Happy New Year

As many of our readers go back to school or have children going back to school, we want to wish you all the best for a fantastic year. This week, we posted about the first day in an elementary school classroom and a high school classroom. Read more below for Tom Mooney’s perspective on a new year.


I have a daughter going into 2nd grade this year.  She’s excited, like most.  Actually, the other night, she got her folder ready–her pencil case supplied, and put everything in a backpack near the front door.  ‘Ready’ she said.  School is still a week and a half away.  Saturday night and she was fully preparing herself.  That kinda excitement is hard to match, but I think we do.

The beginning of the school year is great.  It’s the newness, the perfect.  It’s just out of the wrapper–shining, glossy, full of possibility.

We expect, each year, to change in some dramatic fashion(s).  It’s, in a way, a second New Year’s Resolution period for parents, professionals, and students alike.  For me, I change but I don’t change.  Each year the school year begins and I am filled with new ideas, personal goals, ‘creativer’ lesson plans. It starts out well. I think it’s like this for most anyone with most anything.  A new organizational system, the first day of a new job, just about anything you can imagine.  This is my 15th first day on the job.  The summer, as mentioned in an earlier post, brings the profession back to a kind of zero before ramping up again.  In that way, the new year is like a first year–new students as coworkers, new systems and challenges, new mandates and management protocols.  It’s refreshing to be in a profession that offers such a managed fresh start. It’s equally refreshing for a student, parent, player, or coach to have that new beginning when anything seems possible.

Each coach, parent, child feels the possibility of a new year.  It’s still okay to tell ourselves that this year will be the best one yet.

The Teacher Olympics

Let the Games Begin

The world is in Olympic withdrawal.  But rest easy, you will not need to wait four years before the Tokyo Olympics once again has you engrossed in a preliminary heat of an event you previously did not know existed rooting for a competitor whose country you previously did not know existed.

It is no coincidence that this withdrawal, this void is filled with—that’s right—the strategically-scheduled Teacher Olympics.  A surprise to many, NBC did not see it “fiscally responsible” to fork over millions for the television rights for their airing.  Below you’ll find a primer for the games.

Cell phone chuck: Competitors must extract a Nokia phone from a student pre-occupied in a snap story and launch said Nokia phone down a 14-foot wide hallway.  Think hammer-throw, but lighter and with more shattering.

Olympic record: While no teacher can compare with the great Dries Feremans, Finish educator Erno Rautio threw a Nokia 309 feet; if not for some ill-placed art hanging from a drop ceiling, some say it could have gone an easy 350. Cell phone chuckers from the ‘90s insist if their era’s phones “didn’t weigh as much as a college nose tackle” that they would have broken the 400 foot mark easily.

Xerox Dash: Simulating the last-minute revelation that a handout is needed for class that’s about to begin, the teacher dashes through the hall, weaving in and out of student traffic to make a set of 30 two-sided copies in the copy room and sprint back to the classroom.  The course includes stairs and sometimes an unanticipated line at the copier or, God forbid, a jam in tray 3.

Olympic record: A controversial one, indeed.  It was a fast course in the ’88 Games (read: no copier line, no toner replacement required, few students in the hallway) when Carl Brooks (the school’s cross-country coach) ran a 49.67 Xerox Dash.  Skeptics suspect doping, with allegations of him consuming 3-4 cups of coffee before the historic run.

Paper distribution hurdles: The competitor must distribute a handout to 30 individual desks.  Child’s play, an event in which even the greenest student-teacher could excel.  But the hurdles—10-15 backpacks and musical instruments are intermittently placed about the room requiring the competitor—in dress shoe, mind you—to clear the obstructions.  Fastest time wins.

Olympic record: Gail “Devers” Jenkins, 12.61 seconds.  Coming off a sprained ankle suffered while wearing an ill-advised stiletto in a preliminary heat, Gail’s switch to a pump in the 1984 Paper Distribution Hurdles gained her a gold medal and an Olympic record that made the multitude of paper cuts worthwhile.

Paper distribution steeplechase: Standard rules of the Paper Distribution Hurdles apply with a couple of heightened challenges.  The obstacles of backpacks and musical instruments still exist, but you will find competitors hurdling flutes, clarinets, or piccolos in the steeplechase.  Think, violas and tubas.  Climbing atop cases is common.  On the other side of the bulky instruments is a spilled liquid—coffee, water, Monster Energy drink—which competitors have to step through.

Olympic record: Overcoming the residual film on the bottom of his Sebago Docksides from a spilled Venti Latte, Bob Dunder slogged his way to a gold in the ’72 Games in Seattle with a time of 32.49.  Mr. Dunder, to this day, wears those same Docksides.  Some students say in a quiet hallway when the ventilation fans aren’t making much noise, if you listen closely you can still hear the suction noise of ceramic tile grasping at the spilled Latte of the ’72 Games on his shoe bottoms.

Paper Stack and Carry: No event captures strength and agility the way the Paper Stack and Carry does.  This event forces competitors to collect a day’s worth of essays, homework assignments, and classwork (some experts estimate this to weigh as much as 47 kg.), take the paperwork home (not grade it, though that’s being redundant), and return it to school the next day.  The return to school requires the competitor to not only lug the unmarked stack from car to classroom but to do so while dodging busses, carpool minivans, and cars of newly licensed drivers.  Technical difficulty additives: carrying a hot beverage, using a key or card to enter the building, and navigating stairs.

Olympic record: Guy Schemansky, a 7th grade life sciences teacher at Kennedy Middle School, once hoisted a set of 118 poorly-written, barely legible lab reports from his ’97 Ford Taurus to his 3rd floor greenhouse on a day in which minivan drop off traffic was particularly high due to science fair project submission.  What has analysts still raving about the feat is that he did this while holding a 44 ounce, Big Thirsty from the local 7-11.  When asked how he was able to swipe his card to get into the building, the ever-humble Mr. Schemansky deflected credit, “I couldn’t have done it without the lanyard…and these New Balances.”

Faculty Meeting Ultramarathon: This endurance test makes the Badwater Ultramarathon look like the local Thanksgiving Turkey Trot.  Teachers are corralled to a non-descript, windowless meeting area littered with AV equipment from a bygone era.  It’s May.  It’s after school.  And there are 16 agenda items, plus a guest presenter.  Competitors are told, “It will be short” but they all know that’s a lie.  Competitors must endure.  Judges will deduct for the following: dozing off (-1.0); appearing overly interested (-0.5 per infraction), appearing too disinterested (-.5 for looking at phone or doodling, up to -2.0 for reading an unfolded newspaper), stomach grumbling (-0.5—poor snack management is like a dehydrated marathoner), and asking a question (-4.5).

Olympic record: Mary Alice Crammel scored a perfect 0 in the 2004 Games.  She explains: “Ya know, I had a piece of cake from the faculty room on my hall duty that day, and I think that’s what propelled me.  I wasn’t hungry.  And when Dr. Vandersleeves went into the details of the Severe Weather Drill procedures on agenda item #6, I just zoomed in on the cat poster affixed to the wall behind him.  You know, the one where the kitty is dangling from the tree by a paw, and it reads, ‘Hang in there’?  I guess I did.  I knew I had it won when Mr. Anderson asked for clarification of what constituted “severe weather.”

Hey…YOU! In this competition, a student from at least seven years back enters the classroom of their unsuspecting former teacher.  The returning student must have gained at least 15 pounds from their high school days; must have an altered hairstyle and/or color; the addition of facial hair is required for all returning male students, the addition of facial hair is optional for returning female students.  Within five seconds the teacher/competitor must produce the first name.  Responses such as, “Hey, YOU!” “Hey, girl!” “Hey, m’man!” “What’s up, my brother?” will earn no points.

Olympic record: In real-life, probably Rich Schall (Court and Classroom writers Dan and Mike’s dad).  Mr. Schall had the uncanny ability to see a former student in a grocery store aisle, pause with a furrowed brow and index finger extending from his chin to the tip of his nose, as he rummaged through his temporal lobe before giving the former student his name, graduating year, and the names of fellow classmates.  Like any parent, the names of his three sons ironically were/are often used interchangeably.

The First Day of School, Part 2

A peek inside a secondary classroom

This is the second in a two-part post on day one of the school year.  Yesterday, Karen Amoscato wrote about day one for her first graders; Karen establishes comfort, care, and patience making students feel welcomed in their second home.  Today, Dan Schall–an AP Psychology and American History teacher–will give readers a peek into a high school classroom.  

1 Calendar

First days, first impressions matter.  In a study cited by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, Nalini Ambady explored just how little time students needed to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness.  Her study found remarkably that students needed only two seconds of muted videotape to come to the same evaluative conclusions of students who had the teacher for an entire semester.  Just two seconds.  This study always serves as a reminder for me of day one’s importance.  And it usually keeps me up late on School Eve.

There are many ways to do a first day.  As I walk down the hallway on opening day, many talented teachers are kicking things off in many different ways; this is guided by a number of factors, including subject matter, teacher personality, and classroom goals.  I don’t possess the formula.  But I know I do things better than I used to do.

These are my goals/key words (in no particular order) for the first day: do, minimize, peek, interact, meet.

Do: “Do” is the overarching hope of the first day.  While there are procedural requirements, I don’t want day one to be an inauthentic experience that fails to reflect what goes on in class.  First days tend to be very passive experiences for students at the secondary level—sit, get a book, here are the rules, more rules, this is what we will be doing (but not today…someday).  It’s enough for any student to want to go kicking and screaming back into summer vacation.  Each discipline is unique, but I try to have the students “do” in their first class period.  For psychology, this often takes the form of an activity/demonstration with reflection; in history, this might mean document (a quote, a short writing, lyrics, or a picture) analysis.  Seek activity; minimize passivity.

Minimize: Words are necessary (though Depeche Mode may disagree), but students’ learning and enjoyment is not directly related to the number of words I speak as a teacher.  While a syllabus is needed and often required at the secondary-level, reading the syllabus to the students yields a retention rate of about 2% (+/- 2%).  Sure, distribute it; make sure that it reads clearly; highlight a point or two or three—then have them file it away for reference (read: snap it in a binder never to be seen again).   Seating, another typical first day procedure, can be made more efficient with a posted chart or names on the desks; this can minimize words and wasted minutes allowing more time for the…

Peek: I teach AP Psychology and American History.  Even the sharpest students have only an idea or a misconception of what psychology will be about: “Uh, the brain or disorders or something.”  I’ve learned that most history students’ conceptions of “history” have amalgamated into an odd mix of Incas, Aztecs, Declaration of Independence, World War II, and Eli Whitney.  I’m excited to peek at what the courses are about.  A good movie trailer is quick, it excites, it raises interest; I attempt to do the same for the content of the courses that I’m teaching.

Interact: Every group of students has a distinct “feel” to it. The size of the class, the personalities of the individual students, the students’ familiarity with one another, the presence of the teacher, and time of the day (pre- or post-cafeteria chicken patty)—all of these are factors which contribute to the feel.  I attempt to make my class a place where students want to be.  Key to belonging is getting to know and being comfortable with fellow students.  Paired and three-person activities that require interaction are a part of day one; I want students to know that this is a place where their voices will be used and are heard.  No, they won’t know all of their classmates after a day but such activities compounded over time can help to develop a community.

Meet: I, too, am part of the interactions.  I try to meet each kid.  This year, this means meeting 152 students over the course of six class periods.  I meet them at the door—no name retention here, just a welcome to establish a tone and a relationship.  At some point in class on the first day, I will have them complete a questionnaire.  As their heads are down, either trying to remember how to use a pencil or typing the responses on a computer, I am feverishly associating names and faces in my head.  I usually have them after 5 minutes.

I’d love to peek into your classroom.  Classrooms can be isolated places and often, aside from stealing a peek into a room on a walk-by, we don’t know what is going on elsewhere.  All readers would benefit from teachers who would be willing to comment below on what works on day one.  

The First Day of School

A peek inside a first-grade classroom

This is a two-day, two-part post on the topic of the first day of school.  We thought it would be useful for new and veteran teachers alike (and parents of school-aged children) to get a “peek” inside the classroom.  Certainly the first day of school for a senior is different from that of a first grader.  Today, we are honored to have 1st grade teacher-extraordinaire Karen Amoscato guest post; Mrs. Amoscato is the type of teacher you’re thrilled that your children get to have—my wife and I know from experience as she taught our older two sons. My appreciation for Karen grew when I once organized a birthday party for 76 first graders—oh wait, my wife tells me there were only 6. It sure seemed like 76.  I left the fourteen-hour birthday party—wait, it was only an hour and a half—demanding that elementary teachers start earning the salaries commonly seen in professional sports.  So what is it like to teach a class of first-graders on their first day of school?  Karen gives us a glimpse into her classroom…and her heart…and takes us all back to first grade.  –Dan Schall

Karen Amoscato classroom

As a seasoned early childhood educator beginning my twenty-fifth year of teaching, the beginning of school marks a new beginning filled with hope, excited anticipation and a few butterflies in my stomach. Enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee will be replaced by slurping a quick cup in the morning at school, taking long daily walks will be replaced by shorter quicker ones, and reading for pleasure will be replaced with designing lessons for my new first grade friends. Or perhaps, I need to take a step back for a moment and realize that childhood and life is indeed a journey and not a race. A journey is about perspective.

The following steps are taken to ensure a successful first day within the first grade classroom:

  • Helping them find their desk: This is very special for them since this is the first time that they have their own special place to put their supplies, books, and folders within a classroom.
  • Showing them how to check in, including how to complete their lunch count: Most students are coming from a half-day kindergarten program so eating lunch at school followed by recess every day is novel and probably what first graders look forward to the most! This is beyond exciting for them. If they haven’t packed their lunch, they will have seven (yes, seven) different options to buy each day. Not only do I read and reread the choices, but often I have to show them a photo of General Tso’s Chicken, BBQ Ribby and Ravioli. My favorite is having other students attempt to explain Walking Taco. It will be many weeks before this gets easier, but it will. My very favorite story about lunch occurred last year on the first day. After a solid 25 minutes, I thought I had lunch finalized, but then noticed one student hadn’t put a slip in his lunch check-in pocket. I called his name and he said, “Well, Teacher, how long are we going to be here? I certainly wasn’t planning to stay for lunch!”
  • Unpacking their supplies: They have carefully shopped and chosen their markers, crayons, Twistable pencils and they are their treasured items. They want and need to know where they will be safely stored.
  • Showing them where they will hang up their backpacks: while also checking their bus slip with the bus information that I have for them. Making SURE that I know how they are getting home is MOST IMPORTANT. If there is a discrepancy, I am on it immediately.
  • Reading several stories about starting school: One of my favorites is First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg. It’s clever, humorous and lends itself to a great discussion about how we feel about starting a new school year in first grade!
  • Drawing a self-portrait that I will keep until the last day of school to show them how much they have grown this year.
  • Describing their summer photo to the class and writing about it: I also keep this until the last day of school to show them how much their writing has improved this year.
  • Engaging the students in several “Think, Pair, Share” activities so they begin to meet their fellow classmates.
  • Playing several name games, usually involving catching a ball and tossing it to another classmate to learn the names of those they do not know.
  • Graphing how many girls and boys we have in our 1B family: This is the first of many “Getting to Know You” graphs that we will complete the first few weeks of school.
  • Discussing the importance of school rules and beginning to create a list that they think our class should follow. Once the list is agreed upon, the students will sign it.
  • Touring the building–especially the cafeteria which will be a new endeavor this year.
  • Showing them where the restrooms are and how to use the electronic faucets and how to flush the toilets ☺
  • Practicing a fire drill: we will have one the second or third day, so this will help to alleviate some uncertainty and anxiety for the students.
  • Showing them where their particular bus lines are in preparation for the end of the day.
  • Engaging in frequent brain breaks: a full day of school is going to be quite an adjustment for some of my friends. I predict that I may be asked countless times beginning at 9:15, “When is lunch?” and “Is it almost time to go home?”
  • Making sure that they have felt important, have laughed, and have enjoyed the day enough to want to return tomorrow!

You may have read my notes above and realized that our first day sounds not only like a race, but a marathon. In reality, we will not accomplish all of these goals on the first day of school. In fact, we may only accomplish a few, if we’re lucky. The fact is, that it is on the first day where I relearn all over again that life is a journey. Childhood is delicate. It takes persistence. It takes passion. It takes patience. My students are intelligent beings because they have already taught me this lesson before even entering our room! You can run a race in a single day, but building relationships takes trust and trust takes time. Time? What time? If you just look at the face of a child and exchange a simple smile, you, my friend, will always find the time. Time to listen. Time to love and time to learn.  We have all year to accomplish our goals. Let us begin.

–Karen Amoscato

3rd Place Matters

This is a continuation from last year’s ______________ Matters series.  Previous posts in the series are linked at the end of today’s post.

walsh_ross_3rd place matters

3rd place matters. And not only does it matter, it should be celebrated.   Many ex-players/sports analysts have redefined the sole measurement of success to be championships or “rings.”  The phrase “2nd place is the first loser” has regrettably found its way to shirts, hats, bumper stickers, and mud flaps, narrowing success’s definition.  Personally, the most asked question in a number of state semifinal losses that I’ve experienced as a coach is “What happened?”  The common reaction: “Aww, I’m really sorry.”

Now let me pause here: celebrating third place does not make me or others who share this sentiment any less the competitor.  We want to win; we’ll put everything that we have into winning.  And that’s just it: putting forth everything we have to be the best that we can be.  Sometimes that ends in gold, sometimes in silver, sometimes bronze, and sometimes nothing at all.

But back to celebrating third place.  This past Olympics gave us incredible examples of this.  Swimmer Nathan Adrian combatted the familiar sentiment after finishing third in the 100 meter freestyle.  A seemingly letdown and perplexed reporter asked, “What happened out there?” as if something went clearly wrong for Adrian.  His response: “I can’t be unhappy with a bronze medal.”  And it was pretty hard not to be a Cody Miller fan after he touched the wall third in the 100 meter breaststroke.  As his clenched fist punched the air, the NBC microphones picked up “YES…YES…YES!” as he splashed about in lane 5.  A congratulatory five to gold medalist Adam Peaty followed.  Then “wooooooooo!” a guttural exaltation made from equal parts joy, exhilaration, and satisfaction.  And another “wooo.”  And a couple more for good measure.  His post-swim pool side interview led with the words, “So happy” punctuated by a joyous laugh.  3rd place.

And what happens when the ultimate champion finishes third?  Kerri Walsh-Jennings never had lost an Olympic beach volleyball match.  Never.  24-0, a streak spanning four Olympic Games, until the Brazilian team of Barbara Seixas Agatha Bednarczuk defeated them in a match to which adjectives cannot do justice.  Walsh-Jennings and her partner April Ross not only exhibited grace in defeat, they battled back in the bronze medal match to defeat Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes: 3rd place.  Kerri Walsh-Jennings kicked societal notions of third place disappointment to the curb while on the medal stand.  It’s tough for me to say what I love most about this moment: the evident bond she has with her doubles partner April Ross, the gratitude she shows to the woman who presented her with her medal, or the part where she shows her medal off to the silver and gold medalists awaiting theirs.  One word describes the scene, the same word she had printed on her hand throughout the tournament: JOY.

Walsh-Jennings and Ross inspired other Olympians.  After a tough semifinal loss to Serbia, Christa Harmotto-Dietzen captain of the US Women’s Volleyball Team reflected in a Facebook post: “But we had a great example set for us. Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross responded really well after their semifinal loss so we plan to take that same approach.”  And they did, winning the Bronze.

The men’s volleyball team, led by aging veteran Reid Priddy who came off the bench to spark a comeback from an 0-2 deficit against Russia, exhibited the same fight to claim their spot on the medal stand.

3rd place matters and it should be celebrated.  Thank you, Nathan Adrian, Cody Miller, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, and April Ross, and the men’s and women’s volleyball teams for putting this on full display.

Past ________________ Matters posts

Let’s be Trammells

This house is your house

Alan Trammel

John Smoltz—8-time All-Star and 1996 National League Cy Young Award winner—was inducted in the Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2015.  In Smoltz’s speech he recalled his first experience in major league baseball; his anecdote provides a lesson to us all.

Smoltz’s first taste of the bigs came in 1985.  A 22nd round pick of the Detroit Tigers, the Michigan native Smoltz spent 35 days with the club in August and September of that year getting a taste of what the pros experienced.  On that Detroit Tigers team was Alan Trammell, an established star who by this point in his illustrious career had already won four Gold Gloves and three All-Star selections.  Simply put, Trammell was a star; Smoltz was a nobody.

Smoltz recalls his first interaction as an 18 year-old kid in his July, 2015 Hall of Fame speech: “I remember sitting in the locker room at Tiger Stadium, a fish out of water, scared to death. And a Hall of Famer in my mind, a guy that I will never forget in making the first impression in my big league career, Alan Trammell came up to me and said, ‘Hi, I am Alan Trammell. Anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask. This house is your house.’”

At this point in time, John Smoltz was not Hall of Famer John Smoltz; he was a-few-months-out-from-being-high-school-player John Smoltz.  It made no difference to Trammell; they were equals.

Smoltz continued to reflect on that interaction, “It was as if he gave me a baton and said now pay this forward every chance you can, because this game has a chance to impact a lot of people.”

To you, the veteran teacher, the varsity player, to you, the one who has lived in the neighborhood or gone to the church for years; to you, the veteran coach…let’s be Trammells.  Let’s reach out to the new kid, the new hire, the new neighbor.  This house is their house too.

Welcome Back to Court and Classroom

Season 2

We are back for Season 2 of Court and Classroom, and we’d like to use this introductory post as a starting point for our year.  Last September, we launched Court and Classroom—a site whose aim is to inspire teachers, coaches, and parents in building up young people.  Through our posts and social media interaction, we were able to connect with thousands of people—teachers, parents, students, coaches, volleyball fans, and readers in general.  We hope to continue to develop the Court and Classroom community this year as our year—and many school years—get under way.

Few professions abruptly move from 0 miles per hour to 110 miles per hour like the profession of teaching does.  Yes, there tends to be some summer responsibility—planning, curriculum writing perhaps, professional development, maybe coaching—those things happen during the summer lives of some teachers.  But so do snooze buttons, Netflix, golf courses (so we’re told), and, yes, completely non-scripted days.  Depending on when the opening school bell sounds, days will soon (if not already) be packed and “spare” minutes will be filled with cramming, grading, re-designing activities, squeezing in a trip to the bathroom, and letter of recommendation writing.   Like a treadmill that has just been sped up, the speed adjustment isn’t realized immediately.  “This isn’t so fast,” one prematurely thinks before the treadmill belt calibrates to the entered speed of the school year.  But as the belt settles into its “real speed,” the frame is shaking, legs are flying, bodies are leaning, hands are grasping at the treadmill’s side rails for support.  And so it is with the school year.  Before you read this as a teacher-as-martyr post, let me be the first to say, IT IS A BEAUTIFUL RIDE, A BEAUTIFULLY CRAZY JOURNEY filled with the potential for creativity, relationships, appreciation, growth, and the intriguing unknown.  We want to be with you, to support you on the journey.  Thank you for reading.

We would love your help in spreading word of our site.  If you know some people who you think would enjoy what we write, will you let them know?  We’re accessible through our site and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  Again, thank you.

The Writers at C&C

Resolution Kept

It’s June, and we’ve kept at least one New Year’s resolution.  Maybe it was because this resolution didn’t require eating healthy foods, working out, or cutting back on impulsive Amazon purchases.  Maybe it was easier because it wasn’t something that benefitted us, rather it was intended to be a gift to others.  Most likely, it worked because a group of 13-year-olds thought it was a good idea, and their youthful idealistic enthusiasm was the perfect antidote to the adult rationalizing that causes us to forget good intentions.

All the way back in January, inspired by a Ben Rector song about getting to know the people who drove him to various concert venues (“The Men That Drive Me Places”), our team resolved to get to know the people who make it possible for us to travel and play club volleyball (Read the blog post: “A Different Kind of Resolution”) .

We spent the season meeting, talking with, and offering genuine appreciation to bus drivers, hotel staff, flight attendants, other team’s coaches, convention center cleaning crews, musicians, and restaurant hosts, cooks and servers.

And, we discovered two important things along the way.

The first was that people always responded.  Far from dismissing the expression of gratitude as simply a habit from youngsters trained to be polite, they were sincerely appreciative of being recognized and thanked.  One gentleman cleaning a convention center in Washington D.C. late at night responded to our gratitude by saying cheerfully, “Thanks for the work!”  A musician at a Dallas restaurant who favored Cat Stevens, and was surprised that a few youngsters had never heard of the Beatles, gave a baritone rendition of a Taylor Swift song just so the team could sing along.  Each person the team thanked stopped his or her work of driving, serving, or cleaning to gracefully and thoughtfully accept the expression of gratitude.  It mattered to them, every time.

The second lesson was a reminder that while coaching and playing volleyball is relatively small and insignificant in the big picture of the world, there is also something really important and hopeful about what we do.  We were reminded of this by a wonderful, sweet woman working at an Atlanta hotel who wouldn’t let the team leave to catch their flight without hugging them at least 3 times each, and making them promise that they would stay in touch with her and let her know how the rest of the season went for “her babies.”

Each of us does our work, hopeful that it makes a difference to someone, no matter the magnitude.  By taking a moment to have a conversation and offer thanks, we discovered that people were happy to know that their efforts counted.  There is great joy and love in what we get to do in sports and in forming young people, and this season taught us that it’s a gift that can, and should, be shared with everyone we meet on the journey.

They deserve to know that they are important.

The best resolutions are the ones that don’t have to be made every year.  The best resolutions change you simply by trying them, and then you discover that you don’t want to be any other way.  Those are the resolutions that become a part of you, and I’m grateful to a special group of 13-year-olds who taught me a lesson about how important gratitude truly is.

Thank you.

Here is a video that Triangle 13 Black put together documenting this journey:

-Jason Curtis

Pomp & Circumstance

Graduation season witnesses a number of transitions in high schools: textbooks turn to yearbooks, the slumber of senioritis gives way to unbridled optimism, regimentation gives way to freedom, and monotony takes a backseat to nostalgia.  The emerging forces combine at commencement ceremonies across the country when cap-and-gowned students experience one final shared evening.

I love the ceremonies.  I love “Pomp & Circumstance”; I love that a former principal annually called it “Pomp & Circumstances” (plural); I love the sentimentality; I love the kid who hadn’t said a word and sometimes didn’t breathe in class greets you with, “Mr. Schall!  You were the man! Loved your class”; (I was?  He did?)   I love the hope; I love the clean slate.  And I love the speeches—often laced with platitudes, canned jokes about shared school drudgery, limitless hope, bold visions, and occasionally brave originality.  I love them all, admittedly some more than others.

The commencement speech that I have loved the best was actually not selected by a panel that chooses the speakers at our graduation ceremony.   Elizabeth George is one of the finest writers whom I have had the pleasure of teaching.  There is an ease and a precision in her words that flows naturally and seemingly effortlessly.  In the spirit of the best commencement speeches, here is Elizabeth George’s Commencement Speech to the Class of 2013.

North Allegheny Class of 2013 Graduation Speech

Elizabeth George

It’s hot. At this point, you’re probably impatient to get out of here, to get out of those heels that stopped being bearable half an hour ago or that tie that’s encroaching on your windpipe. You’re antsy to beat the traffic and go inhale some Rita’s. So you fidget and stealthily glance at your watch. But if I may borrow your attention from the ever-fascinating minute-hand, I promise you brevity.

Time itself is a concept that will forever elude us. We measure its passing as if it were reducible to quantity, yet so often an hour drags on for days, while summer months evaporate in minutes. Somewhere between the first week of Kindergarten and the last week of finals, we blinked. And now it’s over. The end is bittersweet; it’s a bliss that stings as you swallow. Our previous selves revel in a string of moments, memories for which we flailed about, desperate to grasp on before they fled our sieves of recollection.

We have spent our lives in a constant state of anticipation, eagerly awaiting the next milestone and frantically searching Ross Park Mall for the right dress in which to hurdle it. Sometimes, we get so caught up in our expectations of life’s rites of passage that we forget to experience them. So stop. For a second, just stop. Take this feeling, this wholeness of joy, this pride in yourself, in your classmates, in your siblings, in your sons and daughters, and linger in it. Let it build and burn through every inch of your existence. Let it swell and deafen you with its immensity. Let it radiate from your fingertips and spill from your pores. Take the pang of nostalgia and the rush of relief and submit to the sensation.

Revel in right now, in the fleeting finality of this instant. Because the next time you feel this way, you’ll likely be exchanging vows or reading a little blue plus sign. This very second is the culmination of mud-pancaked shins after sweaty practices, tear-streaked cheeks after a week of the integral packet, shower drains clogged by Friday night’s glitter and body paint, the perils of parallel parking, awkward first kisses, minimum wage, messy break ups, mental breakdowns, SATs, and QPAs. Somehow, we survived high school, and our parents survived us. Every ounce of joy in this life demands to be earned, and I assure you, each one of you deserves it.

In this instant, you are the epitome of potential. Another blink and we’ll find ourselves cast into the real world. Pour yourselves into today. Look at the eagerness sitting next to you. Not just to find solace in some air conditioning but to start this terrifying and wonderful newness of life after North Allegheny. Realize that you may never see some of these faces again. The smiles you took for granted in the hallway, the kids who set the curve and drove you to work harder. Cling to their presence while we’re together for the last time. Take more pictures than Instagram can handle. Cry despite your mascara. Laugh yourselves empty. Hug everyone. This youth ripens while we consider our futures and get whiplash watching memories sprint by. We risk planning the next 30 years instead of living them.

The only thing time guarantees us is that it will pass. The minute-hand’s next lap around your watch will not amount to this one. So please, let these hours consume you.

A post-script: The North Allegheny commencement ceremony was held on a Friday night that year.  The boys’ volleyball team, which I coach, was playing in the Pennsylvania state championship at Penn State University the next day.  After the ceremony, the team—including eight freshly-graduated seniors—boarded the bus for the trip to State College.  Somewhere on the journey, I found myself at the back of the bus with seniors gathered, glowing in the moment and hopeful for both the immediate and distance futures.  It seemed like an appropriate time for people to hear Elizabeth’s speech—my favorite graduation speech.

-Dan Schall

“What if…” Takes Perseverance

In Mike Schall’s inspiring and challenging post he asks, “What if” we focused on the truly important things while coaching the young people entrusted to our care?  There’s not much to disagree with in his post because it’s easy to imagine the tremendous benefits to our athletes, teams and schools if we coached in a way that exemplified and encouraged the highest character.

So then, why don’t we do it?

Because the downside of “what if” includes the risk of being ignored, misunderstood, criticized and ostracized.  You will have athletes who think you don’t care enough about winning and that you can’t help them succeed, parents who believe that you aren’t adequately recognizing and rewarding the superstars, and coaching colleagues who will ignore or reject you for being apparently unsuccessful, preachy and unorthodox.

So then, how can we do it?

Change is initiated by challenges, but is accomplished with perseverance.

For coaches who want to be successful in changing the way they influence their athletes and community, it’s important to establish habits and support systems that will help us persevere through opposition and discouragement.

Change the definition of success

Society has defined success in athletics as “winning” because it’s visible, measurable, and indisputable.  The scoreboard tells me if it was a good day or not, my playing time indicates what my coach thinks of me, and my child’s accolades reflect my parenting skills.

Abstract ideas like “effort,” “improvement,” “fairness,” and “gratitude” need to be concretized into actionable, quantifiable goals.  List specific behaviors that exemplify the characteristics you want to see in your program and articulate them clearly.  Finally, incentivize players and coaches by rewarding and celebrating accomplishments in those areas.  Until we celebrate the efforts of the last person on the bench, a team service project, or 5th assistant coach just as much (and hopefully more) than an MVP award or state championship, nobody will believe that winning isn’t the most important thing.

Repeat goals

Character goals are under constant pressure by the questions we asked every day: “Did you win?” “Who have you beaten?” “Are you a starter?” “Do you have a good coach?” (meaning: do they win a lot?) “How many of your players have gotten scholarships?”  Don’t underestimate the cumulative power of these common questions in distracting coaches from what is most important.

Once appropriate goals are defined, they need to be revisited daily.  Most coaches talk about team chemistry, values and sportsmanship at the beginning of the season, and then every day after is measured according to the scoreboard.  Worse, we often point out the character flaws of our team only when we’re struggling or losing (which probably says more about our own deficiencies as a coach).  If our team can’t serve into the court, then we work on it in practice.  If we struggle finding the right lineup, we test it out in scrimmages.  Yet, we don’t often practice how we coach our bench players, a player who makes a mistake, dealing with mistakes, or how to treat an official who is having a difficult game.

Without daily measurement of progress toward the most important goals, it’s easy to forget about them until the start of the next season.

Be purposeful

There’s much that we do simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.  Practice starts with serve and pass, and finishes with a scrimmage.  Coaches challenge their team when they play poorly, and we celebrate when we’re winning.  Starters are replaced mainly when they struggle, and players follow the team policies because there are consequences for breaking the rules.

Instead, let’s organize practices, behave at competition, and create and enforce policies all around the purpose of reinforcing the best character within our team.  That might mean a starter doesn’t get certain benefits, even if she feels that she “deserves” them.  We might spend more time cleaning a gym than making sure we got a sufficient warmup or made it to dinner on time.  We might not be able to review as much video or give as much feedback, because we decided to devote a portion of practice to identifying selfless behavior in teammates and coaches.

Don’t put something in a practice plan or policy, unless it directly reinforces these authentic and worthwhile goals.  If you’re not sure why you do it … don’t.

Find mentors

Coach Schall named a wonderful group of coaches who quietly, but consistently, demonstrate the coaching characteristics we would want influencing our own children (I would include his name at the beginning of that list).  Do we go to their coaching clinics?  Have we called them and asked about how they form character, selflessness and generosity in their players?  Can we convince them to give us an hour over a cup of coffee to encourage us to persevere?

Their humility means they won’t self-identify as advisors, but their selflessness makes them perfect as mentors.  Finding and approaching these mentors provides valuable advice and insight, encourages you with the knowledge that there are coaches who are successful in the best ways, and helps us reorganize the hierarchy of competing priorities.  Mentors are better than managers at keeping us thinking about the big picture, and they’re usually more compassionate about the necessary struggle to be successful in the long term.

Peer Accountability

Teams often share their goals publicly: conference and state championships, statistical accomplishments, or getting a bid to nationals.  It’s helpful to share goals because others will keep you accountable, and it helps define what is important to your program.

We need to be even more willing to share our goals for character, encouraging others to hold us accountable.  Do the teachers at your school know what goals your team has for behavior and effort on campus?  Do the parents know the specific expectations for personal responsibility and gratitude in your program?  Do assistant coaches know how we will measure successful guidance of our players?  Do referees know what standards of conduct you have established for yourself and your captains?

It’s intimidating to publicize goals, because you risk embarrassment if you don’t meet them.  But there’s a reason why we need a workout partner, a year-end review, or a friend who is willing to tell us if we have food stuck in our teeth, even if we’re not necessarily appreciative at the time.  Without the gift of that honest feedback, it can be too easy to rationalize a failure to act appropriately.  The most important feedback shouldn’t be the loss of a game; it should be when a peer points out when we haven’t lived up to the personal standards we coaches want to maintain.

“What if…” doing the right thing meant that we did so at a personal and professional cost?  It just might mean that we are doing it correctly … and that it’s actually worth doing.

-Jason Curtis