Going The Extra Mile

Like many stories in my life, this one begins with a soccer game. In this case, that game is the U-20 World Cup Qualifier between the United States and El Salvador this weekend. I watch a lot of soccer.* Like many fans relationships with their pro sports teams and players, I can get frustrated by the politics and the money. Deflate-gate is the latest ridiculous example of everything that can be wrong with professional sports.

*I love me wife. 

The US U-20's celebrate a goal together
So one of the things that I like to do is watch soccer at this level. The 'U' in U-20 stands for under. In this particular tournament, players have to be under the age of 20 the day the tournament begins. There is also a U-17 World Cup. The Summer Olympics feature a soccer tournament that is actually a U-23 tournament (each team gets 3 exceptions so that the stars can still play). At these younger tournaments, the skill is less than at the professional game. But the passion is incredible.  It's not that passion is not on display at the professional level - it's just that no one on this particular field has yet to achieve their dream. There is something magical about chasing a dream. That's a hope that I have for all of my kids - to get to chase their own dreams. One of my favorite moments of teaching is when an activity works well enough to see even a glimpse of this passion on my kids faces.

As my dad and I were watching the game and the US had appeared to wrap up the win and qualify, our conversation moved on to education as it often does. We started talking about the trip I was getting ready to take with a group of my students. He asked how the preparation was going. I told him it was going alright, but that I was frustrated that it didn't seem like any of the students really wanted to work that hard to make the trip special. I even threw out the "they're taking this for granted" concern.

I'm currently on a coach bus as I type this headed to Jefferson City, Missouri for the State finals of the We The People Civics Competition. With me are 8 students who won the Center High School competition back in December to earn their spot on the bus. These are the exact students who blow my mind one moment and then seem totally apathetic the next five moments. It's so frustrating! Here they are, on an awesome bus (at no cost to them) staying in a nice hotel (at no cost to them) collaborating with dozens of adults who are giving up their time to help them, and there are moments where I can't get them to stop giggling and focus.

Am I doing something wrong?
One of the things that I do to myself that is both a blessing and a curse is that I always assume that when something doesn't turn out in reality like I had it planned in my mind, it is because I messed something up. This trip is a perfect example. Last year was the first year I took students on this competition. While I had several students who got very passionate about the competition, I had several who could've cared less; I even had one who just skipped the trip at the last moment. I assumed, like I usually do, that this lack of passion was related to something I had done - or not done. So I did some things differently, tried to get the kids to invest more of themselves in the competition, incorporated more adult-student interactions in the preparation.

I think that there is something healthy about this self-questioning. It is certainly a trait that I try to instill in my students. The student population that I teach is often thought of poorly by society, and that pisses me off. We are a city school, so our kids must be low achievers, right? In my opinion, and that of my colleagues, that is dead wrong. Our kids can compete with your kids if given the opportunity, wherever your kids are and whatever they look like and however much money that they have. I get really defensive about this mindset because I really believe that it is true. Sometimes I think that I believe it more than my students do.

Naturally, my competetive mindset comes out hard during this program. We get a chance to measure ourselves against larger schools and kids who are taking advanced courses. I want to prove that my kids could go toe-to-toe with these other kids. I try to communicate this to my students as we prep. This particular year, I'm not sure how well that message has sunk in.


This brings to mind something that I saw on Facebook a while back - I can't remember the person who posted it or the exact words. But the topic was parenting and the message was to caution parents against beating themselves up because of what they saw from other parents on Facebook. The author wanted parents to remember that parenting is a messy deal. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. There will be mistakes. What parents post to Facebook could be considered the highlight reel of parenting. If you compare your every day experience to others highlight reel, of course you are going to come up short. No one* posts about their child puking at 2 AM all over their shirt while the laundry is overflowing and you become frustrated with your partner because, damnit, how are they sleeping so soundly while I suffer?!?**

*OK, some people post this kind of thing, but it's kinda weird.
**We have our first kid coming in May, so all of these emotions are just conjecture that Angela and I have come up with as we talk about how crazy life is going to be as a parent! Surely our child will be perfect, will never wake up in the middle

Teaching is in many ways very similar to parenting. I experience moments of wonder with my kids, and these moments are truly wonderful. But these moments are sandwiched by frustration and hard work and prodding and phone calls and serious talks with students and incentives and more frustration and small successes and even more frustration. It is a process, one which often resembles a war of attrition. To be a happy person while teaching, one must enjoy that battle nearly as much as one enjoys the moments of wonder.

With this particular competition, I have to both look at what I can do better and remember that each year will be different. The build-up to this weekend has been full of frustration with this group, trying to get them to work a bit harder; prepare a bit better. Will this weekend blow my mind and make it all worth it? Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. Regardless, I will continue to figure out how to put our kids in the best possible situations. I will nag those kids who pass by this opportunity. I will celebrate heartily with those who decide to take advantage of opportunities.

And no matter the outcome, I will do it all again next year.