Why Did We Become Teachers?

Ashley was a gifted basketball player. He had skills that could not be taught, and it never seemed like he ran down the floor. He glided. Although I had several players on the team that were stronger than Ashley, his love for the game was surpassed by no one. He lived and breathed basketball; it meant everything to him.

Although Ashley loved basketball, this was his first year playing on an organized team (grade 11). It was not that Ashley did not have a desire to play earlier, but because of his low grades and poor attendance, school rules prohibited him from doing so.

I first met Ashley that September and saw him playing pick-up basketball at lunch with several of my players from the previous year. Recognizing his gift in playing, I approached him and asked why he did not play the previous year. He told me his grades were not good enough and he wasn’t allowed until they had improved. Selfishly as a coach, I wanted Ashley to play, as I knew he would be an asset to our team. I talked to school administration and the athletic director and made a deal that I would personally work with Ashley to ensure that he would complete his assignments and attend school. At first, this was all about a new coach who wanted the best players on his team so he could win, and really had nothing to do with Ashley. The thought was, “Keep Ashley in school, keep him on the team, and then we will have a better chance of winning.” As I grew that year, my mindset changed.

Ashley never really said much at any time. He would show up to practice, do his best to pick up our offensive and defensive schemes, and do what he was asked. As the year progressed, I got to know Ashley so much better (I had to spend a lot of time with him working on his homework!), and he had the most dry sense of humour for any kid that I knew at that age. We would continuously make fun of each other, not like teacher and student, but similar to two buddies. The person who I first saw only as a basketball player became someone I cared so much about.

As the season progressed, Ashley improved his grades and his attendance was fantastic. With that being said, he still hated school. He wanted to play basketball and showed up to school for that reason alone. As we came into the playoffs, I started to worry about Ashley, as I knew that it would be a challenge to keep him in school once the season was over. With one loss, our season could be over, and I feared that Ashley’s school year would follow quickly after.

Going into our regional playoffs, we came up against a powerhouse team and were likely to lose. I would love to tell the story about how we won, went all the way, Ashley stayed in school, and became a doctor, lawyer, or better yet, a teacher. Since this story is based on truth, and not Hollywood, that didn’t happen. We lost on Saturday, and Ashley never went back to school ever again. That weekend was the last time I talked to Ashley, and although I hope that things turned out great for him, I am not sure they did.

At the time, I looked at Ashley’s year and thought of myself as the hero in the group. Without my prodding and help, he would have not lasted in school as long as he did, and he was better off with five months of school than none. Looking back I failed him just as much as everyone else.

First off, using a student’s passion AGAINST him is wrong. We use the area where we know the child will be successful, and then take it away from him, to keep him in a subject where he does not experience success. Instead of focusing on what the child loves, we hold his passion hostage, and we tell him he can have it when WE feel he is ready. Phrases like this:

“If you do not finish your math, you are not going to be able to participate in the school play.”

really mean this:

“If you do not do what you hate, I am not going to allow you to do what you love.”

Doesn’t this seem wrong? Shouldn’t we do everything to build the confidence of our students, as opposed to subject them to more of the same types of tasks that exploit their weaknesses?

“You are not good at math? Here are 100 questions for homework so you can take your struggling home to have it in isolation!” (Does this make any sense?)

Although I realized Ashley was passionate about basketball, and did my best to let him enjoy it, I should have spent my time talking to his teachers and helping them find ways where we could engage this student. I knew full well that he was going to quit school as soon as basketball was over, but I also knew that basketball would not fill the year. We needed to find Ashley’s passion, and bring it to the classroom. We didn’t. Ashley did not fail us; we failed him.

We need to rethink what the goals of our schools are and not have this happen again. As much as I hate thinking of schools like a business, they are, and the students are our customers. In any other business, we do everything to satisfy people to ensure they will become repeat customers. In a school however, knowing that a child’s options are limited, we often take advantage. We need to ensure that we do our best to SERVE our students, not the other way around.

What is the goal in our schools today?

a. Ensure that students are successful at school.
b. Ensure that teachers are successful in their job.
c. Ensure that students are successful in their life.

If you focus on either ‘a’ or ‘b’, we will have more Ashleys in our world. If we focus on ‘c’ first, not only will you ensure that ‘a’ and ‘b’ also happen, you will help others to find things they love and they are HAPPY doing. Is there anything better than that?

Teach the children, find their passions, help them find their dreams. Isn’t this why we became teachers?

3 Comments

  1. Jenny Black said:

    Mr. Couros,

    I am a student at the University of South Alabama in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class. I am an aspiring teacher. If you need to reach me for any reason, my blog is http://blackjennyedm310.blogspot.com/.

    First of all, I’d like to thank my professor for assigning me to comment on your blog. I feel like anything I say, is going to do this post serious injustice because it’s just THAT good. Also, I’d like to thank you. You’ve done something a lot of teachers are too prideful to do and you noticed something that some teachers don’t ever realize. I can relate to Ashley in the aspect of sports. I also love sports and played every sport I could in high school. The difference with me is that I loved school, so dropping out wasn’t as issue. But my love for school coincides with my love for social interaction. I went to school where almost everyone was White and everything we read about, learned about or did was tailored to my needs as a White, middle class child. You see, school worked for me. But school was also built around MY needs. What about all the other students? I think this issue clearly ties in with the color line. If school wasn’t built around your needs, then are you really going to fit in? Is the system really going to work for you? Students need and want to go to a place where their culture is acknowledged, appreciated, and incorporated into the classroom. If I, as a White middle-class student, went to school every day with ALL Black students, ALL Black teachers and learned only about Blacks and Black history, and no one understood my culture, would the system be working for me? Would I feel like I had a place and I belonged there? Probably not. We need to educate all students. Different people have different needs, learning styles, languages, history, and culture. So why do we educate children all the same way?

    Out of that rabbit hole and back to your post- I sincerely appreciate reading something like this. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one. You called some very important things to light. These are things that educators need to be thinking about. We need to realize what a big impact we can have on student’s lives and what an important job we have been given. If schools don’t educate and teach people how to be successful, who will? We, as teachers, hold the next generation in our hands every day. We get them from 8-3. Let’s make the most of the time we are given and do what we are supposed to do, whether it’s for the sake of having a job or because we really do care.

    Thanks for the VERY inspiring post. I will be a frequent visitor to your blog from now on.

    Jenny Black

    November 4, 2010
  2. David Truss said:

    George,
    Thank you for sharing this story. As I started reading it, I had the foreboding that it did not end happily. Not because it couldn’t, but because in our schooling system it rarely ever does… I find that very sad, that my mind jumped to such a conclusion, but I’ve seldom seen our system provide the Hollywood ending for our struggling kids. The same can be said for our very gifted students as well.

    I’ve never employed a life coach, but I think that would be the closest job to describe what (good) teachers really do. From Wikipedia: “Life coaching is a future-focused practice with the aim of helping clients determine and achieve personal goals.”

    I think one of the hardest things for a teacher is marrying the goals of the classroom with the goals of individual students within their class. Even the best of teachers will struggle with this. They always will while there are age-based curriculum focused outcomes that we scuttle kids through in one-school-year increments.

    c. Ensure that students are successful in their life.

    That isn’t something we measure with percentages, it’s something we need to find great success in on the fringes, where the percentages are lowest.

    Thanks for sharing this beautifully written story with us George!

    November 4, 2010
  3. John said:

    An excellent post George. Our Ministry of Education in Ontario recently added “well being” to one of its priorities “Student achievement and well being”. Did the system really look after Ashely’s well being? For the time he was on the basketball team it did. As coaches, we may look for that star player that will help us win championships. Let’s face it, winning is fun. As teachers, we always seek to help our students. We want our students to succeed not only on the court, the ice or the field but in life. If sports allows us to connect with that struggling student, it’s not a bad thing. But you’re right; we cannot do it alone. We need to bring others into the fold (guidance counsellors, other teachers, youth workers, parents, guardians etc.) so that we can all make an effort to reach these students.

    November 8, 2010

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