Behold my favorite teaching essay of recent vintage from the unlikeliest of publications. Thank you Byron Janis for the perfectly timed reminders about what teaching excellence entails. If you teach, coach, or parent, this is a concise treasure trove of insight. He writes:
“To me, the most important challenge a teacher must confront is keeping an open mind. One must convey knowledge and artistry without overpowering a student’s sense of self. That talented ‘self’ can develop only when he or she is not over-taught. One must know when to teach and when not to teach.”
And when to coach and when not to coach. And when to parent and when not to parent. It’s the very rare teacher, coach, or parent who avoids overpowering their students’, athletes’, or sons’ and daughters’ varied senses of self.
“During the course of my instruction Horowitz also made a very important point. ‘You want to be a first Janis—not a second Horowitz.'”
“. . . talented students must be taught that they are not only pianists but artists, and to create, not imitate. They should be shown that inspiration comes from living, experiencing and observing life, the real as well as the imagined.”
Twenty to thirty years ago, schooling in the United States shifted focus to standardization of curriculum, teaching “best practices”, of most everything. Consequently, we don’t foster creativity very well. Not only do the arts suffer, but our culture. Janis’s radical musings point a way forward.
“Combined participation in the four most-popular U.S. team sports—basketball, soccer, baseball and football—fell among boys and girls aged 6 through 17 by roughly 4% from 2008 to 2012.” [Wall Street Journal]
Docs and others are worried because “It is much more likely that someone who is active in their childhood is going to remain active into their adulthood.”
Forgotten in this discussion is the fact that there are lots of ways to be active. When it comes to youth, we focus far too narrowly on athletic competition at the expense of fitness.
One common theory for the decline is that social networking, videogames and other technology are drawing children away from sports. And of course football faces a more specific challenge, “growing concern that concussions and other contact injuries can cause lasting physical damage.” The Journal speculates on other causes including increasing costs of participation to excessive pressure on kids in youth sports to cuts in school physical-education programs.
I was intrigued by one student’s story in the article:
Fifteen-year-old Jessica Cronin is the daughter of a former three-sport high-school athlete. But Jessica doesn’t participate in high-school sports, choosing to spend her time outside of class volunteering in her community and going to her temple youth group each Wednesday. “I considered doing track, but it takes up so much time,” said Ms. Cronin, a sophomore at Bethlehem Central High School in Delmar, N.Y.
Since most fifteen year-olds can run 6-7 miles in an hour, I suspect Jessica prefers her community service and youth group activities because they’re based on cooperation more than competition. Most young athletes don’t care about winning as much as their coaches. They’re not anti-competition per se, they just can’t relate to, and therefore resent, many of their coaches “win at all costs” approach.
That’s why a lot of young people gravitate to alternative sports like ultimate frisbee and alternative activities like skateboarding.
Survey youth basketball, soccer, baseball and football coaches about what’s most important to them and their athletes long-term health probably won’t make the list. Too many youth coaches are fixated on scoreboards and win-loss records. School principals, athletic directors, and parents aren’t doing enough to train, hire, and reward coaches who think about team sports as a context for healthier living.
Switching from a competitive team sport orientation to a fitness one should start with wider, better lit roads with generous sidewalks so that most young people can walk, bike, blade, skateboard, or run to and from school. Next physical education classes should emphasize life long activities including walking, running, yoga, swimming, and related activities. Students should be encouraged to compete against their younger selves to walk, run, cycle, and swim farther faster.
When fitness trumps athletic competition physical education classes and team sport practices will be more fun than video games. There should be little to no standing around. I have fond memories of some high school water polo practices where our conditioning consisted of a crazy obstacle course that culminated with a celebratory jump off the three meter board. We improved on the coach’s design by firing balls at one another mid-air. Granted a nose was broken and that was in the Pleistocene Era before the first lawyer emerged from the primordial ooze. Practices would be shorter because the emphasis would be on quality of activity more than quantity.
Who is with me?
While visiting my favorite first year college student in Minnesota in early November, I thought about the ones I teach in Washington State. My daughter’s friend was exiting their dorm as we were entering it. “How did your advising meeting go?” my daughter asked. “Pretty terrible.” “Why?” “She got pretty mad at me. Told me to come prepared next time. I had five different schedules written down, but I was just too scared to show them to her.”
Fast forward to the end-of-semester conferences I had with my writing students last week. One of them, Tori said, “I appreciated your stories because at first I was intimidated by you. I mean you said you did triathlons.” Academics intimidate students through formal titles, academic language, dress (including academic robes), and rituals such as convocation and commencement. And in my case I guess, by swimming, cycling, and running in succession.
Similarly, some coaches routinely intimidate athletes and some parents routinely intimidate their children. They argue that intimidation breeds fear and fear breeds respect. But when they have an athlete or child get in serious trouble they often ask, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The answer is obvious. Too scared.
Teaching excellence takes many forms. The intimidation—fear—respect model probably works well in the military, but I believe intimidation impedes learning because it contributes to students bullshitting their way through school. Instead of developing authentic voices, students say and write what they think their teachers want to hear and read. The technical term is “grade grubbing”.
It’s not enough to say what my teachers-to-be always do, “I want to be more than just a teacher. I want to be a role model, someone students can come to and talk about not just class, but life.” Most students are so intimidated, any teacher that wants to be “accessible” has to be intentional about adopting a less formal, more personal professional persona.
One way to do that is to tell short, personal, self-deprecating stories. Ideally short, personal, self-deprecating stories that relate to the day’s content. Students aren’t interested in the details of their teachers’ personal lives. Save those for a friend or therapist.
Pope Francis is a great example of someone intentionally passing on a built-in pedestal. In part, his tenure has started so positively because he’s foregone the traditional perks of the position, including the Mercedes and posh Vatican digs. Compared to his predecessors, he travels and lives in ways that more people can relate to.
Most likely, my daughter’s friend couldn’t relate to her advisor for a litany of reasons. Reasons I doubt her advisor will explore. Many academics, just like some coaches and parents, prefer the view from their lofty perches. Teaching, coaching, and parenting is far less messy from above. Just not nearly as effective.
Last Saturday morning, as I prepared to lap swim, I couldn’t help but notice the tumult in the lane next to me. A college-aged swim instructor held a red-faced, frantic three year old who was crying uncontrollably. The three-year old’s exasperated dad squatted like a catcher at the edge of the pool and attempted to explain to the instructor everything that had gone wrong in recent lessons.
Maybe you’ve seen That Dad. I was That Dad.
As I did my best Michael Phelps impersonation, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to my eldest daughters introduction to swimming. The more I wanted her to put her head in the water, the more she resisted. Fast forward to today. She’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On a Winter training trip with her college swim team. Her head completely in the water four hours a day. Co-captain of the team. And worst of all—faster than her dad.
The best teachers look at their sometimes immature and frustrating young students and see their best future selves. Peace Corp volunteers and program directors. Therapists. Farmers. Speech pathologists. School teachers, nurses, and artists. Loving parents. Mechanics. Authors. Carpenters. Docs. Citizens making their communities better places.
Similarly, when the best youth coaches look at their sometimes clueless and hapless athletes they don’t see future college or professional athletes, they see responsible, resilient, mindful adults.
Likewise, when enlightened parents watch their children struggle in and/or out of school, they know “This too shall pass.” They offer love, encouragement, and care. They convey confidence in their children’s abilities and see their best future selves. They know, some day soon, they’ll put their heads in the water and swim like there’s no tomorrow.
The “Get Wrong” series is so popular, the Good Wife recently asked when I’m going to post on what she gets wrong. Since she’s a card carrying Baby Boomer, here’s some of what she gets wrong.
First, some context. Whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s a full-fledged generational cage match going on and the Millennials bring it via YouTube!
At first glance the vid appears to be light-hearted entertainment. In actuality, it’s poignant, hard-hitting social criticism. When it comes to generation gaps, Baby Boomers like me (I’m a tail ender) make two mistakes over and over and over.
Mistake 1—Based upon a few negative encounters with Millennials, we get so worked up, our brains shut down; consequently, we overgeneralize about all young adults. Here’s an idea Boomers, let’s stop starting sentences with “Millennials”. Any sentence that begins with the word “Millennials” is likely to be a gross and inaccurate generalization. Unless, of course, it’s “Millennials make some damn good videos.”
Mistake 2—Baby Boomers are lightening quick to say Millennials suck, and yet, take no responsibility for their alleged shortcomings. That’s the brilliance of the vid. Their flaws are the direct result of our parenting, teaching, coaching. Millennials didn’t suddenly appear out of the ether like the first invertebrates. Here’s another idea Boomers, let’s stop ripping the Millennials without explaining our culpability.
In professional sports, the media spotlight tends to shine on the knuckleheads for whom there’s no shortage. That’s why Tim Tebow became a pop culture phenom. Fans long for players they can cheer for on and off the field.
Jon Kitna is Tim Tebow minus the blinding spotlight. A devout Christian, who after playing quarterback for four NFL teams over fifteen years, just retired. Here’s his top ten salary years from largest contract to smallest.
|SEASON||TEAM||BASE SALARY||SIGN BONUS||CAP VALUE||SALARY||POSITION|
|2001||Cincinnati Bengals||$ 500,000||$ 4,000,000||$ 1,501,440||$ 5,501,440||Quarterback|
|2008||Detroit Lions||$ 2,950,000||$ 3,500,000||$ 5,875,000||$ 5,000,000||Quarterback|
|2006||Detroit Lions||$ 1,450,000||$ 3,500,000||$ 2,375,000||$ 5,000,000||Quarterback|
|2009||Dallas Cowboys||$ 1,400,000||$ 2,000,000||$ 4,000,000||Quarterback|
|2004||Cincinnati Bengals||$ 1,000,000||$ 2,375,000||$ 3,190,000||$ 3,377,500||Quarterback|
|2003||Cincinnati Bengals||$ 2,625,000||$ 3,626,600||$ 2,626,600||Quarterback|
|2002||Cincinnati Bengals||$ 1,500,000||$ 2,501,260||$ 1,501,260||Quarterback|
|2007||Detroit Lions||$ 1,450,000||$ 3,500,000||$ 2,875,000||$ 1,500,000||Quarterback|
|2000||Seattle Seahawks||$ 1,371,000||$ 1,373,600||$ 1,373,600||Quarterback|
|2005||Cincinnati Bengals||$ 1,000,000||$ 2,188,820||$ 1,001,320||Quarterback|
Instead of spending his retirement counting and trying to spend his millions, Kitna’s taken another job. Part-time math teacher at Tacoma, Washington’s Lincoln High School and full-time football coach. Teaching and coaching at his inner-city alma mater has been his wife’s and his plan all along. He’s excited to begin fulfilling his real purpose in life. Giving up the cushy, glamorous life of hanging with Tony Romo and Jerry Jones on chartered jets for late night lesson planning, apathetic math students, footballers used to losing, and slow, lengthy Friday night school bus rides on jammed freeways. Remarkable.
Sad that a story like this is left to his local paper and this humble blog. Every one of the country’s sports writing cognoscenti should be leading with Kitna’s story. How he was a screw up at Lincoln High School. How he drank way too much at Central Washington University, cheated on his present day wife, committed to Christianity, and turned his life completely around.
Whether you’re religious or not, Kitna’s commitment to service should inspire. Here’s a short video of Jon talking about his vision for the team. Football excellence as a means to more important ends. After watching the vid, I’d be happy to coach the coach on how to set personal faith—public school boundaries.
Here’s hoping he inspires a generation of students and athletes. I will be watching Kitna’s second career whether the media shines their light on him or not. And I’ll be cheering lustily for him, his team, Lincoln High, and the larger community.