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?