unless you are constantly striving to learn and to grow, and put yourself in positions that make you uncomfortable,” Campbell says. 

Leadership is about far more than a job title. “Just because you have the name ‘head coach,’ that doesn't mean you're a leader,” he says. “Position doesn't make you a leader. What makes you a leader is that you're impacting peoples’ lives every day.” 

3. Mistakes Don’t Define, They Refine  

As a math teacher, Campbell often comes across students who struggle or are resistant to material. His strategy involves encouraging them to help get over their fear of failure. “I always tell kids, ‘Mistakes don't define you, they refine you,’” he says. “Anybody who is an expert in what they do was a beginner once. People who make mistakes are doers. People who aren't doing anything, they're not making mistakes.” 

On top of letting students know that mistakes are okay, Campbell tries to build in wins for every student. “When working with students who are struggling, many of them feel hopeless, so you have to figure out a way to give them little successes and build them up and try to work with their confidence,” he says. “Give them small successes to get to the big successes.” 

4. Give Students Grace 

Campbell teaches both online and in-person now. While he loves the tools and videos that are available online, he acknowledges that forging connections with students can be trickier when you don’t see them in person. His advice for teachers working with students in any medium: Be patient. 

“We don't know the situation that's going on at their home. Are parents out of work? Or do the parents have COVID? You got to give more grace than you would have [in the past], things are just different now,” he says. “Now there comes a point where the million dollar question is are you helping or are you enabling? I'll go above and beyond the call of duty to help students, but you still have to do the work.” 

5. Don’t Forget How Important You Are, But Stay Humble 

The best teachers often teach by example and while Campbell is quick to praise his fellow educators, humility remains part of his process. 

“Teaching is one of the most gratifying, important jobs out there because you're making an impact on our next generation of people. And I think that we need to understand that technology is great but the bottom line is this, the number one thing that helps kids learn the best, is a really good teacher. And there are a lot of really good teachers out there who are busting their tails to help kids be the best version of themselves,” he says. “I'm getting some notoriety here. I was just lucky that I coached Jason Sudeikis. It could have been any teacher or coach in the United States because I know there's so many of them out there who make a huge difference in kids' lives every day. And that's why I got into teaching.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.