(This is the opening day speech that I shared with my staff this year)So last year, my son Brady started playing football. Now, we have tried Brady in all sorts of team sports in the past, soccer, baseball, gymnastics, etc. but nothing ever stuck. And when I say that nothing ever stuck, I am not referring to his skills within the sport. Rather, I am talking about the bond and connection that he felt with the sport, the team and his teammates. He had never shown a real desire to go to the next practice, never got excited about game day and was definitely not sad to see the season end. That all changed with football.
I have shared before the experience I had with Brady at the end of the football season last year and how that made me feel as both his father and an educator. Brady, on his last day of practice last year, was filled with tears at the end of the football season and as his father I couldn’t have been happier. I was so pleased that he had made a real connection to both other adults in his coaches as well as to the kids on his team. He felt truly as a part of a community, something that had never happened outside his family or his classroom before. It was a huge step and I was so happy for just that.
As this football season began, I entered a little worried. It was some of the same coaches and other new ones, some of the same kids and other new ones. It was almost a year later. A year for him to forget how to play the game. A year to forget how to be a part of a team. A year to forget about being a part of a community. My worries grew when, at his first practice, he did not want to join a group of boys tossing a football around before the start of practice. He was anxious, telling me that he wasn’t sure if those kids were supposed to be doing that, that he wasn’t sure if they were Mites like him. Despite my best efforts to move him off this anxiety, and get him unstuck from his beliefs in that moment, he would not move. I started to think to myself, well last year was nice and maybe we can get back to that point by the end of the year, but we are going to have to start over…. Then the coach blew the whistle. Brady put on his helmet, ran out to join the group and joined right in on the first drill as if practices had never ended last fall.
I was blown away.
As the first two weeks of the football season progressed, I dropped Brady off at practice, and picked him up after. I asked how practice was, got the obligatory “good”, and asked if he was having fun… which he was. That was enough for me at the time because I didn’t know any better, didn’t know any more and was unconsciously limited his potential.
One day last week, I dropped Brady off and then went for a run. After finishing my run, I decided to go and watch some of his practice. As I watched the last hour of his practice, I noticed that Brady spent about 45 minutes either holding a blocking pad or sitting out. I started to think about why this was the case and started to develop theories in my head. As the practice continued, the theories honed into a belief that this new mix of coaches was making some assumptions about a kid with Autism and was limiting him and his participation based upon that. The longer I thought about it… long into that night… the more and more upset I got. It kept me up that night.
This attitude and belief system that blamed the coaches and their ignorance of my son’s needs carried into the next day. I approached the head coach at the start of the next practice and explained what I had seen and that, as I put it, his mother and I didn’t want Brady to be the team mascot, that he was capable of being coached and if they needed any help with better understanding him, I would be happy to help. As I sat and watched this practice I started feeling vindicated…. Like “Ha, I told them.” However, as the end of practice neared, I noticed the same pattern occurring where Brady was sitting off to the side as the team was practicing their plays for an upcoming scrimmage. I started to get angry again, I thought to myself, “How could they make assumptions like this about him?” “How could they predetermine his potential and use those predeterminations to set limits on him?” “He is 8 years old, no one knows what he is capable of?” And then it hit me…. Like a punch right in the chest.
I was getting mad at them, but I was blaming the wrong person. I started to ask myself some questions like, “What have you learned about football in order to help him be successful?” “How many practices did you watch last year?” “How many practices have you watched this year?” What have you learned about the fundamentals of football in order to help Brady practice and develop those skills?” “What have you thought about Brady’s potential to be a contributing member of the football team?” “How much have you invested getting to know something that he has shown passion about and understanding why he is passionate about it?” “How well have you gotten to know your own son in this area and how can you be upset with the coaches for not investing in your son the way you want them to, when you haven’t either?”
Woof! That was a tough moment.
I spent the next set of practices watching closely; listening to advice the coaches on all three teams were giving to the players on tackling techniques, proper hand positions when blocking, proper pre-snap stance, etc. Then I started to watch Brady in relation to what I was learning and ask him questions that were helping me get inside his understanding. I paid close attention to how Brady was performing against the criteria the coaches were establishing and then provided him with direct feedback after practice and gave him techniques to use to monitor himself during practice. The difference in his performance was almost instantaneous.
Now this is a nice story of fatherhood, but what does this have to do with our school and this coming year? This example from my life drove home a point for me; one that has been swimming around in my head since last spring. I have been thinking a lot for the past 5 to 6 months about how we as a school can best meet the needs of our kids. I have thought about this challenge in relation to our students’ academic success and growth as well as their social and emotional and behavioral growth.
Each year, we are faced with more and more complex challenges that our students and their surrounding environments present. So how, in a sea of information, theory, best practice and research do we determine the best way to meet the needs of the students in front of us? I argue that the best place to start is to just observe. The second our students walk with the door at the beginning of the year, we all feel a pressure to move them towards the exit. Whether it is pressure from the state, the district, me as the principal, parents, our own internal conscientious need to support student learning, we all feel this pressure to get to the learning. To start teaching; for if we are not teaching, we are not teachers.
I want to ask you to resist that initial urge at the beginning of this school year. I am challenging you all to become detectives. To learn all that you can about your students, before you jump into teaching them. And then I ask that you keep that curious, inquisitive, investigative attitude about your students all year. The gold standard for a detective is the fictional character Sherlock Holmes.
This year I want us, collectively, to better know our students. I challenge each of you to think about the information that you normally collect on your students and consider two things. First, how can I get to know my students in a way that I have never done before? What can I learn about them that would help me understand them as little people with wants, desires, hopes and dreams that I might be able to inspire and foster in my work with them? Second, how can I better organize this new information along with the information I normally collect so that it is helpful to me in my decisions? What new ways could I look at old information to better inform my work with students? How, like Sherlock Holmes, can I know what other people don’t know?
I argue that this small emphasis on observation can and will make a significant impact on our ability to meet the needs of our students more effectively and more efficiently. We all work so hard to best meet the needs of our students, but what if we are expending our energies in the wrong direction because we didn’t take enough time to question before jumping in? What if a small change in the way we get to know our kids is enough to make learning stick with some of our trickiest learners and actually make our lives easier? Can we find new ways to reach students and inspire them that we have not yet in our careers? Can we reach students that present challenges we have never seen before? Can we ensure each child in our school believes this school community is interested in knowing him or her as a person? I believe we can and I believe we owe it to them.