It seems so easy in the classroom. I’ll admit it; I get frustrated hearing stories of teachers using the same lesson plans that they’ve used for the last 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years. I get angry when I hear the talk of “these kids” and all that they are not. I get even angrier when I hear that they aren’t as smart, aren’t as hard working, or aren’t as caring as those ideal kids that once filled the classrooms just a decade ago.
It never made sense to me really. Times change. Kids change. We, the educators, need to follow along. Actually, we need to be ahead of it. We need to figure out how we can engage our kids, inspire them to want to learn, and to get them to be ready to take on any challenge that this crazy world–that’s getting crazier–throws their way.
I think about the lessons I did even just five years ago and cringe. When I think back to 21 years ago and those first year homework assignments and awful tests I gave, I want to search up every single student I taught and write them an apology. I didn’t know any better back then, but I have been fortunate enough to have enough special people in my career help guide me, help me find my own voice, and help me being willing to be.
Most importantly, I learned that I needed to evolve. Each day, each week, each month, each year, I have to continually look at my practices and how they are or are not benefiting kids. If it’s the latter, I must change. It has come natural to me. I have no problems telling a class that my lesson was horrible or, at the end of a unit, all of the things I needed to do better. I have no problems asking them for their input in how I can do my job better. We all need to evolve if we want to be the best teachers for our students.
But, some people just get stuck. They get comfortable. They found something that worked one year and then used it beyond its expiration date. Or, sometimes it is out of fear. It can be downright scary to try something new, knowing that there is a very real possibility that it will fail. Some teachers just aren’t willing to take that risk.
That’s why so many motivated, new teachers get discouraged. They come into the profession with fresh ideas, willing to try anything. Then, someone–a veteran or possibly their assigned mentor–will tell them that it will never work. They tell the new teachers to keep it simple. Keep your head down and follow along with what’s always been done.
For the record, that’s the worst advice ever. If any new teacher is having that type of year, know this: you are doing something right. Keep pushing. People will evolve because you are willing to do something new. You will prove them wrong, either making them try something new or casting them aside into the corner of irrelevancy.
But, here’s the thing. We can all get into that rut of following the plan that worked for years. Sometimes you don’t even notice it is happening. In past few weeks, I realized I fell into that trap. And, truthfully, I was disappointed that as a baseball coach, I was everything I hated about those teachers who refused to evolve.
But, here’s (also) the thing…we can all change. We can all evolve.
I’ve been coaching high school baseball longer than I have been a teacher. During my junior year of college, I walked into a coach’s meeting and started talking to some of the local athletic directors. I guess I made an impression because a week later, I accepted a junior varsity head coaching position. It would be the first of many teams that I coached. Over the first few years, I learned from a great mentor. I learned how to organize practices efficiently. I learned how to communicate with parents and the kids about roles on a team. And, as games passed by, I learned how to manage a game.
Coaching has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my education career. I have seen kids gain a sort of confidence and camaraderie from sports that can’t be gained everywhere else. I set out to create a culture where everyone was valued, everyone had a role, and everyone would not only be better baseball players by the end of the season, but better people. Wins and losses were one thing, but I was more interested in teaching kids so they could get better in all aspects.
Over two decades there was a lot of success and definitely some failure. I’ve coached undefeated teams and winless teams. I’ve coached supremely talented teams who did exactly what we predicted they would do at the start of the season. And, I’ve coached teams that weren’t the most talented, but outworked everyone to win. I had my absolutes for every team. I make three promises to them: I will never yell at them or embarrass them during a game in front of their family and friends. I will always have a plan for practice. And, I will always want them to feel comfortable to come talk to me.
I had a system that was largely successful. My teams were disciplined. They played with a respect for the game, following ancient baseball rules about how to play the game “the right way”. We had fun, but practices were my schedule, my drills, and my pace. I’d individualize for players who needed work on different things, but it was my system. It worked for a lot of years.
After a hiatus from coaching, I returned to the field last year, coaching our school’s modified team. I somewhat adjusted my system a bit, but in large part, it was the same. We had, what I thought, were fun, but structured practices with the focus on repetitious drills. In hindsight, that’s baseball’s equivalent to worksheets. But, it worked well enough.
This season, I was moved up to the freshman team. This season was quite different. Practices were strained. The kids weren’t into them. At some points, they worked really hard, but they lost focus after a while. I couldn’t understand why this group of kids–who, as individuals, I had great relationships with, both in the classroom and on the field–wasn’t buying into my program. I dreaded going to practice. Even worse, I was dreading game number one. I became negative, making more negative comments about their lack of focus, their challenging me (respectfully) on things I was saying, and their seemingly lack of care. I began telling them that we will fail if they don’t buy in. I told them that they needed to work harder, not question my program, and decide whether or not they wanted to be successful.
In other words, I was everything I despise. I was that outdated teacher. I was the one doing stuff like it was 1998, rather than seeing this incredible group of kids in front of me who did have a passion for the game. After all, they get up to come to practice at 7 AM on a Saturday. They can’t go away for spring break because of games. They play on other travel teams. They love baseball. But, their outdated coach was quickly taking that away.
I didn’t learn right away, however. Game one was a struggle. The team had little life, afraid of talking the wrong way in front of me. I was frustrated that they weren’t cheering, but, in truth, they were afraid of saying the wrong thing. It was close until the middle of the game. We wound up losing 12-3 to a team that didn’t have more talent than us.
The next day, I chewed them out, calling out their effort. It was the first time I “yelled” at them. It was a temporary fix. Yelling is always a temporary fix.
Game two was close, but we lost 4-3 after holding a lead of 3-1 into the 5th. I was happier though. It’s never about the wins and losses. It’s about getting better. I had hope.
That hope left the next day. With just six outs left to go, we held a 3-1 lead against a rival school. Our team was quiet again and somewhat out of it. I was frustrated. I even made the terrible comment that I had a bad feeling about the outcome. That 3-1 lead with six outs to go turned into an 18-3 loss.
It was during those last two innings that I realized it was my fault. I failed them. They were playing without passion. They weren’t showing their amazing personalities. They weren’t having fun. They weren’t engaged. I was the problem. I was the outdated one. With the body blow to my pride, I had to decide what I was going to do. It hit me that I was exactly the person I despised in education. I had grown too comfortable in my methods and past success. I wasn’t seeing the amazing opportunity to evolve and truly help this great group of kids.
We had a game the next day that required us to travel an hour. It was the perfect opportunity to talk. They filed on the bus a little quiet. They looked like they were dreading another game. But, I was finally ready to change.
“I’m sorry. All of this is on me. I made some really bad decisions with this team. My way of doing things isn’t working and we are changing now. Yesterday was rock bottom. Today, win or lose, it gets better.”
They perked up, surprised to hear an apology.
“There isn’t a right or wrong way to play baseball. We still have to respect the opponents and fans, but I want you to have fun today. I want you to play like you do back home (a bunch of my players are from the Dominican Republic). I want you to be you. You are all an amazing group of people. You got stuck with a crappy coach. But, that ends today. “
After telling them my different lineup, I told them to have fun. They turned on their music—an odd mix of Billy Ray Cyrus, rap, and dance music—and tried to get as many trucks to honk their horns. They were laughing. They were being kids.
We got to the field and I told them that they no longer had to do my structured warm up routine. I gave them basics and told them to do what they felt was good for them. We’d agree on a routine once we had a practice. They were loose, for the first time all season. They were laughing. They were running hard. They were excited to play a game.
All during the game, the team was loud, chanting things from Dominican Republic in their native languages. The non-Dominican teammates were included on the chants and they alternated with their own as well. We were in a familiar place. We held a 3-1 lead with two innings to go. The opposition—the best team we played so far—got runners on. It was one of those deja vu moments. Except this time, the team got louder for a pitcher who was finally given a chance. He got out of the inning with no runs. The team exploded with cheers.
Before getting three more outs, we had a turn at bat. One of players came up to me and said he felt good. “Coach, I’m feelin it. I’ll go yard.” For the baseball-challenged, going yard means hitting a home run. This was from a kid who hadn’t hit in the first three games. Under the old program, I’d say he shouldn’t ask for an at bat. But, I said, “ok, hit one. You’ll bat third this inning.”
The first two runners got on and he came up. He fouled off an incredible 24 pitches. It was an epic at bat. No matter the result, I was proud of his at bat. The 25th pitch came and he launched it over 400 feet for a three run home run. The bench exploded. It was one of those corny movie moments that only happened because I evolved and allowed the kids to lead me a bit. We won the game, celebrating on the bus on the way home with some victory rap.
The next day, we had a rainy day. I took them to the classroom. I apologized again, but followed it up with a question: “What can I do to make practices better?”
They sat quietly.
“I mean it. I want your input. How can I be better for you?”
For the next 45 minutes, they gave their intelligent ideas. We talked about how we could use their ideas, how we can both accomplish what we need to. The next day, we practiced using their layout. It was the best practice of the season. I was still teaching the finer points of the game, but the practice took a different structure. They were engaged in their competitions. They were laughing, helping each other, and, most importantly, asking me questions.
The next game? We won again, this time 7-1, beating another great team.
As teachers, we can learn from my failure and my albeit very late willingness to evolve. Kids aren’t the same as they were a decade ago. They aren’t even the same as they were last year. To expect something to work from one year to the next without adjustment is foolish. We must be willing to evolve from year to year, even period to period if we want to have kids be truly engaged.
How to evolve quickly?
Start with an apology. Yes, it could be difficult to admit that you, the professional with over two decades of experience, are wrong, but when kids see that you are willing to take ownership of a problem, they are willing to do the same. It not only does that, but it helps create a genuine relationship that can conquer any problem.
Make peace with the past. You may have had a good run, but if you’re honest that magical lesson from 10 years ago hasn’t been magical since. Each year you taught it, it resulted in less and less engaged kids.
Ask for their input. A truly engaged class is a result of a collaborative, team approach. When kids know that their opinions and feelings are valued, they are willing to work harder because they have a purpose. They are invested.
Marry their input with your style. Once you ask them for input, you must use it. Incorporate their ideas into your lessons or class routines. When they see that you actually took action, they will feel valued. And, they will be more engaged. The positive environment set will allow them to feel comfortable enough to take chances in their learning and to go deeper into their learning.
Value Their Culture. It is easy to get locked into your way of doing things. Realize that you have a group of diverse students who have been in a system that has taught them a certain way. All cultures must be valued. All people must be valued. It may look different than the traditional way, but it will make for a more productive environment where everyone feels they have a role.
Teach With Them. They may want your content in a different way than you planned on delivering it. But, if the point is for them to learn, then we must evolve and meet them. Whether it’s group work, conferences, flipped lessons, or any other method, we must deliver content that best fits them, not us. We must not teach at them, but rather with them.
Have Fun. Sure there are things that aren’t fun to do, but fun should not be neglected. If kids are having a good time in the classroom, they will keep coming back for more. They will be receptive because they have a place where they can be themselves. When that happens, all kinds of learning can happen. This environment can make for some magical moments.
Be Willing To Fight To Evolve. Once you make the shift, the naysayers come out. They will try to bring you down like many try to do with young teachers. During that second victory, some fans and one umpire were making comments about how loud my team was. I could’ve backed down and told them to stop. Nope. Instead, I spoke with the umpire, stood up for them, and we moved on. It is hard to be the person with the loudest classroom or a different classroom because someone will always have something to say. Stand your ground. It’s worth it. And, you are not alone.
Even the best intentioned person can be stuck. As much as I am mindful about how I am in the classroom and with kids, I was the opposite in coaching. It took time, but once I realized it, there was no option other than to evolve for the kids. Next year’s team will need a different approach.
Teaching is the exact same way. We must listen to our kids, value them and where they are coming from, be willing to teach to them, and be willing to evolve in order to meet those needs and goals.
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