Why I Hate Going to My Students' Games

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Each year, I get a little better at understanding what it means to support my students. My first year, I had no clue. I thought that to be a good teacher I would just need to be like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds; that if I handed out candy bars and told my students that they matter, they would instantly cooperate and do whatever I ask.

(No offense, Hollywood, but that’s a ton of crap.)

Now that I have the teaching thing more under control, I’m able to support my students as people. I look forward to their concerts for choir, orchestra, and band. I love seeing the artwork they create. I’m always psyched for the night of the talent show and the school plays. But sports games are another story.


You see, I work in a district whose neighborhoods represent a variety of income brackets. Some schools in the district are a part of one of the country’s wealthiest zip codes. Other schools, Title I schools like mine, are in a different part of town and have a high percentage of students labeled at-risk and on free or reduced lunch. When my school’s sports teams play against schools similar to ours, it’s usually fine. But sometimes when we play the more wealthy schools, it’s difficult for me to be there on the sidelines.

A few weeks ago, some of my students on the boys’ basketball team asked if I would come to their game that evening. I told them I would, then asked who they were playing.

“Woodridge!” they told me. “We’re going to beat them this year, Miss!”

My heart sank.

Woodridge Middle School (which is not actually the school’s name), is the wealthiest school in the district. They consistently have the highest test scores, the greatest amount of parent involvement and financial support, and easily the best sports teams. I can count the number of times I have seen or heard of our teams beating theirs on one hand.

“I’ll be there!” I told them. I gave them a thumbs-up.

After they left, I let out a sigh. My boys were so excited, and I’d already told them I would go. I did want to support them and let them know how much I value them and their interests, but I already dreaded going. I knew what would await me.

I knew I would see the look on my students’ faces as they stole glances at the other team warming up. They would see their brand-new shoes. Their effortless lay-ups from years of playing in community leagues, their camaraderie from knowing each other since kindergarten because they don’t move as much as the families at my school do.

I knew I would see the Woodridge side of the bleachers full—parents, grandparents, siblings, and students who were able to have their parents drop them back off at school just to see the game. I would look at our side of the bleachers and see about half as many people there. I would know that one of our players’ mom works the night shift and will never see a game. I would know that less than half of our players would ever have both parents there cheering them on.

I knew I would hear the parents of the other team grumbling—sometimes quietly, sometimes belligerently-- about my students’ fouls, their lack of sportsmanship, and I would know that they are right, and I would wish that these parents could understand that these kids aren't bad or scary but are learning.

I knew I would hear one particularly loud Woodridge parent yell something like, “What are you doing, ref? Are you just going to let number 55 stomp all over our boys?” and I would see number 55, my student, and he would hear it, and I would see his face tense up with a rage that know runs much deeper than this basketball game and I would see him miss all his free throws after that.

I knew I would watch Woodridge take the lead by ten points, then twenty, then fifty. Then I would see the Woodridge coach call a time-out, and in the huddle all his players would smile suddenly, and I would know that the coach had just told his players that they have to stop scoring.

Then after that I knew I would see a Woodridge player make a lay-up, and his point guard would shout, “Hey, coach said we’re not supposed to score!” and the other player would shout back, “What am I supposed to do, just give it to them?”, and I would see the look on my players’ faces as this exchange would happen.

Then I knew I would go up to my students after the game. I would say, “Hey, you did great!” and they would hang their heads and mumble something, and they would all look like their spirits had been punctured, and I would get a lump in my throat because I would know how much this game meant to them, and they would know that I was saying what I was saying to make them feel better.

I knew these things because it always happens. Every year, year after year, every game when we play teams like this. 

And I hate watching it. When I go to games where we play Woodridge or schools similar to them, I distract myself from what’s going on around me by being obnoxiously upbeat to the point where I often annoy myself. I bring posters. I yell things about sports that don’t make any sense (i.e. “GET THIS REBOUND, WOLVERINES!” when it’s about to be the first shot of a set of two free throws.)  I do this in the hope that their crazy, screaming teacher will, by comparison, make losing feel just a little less embarrassing.

I should be clear that I’m not trying to say I hate going to games because of Woodridge, or that this is Woodridge’s fault. They are not bad people—the coaches, the parents, the players. In fact, I went to a school like Woodridge and I very much value my education and childhood there. I don’t hate Woodridge. And I don’t hate the fact that my students lose.

I hate poverty.

I hate the systems in place that are keeping down neighborhoods like the one where I teach.

I hate that my students have less of a chance—at everything—because of circumstances they can’t help.

I hate how their sports games remind me of all of this.

And most of all, I hate that I don’t know what to do about it except to keep teaching in my little classroom, to keep hoping things get better, to keep showing up, and to keep being loud.

We actually beat Woodridge in that game a few weeks ago. It was a nailbiter—I’m pretty sure it took a couple of years off my life—but we came out on top. My boys were true sportsmen, in every sense of the word. When I talked to them after the game, they didn’t say anything negative about the other team, or the Woodridge fans being vocal at the refs (and on some occasions, at them), or even about winning. In fact, they could barely say anything because of how huge their smiles were. The second I got into my car in the parking lot, I put my head in my hands and cried.

It felt like I’d just had a small taste of the world I dream of.

Love,

Teach

46 comments:

  1. This made me cry! Thank you so much for sharing the things I often think, but cannot always articulate.

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  2. I am reading How Children Suceed by Paul Tough and I can't recommend it enough. It is an in depth look at how poverty effects students and what research has found on the topic. It has been eye opening and also completely reinforcing of what I know on an intuitive level. Thank you for sharing this experience with us. Like you, I think all we can really do is keep being there.

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  3. I'm working at a lower-income school where most of the kids are first or second generation immigrants, often fleeing poverty and war. It's so difficult, sometimes, seeing all that they've had to overcome.

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  4. "keep being loud".

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  5. Thank you for writing this, Love, Teach. I am a university student and was a student teacher at a school very similar to yours last year. I never stop thinking about those students, especially around this time of year with the holidays approaching. I used to feel like no one understood how I felt- I am so glad I found your blog... you made me realize that there are some crazy hilarious, wonderfully kind people out there who make a difference and who truly care for their students- and that includes YOU! Happy Holidays.

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  6. Hey, Teach, I'm retired now; but I taught in a school like yours once. I remember having the same feelings as yours when we went to schools in wealthier communities. Yes, my husband and I followed those teams wherever they played; we supported our teams and loved my students. Now forty-plus years later, some of those aging people in that community where my husband's business is still come in to ask him to tell me hello. You, Teach, are making a big difference.

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  7. Tears-eyed. Reminds me of the (sometimes not so-) gentlemen in my class.

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  8. I just completed student teaching TODAY!!!! I student taught in a "Woodridge", but have no desire to teach in a district like this. Not at first anyway. My heart is where yours is, and it scares me sometimes. I hope I'm half the teacher you are. When I read your posts, it's exactly how I see myself being, but I'm terrified I won't be anything like you. Thank you for posting, and thank you for being such an inspiration to me and everyone else who reads this blog.

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  9. This was so special. Thank you for making me cry :)

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  10. I wish I could hug you. Please know I will be forwarding this to people in my school, which is very much like Woodridge. Especially because we live so close to (and often play) a school exactly like yours. Keep going to those games, Teach. You're the parent, aunt, grandma (well, maybe not grandma) those kids need there.

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  11. I can totally relate to this one! I coach volleyball at a school with similar demographics, and sometimes I feel like it's The Haves vs the Have-Nots. Unfortunately to become really good at volleyball these days, you have to spend thousands of dollars per year on club volleyball. There's no way my girls' parents could afford to spend money this way. But I figure, even though it sucks, at least these students have teachers and coaches who care about them as people. That's got to be worth something!

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  12. How sad is it, that this person has no faith in their kids? Winning starts with a winning attitude, as a coach and teacher at a very low income school, that is something I know very well. I coach both football and soccer, and to say those kids don't have good sportsmanship because they never had someone show them, is an insult to the coach. Because that is the number one thing I coach. We play much wealthier schools, and are always in close competition. Please never lose faith in your kiddos, teach them that if they work hard enough they can do anything, even beat the suppossed better team.

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    1. My thoughts exactly. I feel like this teach had a story to tell, but he did not do it so well. If a child is playing sports at a high school level and has not developed sportsmanship and self-worth while doing it, it does reflect on the teachers and coaches. I have a much longer response which I posted on my page, but this teacher should not provide kids with excuses on why the student will not be successful. Poverty is not an excuse for anything this teacher wrote about....Please do not place limitations on your students, Teach. .

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    2. Sometimes you get what you pay for. Considering the system that is in place for education, those who are good coaches/teachers SOMETIMES choose the school that will pay them more (Ahem, Woodridge) versus a Tier 1 school. Those students may not be receiving the same quality coaching that they could receive at a "Woodridge." I knew a lot of teachers in my high school who had no idea what they were doing as coaches but did it because they wanted the pay-up or because my school could not afford a coach of its own for a team. It all comes down to the system.

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  13. Yes, yes, and yes.

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  14. THANK YOU! Not many can understand this...it is MY world! Wendy 1stgradefireworks

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  15. I coach Academic Decathlon at a similar school (only high school). I hate the awards ceremony. I hate that in the city, we are competing against 5 and 6 A schools when we are only 4A. I hate that our kids will almost never receive a ribbon at these things, but have to sit through all of the other schools getting a ribbon. And I hate that part of it is that our competitors have plenty of experience with art, have parents that have read to them and helped them with math homework, and that almost none of them have to work until midnight or two in the morning instead of studying. We're actually great at football. But then, that's the most likely way out of poverty for our kids. But I still work as hard as I can to make sure that my kids get the most out of these this experience. And I cheer for them, and I make special ribbons for them. Because I want so badly for them to succeed.

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  16. As a Coach I appreciate your take on the situations that occur. Unfortunately these disparities occur not only on the courts and fields but also in the classroom. There is no telling how much of an impact you have on these young people by being at these events.

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  17. SOOOOO true!

    I, too, teach at a Title 1 school with 90+% F/R lunch population. It is tough when you know you are going against certain competitors. This year, our 8th boys B-ball team DID beat the "Woodridge" campus. Their enthusiasm for the next week was SO HIGH!

    We are lucky in that both of our boys coaches CAME FROM our campus as middle schoolers. They know how to get through to our boys and how to coach them to win. Our boys have the natural athleticism that allows them to be highly competitive even against better/longer trained students. Our girls are sometimes there as well--but less consistently than the boys.

    Unfortunately this also holds true in the academic arena. They struggle much more than those from "Woodridge" because their experiences are so limited and they often don't have the support at home to understand why academics is also important.

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  18. I teach at an affluent school...but I teach the population within that school that fall into the category of which you speak. It tears your heart out.

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  19. Oh wow---I loved this. So true-- so beautifully written--- thank you. Thank you,thank you. A tetired teach.


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  20. I feel kids learn so much from sports that we should as teachers recommend and support all of their after school activities. I also work in a low income district and I feel it helps the kids understand and embrace their challenges. It makes it that much more incredible when they do succeed, and if more teachers went you show pride in our kids and district and the stands wouldn't be as empty.

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  21. Your beautiful, heartfelt post is so inspiring; thank you for your gifts of compassion, empathy and love! Have you seen The Game of Hope on You Tube? It's a clip that I think you'll connect with. Just imagine ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuxejhBOCOo

    Holiday blessings! Barbara

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  22. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  23. You are so right that poverty wears people down. It slides its tentacles into all parts of peoples' lives, and is destructive in so many ways. When will we learn that what hurts any of us hurts all of us. Thank you for the work that you do...you give hope to kids who don't have a lot of places to find it.

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  24. This really hit home for me today. We spent the day yesterday talking about leadership and morphed into privileged where we did the trash can lesson. Working in a school where your school's students and Woodridge's schools students mix together it was quite powerful

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  25. Yep. Title 1 here. We are actually so small and rural that we have to recruit both genders and three grades to piece together any sports team. Then, because there are a few 8th graders, we have to play against the older kids from wealthier and bigger schools. Oh yeah, and we have no money to pay coaches so it's all volunteer. What really boggles me though, is the attitude and culture of "what matters" that the kids themselves and our coaches and staff have started to build. Their pride can't really come from winning a game, so it comes from other elements like teamwork; keeping a civil tongue; that one basket, pass, or block; or by the measure of their margin of loss as compared to last time. Isn't that life? Celebrate where you can.

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  26. I teach Spanish, of all things, in a low-income area myself. And I'm the head coach for our Academic Challenge team like a couple of you all. I drilled respectability and professionalism into them before I even open the new buzzers (they washed seemingly a thousand cars to get them too!). Now, we pull up and the superintendent for that district is meeting us when the host coach didn't even know that he was there to begin with. New coaches are even told not to go against us because of our character building efforts. And yes, I'm the overly loud, embarrassing screamer in the bleachers too. I hug like crazy and am hugged even more for being in the audience at this year's school play where the lead doesn't know who either of his biological parents are. My arm STILL hurts from his thank you hug.

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  27. I had some of these same thoughts as I sat at my son's 5th grade basketball game tonight but my story is a bit different. My children use to attend a school like "Woodridge". It seemed like such a great school until my son started getting bullied. Not sure why the kids picked on him, he is sweet and overly kind. Maybe it was because we choose not to spend money on fashion or are newer to the community. By 4th grade, my child that loved school was depressed and hated most everything. I made my decision to send my children to the school across the street from the high school I teach for. It's a lower income school, old building, and a big change for us. We love the school! My kids meet diverse students, have more of an appreciation for what we have and what's important in life, and we hand the hardest working teachers I have ever met (teachers that have to adapt to meet the needs of their kids). At our game, I saw the matching outfits and new shoes of the other team and their cheers as they creamed us. But you what I saw from our boys as we left? A bond that I never saw at our other school. These kids all have stuff going on in their lives but our school is a family. Families are messy and need help but always come together and are there for each other. I saw that in their faces as they put their arms around each other leaving with smiles on their faces. So call us a Title 1 school, a high percent of free lunch, broken homes, low income... We are a family!

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  28. I am proud of the school district where my children attend. We are DEFINITELY not funded like "Woodridge", but it does feel like a family. Disfunctional at times, yes, but loving and VERY capable of great things! My family had an opportunity to send one of ours to "Woodridge" where a letter of acceptance was issued by the school district to us. My family decided that the love and nurture found in our community school district, the diversity of background in the student body, and the family aspect and care provided in the community where we live was worth more to our child and to our family than the prestige of "Woodridge". May God bless the teachers, assistants, administrators, volunteer parents and guardians, coaches, mentors, WATCH DOGS, and especially the students in communities just like ours. May this generation of students (whether "haves" or "have-nots") feel like "haves" throughout their academic achievements, athletic opportunities, and artistic experiences. May the world be a better place because of them...

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  29. It’s a numbers game. The “wealth” of a town doesn’t really mean anything in regard to how good their school team will be, however, the size of a school will be a good indicator of how good the team will be. High school teams in California are separated into divisions 1-6. The Division I teams being the largest schools and division 6 teams the smallest. The odds of having many talented athletes are multiplied in the larger schools and in addition, the competition for spots on the teams is multiplied as well. Most of the teams in our area are designated in division 4. That fact doesn’t mean that our teams can never prevail over larger schools, but the odds are that the larger schools will win.
    I think that teach needs to educate herself on how high school sports teams are designated by division and size of school.

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    1. Poverty changes everything, it can even change brain chemistry, particularly generational poverty! It IS a big factor! Kids at wealthier schools have better nutrition, and health care.They have access to private coaching, they have parents who are able to take off work to watch their games and cheer them on because they don't work hourly minimum wage jobs. Many kids from Title schools are the primary care giver for younger siblings because their parents work or they have to work to help feed their family and keep a roof over their heads.They would love to play sports, but they have responsibilities that those affluent communities will never know.

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  30. I've got to stop reading this in my classroom, thanks for making me cry in front of my students.

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  31. Don't count me out Teach. Please don't underestimate my ability to handle a loss in a basketball game. I know we're the underdogs in the game against Woodridge, that I invited you to watch. I know you don't expect us to win. And if we don't? No skin off my knee. I didn't ask you to come to see us win. I asked you to come because I know you care. I want you to come because Jimmy's mom has to work the evening shift again and Lucas' dad is still deployed. We could use another fan in the stands. A familiar face in the stands to smile at when I make the free throws because you know how hard I work to keep my free throw average at 95%.

    I know you enjoy the arts and music and drama. Then kids at school talk about seeing you at the events. Actings not really my thing and I can't afford a fancy instrument. Sing and carry a tune? Not if my life depended on it. But basketball? Basketball I can do. Basketball is what I play with my dad every other Sunday before I head back to my mom's house for two weeks. Basketball is what I play with my neighbors.

    Basketball has teaches me about life. Basketball teaches me if you get knocked down, you get back up. Basketball teaches me, you win some, you lose some. Basketball teaches me to count on my teammates when things get tough on and off the court. Basketball teaches me to be a good sport, and if I should lose, come back tomorrow and try again.

    So, I know we're the underdogs in tonights game. I see the other teams matching warm-ups and shiny new matching shoes. But don't pity me Teach, basketball has taught me to win or lose with dignity and grace. Don't count me out Teach, I'm okay with losing, but if we win??? Oh the glory. And to have you there makes everything better, win or lose.

    Love, Your student athlete

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  32. Dear Teach,
    Your school could be a the next step for any one of my kiddos! I love to hear them speak through you! What hit me the most was... “We’re going to beat them this year, Miss!” Your kids sound just like some of mine. That little "Miss" at the end there brought them to life for me. Until you are surrounded by this kind of poverty each and every day it's impossible to know the depth of pain you can feel for the kids you love. I'm sending you hugs and strength your way as you send your kids off on a break where they will probably wishing to be back with you in school!

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  33. So well said. Thank you, Teach, for your eloquent voice.

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  34. Wow. This article touched my heart deeply and as a consequence,made me cry. I have not began teaching as of yet, I student teach next fall. However, I did begin subsitute teaching to get my feet. So far, I have only subbed at Title I schools and things I have witnessed in short period of time makes me feel sad and sometimes empty that there is not more I can do to bring change. It is a great injustice to our society!!

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  35. You.are.awesome. I teach 8th grade reading at a school just like this. I felt the same going to my kids' games. Stay strong sister. :)

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    @Jeff Collins.

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