Getting to the Next Level: A Student-Athlete Counselor

Let me preface this piece by saying that as a coach and teacher, there is much more I could do to help my student-athletes. I am aware of this, and I have carried this burden for as long as I have been a coach. It’s not easy, however. Because of the many responsibilities that come with being an educator and coach, coupled with the responsibilities I have as a husband, father, brother, and friend, it’s difficult finding the extra time necessary to help my players prepare for a possible playing career at the collegiate and/or university level. To improve his players’ chances, a coach must take on the role of “counselor” and have access to counseling resources.  After all, helping students get to post-secondary education is an intrinsic part of a counselor’s job description, at least philosophically speaking. However, even for actual counselors, this isn’t an easy task. Counselors are overburdened with massive student loads, sometimes 450 kids per counselor. Add to this the plethora of responsibilities that counselors have to account for, including class scheduling, transcript explanations, parent conferences, A-G requirements, meetings, and graduation. It’s a seemingly unending line of duties, and if you’re familiar with the world of public education, then you can sympathize.  

In this piece, I introduce an idea that could help high school athletes earn athletic scholarships. 

IDEA

As the head coach of a nationally ranked soccer team (Alisal High School) I’ve had the privilege of coaching some incredibly talented soccer players, and while a few have been able to continue their playing careers at the college and university levels, there have been many, many more that should’ve followed in these players’ footsteps. It should be noted that there is also a significant number of gifted soccer players that never actually get to play for their high schools because they have difficulty meeting their school’s eligibility requirements, which usually consist of a 2.0 GPA (C- average) and Satisfactory Citizenship marks. This is a topic for another time, though.

Getting an student-athlete to the next level is a challenge. In addition to having the proper GPA, there’s a list of qualifications that a student-athlete must meet, including specific class loads for specific Divisions (DI, DII, DIII, etc.), deadlines, GPA’s, SAT’s and ACT’s, and financial aid applications. What makes this even more difficult is that the road built to connect the high school athlete to an NCAA career is unfamiliar to many in secondary education, even to actual high school counselors. Counselors are the people that can facilitate the process for student-athletes, but as it stands, many counselors are not versed in NCCA Clearinghouse Qualifications or the “Core 16.” They couldn’t tell you what it means to be a “Qualifier” or “Partial Qualifier.” They don’t normally have to deal with this language, and so they simply do not know, and there’s no urgency to follow up and learn it. Of course, there are counselors that have some knowledge of this world, but they’re scarce.

What can I do to put my players in prime position to earn a full-ride, soccer scholarship right out of high school? I think about this a lot, mainly because I am surrounded by a vast amount of talent, talent that often goes wasted and unnoticed. It is a question that weighs on me heavily, but I believe I may have found an answer, or at least an idea that can lead to one.

First, however, let me tell you about Larry Beltran. A divine talent, Larry was a champion at every level of soccer he’s ever played. In high school, he was a two-time league champion, a California DI State-Section Champion, MVP, All-League Player-of-the-year, All-County Player-of-the-Year, First Team All-America Selection, and an All-Star. He was every recruiter’s dream, with Division II schools not even being an option. In fact, there’s even a possibility that Larry, at the age of 17, could’ve forged a professional career for himself had he been given the chance.

After his senior year, I received a call from the assistant coach at UCLA. They wanted Larry. The coach was reviewing the names on the First Team All-America list and noticed something odd about Larry’s name. Each First Team selection was coupled with the name of the university of which they had committed to play soccer. Larry’s name was not paired with any university. This part of the list was blank. He was the only one on that list that was not connected to a university. Naturally, UCLA was salivating at the idea of snagging an All-America player, one that had somehow escaped everyone’s view.

“Hi, coach. Just want to let you know that we’re really interested bringing Larry to UCLA. We noticed that he’s not committed to any school. What’s his GPA?” It was the first and only question he asked. “Well, I think he has a 2.2,” I said. “Oh, ok. Damn. I’m sorry. We can’t get him in, but tell him to go to the community college and play two-years, and maybe we can be ready for him when he transfers,” he said. “Ok, coach. I’ll let him know. Thanks,” I said. It was not a pleasant call. I really wanted this for Larry. Larry deserved it. His talent needed to be showcased. Unfortunately, when it came to academic effort and guidance, Larry’s four-year plan left a lot to be desired.

Larry’s is just one story of many similar stories. He didn’t have the grades. There was nothing the UCLA coach could’ve done for Larry because the first stipulation is that an prospective athlete must first be able to meet the school’s basic admission requirements. These requirements are set forth by the university and not the coach. The coach must abide by these requirements. Once the athlete gets accepted, then the coaches can step in an begin to construct a plan for their athlete.

Could something had been done to improve Larry’s chances of getting to UCLA, while he was still a high school student? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” And this is where I present my proposal. It’s a multi-step process, but it’s not outside the realm of the infrastructure that is already in place at every high school in the nation.

To keep things simple, I’ll use my school as an example for the plan. I propose that every coach at Alisal High School, in all sports, pinpoints those athletes who he or she believes displays the athletic talent worthy of perhaps earning a full-ride or even partial-ride athletic scholarship to university in their respective sport. Even if the potential is small, these athletes should be identified by coaches.

Now, once these athletes have been identified, the load could range from 100 to 200 athletes, they would then be grouped together, and they would be assigned to a “Student-Athlete Counselor,” a specific counselor that is 100%, well-versed in the NCAA Clearinghouse language and is fully committed to ensuring that these identified athletes stay on course and in-line with NCAA Qualifier requirements. It would require vigilance on the part of the coach and counselor, with periodic athletic checks to make sure that the identified athlete is on course through all four-years of high school. Ideally, we would catch these athletes as freshman, but I believe it would be more realistic to identify them as sophomores, once coaches have already seen these athletes perform. The input of middle school coaches could definitely help in identifying freshman talent, giving us early detection help.

If Larry, a player whose talents were known by many when he was barely a freshman, would’ve had this kind of academic guidance, things would perhaps be different for him. He’d probably be finishing his career at UCLA, perhaps readying for a professional career. As it turned out, Larry went on to even more soccer success, helping the local community college earn its first ever California State Championship. This, of course, is not surprising given Larry’s level of talent. Now, Larry is doing his best to move on, but he’s caught in somewhat of a rut, three-years later, still at the community colleges, his two-years of eligibility used up, trying to transfer to a university. The talent is still there, but UCLA is no longer an option.

My hope is that Alisal High School will move to create this position and to give our student-athletes a fighter’s chance of getting to the next level where they should be.

When the Bell Rings: My Classroom Experiences

Manny

For high school teachers, the Student Behavior Referral Form is perhaps the most popular and mostly used document in the world of education. This is because the “referral” provides the most powerful form of leverage teachers have in dealing with unruly and defiant students.  When used judiciously and appropriately, it allows teachers to formally dismiss a student from their class for a certain length of time, depending on the severity of the kid’s behavior. A dismissal can range from just the remainder of the period to a one-week suspension. In the most extreme cases, a referral could potentially lead to student expulsion.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you that getting rid of that “one kid” is a game changer in terms of maintaining classroom management and creating a safe and effective learning environment for all students. If you have trouble picturing this, just imagine a kid wielding a knife in a crowded classroom and every student in this class cowering and nervous and completely aware of the knife and the kid. Imagine the tension level. Now, imagine the kid with the knife being removed from the class for good, no longer to ever return. Imagine the peace. There you go. This is what it’s like to get rid of that “one kid.”

Of course, because of its quick-fix quality, some teachers are keen on overusing the referral, often gratuitously. The power-struggle between a teacher and unruly kid can go on for some time, and when it does, resentment is born, causing the teacher to continually dismiss a kid just because he doesn’t like him. It happens. This behavior is no different than when a second grader gives candy to all her classmates, except to that “one kid,” because she doesn’t like him. Addressing the same problem child for 180 days would shrink anyone’s heart.

In my thirteen-year career as an English teacher (I am no longer a mainstream teacher), I had hundreds of reasons to write several referrals. I didn’t, though. This is because my patience level, for some reason, is almost Buddha-like. I don’t know from where it came, but I am blessed with a respectable level of tolerance and patience. In thirteen-years of dealing with vampires, kids that can suck the soul right out of a person, I pride myself on only writing two referrals in my thirteen-years as a mainstream teacher. Oh, believe me, I had those fucking forms filled-out and signed and ready to be delivered, but there was always a reason, a voice gently imploring me to refrain from doing so.

However, I gave in twice. One of the referrals, at least I believe, had legitimate cause. It was the last day of school, and during these last few weeks of classes, I had received two, telephoned death threats. When Alex said to me on the last day of school as he walked out of class, “Watch your back, Mr. C. You might get shot,” all while pointing a fake finger gun at me, I naturally balked and fell into self-defense mode. I reported it to our administrative team. The kid and his parents were brought in for a formal meeting, which ultimately resulted in Michael’s expulsion from the district. I saw him a few years later when I went to Little Cesar’s to get pizza for my class. He was the cashier. We remembered each other, and no hard feelings were had. I should’ve asked if he graduated. I hope he did.

Maybe Michael’s referral was warranted. His was the second I had ever written. Manny’s was the first. Manny was a pain in the ass of the highest order. He came to class prepared to test me every single day, and I absorbed his behavior and his remarks and his defiance. I was not going to let him beat me. He was a wannabe gangbanger, and he was always decked out in the standard Cholo uniform: oversized white T-shirt, oversized gray jeans, Nike Cortez, shaved head, and little starter mustache. His school supplies were rolled into a small tube and shoved into the back pocket of his 501’s, with a black pen clipped to the lip of the front pocket. It was all he ever brought to school, and in his eyes, it was all he ever needed.

When Manny said something like, “Fuck this shit! I ain’t moving. This is my seat!” I would ignore him. I’d wait a minute or so, then shoot him a look, just to let him know I hadn’t forgot about him. We’d lock eyes, and then he’d move back to his seat. When he was twenty-minutes late to our fifth period class, the class after lunch, I’d ask, “You got a pass?” “I was in the bathroom,” he’d say. Then he would sit at his seat, and look around to see what everyone was doing. He’d then pull out his paper and start drawing, and I wouldn’t stop him. When he’d say, “I don’t get it,” after I had just explained subject-verb agreement, and I’d look to him, sort of relieved that he was asking for help, only to notice that he was drawing a picture of Mickey Mouse smoking a joint, I’d look away and ignore him. He knew what he was doing, but I did, too.
Manny was reacting to something, but I could not figure it out. He was angry, but I could not tell why?

I must’ve tried every geometrical, data driven seating assignment possible for Manny, but wherever I sat him, he always found a way to fuck things up, whether it was tagging on a desk, talking across the room, banging his head against the closet, or just straight up mad-dogging me. It was always something with Manny.
At the semester, I had Manny moved into my sixth period class. I figured that he might benefit from a change of scenery, different faces and personalities. Nothing changed, though, but because it was sixth period, I was able to keep him for after-school detention, something I began to do more often than not.

I was also the school’s yearbook adviser, so I usually had students in my class working on their assignments long after the day was done. During after school detention, Manny sat right in front of the class, as everybody around him worked on their yearbook assignments.

As a teacher back then, I never really used a desk. I liked it this way. Instead, I sat in a chair with wheels and used the student desk in the first row as my home, even when there was a kid sitting there. They never seemed to mind. In sixth period, this desk belonged to Manny, but it was also mine. We shared what little space there was on that little desk, but we also shared the immediate space around us. There was nowhere for him to look other than at my face, and he couldn’t get up and wander because I was always there to remind him that it was a bad idea. I wasn’t mean about it. I didn’t have to be. He didn’t like being there, and he probably figured that if he cooperated, then maybe I’d let him move to another desk. Nevertheless, I kept him after class for nor more than fifteen-minutes, almost on a daily basis. I tried to talk with him, but it was almost futile.

At some point, Manny’s case became personal. I let it get to me, but I couldn’t help it. He began to occupy my mental downtime, time I reserve for not thinking about anything that has to do with teaching. I found myself thinking about him on my drives to and from work. I talked to my girlfriend Jennifer about him. I brought him up with friends. Manny was a rash, and he wasn’t going away.

I take full responsibility for allowing this to happen. I could’ve walked away. A referral cycle would’ve gotten him out of everyone’s hair, and with two-weeks left in the school year, the quality of my own life would’ve greatly improved. Nevertheless, I kept on. I needed to know what was at the center of his conflict. What was it that was causing his rebellion? There was something at work here, and I was determined to find the source. I just didn’t know any better.

One day, with a week left in school, I was sitting directly in front of him, sharing a desk with him. Keep in mind that there were thirty-seven other desks in the room, but we were both sharing one. He was sitting in the built-in chair, and I was on my roller. There was peripheral action going on, as kids were working on their yearbook assignments, while other kids were coming in and out for cameras and pens and questions. But I sat there with Manny, doing my best to strike up even a semblance of dialogue.

I was working on my roll sheets, and Manny had his head down. After a while, I turned around, jumped off my chair, and erased the whiteboard. It had just gotten installed, and I liked that it was easy to clean (teachers are easy). When I was done, I jumped back into the chair and rolled right up to Manny’s desk, our desk. “So how’s your brother?” I asked. I had no knowledge of Manny’s having a brother. I was just asking, and I don’t know why I asked this particular question. He had his head down, but when I asked, he lifted it so that I could see his face. He looked tired, and his eyes were bloodshot and saggy, as if being a full-time asshole was tiring him. He looked like he was barely hanging on. “How do you know I have a brother?” he asked. I was surprised he answered, to be honest. “I don’t. I was just asking. Do you have a brother?” I asked. Manny kept his head up. He was rubbing his eyes. He was never this engaged. I had gotten his attention. “Yeah,” he said reluctantly. “He’s older or younger?” “He’s a senior,” Manny said. Manny was a junior. “Oh, cool! So you have an older brother then? He comes here?” I asked.” “Nah, he goes to Glen,” Manny said.” “What?” I said. “He goes to Glen and you come here? What’s up with that?” “Nah, it’s cuz they have like the things he needs and the classes he needs over there,” Manny said. “Oh,” I said. “Alright. Cool.”

Wow! I casted one final, desperate line, barely baited, and Manny took it. With one-week left in the school year, he fucking took it! I was reeling him, gently and slowly, and he was giving in. I think in this particular moment we were both happy. Both of us had let our guards down a little. We were trucing, and it felt good. We were both aware of it, too. Judging from his answers, Manny felt relieved.

“Oh, he’s a smart kid then, like GATE (gifted kids), and he’s in A.P. and all that shit, huh?” I asked. This is what I genuinely thought. I figured maybe Manny was pissed because he was the “dumb” one and his brother was the “smart” one, and that his parents favored his brother over Manny and he was pissed off about it…simple as that. “Nah, he’s a mute,” Manny said, “and they have special classes for him over there.”

Oh, shit! Things were coming together. Manny was beginning to have reasonable doubt. “Oh, damn. He’s mute? That’s crazy! So you know sign language then, huh?” I asked. Manny looked down a little. “Nah, I don’t know sign language. He’s a deaf, too. He can’t talk,” Manny said.

I was taken aback by Manny’s revelations, and then I knew immediately why Manny was so angry at life. The one guy that he’s supposed to be able to talk to about sex and girls and cars and movies and sports is a deaf mute! His older brother, his hero, is a deaf mute, and Manny can’t even communicate with him because he never bothered to learn sign language. In this moment, I felt for the guy. I really did. “Damn, dude, I’m sorry. “How come you don’t sign language?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Manny said. “I never learned.” I answered with, “Well, it’s not too late.” “Nah, he said.”

The last four-days of school were the most relaxed days I had had in a while. Manny and I, all of sudden, had a student/teacher relationship. We were like friends. We even talked about stuff during class. We couldn’t talk after school because he no longer earned detention. In the end, I saw Manny express a genuine, unforgiving smile.

Manny taught me a huge lesson. He taught me to never give up on a kid. He taught me that all kids, even the kind and gentle ones, are fighting internal and external forces, some more difficult than others, and that as a teacher, I had to be patient with these kids and try to find the source of their sorrow, if possible, so that we can all move forward. My experience with Manny ranks up there as one of the three greatest experiences of my teaching career. As is usually the case, though, I don’t have an update on Manny’s future. He’s probably thirty-eight-years old by now. I just hope he learned sign language and is talking and listening to his brother, and that his brother is able to do the same with him.

 

When the Bell Rings: Classroom Experiences

Virginia

In 1998, when I was first hired as an English teacher/Yearbook Adviser at a Los Angeles area high school, I entered the profession with not even ten-seconds of teaching experience. I was hired during a desperate time in California education, not that things have changed, but in 1998, I slid into the classroom on an “Emergency Credential,” a temporary teaching license distributed to anyone with a heartbeat who expressed interest in teaching. As for me, there was nothing about my future that expressed a genuine interest in teaching. I began teaching because I needed the money.

My first-year schedule consisted of four periods of eleventh grade English and one period dedicated to the construction of the school’s yearbook.The very first period of the day was reserved as my “prep” period. Prep periods provide teachers solitary time to prepare their assignments for the day. I didn’t know it then, but having a prep period at the beginning of the day, at 8 a.m., isn’t too ideal, at least it wasn’t for me. Yeah, it meant my teaching day didn’t start until close to 9 a.m., but it also meant that I would go though the entire day without a break, except for lunch. This proved exhausting, as I quickly found out.

The kids were masters of sapping the life out of me. Answering the same, incessant question is one of the worst parts of teaching. “What’s the date?” “What page?” What’s the date?” “What page?” “Mr. C., can I go the bathroom?” “Can I go, too?” It wore me down and drained a good portion of the energy I reserved for myself, so that when I got home, I was nearly comatose. I think a prep period during the middle part of the day is bit more accommodating and relaxing because a teacher can replenish just enough energy to plow through the rest of the day. A sixth period prep would be would be nice, too, I guess. Anyway, that was my schedule, and it remained so for the four-years I was at Norwalk High.

My first year went well. The kids and I shared connections. I liked them. They liked me. Being the yearbook adviser, too, was nice because it provided me a needed transition from teaching English and writing to a more creative form of teaching and learning.

I was assigned an yearbook staff, and I delegated assignments and sorted through pictures and layouts. It was hands-on work, and I derived great deal joy from it. It also provided another form of relief, one definitely more comical.

There were these two kids, Eli and Carlos. They didn’t really have the yearbook’s interests at heart, but they needed a class to complete their schedule, so their counselors gave them Yearbook. When it came time to giving assignments, they immediately volunteered to cover girls’ volleyball, and when kids volunteered for assignments, I seldom said”no.” I gave them both newly purchased digital cameras and a game schedule and sent them on their way.

A few weeks later, when I reviewed the pictures they had taken, I almost slammed the camera on the floor. The majority of the pictures were zoomed in shots of girls’ asses and of girls bending over. Even the opposing girls got screen time. Some girl was alway picking up a ball or tying her shoe. Pictures of the girls huddling together as a team was a reoccurring shot, too. I said, “C’mon, guys! This isn’t Playboy Magazine! You guys are killing me. I can’t use these. I’ll get fired. You need to get some different shots. You need action shots of them actually playing volleyball.” They were snickering because they knew what they were doing. All in all, it was a fun time, though. I got to know a lot of students. My goal for the yearbook staff was simple: try to get a picture of every single student on this campus into the yearbook, one way or another. We got pretty close, too.

The year buzzed by, and as June rolled in, my introduction to a school’s last week was eye-opening. The students that choked in classes during most of the year had little choice but to ask their teachers for extra-credit. Then there were the students that were always asking to go to other classes to make up work for other teachers or they were asking you to not mark them absent while they took tests in other rooms. A lot of kids were in dire academic positions, and so there was a lot of scrambling and begging. Couple all of this with the fact that a good portion of the student body though has already tuned out and started summer vacation early. There was an issue at every turn, but like a kind-hearted teacher, I tried my best to help my students where ever I could.

Rather than help only a few students, however, I decided to try to help them all. In my English classes, I created an extra-credit assignment for them, a little something to help them earn the grade their parents would be proud of. It was a simple assignment. It had to be. There was no way I was going to read 175 essays with four-days left of school. No way!

On my blackboard, written in white chalk, was the saying, “The life you save may be your own.” The students saw it as they filed in for each period. I had them write it down, and then I said to them, “Your assignment is to write one paragraph about what you think this saying means. Just one paragraph! I don’t want an essay! I don’t want two paragraphs! Just one! It’s due tomorrow. You guys understand? Do you guys understand?” I had to ask twice to make sure it registered. The fair number of “yeahs,” and head nods signaled to me that they got it, and so they stuffed the assignment into their pockets or backpacks and left my room.

The next day, I collected about five paragraphs from second period, fifteen from third period, eight from fifth period (yearbook is fourth period), and twenty from sixth period. Virginia was in my sixth period. She came up to my desk, grabbed the stapler, and crunched together a set of hand-written pages in blue ink. It wasn’t a paragraph. It wasn’t even two paragraphs. Virginia submitted six, full pages of writing, front and back! Her penmanship was alarming, frantic and nervous, even scary. The run-on sentences and jumbled words seemed to be buzzing on the pages, as if they were sliding left and right, edging towards the edges of the pages, ready to jump off to die like lemmings. My only thought was, “Fuck! I have to read all this shit! But I gave her kind look and nicely said, “Thank you, Virginia. I’ll get it back to you tomorrow.” “Ok, Mr. C. Thank you,” she said.

I didn’t look forward to reading Virginia’s paper. I didn’t look forward to reading any of them, but I did. In my students’ defense, it was a strange assignment. I made it up without really thinking it through. It took me years to figure out what the saying meant, and I probably still haven’t nailed it. The answer, I think, comes with experience and maturity, two things most high school student hardly possess. As it turned out, most kids simply took a wild punch at what they thought it meant, and it was ok. I read them all. Some were funny. Some were scary. Some were straight up stupid. Nevertheless, I finished reading them all.

I saved Virginia’s for last because it was the longest one, and after a few beers, I dove in:

“I think what the saying means is that only us can save our own lifes. We are the only ones who can help us. Sometimes others could help but they don’t know what they are doing so they can’t really help. So we have to do it. Like my step-dad. He raped me all the time. I have to help myself. No once can help me and my baby. My best friend doesn’t even know I have a baby because I hided everything with big clothes. My mom thinks I’m not a good girl because she think I have sex with alot of boys. I got pregnant from my step-dad my mom doesn’t know.

And it went on like this, more or less, for six, agonizing, heart wrenching pages. What little energy I had left in the tank had been exhausted. This essay provided the tipping point for my emotional breakdown as a first-year teacher. Virginia was one of my favorite students. She was a sweet girl with a beautiful heart and soul. She had a great personality, and she was incredibly kind and caring. If what she wrote was true, she did not deserve it.

Of course, per Education Code, I had to report this to my superiors. I contacted the one counselor I had gotten to know pretty well. I handed Mrs. Rico the essay. She took it to her office and read it. I saw her again during my sixth period when she called me out to talk to me. She had the essay in her hand. I leaned against the brick wall out side my room and listened to her go on about protocol and about protecting Virginia and getting her help. I cried while she spoke, but it was more like a surrendering.

After school let out, I asked Virginia to stay behind for a few minutes. She did. “Hi, Virginia. How are you?” I said. “I’m good,” she said. I continued. “I read your letter. It’s pretty heavy, man. Is it true?” “Yeah, it’a all true, Mr. C.” “Damn. I’m sorry. I really am.” I said. “You know I had to report it to the counselor or else I get in trouble. Whenever teachers hear something like this, we have to report it. It’s the law.” “I know, Mr. C. I actually wrote it to you because I know that you were going to help me. I knew that you were going to get me help.” She was crying. I held strong.

Virginia saw a therapist the next day or a day after. I’m not sure. Then summer came and I never saw her again. She didn’t return for her senior year. To this day, I have not heard one word concerning her existence. I hope she’s ok, though.

This is how my first year of teaching came to a close. It ended in a gut check. I think I did well to handle the pressure. I’m still in the game, going on my 19th year. I may even be reaching “veteran” status. There are a slew of other incidents that have taken place in-between Virginia’s episode and my 19th year, but those will come, soon. This tale marks the beginning of this new blog series. It will deal with my experiences as a teacher at the high school and college levels. I hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned for more.