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.

On teaching and learning

This has been a very difficult semester from a teaching standpoint. I feel that my teaching capacity, ability and integrity has been questioned. So looking over stuff that I have written about teaching, I found these thoughts that I wrote last year to apply for a teaching conference (I later found out it is basically only available to All But Dissertation candidates, so I have to wait). At any rate, here it is:

It took a mid-life crisis for me to realize that my true calling in life was teaching. That was nine years ago, and I have not looked back since. Teaching, I discovered, is my passion, my raison d’être. Although I recognized my enthusiasm for literature when I read Hemingway and Borges in high school, it took me twenty-two years to learn what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: To return to the classroom as a teacher and to devote myself to work in a field about which I feel so strongly.

Sharing is what motivates me. Sharing my knowledge, my culture, my language. My first full-time teaching experience was in a budget challenged district, where I confronted underperformance and violence. I had to press charges against one of my students for assault and battery (one of my dad’s journalist friends even wrote an article about the event – somewhat distorted, as journalists do), one of my best students was stabbed to death by her brother, who was then shot by the police instants before he tried to kill his other sister, dining room fights were de rigueur. Although I did not realize it at the time, these challenges, made me grow and mature. It was a baptism of fire of sorts and I was happy to pay my dues and earn my stripes. It also taught me what is really important as a teacher. From there I went to Walnut Hill, an independent upper school in suburban Boston (and the oldest independent arts high school in the US) where for five years I honed my craft and eventually led the Spanish Department. Before coming to UNC, seeking a challenge, I moved to Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, in Cambridge, an elite independent school with a rigorous curriculum. There I had the privilege of coaching soccer, fencing and tennis, of getting involved in Community Service, and even teaching a Senior Seminar on Spanish film.

In my first semester at UNC I found that teaching at the college level requires a more intense and in-depth approach. Due to their higher maturity and experience level, the students are more demanding academically. This calls for more preparation and sharp execution and delivery from the instructor. The students have a clear idea of what they want, they have been in school for over twelve years and our duty as educators is to deliver.

Hand in hand with good teaching, goes meaningful, practical, applied professional development. Ever since Walnut Hill sent me on a new teachers retreat organized by the Association of Independent Schools of New England (AISNE), I have been a strong supporter of learning and improving the craft. In this respect, my twenty years corporate and business experience came in handy, applying motivational techniques, mentoring and fostering teamwork. Another byproduct of my business experience is my devotion to Kaizen, the Japanese technique of continuous measurable improvement. In this vein, as a department in Walnut Hill, we mapped the full Modern Language curriculum, involved the students in year-end course improvement meetings, even held a Modern Language “Summit” inviting other academic and arts department heads as well as teachers from other schools to define and improve our department.

What little I know about being a good teacher I learnt from being a bad student. I was never a good student, so good teachers were very important in my schooldays. They marked my life, they made a difference. Going back to school as an adult for my Master’s and my PhD renewed my interest in teaching technique, what works and what does not.

Real learning happens from a place of wanting to learn, so a place of openness, of certain vulnerability. Getting the students to that place requires a relationship of trust, understanding and fairness, and that is what I build from day one in the classroom. First day of class I stand by the door – having memorized all students’ names from the roster photos – and greet by name and shake hands with every student. Then we go over the expectations for the class with a fine tooth comb, in English so there are no misunderstandings later. This avoids misunderstandings later on and sets the tone. From there comes a fine balance of fun and hard work. Showing up early to the classroom to chat with the students and set up a music video in Spanish for them as they walk into the room and settle down. At the end of the year when I informally ask them what they liked and disliked about the course, so many of them mention the Spanish music videos! Then there is the grammar. I always go over the grammar, which they should know by now, but just so I know that I have gone over it with them and they do not have the “oh I never learned that” line. And talking, everybody talks about what they are going to do over the weekends, and on Mondays everybody talks about what they did over the weekend. We talk and talk, about food, restaurants, sports, culture, whatever. Once we spent a whole class period talking about bullfighting, something that I am passionate about.

So basically, as much as we want to implement scientific approaches to language learning and teaching, and to a certain extent we can, the basis of teaching has to come from an organic need/want/desire to learn. Our jobs as teachers revolve around making that need happen. The motivated student must be kept motivated while the unmotivated student has to be inspired to want to learn. That is best done through building a relationship, it will rarely come from a book, or from a lecture, it will happen from a relationship.

Putting my money where my mouth (pen/keyboard) is, here is a video of me teaching Spanish 203 an intermediate level in the Fall of 2012, my first semester at UNC. (Yes, I do have a FERPA release form signed by every student.)

La Navata

La Navata is a tiny village outside Madrid, near the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, where Hemingway’s For whom the Bell Tolls is set, the village is so small it is actually dependent of the bigger nearby village of Galapagar, home of Nobel Prize winning playwright Jacinto Benavente and of the current top bullfighter José Tomás. La Navata itself only has a train station, two bars, a kiosk, a hairdresser, a pharmacy, a small supermarket, and an old, small, stone chapel, San Antonio de La Navata.

My parents bought a weekend/summer house here in 1974, when I was 9 years old. In the early 80’s we added the second floor. If I have a home, this is it. This is my “happy place” where I take my mind when I need to relax. This is where most of my childhood memories were made. This is where I learned to ride motorcycles and to drive – my granddad Antonio patiently guiding me round and round the dirt garden, before we put in grass, in La Petra, our old Citroen 2CV. This is where I made my first and oldest friends, where I learned the little tennis I play, where I have done most of my stargazing, reading, bicycle riding, gardening, hiking and barbeques, where I kissed a girl for the first time (quite sloppy if you must know), where I started tinkering with all things mechanical – although mostly motorbikes, where hiking and skiing trips started, and where great summer (and I guess also winter) parties were hosted.

I used to come here for the weekends in winter, reading by the blazing fireplace, and spending the summer in the pool, the garden and the porch, going indoors only when absolutely necessary.

La Navata is about a fifteen minute drive from El Escorial, built by Phillip II, it houses a palace, monastery, school, mausoleum for all the Haubsburg and most Spanish  Bourbon kings, and one of the most important – and beautiful  – libraries, in the world.  Growing up I spent a lot of time in this place, walking around the palace, gardens, surrounding hills, and the town. I still spend a lot of time here, specially with my friend Patxi, with whom I founded the Asociación A. de Amantes del Escorial in the early 90s.

In 1992 I got a job at a photo equipment supplier near here and I lived in La Navata for about a year. It was a lot of fun, living in this big old house alone, cooking, reading by the fire, and going into Madrid for the weekends doing a reverse weekend commute!

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El Escorial

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The view during a bicylce ride

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Caf’é con leche at the clasico Marcelino bar, at 10 am they have barely opened!

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Jacinto Benavente at Galapagar´s Plaza

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San Antonio de la Navata

Life in La Navata is very quiet. I start off with a refreshing wake-up swim in the pool, which makes breakfast a cool joy on the porch. Then there is a walk into the village to buy bread for the day, the newspapers and any other groceries, I stop at the bar for a nice café con leche. There are always chores and gardening and pool maintenance to be done before a pre lunch swim. After siesta things actually slow down even more in the heat of the afternoon and I can read, or hang out with the fam. Nowadays with my nephew and two nieces things are a bit more chaotic, but always fun. The afternoon swim is normally the longest one and then I have time to work out in my homemade gym, or run or go for a bicycle ride before dinner. After dinner we sit around, chat, enjoy a mojito made with old Cuban rum (which is unavailable in the US) and mint from the garden, or a gin tonic, or whatever we can  find, sometimes accompanied by a cigar.