Suckers, Monsters, Coaches, and Teachers

Warren St. John’s 2009 book Outcasts United tells the story of a soccer team in Georgia made up of refugees from war zones all over the world (Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan) who come together to form a team — literally and figuratively. I’m reading it with my American Literature students for the Quest Unit.

In Chapter Four (“Alone Down South”), we learn about the coach’s first foray in leadership.

Luna Mufleh coached the only way she knew how — by following the example set for her by Coach Brown. [Brown was a tough-as-nails soccer coach Mufleh had played for at the American Community School in her native Jordan. -esp] She was more demanding than any of the girls or their parents expected — she made her players run for thirty-five minutes and do sets of sit-ups, push-ups, and leg lifts before each practice. And she refused to coddle them. Luma explained to her girls that they would be responsible for their actions and for meeting their obligations to the team. Players who couldn’t make practice were expected to call Luma themselves; there woiuld be no passing off the excuse-making to Mom or Dad. Likewise, if a player had problems with the way Luma ran the team — complaints about playing time, favoritism, or the like — she would be expected to raise those concerns directly with the coach.

[...] Luma’s rule-making wasn’t entirely about establishing her authority over the team — though that was part of it. She also believed that the team would benefit once individual players started to take responsibility for themselves. Luma herself had been coddled by her parents in an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, and believed that she had paid for these comforts by sacrificing her self-reliance and independence. If Luma was going to coach, she was going to do so with this basic lesson as a backdrop, whether her players’ parents understood it right away or not. Time would tell whether her approach produced results.

[...] When confronted by unhappy parents, Luma displayed a confidence incongruous with her status as a newcomer, an attitude that put off some parents and intrigued others. Once when Luma ordered her players to practice barefoot to get a better feel for the soccer ball, a team mother objected on the grounds that her daughter might injure her toes.

“This is how I run my practice,” Luma told her. “If she’s not going to do it, she’s not going to play.”

During Luma’s first season as coach, her team lost every game. But over time, her methods began to pay off. Dedicated players returned, and those who didn’t buy in left. The players worked hard and improved. They stopped questioning Luma’s methods and began to absorb and intuit them. In her third season, Luma’s twelve-and-under girls’ team went undefeated and won their year-end tournament.

This passage speaks to me deeply. As a teacher, I am caught in a trap between leniency for the sake of compassion and strict demands for the sake of long-term improvement. My students are dealing with a panorama of difficult problems — anxiety, sexual assault, depression, divorce, self-harm, loss of loved ones to suicide and drug overdose, pervasive subconscious racism, college debt, overloaded schedules, and the myriad pressures of late stage capitalism. I want them to be prepared for the fights ahead, but I recognize also that many of them are engaged in grueling battles now.

I often think of it this way: Do I want to be a sucker, or a monster? In other words: Will I risk showing too much leniency and compassion, allowing some students to take advantage of my kindness? Or will I risk being too demanding and tyrannical, causing pain and suffering to students who already have too much of both in their lives?

They key element for me is the lack of choice for the kids. In Luma’s case, the kids choose to play soccer with her. She gets to have total control over the process, because it’s an entirely voluntary affair. What might have happened if too few students wanted to be on the team? Or if every parent demanded her resignation after the first season?

We teachers don’t have this same set of boundaries. My students have to take my 11th grade English class. Obviously I have to set rules and expectations, and no good teacher will choose 100% Sucker Status, because we know there must be expectations for learning. But I do everything in my power to avoid sending kids out of the room. I know that the kids who act out most have the fewest people showing them compassion. I know that they’re waiting for adults to complete the script, to send them (once again) the message that they are disposable.

Even in the elective classes I teach, students sign up because they need an English credit. I know they’re usually not crazy about writing, or expecting a career in letters. I could be more harsh in the Interdisciplinary Poetics class focused on hip-hop, but so many of those students have struggled in other classes. I have a rare opportunity to nod and wink more (and whack their knuckles less) and thereby (hopefully) infect them with a deeper love of learning. Showing no mercy could very easily burn bridges and send them back into the spiral of To Hell With School.

(Side note: As I write these words, I am showing my Creative Writing II students the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction. I just noticed two students were staring at cell phones. Inspired by this very piece I am writing, I said “Put the phones away. Watch the movie.” One student said: “This movie’s boring.” I said: “Too bad. You signed up for the class. This movie is part of the class. Watch the movie.” The inextricable ingredient of cell-phone-addiction is another piece of this puzzle for which I shall not indulge at the present moment.)

This dilemma is made more complicated by my anarchist proclivities. I want to live my life as much as possible through voluntary association, which is nearly impossible in our context of compulsory secondary education. The most satisfying choices I’ve ever made in my life are the ones with the least pressure attached — at New College, for example, where I found a deep love for authentic education even though (in fact, because) there were no grades involved. So when my students choose not to pay attention, I often think: “Well, that’s their choice. I’m not the kid’s mom.” It’s especially tough when I want them to pay attention to me. What gives me the right to insist that I matter more than the activity on their cell phone screen? Shouldn’t I be able to find non-coercive ways to lead young people into the light?

Of course it’s a balancing act. We have to find ways to be compassionate and loving, without killing our students with kindness. We have to demand excellence and set high expectations, without robbing our students of fun or free time. I think the worst teachers are the ones who pick a position and never examine in, regardless of which extreme they fall into.

But it’s tough. I feel like young people are so very fragile these days, so distracted and overstretched and pressurized and overloaded and filled with worry and pain and desperation. I want to help them in the long term, but I can’t ignore the suffering they’re going through here and now. And I don’t have the option to say “If you don’t like how I teach, you can leave.”

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