I’ve recently started playing soccer again after a fourteen-year hiatus. It’s ridiculously hard: My feet don’t always remember the right way to dribble, the right way to pass, or the right way to trap. Sometimes my legs work and my head doesn’t; other times, the head works and the feet don’t. Sometimes neither work…and then it’s time for the bench.
To help my reacquaintance with the sport I once loved, I started attending a weekly soccer skills clinic. A soccer coach walks us through drills, scrimmages, and games of keep away. He gives us pointers on defensive maneuvers, making the offensive triangle, and positioning our feet properly for maximum impact and control in a pass, shot, or trap. Now, I am not a natural athlete. Far from it. In high school, I worked really hard to be a decent player, trying to take in my coach’s suggestions all the time in the hopes of improving. So this soccer skills clinic is both desperately needed and dauntingly hard.
Take the other day: Brian was watching me pass during a drill. I’ve got a lot of force and good control, most of the time, but I’m not sure what happens the rest of the time. Apparently Bryan does, though. He stopped me, explaining that once I hit the ball, I stopped my foot. No follow through. Bad for the knees, bad for control. Try to follow through. The next few passes, I tried. But Brian kept telling me the same thing. And then again during our scrimmage: Brian was coaching us, reminding us to move on the ball, look for the open angles, and make sure the first touch is controlled. I was trying–really trying–to do all of these things, but I was still making mistakes. And Brian kept repeating the same directions, offering the same coaching advice. After an hour of practice, I wanted to shout out in frustration, “Ugh! Enough already! Can’t you see that I’m trying my best?!”
The thing is, after six weeks of soccer skills training, I’ve gotten much better. And during our games, I hear Brian’s voice in my head: “Follow through. Make the first touch count. Move on the ball. Give and go.” It’s a lot for me to process–and I’m really only a mediocre player–but I hear him. And I try. And I’m getting better. And I wish Bryan were there all the time to critique and coach, as frustrated as I may sometimes get with him.
The kind of coach that Brian is to me as a soccer player I want to be to my student teachers. I see my role as being to push them, to prod them, to try to get them to think about things that they might not have otherwise noticed. I know that they’re working hard and trying their best to be excellent teachers. Just like I’m running my little fanny off in a soccer game trying to do right by my team. I know that they are giving teaching their all and that they really are trying to reach and teach every child.
The thing is, though, that despite our best efforts, we all have blind spots. I had no idea I wasn’t following through on my passes. I just knew that sometimes they weren’t executed as planned. Now, when I am able to follow through, my pass goes where it’s supposed to.
As an athletic coach, I expect Brian to be forthright: There are right ways and wrong ways to accomplish what we need in a sport. Teaching is not so clean cut. So those blind spots in our practice–or the areas that we need to attend to or interrogate more–definitely need to be realized together, and they need to be negotiated and questioned and discussed collaboratively. Unlike Bryan, I can’t just issue directives to my student teachers about what they should and should not be doing. After all, my directives might not actually be right or appropriate.
But I can use my knowledge of my student teachers individually, of the developmental needs of beginning teachers generally, and of the contexts and problems of our schooling system overall to point them toward potential blind spots: Why is it that, in our predominantly white classrooms, it is the students of color that consistently make up our ‘special needs’ groups, and what are we personally doing that contributes to this? Why is it that parental involvement in our classroom continues to stratify along race and class lines, and what are we doing to change this? Can we admit–even just to ourselves–our pockets of deficit thinking? Are we scaffolding the social skills our children need (as well as the academic), or are we just expecting that they are able to behave in the “correct” way without actually teaching them how? Are we falling into the rut of using proscribed and scripted curricula, or are we striving to connect learning to authentic and relevant experiences and contexts? Are we thinking through the instructional methods we choose not only for the “bells and whistles” they add to a lesson but also for the specific ways that they further our learning objectives? Are we consistently trying to engage all our students in higher-order thinking, and not just reserving this for the kids that “get it”? Are we honestly trying to reach and teach every child, or are there some we’ve (however subconsciously) written off?
These are the tough questions, the questions that often get an, “Ugh, we know. We’re trying,” kind of a response. But these are the questions that beg repeating. And I ask these questions not to demean the hard work and thoughtfulness my student teachers are already putting into their practice, but to push them to be the best teachers they can be for all of their children. And just like I’ve started hearing Brian’s voice in my head when I’m in a game, I hope they’ll hear mine when they’re teaching.
And maybe, just maybe, those blind spots will become focal points. With a little follow-through, we might actually make it to where we’re trying to go.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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