On the beauty and importance of coaching

 

School athletics are, or should be, an extension of the classroom. Any other approach: the hyper competitive, the path to college or pro sports, or the “keep them busy”, is misguided and possibly more harmful than beneficial to an adolescent. Having said that, it is of course healthy and necessary to be competitive, to have a keen eye for exceptional talent and, of course, to have sports be fun and entertaining.

In my case, I was lucky to start coaching and teaching at the same time allowing me to learn the important and symbiotic relationship between the classroom and the sports field. What is more, I often find the classroom a sterile place where students turn on the “auto-pilot” when they walk in and just focus on the day’s lesson. Sports require a different mind-set. First, you cannot sit there and wait to have the lesson delivered, if you do, then sitting –on the bench– is what you will get, come game day. Second, research has proven how activity wakes up your brain cells, making you more receptive to learning, and finally, of course, sports are fun, more so than say, the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish.

My first coaching gig was Assistant Boys Varsity Soccer at Milton Academy, followed by Head Boys JV Tennis. Since then I have coached girls varsity soccer, boys tennis, even co-ed fencing at Buckingham Brown and Nichols! (I had a brief introduction to foil in my college days). I was even the Ski Club advisor at Walnut Hill. Each season has been a great learning journey and a lot of fun. What I enjoy the most are the life lessons that can be taught on the field and on the endless bus and van rides to and from games. Seacrest does not have vans, let alone a bus, so students have to provide their own transport to local games, something that other than dangerous, takes away a big part of being in a team, which is the camaraderie. Few things are as bonding as that ride.

In Florida, football (the one where they carry something that is not a ball with their hands) is a religion, so schools do not book many sports that might interfere with football. Fall sports other than football are limited to swimming and cross-country. So  soccer is played in the winter, which is fine when you consider that Florida does not have a winter per se.

At Seacrest I coached the Girls Varsity Soccer team. Our season had a massive learning curve with 11 losses and 2 wins, but we had a great time! By the end of the season we had figured out how the back four are supposed to work. Next season we shall figure out how the front end should work. The girls put in a great effort and it was very rewarding to see them improve and learn how to move on the field.

In the Spring I coached the Girls Varsity Tennis. Although an individual sport, tennis in the US is played as a team sport in High School and University. Each game consists of five singles games and two doubles games, with a point won per game. Our team has some very high level players that train with a coach every day and some less so, including a total beginner, which made for a very diverse and “human” team. We even had 8th grade girls move up for games when we had injuries or absences. This was a great experience for the little ones that offered them a chance to play with the “big girls” and gain valuable experience for next year. On Wednesdays, when some players where practicing with their coaches and we did not have access to the courts because the boys or the middle school where playing a game, we would hit the gym, or practice yoga on one of the lawns. Yes, our record was much better than at soccer, our Third Singles player was nominated Prep of the week by the local paper and she even won the District title for her category!

The main problem with coaching is how time-consuming it is. There is practice every day after school from 4:30 to 6, and then there are games, some are an hour away in Fort Myers which means getting back to school as late as 11 which is bad enough for the coach, but the poor players! The local paper must be informed of game scores so they can publish the results, practice drills must be prepared, etc. Basically I had no life from mid-October to mid-April.

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First year in Naples, Florida. Thank goodness for the Naples Philharmonic (and Opera Naples)

After two days of faculty meetings and an apparently endless number of  year-end parties I can finally say my academic year is over, and what a year it has been. Granted, the first year at any job is always going to be hard. Add to that coaching two varsity level sports, editing my dissertation for publishing, a new town, a new state, and more importantly a new climate zone – Sub Tropical, and it was quite an experience.

Naples is the southernmost town on the West Coast, the Gulf Coast of Florida. The city did not really develop until the second half of the XX C with the advent of air conditioning. To this day it is still very much a resort town which booms in size from December to May with rich northerners, mostly from the Mid-West spending the “season” here. They have beautiful homes and cars, go to overrated and overpriced restaurants, and play golf, lots of golf. There are 80 golf courses in Naples, apparently the highest concentration of golf courses per capita in the US. The beach, did I mention there is a beach? The beach is miles of silky while sand, and since it is protected by the Gulf, it has quiet waters with small waves. It is a beautiful town with palm lined streets and gorgeous homes. The municipal tennis courts around the corner from my apartment have decadent clay surfaces. There are cute coffee shops, bars, cigar bars, and even some interesting restaurants. Half an hour driving and you are in the Everglades, the world’s largest Sub-Tropical jungle, infested with alligators, Florida panthers, etc.

In my June 2016 post The Job Search Part II, looking for jobs in secondary schools, I write how what attracted me to Naples was Seacrest’s educational philosophy. With time I will reflect on my teaching experience, on coaching girl’s varsity soccer and tennis, on living in Naples and so many other thoughts that I need to marinate.

The way the weather breaks down is that June to September is hot, humid, rainy and stormy. But the rest of the year it is “Endless Summer” always the perfect weather to enjoy the outdoors. I enjoyed riding my bicycle, running, walking on the beach, as well as riding Rocinante to work every day.

One of the highlights of my first year here has been discovering Artis Naples. Artis Naples is the home of the Baker Museum, a cute, little museum with some interesting pieces, and of the Naples Philharmonic and their fantastic concert hall. One of my fears coming to this remote corner of the world was that I was not going to find the cultural stimulation I had in Boston, Madrid or Chapel Hill. I was mostly wrong. Someone had told me that if I wanted to enjoy any culture I had to drive two hours across Alligator Alley to Miami, when in fact, groups like Miami City Ballet, or the Vienna Philharmonic come to Naples!

The season started with some nice amuse-bouche chamber music concerts in the museum. But the real season started with Elgar’s moving  Cello Concerto. After that it was Grimaud playing Brahms, Joshua Bell playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Opera Naples performing Turandot in the Fall and The Magic Flute in the Spring, Handel’s Messiah, Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, Abbado conducting Beethoven and Wagner, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the ballet Giselle –which is one of my favorites. Some concerts, like Anne-Sophie Mutter I had to miss due to coaching. Fortunately the folks at Artis are very nice and you can call in and change your tickets if you need.

On top of that the museum has a free late night on the last Wednesday of the month, so you can just go walk around, something I did most months!

A lesser known cultural gem in Naples is Opera Naples. They operate out of a refurbished warehouse in a bit sketchy industrial area of town. The artistic director is Ramon Tebar one of those wunderkinds who was conducting orchestras at 12 years old. He is a hot-shot from Valencia, another reason to love him! On top of the two operas performed at Artis, they did a few events at their home. Master classes and recitals with mezzo-soprano Renata Scotto, recitals by Gregory Kunde…

Sadly, there does not appear to be much more to choose from beyond this. The locals seem more interested in the size of their homes and their cars to be really culturally restless. Also, since the town lacks a university there are not many young people. There seems to be mostly families with young children or older folks, but little age diversity.

With my busy schedule, I had little time to explore the area, so that is one of the many things I am looking forward to.

The Job Search, Part I. University gigs, or what do Galileo Galilei, Einstein and Groucho Marx have in common?

Finding a job has been a fairly lengthy and tedious process, so I will break it up into two parts: Applying for university teaching positions, and Part II, looking for secondary school jobs.

Applying for that endangered species, the elusive, under paid, tenure track, university teaching job is quite a silly process, one basically has to start in the fall of your last year as a student. Although this is not entirely true, as we shall see… I was all geared up to join the ranks of the job seekers in August when the first question popped up: How many academic articles have you published? And where? Well, I did try to publish one a couple of years ago, in the fairly respected Boletín de la Biblioteca de Menéndez Pelayo. It was rejected, and I decided to move on and focus on my dissertation, which I deemed far more important than publishing anything. As usual, I was wrong. Tenure track university positions are so scarce nowadays that it is totally a buyers’ market, they get to set the rules. Also basically all universities are strapped for cash which is, as we shall see another crucial factor. So what one has published and where becomes a key deciding factor, who cares how good you might be as a teacher.

You see, years ago, I think it was my old Bentley College Dean and dear friend and mentor Bob Minetti explained to me how you have the big research focused universities and the “student centered” or “teaching centered” universities. This made perfect sense to me and it is what I have assumed as true ever since. Being passionate about teaching I figured these would be the schools I would apply to, that might value more my worth as a teacher than as a publishing machine. Now, with the cash crunch and oversupply of applicants, universities basically want candidates that have already published top articles in top journals, this is what will bring prestige, and thus money to their institutions. So do not believe the “student centered” or “teaching centered” spiel. That might have been years ago, they still preach that concept, but believe me, it looks like they could care less.

Besides the article business they want to see a Statement of Teaching Philosophy, a Research Statement, mock syllabi, etc. This is just a smoke screen, a distraction from what they really want. I am confident that if you have an earth shattering Teaching Philosophy Statement, and the best crafted (mock) syllabus, unless you have published at least one article in a respected, peer reviewed journal, you are nothing. They do not care about your teaching, if they do, it is not their priority. Which brings us to the fallacy of the teacher/scholar. Universities like to boast of their teacher/scholars. It is a very rare occurrence in nature to find a leading scholar who likes to spend hours, days in libraries, reading, writing – a rather lonesome job – I can guarantee you, who also loves to be in the classroom teaching and sharing what they are learning in their research, this requires a very different skill set and personality from the research oriented person. One is really either a teacher or a scholar, with maybe one in a hundred having both characteristics. My graduate school experience both at Simmons College (a small liberal arts school) and at UNC (a top research university) prove this point. So, to summarize, if you are looking to work in higher education, you have to ask yourself: am I a researcher or a teacher? Which is basically the ancient Greek saying from the Oracle at Delphi: “Know thyself”.

Going back to the academic journal issue. Basically the academic journal is nothing but the ID card for a club. One has always needed an ID to get into a club. Now, this is my theory: originally the universities taught in Latin. This was what set the educated from the masses. If you wanted in, you had to master Latin, sure, this was a lingua franca, but it was also a proof of membership, of how bright one was. Latin started losing its grip as early as the 13th C.[1] Eventually universities had to switch to the vernacular – and they are still smarting about that. So now you have to gain access by writing a long article, full of big words that you might not necessarily need, quoting second rate theorists like Lacan or Bakhtin. Remember that this is all my conspiracy theory, but then, why did Galileo Galilei publish his Dialogue for the general public and not for the cognoscenti? Ditto Albert Einstein who chose to publish his last thoughts on General Relativity in a “small journal after spurning the peer-reviewed process at a better-known journal, the Physical Review. To an editor at the Review: ‘I see no reason to address the erroneous comments of your anonymous expert’”.[2] In no way am I comparing myself to Galileo, Einstein, or Groucho Marx when he said: “I do not want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member”.[3]

Sorry about my rant. Now, back to my job search. Teaching two classes, writing my dissertation, preparing my job search materials, I wrote another article. At least I could say in my CV: “article submitted to…” (it eventually got rejected by an “anonymous expert” as Einstein would say).

Basically all university Spanish teaching jobs go through the Modern Language Association (MLA) job database. This year there were well over 200 different Spanish teaching jobs in the US. Most of those were for visiting professors, meaning you get a one year contract, non tenure track jobs, meaning you are “hired help” and treated as such, or for the “trendy” subjects, the ‘in vogue” topics. Of all those, there was only one posting for an 18th and 19th C Spanish Literature specialist. It was at Wake Forest, a perfectly good university. They sent me a nice email in December saying they were going to call me for an interview and another very nice email in April telling me they had chosen a candidate. I also applied to a more “generalist” position at Gettysburg College  (yes, that Gettysburg) only to receive a three line email that they had hired someone. All in all, I guess my heart was not into teaching at a university, and it showed. But I still had to “tick the box”.

This process led me to learn a few fascinating bits: I am a passionate teacher, I want to teach, to share, I love learning – from my students – not from some pompous punk that thinks they are the last Pepsi bottle in the desert because they got an article published. Universities are hiring very bright young things that might be good researchers and writers, but might not have a clue how to engage a room full of curious, sceptic students. Second: I do not want to be a member of that club, I would rather teach at a secondary school as I did in Boston before getting my PhD.

So I asked myself: At the end of a day teaching, would I rather go read an academic journal full of big words quoting Lacan and Bakhtin, or would I rather go coach soccer, tennis or fencing? The answer for me was clear, and that leads me to part II of this tirade.

[1] Paul F. Grendler. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore: JHU Press, 2002.

[2] Popular Science, November 2015

[3] Telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills to which he belonged, as recounted in Groucho and Me, Da Capo, 1959, p. 321.

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Discussing job strategies with my Dissertation Director, the one and only Irene Gómez Castellano in Valencia with horchata and  fartons.