Often when people talk about international comparisons of schools, they will note that the phenomenon of high school sports and other activities -- like non-academic music and theater and clubs - are almost unknown in other countries. Some will make such remarks because they would like to see such "frivolities" eliminated as a waste of time. Others will attempt to justify them with analyses that will point out how music can contribute to better math scores, or the value of teamwork one develops in many sports.
This diary will do neither. It is the reflection of one person, who played both sports and music and participated in theater as a high school students, and who coaches, serves as musical director of music theater and advises a number of student activities. As my own athletic season has now ended, I find this an appropriate subject upon which to reflect this chilly Sunday morning.
I majored in music in college, and I teach social studies. In high school I participated in choir and orchestra which met during the day), theater and musical theater (which did not), and our forum club (discussion group which met in the evenings). I coach soccer ) boys' jv, assisting with the varsity, although I have also coached girls jv), and as noted serve as musical director of musical theater (a new responsibility as of this month). I have also advised a variety of other after school activities - I am co-sponsor of the freshman class, have advised the Muslim students and coached the Mock Trial team. Mock Trial and soccer offered stipends for my service that was quite minimal, the other positions were without compensation. I do them because I enjoy them, to be sure, but also because I see them as an important part of the lives of my students.
This is playoff season for fall sports. Yesterday our girls cross-country team won their second consecutive state 4-A title, our boys finished sixth (with one boy finishing as state runner-up). Our boys soccer was eliminated on Tuesday in the regional final and yesterday our girls lost in the state semifinals, both on penalty kick shootouts ( a heartbreaking way to lose, but all except the state championship game must have a final outcome). So this week and last night those of us who coach have had to hug our kids when they lost, tell them how proud we are of what they did accomplish.
As it happens I also teach many of the kids I coach. When I mainly taught freshmen it was not unusual for me to have a quarter of my jv team in my classes. This year I am teaching 10th graders. Three of my AP Government students were also among the best of my jv players (they were a bit too small for varsity as 10th graders) and I also had several girls jv players, one girls varsity starter, and two varsity boys players, plus a host of cross country runners. I am a very demanding teacher, and my athletes know that I am a teacher before I am a coach, but I am also aware of the commitment that playing high school sports represents, so I am also not without understanding - when one has played - and lost - a night game on Tuesday, I cannot expect that the academic demands of my class at 8:25 the next morning is going to be the most important thing in one's life. The emotional let-down (or equivalent exuberance after a win) is really no different than the student would encounter if the night before the parents had informed her they were divorcing, or one's older brother called to announce he is getting married. The academics in school are only one part of the life of the healthy adolescent.
It is on that I wish to focus. School occupies a major portion of the lives of our children, particularly when they are of high school age. But it is not the sole focus in their lives, nor should it be. As important as the academics may be, it should also be a time of exploration of who they are, and what matters to them.
The school at which I teach has a fantastic music program with its 5 choirs, multiple bands and orchestral ensembles. We do a variety of kinds of theater. Some of these are defined as classes, itself a use of time for a `soft" subject that many would decry, while others are student organized and meet only after school.
Sometimes people complain that our students are not learning. As a teacher of adolescents, and one who clearly remembers his own adolescence, that statement is ridiculous. In education we often talk about the hidden curriculum - in far too many of hour schools and classes our stated curricula of math, science, language arts and social studies is not that which we really present to - and impose upon - our children. It is often far too much of surrendering to authority, learning to be passive, being told what is important by adults who may never set foot in the classroom (legislators and school board members). It is learning how to sit for 45 minutes in an comfortable desk set in geometric rows, absorbing information to be regurgitated back in formulaic methods, with so much crammed into that 45 minutes each day that there is little time to explore the ideas that are actually relevant to one's life, and that have the potential of intellectual and emotional excitement. There is little opportunity to develop those aspects of one's person that might really matter.
For those who say our children are not learning, or that they can't seem to memorize things, they are nuts. Our kids demonstrate fantastic memories when they learn all the lyrics to dozens of popular songs each year. A football player may have to know a hundred plays, and not only where he is supposed to be but the roles of most of the other 11 players. An actor in a play will have to know not only his lines, but also those that serve as queues to his.
Students quickly learn the limits of behavior by observing which teachers pay attention to what actions, or even pay attention to them. They make the proper economic decision as to the use of their time by evaluating the rewards and punishments. They may still be grasshoppers ( and this is much as reference to Kung Fu with David Carradine as it is to Aesop) and not have the long term vision of the tortoise. Part of my job as teacher and coach is to remind them that they will have lives beyond this week, or this athletic season.
Most of the kids who play soccer for me will not play intercollegiate sports. heck, about 1/2 of my freshman JV players are lucky to even make varsity by their junior years (I will carry a few as sophomores who will never make varsity to give them one more chance to participate, and their willingness to submerge their own egos for the good of the team serves as a positive model for some of my freshmen). Then again, very few of our singers or actors will do that much more with either activity in college, at least not in the official college organizations. But many will use their love of the activity to participate in other ways - as audience members, in student organized groups or in intramural sports.
Competitive sports can be destructive. I must coach against some teams for whom my opposite number can be someone with whom I would not entrust my own child had I one, because that person is abusive. But that is not unique to sports - I have as a student had abusive teachers in the classroom, teachers whose attitudes towards their students was how much they could demean or belittle them.
I wrote near the top that this would be a personal reflection. I am by nature very undisciplined. I always did better in school when I was active outside the classroom. If I wanted to run cross country or play soccer, I was going to have less time to do my school work, so that when I returned after practice I would have to quickly get to work - and be focused - or I could not get through my work. I see a similar pattern among most of my athletes. Here I will note that my boys jv for first quarter had only 2 players with a GPA below a 3.0, the median was 3.38 and mean was the 3.47. But then, they must bring me a weekly progress report, and if they are projecting less than a 3.0 or if they show a single grade below a C they don't practice, they sit on the sideline and do homework, and they will not start the next game, no matter how talented at soccer they may be. Because they want to play, they are motivated to stay current with the school work. And if they come and say they need to miss the first part of practice to get academic help, there is no penalty as far as playing time - academics come first.
I often get to know students far better as a coach or activity advisor than I do as a teacher. Part of it is a question of time: I have 45 minutes in my class, but soccer practice on days without games is at least 2 and often 2.5 hours. I also get to know the family context - parents come to the end of practice, or to games, or to performances. I am far more often to hear about family problems from a kid I coach or advise than I will from I student I only teach. The role of coach or faculty advisor provides a students with another adult to whom s/he can turn during the confusion of adolescence.
I am proud of our varsity boys. We lost in a penalty kick shootout. But we played that game without a player who tore tree of the 4 ligaments in one knee -- he is first string all-state and all-South, and may even be all-American: he had been scoring 2 goals a game, and had multiple division one offers (one is still there despite the injury). He postponed his surgery so he could be on the sideline with his teammates. Another player had a badly sprained ankle and could not go. We lost two other starters for unfortunate reasons: one academically another because he got in a fight and was suspended. Others stepped up and played fantastically. One played almost the entire game despite the fact that he had not been able to practice because of a strained groin. Another kept coming out and going back in because one leg was so badly hurt he could not walk evenly or kick with it, but he could still run and tackle. Another went as far as he could with a sore throat that made breathing hard, then told us when he had no more to give. The other team was bigger than we were, and very physical, and the referees barely kept control of the game.
We lost, but that we even got to the shootout was amazing - our kids left everything they had on the field. Two earned all-county praise from the other coaches in attendance from their performance in that game. It was a loss, and I remember one of our captains crying at the end not because we lost, but because it was the last game of his soccer career - he knows he won't play in college (although he may play baseball), and he was sad to see it come to an end. This is a kid I made captain of JV as a freshman because he is a natural leader, even if not the most gifted soccer player. I have watched him grow over 4 years. As a freshman he had a middling 2.5 average. Now he takes some AP courses and maintains a 3.5 - not spectacular, but showing improvement as he has learned to focus.
My wife often asks me why I take on the burdens I do outside the classroom. It helps me to get to know kids in a different context. It enables me to build relationships that spill over to other kids. I have one young man for the 2nd year in a row in my classes whose older brother I coached (and also taught), and I can reach him in a way that I might not otherwise be able to do. And I probably get far more out of it than I put into it - it is such a delight to help young people explore their own lives and potential.
If you have read this far, thank you for being so indulgent. I would ask that you reflect upon your own participation in activities in school outside the classroom - sports, debate, art, music, theater, whatever it was - and the role that it played in your life. Then perhaps like me you will be able to see that those who seek to eliminate (whether for financial or academic reasons) such activities do not fully understand the damage they would do to many of our young people were they successful such eliminations.
And have a nice Sunday.