Role Modeling

One of my most frequently used activities while working with college students (borrowed from Beverly Tatum) asks students to spend sixty seconds finishing the lead-in “I Am…”. Tatum designed the activity to highlight the invisibility of privileged identities (few students write “I am white”, but many write “I am black/latino/etc.”), but my favorite use is to help students consider what qualities they would like to model for the younger kids they mentored. Students analyze their list to see which they would like to share with their mentees and then develop actionable steps they could take to do so.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of role modeling lately, spurred by both my volleyball team and my students at school. Through these roles I can easily see how powerful modeling can be for children, whether intentional or not.

My spring volleyball team (the Pink Panthers) is full of focused, talented young women. They are quite good for their level, but the level doesn’t challenge them much. They win the majority of their points on serves, and doing more than returning a ball directly back over the net isn’t on our radar. Many of the core volleyball skills, like moving to the ball, getting set for passes, and sending the ball to teammates are rarely tested during a game. It is difficult to even explain these concepts as many of my girls have never seen high-level volleyball. So I model them instead. There’s rarely a day when my co-coach and I don’t leave the gym sweatier than the girls; we run laps with them, play scrimmages with them, and work hard to send them excellent passes and serves during drills. Our energy and drive to get to the ball or jog from one end of the court to the other during a drill encourages the Panthers to do the same. And it pays off each game as they continue to handily beat their opponents, and become better volleyball players to boot.

But not all modeling is so positive. The most glaring example comes from a third-grade parent on a recent field trip. Hearing the children’s desire to experience an earthquake simulator, this mom glanced around, unhooked the canvas barrier to the exhibit, and led eight kiddos into an obviously closed exhibit. Safety concerns aside, I was aghast at the example she set for these youngsters about entitlement and following rules. While I like to think I would never do something quite as bold, I’ve been struggling with the potential impacts of what I’m modeling when I interact with my class each day.

Reading How to Stop Yelling at Your Students reminded me of my disdain for the “discipline” my school expects me to impose upon my students. I rarely actually yell (aside from encouragement to the Pink Panthers in their noisy gym) but I imagine my frustration-laced scolding must feel like yelling to most of my third graders, just as it often does to me. I strive to contain my frustration, often taking several moments of silence before responding to a triggering situation, but the model of high expectation, low reward, low punishment schooling doesn’t leave many options for instructors. My school has few-to-no consequences for misbehavior — but what’s worse, there aren’t sufficient opportunities for students to truly engage in their work. Given that I discourage inappropriate outbursts from my students, I worry that my own spates of discipline send mixed messages.

Classroom vs. Court

If you follow my blog, you know that a few months ago I accepted a new job as a teaching assistant of a 3rd grade class. Knowing that my free time would drastically increase, I invited a friend to co-coach a girls volleyball team at a local non-profit. We settled on coaching a 3rd-4th grade team, “The Cheetahs”, feeling confident that our volleyball skills would be sufficient for the beginners. Of course, this means that I spend a lot of my time with kids in and around the 3rd grade, and though it can be challenging, I’ve really enjoyed seeing them in different environments.

For most of our nine girls, volleyball is pretty new. Some of them had played for a season or two, others had barely touched a volleyball before they arrived at our first practice. None of them know much about how the game is played beyond the basic concepts of serving and returning. From a “this is brand new to me” perspective, it’s very similar to how my students at school spent their week in math – trying to master right-to-left subtraction. Despite being very different types of problems, the kids handled them in many of the same ways. Some, who the skills came to easily, are eager and excited for each opportunity to practice and improve. Others take a little longer, struggling with holding the ball still as they underhand serve, or forgetting that you have to add what you borrowed to the original number before subtracting. And the last group are those that get the most frustrated, threatening to give up or bemoaning their lack of ability. While we still have some in this group (both in class and in volleyball) it is lovely to see their “ah-ha” moments when the pieces start to come together.

Perhaps the biggest difference for me between coaching and teaching is that some volleyball concepts can’t be explained in words. In subtraction, as with most academic concepts, there is always a reason for what you’re doing and how you do it (you borrowed a hundred, so you add ten tens; you didn’t have enough to take away so you had to trade for some more, etc.). But in volleyball, sometimes whatever you tried just doesn’t work. It’s not that the girls don’t understand the concept, or what they should be doing — it’s that they haven’t had enough repetitions to have mastered that particular body movement. As an educator, I regularly find myself at a loss when trying to explain how they could improve on specific volleyball skills, and I’m coming to accept that maybe I can’t.

Just like at school, our volleyball team is full of girls at completely different levels. Some of the disparity comes from age, some from experience, but we have girls ranging from incredibly consistent in both serving and passing, to girls who still swing and miss when trying to get the ball. Just like in our classroom, it is frustratingly difficult to meet all of their needs at once. It’s much easier at volleyball, where one-on-one interactions can be tailored to each girl’s level, but helping them become a cohesive unit is extremely tricky. Moreover, I’m getting a taste of what lead teachers must deal with every day, with parents’ desires to contribute (or not), their hopes (and demands) that their child get certain attention, and so on.

Observing kids of this age in these different settings has shown me a lot about what it means to be eight. My co-coach and I had visions in our heads of kids eager to listen, work hard, and become star volleyball players. Instead, just like at school, most of the kids just want to hang out with their friends. They are happy and silly and have a hard time focusing, even the ones who desperately begged their parents to let them play. Fortunately, we don’t have to spend nearly as much time trying to get them to be quiet or mandating that they listen to every word we say. Practices tend to be organized chaos, where we try to capitalize on their energy and lack of focus to get them as many touches on the ball as possible. As it turns out, the chaos is serving as a nice break from the regimented school day.

While I don’t know that we are coaching prodigies, the girls have been winning their games and seem to have fun doing it, so for now: Go Cheetahs!