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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: How Teachers and Sports Coaches Can Help Ensure That ‘Everyone Wins’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 06, 2019 19 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can teachers and sports coaches best work together to support students in achieving academic and athletic success?

Teachers and athletic coaches can sometimes have an uneasy co-existence. Teachers want their students to learn in class, and most coaches have the same goal; and they also want to win. We teachers would like our students to bring the same sense of discipline and commitment they have in athletics to academic work.

Today’s column will explore how teachers and athletic coaches can work together effectively for the benefit of students.

Jill Henry, Jen Schwanke, Brian Preece, Pamela Broussard, and Amy Okimoto share their responses today. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jill, Jen, and Brian on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

At our school, I made arrangements with our coaches to give weekly unofficial grades to athletes in areas that are equally important in class, life, and in athletics (we worked together to identify these areas): leadership, cooperation, respect, perseverance, and preparation.

Coaches decided to take these grades as seriously, if not more seriously, than the academic grade athletes received in my class. Any teacher who has ever taught a student highly invested in an extracurricular activity knows you can’t top that sort of leverage!

Here’s the sheet that I use (it has two copies on the same page, and we cut it in half). Student-athletes give it to their coach each Friday.

Response From Jill Henry

Jill Henry coaches girls cross-country at Flintridge Preparatory School, a 7-12 independent school near Los Angeles. In 2017, she received the honor of Los Angeles Times Coach of the Year, after her team won its fourth consecutive California state championship. She has over a decade of coaching and math-teaching experience at the high school level:

Participating in high school sports can be incredibly rewarding and memorable. Being a student-athlete, however, isn’t all fun and games. It can be challenging to balance the physical and mental demands of athletics and academics. As one runner put it: We go straight from school to a workout at practice, thoroughly exhaust ourselves, and then go home to do all our work after a long day. It’s a lot, and the relentlessness of the day-to-day gets really difficult.”

I spoke with more than 20 student-athletes to get their take on how coaches and teachers can support their efforts to honor both their academic and athletic commitments. Here’s a synthesis of their comments.

What can coaches do to help?

  • Let Loose: Look for signs of mental exhaustion from your athletes and be willing to provide a break from specified training in exchange for something a bit more entertaining. Dodgeball and scavenger hunts are our go-to games during the cross-country season."Sometimes we just need to have fun at practice rather than being constantly drilled.”

  • Know the Schedule: When the demands of school become overwhelming, it will be difficult for athletes to give their all at practice. Consult the school calendar for standardized tests, exams, projects, and the end of the grading period, and then plan your schedule accordingly when possible."My coaches are knowledgeable about the school schedule and will shorten or even cancel practice close to big deadlines to reduce team stress.”

  • Communicate: Be willing to listen to your athletes about their struggles with balance and offer solutions if you are able. "My coaches have an ‘open door’ policy. They make an effort to understand my other commitments and are willing to work with me to navigate schedule conflicts.”

  • Be Flexible: In our cross-country program, athletes are able to take up to five “mental-health days” during the season, no questions asked. Most runners don’t use all of their days; some don’t use any;yet they report that simply having the option is a stress reliever. When athletes do take advantage of these days, they come back fresh and recharged.

Coaches should understand that, as valuable as sports are to those who play, many student-athletes view sports as an outlet from academics, their primary focus. In addition to the responsibility that athletes have to their classes, they may also have additional extracurricular activities outside of sports.

What can teachers do to help?

  • Be Flexible. Providing a class schedule ahead of time, accepting make-up work, or allowing tests to be taken early: All of these are of incredible value to your student-athletes, who often need to plan ahead to stay on track academically.

  • Know the Schedule: Do your best to understand the typical time commitments for the athletes at your school. Most teams practice for two hours after school and have regular weeknight games. This means homework is always happening late at night after an exhausting day. Being aware of what they’re dealing with will give you more context when you see them struggling.

Teachers should understand that, to many student-athletes, sports are their favorite part of school. Students not only learn about discipline and wellness, but they can learn a lot about themselves. Often these lessons will have lasting impacts on their lives and may benefit their confidence and work ethic in the classroom as well. As one student said, “Sports have taught me that I can work harder than I ever thought possible.”

Despite the positive outcomes that participating in sports can offer, many students are deterred because they fear that they can’t handle it all and will fail to meet the expectations of both their coaches and teachers. Everyone wins when adults acknowledge the demands placed on our student-athletes from both sides and do their best to provide support.

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school level for 20 years. She has established her voice in school leadership by contributing frequently to literacy and leadership publications and has presented at multiple conferences at the state and national level. She is the author of the book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD:

Many years ago, when I coached several sports, colleagues who were frustrated with a student; who also happened to be an athlete on my team; would corner me to lament behavior problems. They were pretty predictable conversations about classroom disruptions, lackluster academic performance, limited work ethic, and general apathy. I usually struggled with a response, thinking, “What do you want me to do about it?” Every now and then, I’d muster the courage to say as much.

“I’m not sure what I can do,” I’d say.

“Can you make him run? You know, extra conditioning?”

“Well, that would really make him mad, wouldn’t it? How would that help?”

“Can’t you make the whole team run?”

“Well, that seems worse ...”

“But shouldn’t his teammates be able to hold him accountable?

“Well, it’s more likely to divide my team. You know. Cause rifts.”

“Why don’t you just sit him out of the next meet?”

“But this is what he actually loves about school. Being on this team ... competing ... finding success ...”

“Well.” Angry sniff. “Let me know how that works out for you. Because he’s not going to compete on your team if he doesn’t get his grades up.”

It was a lose-lose-lose; for the teacher, the coach, and for the student-athlete, too. Lobbing the behavior-management ball from teacher to coach and back again always ends in a draw, because everyone is right ... and no one is right.

There’s the coach perspective:

My job is to coach athletes, not manage or enforce classroom behaviors, especially because I can’t be there to see or identify them. It isn’t fair to ask me to compromise my relationship with my team in the name of classroom discipline. My athletes trust me to be their coach, not a punitive spy. Besides, if you ask me to intervene, you are freely giving away your own power and relationship with the student.

And the teacher’s rebuttal:

Academics absolutely have to come first. Being part of an athletic team should be a privilege, not a right. Shouldn’t athletes be held to an expectation of leadership? Shouldn’t their classroom choices set the standard for all the students in the school? If there are no repercussions on the playing field, aren’t we reinforcing and condoning negative classroom behavior?

I see both sides of the argument; of course I do. Teachers need coaches to set high expectations for students, and coaches need teachers to emphasize academic performance and continual growth.

How to do both? By avoiding a linear, tattle-type approach and instead creating a triangular, symbiotic relationship between teachers, coaches, and the student-athlete. If the teacher and coach can sit down to consider desired outcomes;and then present them, united, with one voice, to the athlete; it can be pretty powerful. The athlete will see that these adults; his team, so to speak;are speaking, together, with care, expectations, and goals. It’s a bonus if parents are available to be part of this conversation, too.

With the athlete at the center of the conversation, it becomes a team approach rather than a fractured one. The teacher invests in the student as an athlete, while the coach invests in the athlete as a student.

And the student-athlete gets the best of both.

Response From Brian Preece

Brian E. Preece is a 29-year teaching veteran. He was also the head wrestling coach at Provo High School from 1994 to 2006 and over his teaching career also assisted in the sports of baseball, football, and golf. In 2006, Preece was named as the Utah Coach of the Year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Preece is currently a Utah Teacher Fellow with Hope Street Group, an advocacy group for teachers, teacher leadership, and public education:

For most of my career, I have been a teacher and an athletic coach. I was the head wrestling coach at our school for 12 years and also assisted in the baseball, football ,and golf programs. Every year at least one teacher asked me to help them help a student who was struggling in their class. The student might have been struggling with attendance, academics, behavior, or a combination of those factors, which was hindering their overall academic progress. Successful teaming can be a win-win for the student, teacher, coach, said athletic program, and school overall.

Welcome (and Seek) the Communication From the Teachers

It is important that coaches welcome the communication that could come from teachers. In fact, seek it out. I always took either the time to stand up in a faculty meeting and solicit this communication, or at the very least, send out an email asking teachers to communicate with me about our athletes that were struggling with some aspect of school. Most often I would do both. I really wanted the faculty and staff to know that the team had high expectations for attendance, behavior, and academic performance.

Having High Standards/Communication With Athletes and Parents

I was very upfront with athletes (and parents) with our expectations in the areas of attendance, behavior, and academic effort. I also let it be known that I would be communicating with their teachers. In our wrestling program, we had an assistant coach who would specialize in monitoring the academic progress of our student-athletes and even take a liaison role with troubleshooting these issues. Nearly every practice, the coaches emphasized the importance of being good citizens and students. This was a regular practice ritual and something we truly valued in our program. We also thought it was important to recognize and celebrate successes student-athletes had in the areas of academic and service.

Holding Student Athletes Accountable

Each coach will have to develop his or her own consequences for shortcomings in school. Honor codes or discipline policies might drive many of these decisions. Coaches must have high standards and be willing to hold student-athletes accountable.There are plenty of avenues to attack this problem. For example, as the head wrestling coach, I wasn’t as obsessed with the team winning as much as the football coach might be. It didn’t mean I didn’t have a competitive streak, but in an individual sport such as wrestling, I thought it gave me some latitude to discipline athletes a bit differently. In our wrestling season, we typically had two overnight trips that the athletes enjoyed. However, winning these tournaments as a team wasn’t necessarily essential to our overall team goals. So before these trips, we would do grade checks on our wrestlers. Our standard was that every athlete would have to be passing their classes and meet what would be the state’s eligibility standards in academic performance if the grading term were to end that day. In some instances, the student-athletes didn’t make the trip, and they were encouraged to get their grades in order not to lose more competitive privileges.

Understanding Limitations

It is important that the classroom teachers do understand the limitations on the influences that even coaches might have on their athletes. Coaches, like teachers, can have great impact certainly, but sometimes behavior, effort, and passion don’t translate from one avenue to the next. In the areas of attendance/punctuality, students have near total control on this aspect of their behavior, and it was much easier as a coach to intervene and make corrections. But some behavior issues in class are caused by other issues or even personality conflicts between the individual teacher and student. But sometimes, if there are serious behavior issues, there are deeper issues that a coach can’t necessarily solve by telling an athlete to behave in class. It is important that both the classroom teacher and coach recognize that the athlete has free agency.

Summation and Call to Action

In an ideal environment, teachers should be able to lean on coaches to help students succeed in the classroom. Head coaches should seek out communication between themselves and the classroom teachers. But beyond that, head coaches need to value academic achievement and have high expectations for their student-athletes in regards to attendance, behavior, and academic performance. Having high expectations and celebrating successes in academics and service need to be an integral part of any athletic program. It is important to know that beyond communicating concerns with coaches, classroom teachers can show support for the coach and the student-athlete by attending sporting events or inquiring about the activities of the student-athlete. This reaching out will undoubtedly help prevent problems in the first place and also show the coach that the classroom teacher values their efforts in the extracurricular arena to benefit the student.

Response From Pamela Broussard

Pamela Broussard is a high school new-arrival-center teacher and presenter from Houston. She is a recipient of numerous awards, including teacher of the year and TABE (Texas Association For Bilingual Education) ESL teacher of the year for Texas. She is a Rotary Peace Fellow who has taught nationally and internationally:

I work at Cypress Falls High School, and the coaches at our school do a fantastic job of ensuring our athletes have academic success. I will never forget my first year teaching there when Coach Kirk Eaton took a football team to the computer lab next to my room. They were doing college searches. I overheard him giving the kids one of those kinds of speeches that we applaud in the great teacher or coach movies. “Character matters. I don’t care how good you are on the field; it is your character that will make or break you. ... Academics matter. .... Only a small percent of students will ever go on to play professional sports ... good grades if you want to go and play in college ... scholarships. ... I will support you, but you have to do your part! If you are not making it in the classroom, you are not playing. Period.” I didn’t hear every word, but I was so impressed by what I did hear.

He also set up mandatory tutorial days for all athletes. Teachers are told at the beginning of the year what day is mandatory athletic tutorials. Athletes can either go to a teacher for help, or they have to have a study hall with the coaches where work is expected. Coaches send rosters of teams to all teachers at the beginning of their season. In the email ,they always say that “Academics and character are important. If any student is struggling with behavior, completing work, or performing in class, to please let them know, and they will assist in any way possible.” The coaches watch athletes’ grades. This is not just for the “star athletes” that they don’t want to miss the game but for all their athletes. As a result, we have a single-digit not-passing rate with athletes. A large percent achieve honor roll.

Another great way coaches at our school support academics is they send out schedules of their sports to let teachers know of upcoming events. They often say things like, “Our game is Thursday night. Mandatory athlete tutoring is Tuesday. We would like to have all students in practice on Wednesday but are flexible if a student needs to do something for you. Friday, students would also be available during x period or after school.” This communication lets teachers plan ahead for the class or a particular student. It communicates that the coaches are supporting classwork and students know that teachers will be holding them accountable for their work.

Lastly, our coaches started something new last year. Students nominate 5-6 teachers or teachers volunteer to live a day in the life of a student-athlete. Teachers stay after school the day of the game, eat with the students, and ride the bus with them. They sit or stand on the sidelines and ride back home at night. Teachers have loved it. For many, it was eye opening to see how hard the students’ day is when they have a game. Many teachers attend games on their own throughout the season.

With clear communication, teachers are able to plan ahead, adjust schedules, and support the athletes. Teachers support the coaches by communicating about the athletes’ progress, working with schedules during a season, and attending games. In the end, everyone wins.

Response From Amy Okimoto

Amy Okimoto is an equity advocate and 3rd grade teacher working tirelessly in Aurora, Colo. to improve opportunities, awareness, and access for all students:

Sports Mentors for Elementary School Students

When asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” many young boys in my classes have aspired to great heights on the basketball court or greatness on the football field or stardom on the soccer pitch or success on the baseball diamond. Dazzled by the promise of wealth, fancy cars, and adoring fans, the wonder of athletic success proves to be popularly sought after. Today’s era features athletes with amazing talents, and drive, and are definitely worthy of admiration. I encourage those dreams because I know from being a longtime athlete, and coach myself, stamina, discipline, and courage definitely emerge on all those sport venues, as well as within the individual. As a classroom teacher, those qualities mentioned, are definitely highly desired in the students’ academic identities as well. I knew having the opportunity for my students to see the process and develop respect for the process would be a worthy endeavor.

My community is fortunate to have a former state championship basketball team with a coach of the year - Coach Fisher - at our feeder high school. This coach of the year also happens to be a personal friend of mine. Several years ago, one of my 5th graders was a huge basketball fan. On occasion, I would take him to Friday night games at the high school. I reached out to the coach to see if the boy could get some extra love, and the coach allowed him to go into the locker room and interact with the team. Jaxson was mesmerized by the older players, and it made him so proud to get their high-fives. axson thrived from that interaction, and it set into motion a bigger plan.

The following year, several teachers at my school had aspirations of creating a mentor group comprised of black and brown boys from the same local high school, and some of our 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade boys of color. Despite the best intentions, the program had difficulty gaining enough traction to get off the ground. One of the teachers reached out to me and asked if could leverage my connection with Coach Fisher to get the program going. Coach Fisher and his team agreed to take on this opportunity.

Two Wednesdays a month for the second semester of the school year, the high school boys team would come over before school where they were partnered with a specific student. Students were chosen based on several characteristics; including leadership qualities and how much benefit a mentor could provide them. Obviously, it would have been fantastic to open the program to all boys, but we wanted to maintain the one-to-one relationship.

As teacher leaders, we provided activities and, of course, food, but over the course of the months of meetings, the young men developed bonds that were clearly impactful, based on the enthusiasm, the eagerness, and the sheer joy the group experienced. The older boys talked about challenges faced and how they were able to overcome them. They shared how the need for academic success played a role in their athletics. They shared how some of the same qualities that made them great basketball players, also made them better students, sons, and human beings. We did activities that ranged from silliness and fun, to thought-provoking opportunities to lead the younger students to better choices.

Thanks to Jill, Jen, Brian, Pamela, and Amy for their contributions.

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