|Good teachers, like good coaches, lead by example.|
I can't believe we're almost halfway through July. Once our summer camps hit full stride, there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day to get everything done.
So I'll post this quickly, with little by way of an introduction. Suffice to say, I owe a great deal of gratitude to Martha Gillespie, my daughter Maddi's third grade teacher. Here's why:
What coaches and parents can learn from a caring teacher
Martha Gillespie is a coaching hero of mine. You probably don't know her. Don't feel bad. Martha Gillespie is not a hockey coach. She isn't famous. She was an elementary school teacher. But the traits she embodied are universal trademarks of good (teaching) coaching (and good parenting).
Mrs. Gillespie espoused four beliefs that every coach, and every parent, can benefit from. First, she cared deeply about each student who walked into her classroom, and would go to bat for them even in the face of bureaucratic inertia. But she still held her students to a high standard, regardless of the challenges a diverse room of 3rd graders presents. That's point No. 2.
Which leads to Nos. 3 and 4. When Martha saw an issue, she was able to communicate with a child's parents clearly and concisely, sharing her concerns. And finally, she upheld the first three points because she never once mailed it in.
Based on her actions, Martha Gillespie never once considered teaching as a job, or obligation. It was a calling. In a great many ways (she abhorred the term "a lot"), that's what separates great coaches – coaches who truly make a difference – from those who are simply meeting a perceived responsibility.
How do I know Martha Gillespie? She was the third grade teacher of my eldest child, Mary. My daughter had struggled through second grade. She loved school, so it wasn't a case of a child who wanted to be elsewhere. But she did have trouble applying herself.
Her second grade teacher simply shrugged off Mary's inconsistent effort, and suggested she was just lazy. "Messy" and "disorganized" were two other adjectives. It wasn't said in a malicious way, but more just a matter-of-fact statement.
Since Mary was our first, my wife and I didn't really know any better when it came to expectations at school. We challenged her to buckle down, while realizing she was only 8. She could frustrate us, but we figured she was just going through the normal progression.
That changed the next year, with Martha Gillespie. A former elementary school librarian, Mrs. Gillespie noticed early on that Mary wasn't keeping pace.
"She recognized that Mary was an inattentive daydreamer, which is a hallmark of ADHD in girls," said my wife, Lauri, an occupational therapist. "It's very different from what most people characterize as ADHD."
When most people hear ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), they think of children who are fidgety, hyperactive, impulsive, and maybe even disruptive. Mary wasn't any of these. But she was slow to transition in the classroom.
Mary was typically the last one to get her materials out for a new project, the last to put things away when the class moved on to another topic, and the last out the door for recess. Not a big deal, right? But Martha Gillespie made a note of it. In a classroom of 22 kids, she recognized that this child was struggling to keep up.
"Martha always had such a clear voice," said Lauri. "What made her special was that she was able to pay so much attention to one child in her class, and advocate for her. She took action. Not many teachers would do that.
"She saw Mary's action within the classroom setting, and recognized that it could be a problem for her long-term, if not addressed early."
Which brings me back to the four major principles that Mrs. Gillespie brought to her profession that any coach can benefit from.
Caring. Like any good coach or parent, Mrs. Gillespie made the effort to look below the surface. She didn't take my daughter at face value, but took the time to see if there was something else going on. She encouraged us to have Mary tested, both by the school, and more importantly, by outside evaluators.
In that way, Martha Gillespie displayed a rare and special attention to detail. That’s what coaches need to do. Kids aren't created equal. You need to get to know each one of them, and understand what makes them tick. That's a tall order. But it's also what makes coaches special.
Accountability. For Martha Gillespie, "caring" was a two-way street. Her students had to care as well. She never made any excuses for Mary, and I assume that she held our child to the same standard as every other youngster in her class. That was important to Lauri and me. Moreover, this is where Mrs. Gillespie was able to establish a level of expectation that applied to every child.
This is not semantics. Children will have different strengths and weaknesses, in the classroom and in the playing arena. So it's OK for teachers, and coaches, to adjust their expectations based on those individual qualities. But the one constant is effort. Martha Gillespie insisted that Mary try. And she had our full support.
Communication. Here's another "two-way" street. Identifying an issue is only the start. If you're a coach, you need to be able to talk to the parents of a child if there's an issue interfering with the team's chemistry. Conversely, parents have a two-fold responsibility.
First, if your child does have a disability, you coach deserves to know. Don't assume it won't be an issue (I'm speaking from experience here). Second, if you've taken that step, and you feel it's falling on deaf ears, you need to advocate for your child. That's not always easy, but it's necessary.
Commitment. Teaching, like coaching, ought to be a calling first, and a profession second. Martha Gillespie did what she felt was the right thing to do, regardless of what the consequences might be. How many of us can say that?
Like Mary's second-grade teacher, Mrs. Gillespie could have let our daughter coast. Her grades were satisfactory, if unexceptional, and she would have graduated. That wasn't acceptable to Martha. Instead, she went to bat for a child who she felt had potential, but wouldn't fulfill that promise without extra help.
Though I have no hard evidence, I'm convinced that having Mrs. Gillespie serve as such a strong advocate for Mary made it easier for Lauri and I to get our child the assistance she needed. We had her tested at Children's Hospital, and they confirmed Mrs. Gillespie's suspicions.
Our local school district was very supportive, "but that was driven by how attentive Martha was," said Lauri. "These were subtle things. They weren't blatant."
This past June, Mary graduated from high school, with a 3.4 grade point average. To say I'm immensely proud of this young woman would be an understatement. This child, together with my wife, worked her tail off, and made herself into a better student. As you read this, she'll be a freshman at the University of New England, pursuing a degree in sports medicine, and playing for the Nor'easters volleyball team.
At her graduation, my wife and I invited Mary's high school volleyball coach, who was tremendous advocate for our daughter, and one former teacher. That teacher was Martha Gillespie. She brought a scrapbook that her students had made for her, nine years earlier. The fact that she kept that memento was another testament to what her students meant to her.
As she was preparing to leave, I pulled Mrs. Gillespie aside. I told her I couldn't let her go without saying "Thank you," and sharing the immense sense of gratitude that came from the bottom of my heart.
"Please, you're going to make me cry," she said.
But I was way ahead of her. My eyes welled up with tears as I told this woman what an important role she played in helping to pave the road that would allow my daughter to succeed, not only in school, but also in life. Whatever this child achieves going forward, she will owe a debt to her third grade teacher.
What a wonderful legacy for any teacher. Or coach.