#Teach2Teach 3: A coach who failed me, and a coach who didn’t
Preservice world language teachers are asking experienced teachers questions they’d like to hear about from the trenches. To find out more about what #Teach2Teach is, see here for an explanation of how it came about, and what the questions are, or how to submit your own question if you’re a teacher in training or a new teacher.
I answered the first question, and skipped the second, because it was about politics in teaching, and I have been blessed to be able to mostly stay out of that sort of thing. For this third question, Jennifer asks,
What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you handle it?
I thought about two, and they both involved school coaches.
A lesson from the coach who failed me
I’ve only taught at two separate schools, and at the first one, they had an incredible policy on athlete scholarship. A student who was failing a single class at any reporting period was ineligible to play. Usually, this was not a big deal. It was just the way it was. Until one day it was a big deal.
In my class I had the school’s star female basketball player. It was a small school, with generally mediocre sports teams, but in girls’ basketball, there was no question she was the best. But she was lazy. I don’t remember if she simply didn’t turn in the assignments I gave, or came up severely short on the requirements, or just bombed them for lack of effort, but she was failing my class because she simply didn’t care. She shouldn’t have had any trouble at all, but she did.
You can probably see where this is going. Her grade in my class made her ineligible to play. So I received a visit from the coach, an outstanding older man, a fatherly type with years of experience teaching and coaching, whom everyone respected, including me. But this one time he dropped the ball (pun intended). He told me to violate my grading policies to cut her enough slack to pass. And what did I say? Well, no. Of course.
So I got called, with the coach, into the principal’s office. The principal was a middle-aged man with years of experience in teaching and administration, whom everyone respected, especially me. But this one time he let me down. He told me to violate my grading policies to cut her enough slack to pass. And what did I do? I cried. I got angry. And I did it.
Yes, you read that right. I didn’t go on a crusade. I didn’t stand on my principles. I was a second-year female teacher with the most powerful men in the school using their authority to pressure me into accommodating a lazy, failing athlete because she could play slightly better than mediocre basketball. And I told myself that hey, she was going to turn something in, so it wasn’t like I was giving her grades for nothing. So I took her shoddy late work and passed her and she played basketball. And nothing like that happened to me again.
So I suppose the answer to how did you deal with it? is that I decided the hill wasn’t one to die on, and I gave in, and it doesn’t keep me up at night.
Maybe I know more about politics than I thought.
A lesson from the coach who changed me
Fast forward several years to my second school, also a private school, with a bit larger of a student body but not much better sports teams. The year after I started incorporating music and storytelling in class, students were much more motivated to take Spanish 3, and the retention rate into Spanish 3 went from 4% to 40%. The class was large for that level for me, and not as homogeneous as I was used to advanced classes being. I had two students in particular, baseball players, who were best friends and could not sit next to each other without being very disruptive. I genuinely liked them both. They were both bright, had strong personalities; both were generally disliked by several of their other teachers. But I got along quite well with them. Until one of them started to let his personality show too much strength.
Almost the entire first semester was foul with this student, but two exemplary moments stand out in my mind. One was the toddler temper tantrum he had when he walked in one day and -as usual- his name tent (see #9 here) was not next to his best friend’s. He swept his books off the table onto the floor, he was so angry. His classmates just stared. The other example was the day I announced I was pregnant with our first baby. He looked at me and said,
Your husband is the father, right?
I get that I’m a sheltered teacher who’s never taught in an inner-city school and this is probably par for the course there. But I’m a sheltered teacher and venomous disrespect like that is not something I’m used to. When I told my administrator about the incident much later, he told me I should have come to him; the boy would have been suspended. But I didn’t. What I did do was bring it up at a department head meeting that included the social studies department head, who was also the baseball coach. He told me he’d take care of it on the field, and to come to him if I had any more such troubles with his baseball boys. (Insert me clapping here for all coaches who believe greatness on the field isn’t an excuse to do whatever you want off the field.)
But that wasn’t what made such an impact. He also proceeded to offer some real insight on what was going on. He told me that the boy’s parents had been going through a nasty divorce. They’d split up, and then decided to get back together, and then couldn’t work it out and decided to divorce. He’d been on a see-saw for the better part of a year. So, the coach’s opinion was that he blamed his mother, and he was taking it out on all females in authority in his life. His male teachers had little difficulty with him.
That student and I didn’t have a stellar year together, but it wasn’t bad, and after I had a better understanding of what he was going through, I have more good memories than bad from that class with him. (He’s graduated from college now, and the last time I saw him, he gave me a big hug.) My biggest memory is the important lessons I learned for how to deal with difficult students:
- Many students have bigger problems than a bad seat assignment.
- Demand respect regardless of the good reasons for their disrespect.
- Don’t jump down their throats right away; treat them as you would if their parent(s), your administrator, and a police officer were standing in the corner watching.
- Don’t assume they’re behaving this way because they’re punks who want to ruin your life.
- Talk to someone else in their life who may give you valuable insight behind why they’re acting the way they are and what the solutions might be.
- Never underestimate the power of a coach to speak to a student’s life where you can’t.
Thanks, Coach Vaughn.