“John, I made it thirty years, and here’s how: I didn’t coach.”
That was advice from Larry in my first or second year of teaching, but Larry did coach: He coached students in how to learn science as a discipline and teachers in how to live a balanced life. I was also mentored by some educators who did coach athletics. These educators went the distance for over three decades of teaching. Many of those teachers still worked as substitutes, coaches, and mentors well into their retirement years.
I’ve had recent conversations with some of those retired teachers, and our combined experiences reach back over 60 years into the past. It’s scary and humorous how much things don’t change in education–especially concerning the perennial rhetoric of change in education!
I learned from these local, down-to-earth legends how to appreciate high school sports when it is focused on developing the all-around character of young people. It’s just short of a miracle for me to make such a commendation with my personal history of becoming the least of sports fans on the planet. (Among other formative influences, I chalk my lack of enthusiasm up to having a high school mascot that was a Blue Jay, the nearby Cleveland Indians, and the Cleveland Browns as sources of demotivation.)
After my first principal somewhat retired, a new, edgy principal came onto the scene. Immediately, he took me into his confidence and revealed that he was there to get some of the old-timers to change. I’m not sure he understood how much I respected and learned from these old-timers. At one point, I got a reprimand for not covering for a new teacher (who I later heard had been out drinking the night before), and I was told by the principal that I wasn’t being a team player when I said I was way too busy to cover said teacher’s class during my planning time: I had requested that someone else fill the spot.
However, part of what I was doing during the planning period in question was finishing grade reports that were due that night while I was also stringing telephone cords across our library so that I could lead an Internet training with the teachers right after school (early dial-up modem days!). Many of the old-timers were quite interested in how to use the new technology.
Whatever the official details, that edgy principal left the school during spring break of that year. There was a long process of conflict and confrontation that I won’t go into details about. After spring break, the teachers worked quite well together to make the year work well for the students.
At the end of that year, the most disturbing part of the whole experience was when a school board member stopped me at the post office. She told me that she was sorry that the principal went after the wrong person and that he was supposed to go after other teachers (a.k.a. the old-timers). I had worked through grievance issues with the principal, but looking back, I should have followed up on that comment. It doesn’t seem right that a school board would hire an administrator to go after staff. What kind of game is that? (Disclaimer: I am grateful to have also worked with and for many thoughtful board members that wouldn’t play such games.)
My next principal was a kind and thoughtful soul who inquired why my hands were shaking as I talked to him during our earliest discussions. I had to share the back story above and how intense the conflict had gotten at times lest he thought that I had an alcohol or drug problem. This is only one of several disturbing encounters I’ve had in my years of teaching. It’s the sort of thing I’ve been thinking about when I reflect on a recent comment from a faraway friend and colleague who said, “I don’t understand how you’ve made it,” referring to my 27 years of sticking with teaching.
To that friend and to teachers trying to go the distance, I say, “1. Read (study) great things and have real discussions with students about what matters most (Philosophy can help you here!) 2. Take time to have real discussions with people who are different from you. 3. Share struggles, hopes, and strategies with friends and allies.” And, one more thing, this is the main thing…
The next year after the edgy principal left, that kind soul of a new principal and I often talked about teaching, ethics, philosophy, politics, religion, and just about any topic you could think of. One day in winter, he asked me if I had read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and I surprised him by saying, yes, but that I preferred Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? I shared that, recently, I had finally had to admit that Christianity’s comprehensive philosophy and faith is the only source I could find that could adequately make sense of life with all the conflicts and confrontations that we face on the inside and the outside (and the good things too, but that’s another story). I still find that to be true.
I did end up coaching the speech, debate, and drama team for a few years in my early days, so I guess I didn’t fully follow Larry’s advice. Looking back, I do think I would have been a much better younger teacher if I were coached to reduce the breadth of my involvement with school activities and to increase the depth of my efforts to become a better teacher through practice, study, and training.
Likewise, I have found that young and new-to-the-profession teachers who are protected from busyness while also getting good coaching about how to teach well do tend to develop excellent skills, knowledge, and mastery of teaching. Having worked with many young teachers over the years, I’d venture to say that young teachers who are protected from busyness and supported with good coaching can grow at twice the rate that it takes young teachers who get scattered by multiple responsibilities of coaching sports or other duties. (Although we somewhat need to wear many hats, especially in small schools, I don’t think they should be of the Mad Hatter variety!)
Thinking about helping teachers of all ages and stages be better rather than merely busy, I’m a bit concerned that our upcoming post-COVID schooling culture is going to turn into a maddening frenzy of activity–athletic and otherwise.
e.e. cummings may apply well to what is likely to come: “pity this busy monster, manunkind”
More to come on that issue and the likelihood of some sort of pendulum swing on standardized testing.