One of those countless Friday after-work discussions we have with our teaching colleagues has stuck in my mind for the past year.
“We’re the only profession in the world,” stated a fellow teacher, “where we are judged not by how we perform, but by how other people perform.”
That stopped me in my tracks. Usually I have a snappy comeback to just about anything that’s thrown my way involving education, but I was left speechless, thinking of a response.
“Except for college coaches,” I replied, after much thought. “They’re judged on how well their team does.”
“Maybe,” they said, “I never thought about it that way.”
I’ve continued to think about that exchange in the year since it happened. I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong-I think college coaches have it a lot easier than we do as teachers, especially when it comes to state achievement tests.
When I teach my sophomore students at Brookhaven, I use a lot of sports analogies-especially football-it’s in my DNA.
My paternal grandfather’s father was a teacher, principal and later superintendent. It was only natural that after graduating from Denison my grandfather also became an educator, teaching high school social studies and coaching high school football on the side.
He enlisted in the Navy shortly before the attack at Pearl Harbor, seeing the gathering storm clouds of war on the horizon-such was the mettle of his generation. After being honorably discharged, he worked as a head football coach for Denison, Miami, and was hired on at Ohio State after Wes Fesler resigned due to too many losing seasons.
He was hired by Ohio State’s Board of Trustees to achieve one goal- to have a winning season, but especially to beat Michigan each and every year.
I was hired by the Columbus Board of Education to achieve one goal- to help my students graduate, something that cannot happen unless they pass the Social Studies Ohio Graduation Test (OGT).
That is why the Social Studies OGT is my Michigan game.
Building His Team
In his years at Ohio State, my grandfather actively recruited the best talent for his team. He knew who was returning from the previous year and had a total of 88 slots to fill on his team roster.
A select group of Ohio State football loyalists called frontliners helped to funnel talent onto the team. By phoning in the names, scores and stats of prospects from their corner of the state my grandfather knew which houses to go to for a recruiting visit. His tried and true pitch was delivered not to the Ohio State hopefuls, but to their parents over the kitchen table.
“If your son comes to Ohio State,” he would say after eating a home-cooked meal with seconds of the best pie he’d ever had, “he’ll get an education and graduate with a diploma. I’ll make sure of it.” That inevitably cemented the decision of the parents and he would walk out of their home with another slot on his roster filled. He was one player closer to beating Michigan.
There were a few remaining spaces on the squad left open for walk-on hopefuls. Countless college freshmen from every corner of Ohio as well as the nation tried out every year for the few slots before the season began. Many tried out, but few succeeded.
Building My Team
The 150 spaces for my players are filled each year by a computer– I can’t recruit. My players hail from every corner of the district and many come from other countries. Each one of my players are walk-ons, and all succeed in joining my team.
I have no frontliners to tell me the tales of my players’ previous performances, but I do have access to my players’ stats. Every conceivable piece of data on each one of my players, including their scores on state achievement tests, grades, attendance and disciplinary record is just a few mouse clicks away.
Many times my first contact with my players’ parents is over the phone during summer after they’ve decided that their child is attending my school. Usually our first face-to-face meeting is during Open House, and I can’t remember the last time I was invited over for dinner.
My goal is the same as my grandfather’– the players on my team will get an education and graduate with a diploma too, but they have to pass the Social Studies OGT first-it’s their Michigan game as much as it is mine.
Ohio State Practices
My grandfather’s practices were legendary for their frequency, length and intensity. Two-a-days in the summer were a foregone conclusion, as were practices over holidays and breaks during the season. A typical practice lasted for hours, and wasn’t over until he was said it was over.
Daily practice for his team was brutal. New and returning players were expected to memorize the team playbook– it guided his practices. Fundamentals were emphasized from the moment a player joined the Ohio State team. A skill not learned was practiced again, again and again until the player mastered it. His objective was to push his players beyond their limits; he believed that practice should be hard and that the game should be easy.
“If you’re going to fight in the North Atlantic,” my grandfather would say, referencing the hard-hitting preparations his players endured day after day, “you have to practice in the North Atlantic.”
Freshman players were required to attend my grandfather’s mandatory literacy course after practice, Word Power book in hand. He knew it would prepare his players to be victorious off the field. Knowing the word “apathy”, for example, might not help them in the huddle, but it would in a business meeting.
My practices are no less brutal than my grandfather’s, but I am limited to just one per day, totaling 5 per week. Instead of lasting hours, my practices last precisely 48 minutes a day. I do not have the luxury of ending them when I truly want to- the bell does that for me.
My players don’t have a playbook-I do. Mine is a three-ring binder labeled “Curriculum Guide” and it sequences my practices everyday. I emphasize fundamentals for my players as well. They practice skills again and again until I am satisfied they have mastered them.
I push my players to their limits so that their practices are hard and their Michigan game-the OGT-is easy.
“If you’re to pass the Social Studies OGT and graduate,” I tell my players, “you’re going to take every quiz and test in my room under the same conditions of the OGT. That means no talking during the quiz or test, and I can’t help you on questions you don’t understand-you’ll have to figure it out on your own.”
My players need word power, but I don’t use a book with that title. Literacy strategies are embedded within my players’ practices. Knowing the difference between the word “Legislator” and the word “Legislative” could spell the difference between a victory and a loss for my players.
Ohio State’s Season Begins
My grandfather knew well in advance of the regular season what the schedule was for his players. His season would consist of games where his players would regularly face off against the Boilermakers, Spartans, and of course the Wolverines. Some games were played in the familiar setting of the Horseshoe; others were played on the road, in an unfamiliar town and a foreign stadium.
Armchair quarterbacks and analysts throughout the state awaited the first game of the season between the Buckeyes and their non-conference opponents. My grandfather was oblivious; he saw the first game of the season as the first of many tests for his players. For him, it assessed how they applied the lessons they had learned throughout summer practice, their endurance, and ultimately their will to win.
The first game of the season was always played during the sweltering heat on a Saturday in late summer, and the visiting team knew they were cannon fodder for a group of Buckeye players who wanted nothing more than to win.
At the first game of the season, tens of thousands of fans fit themselves into the Horseshoe’s then 80,000 stadium seats to see the Buckeyes win. The noise level in the stadium was always deafening- sometimes my grandfather’s team could barely hear the play that was being called for the next down. At the end of the first game, my grandfather’s players would go to the locker room. The media was always there, clamoring to interview the players and their coach.
My grandfather would stay late into the night at his office deep in the bowels of the stadium after the Buckeyes’ first matchup, reviewing game films to assess how his players performed. His assistants would always be present, and by the end of the long night, my grandfather had pinpointed mistakes made by individual players and the team as a whole. His players would learn from their mistakes in the coming practices until they got it right for the next game.
My Players’ Season Begins
I know what the season’s schedule is for my players as well, though unlike my grandfather, I have the luxury of being able to reschedule a game if I think my players aren’t ready. My season consists of games where my players regularly face off against the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Imperialism and types of economic systems, to name a few. Almost all of my games are home games, played in the same stadium-my room.
My first game is played in the sweltering heat of a September weekday, and it is always a test for my players-the literal kind, not figurative. Some of my players believe they are cannon fodder for a test that wants them to do nothing more than fail. For me, their first game assesses how they apply the lessons they have learned throughout our practices and their will to win.
My players fit themselves into the thirty five desks in my stadium during their first game; I am the only fan allowed in. The noise level in my room is non-existent and my players can always hear a pin drop during their game. At the end of the game, my players are dismissed by a bell-no reporters are there to conduct interviews.
I, too, review my players’ films-their results from the first game. Usually I am up late that night assessing their performance as well. I have no assistants, but I am able to pinpoint mistakes made by my individual players and my teams as a whole. My players will learn from their mistakes in the coming practices until they get it right for the next game.
Countdown to His Michigan Game
After each game, my grandfather would continue to prepare his assistants and his players for the next match up, the impending game with Michigan drawing closer with each practice. It was always in the front of his mind-and his players’. My grandfather knew that each player’s performance on the field for the game must be perfect, and that his team had to rely on each other to claim a victory in their upcoming battle.
He reviewed every film of every game Michigan had played against their opponents in current and past seasons, memorizing the intricacies of each. He would be up at night and early in the morning in front of the projector screen, rewinding and fast forwarding to catch the mistakes the Michigan team on the field and exploit it for the success of his players in their upcoming battle. To do this, he spent hours devising a counter to every play and strategy Michigan employed on the field against their opponents, and made his players practice it to perfection.
In the week of the Michigan game, my grandfather would run extended practices. He had his players run through every play that would be used against Michigan, insisting on perfection from his players. Failing to prepare his team to beat Michigan was out of the question for him. Losing this crucial battle could have cost him his job during some of his years at Ohio State if his players didn’t perform.
My grandfather started an Ohio State football tradition the week of the Michigan game-the senior tackle. Seniors that would graduate in the spring would get to drive the tackling sled a few yards as the official send-off before their final regular season game. It was his way of thanking the players for their hard work and focusing them on the task that lay ahead.
The night before the Michigan game, my grandfather always sequestered his players in a hotel to keep them focused on the game to be won the next day. Lights were out at 11 P.M., and there were no outside distractions.
Countdown To Their Michigan Game
I continue to prepare my players for each next game of their season, their impending matchup with the OGT drawing closer with each practice. It is always in the front of my mind-and most of my players’.
I have spent hours devising lessons for every potential strategy the 42 members of the Social Studies OGT squad will use against my players. I have reviewed every game played by the OGT, and have memorized the intricacies of each question in the four seasons the state has exchanged game films with the education community.
I have spent late nights and early mornings in front of the computer screen, clicking back and forth, knowing full well that the OGT will perform flawlessly; it will make no mistakes that my players can exploit. My players’ performance must be perfect and they will enter the game as a team of one, and must rely on themselves to claim a victory.
In the week of OGT testing, our class schedule is dramatically altered, and if I see my players, it’s for no more than a half an hour, a far cry from an extended practice. I can’t review for the OGT with my players because failure to abide by the Ohio Department of Education’s rules for testing could cost me my job at Brookhaven.
My players attend an OGT pep rally in the auditorium the Friday afternoon prior to the week of testing. A few released test items are offered on the LCD screen, some of which are old Social Studies questions. Their heads turn towards me during the relative silence as I yell “You better get this one right!”
My players spend the night before the Social Studies OGT at their own homes, in their own beds, and there are plenty of distractions-TV, radio, cell phones, and the internet.
The Day Arrives for His Players: What Could Be?
The morning of the Michigan game, my grandfather would have a breakfast of toast and orange juice with his captains-a tradition at Ohio State. They would talk strategy, of the plays to be called, the situations they could encounter, the unforeseen that they tried to prophesize. When everyone was properly dressed in coats and ties, the players were led by my grandfather to chartered bus. The group arrived at the stadium early, and continued going over plays and diagrams for the battle that was about to ensue.
There was endless media coverage the day of the Michigan game; media representatives from far and wide crowded the stadium. The players were subject to endless media speculation on every aspect of the game that would be played in a few hours. It was always a foregone conclusion that the contest’s results would decide the outcome of the team’s season and their chances at a Bowl Game.
Seniors on my grandfather’s college team desperately hungered for a final victory against Michigan. To lose in the final matchup against their arch-rival would deny them the privilege of bragging for the rest of their lives.
The Day Arrives For My Players: What Must Be.
The morning of the 2009 spring Social Studies OGT, my players had breakfast with each other-every one of them a captain of their team of one. They board their school bus and arrive at their stadium before students who aren’t testing, but there are no last-minute review sessions for their upcoming personal battle.
My players are lucky if there’s a mention of the OGT on the news; no reporters of any kind come anywhere near their stadium. The players on my teams are subject to endless self-speculation; it is state law that the contest’s results will decide the outcome of their own season and their potential chances at a diploma.
The handful of high school seniors on my teams desperately hunger for a final victory against the social studies OGT. To lose in the final matchup against what has become their arch-rival would deny them the privilege of participating in graduation with their peers.
Game Time At The ‘Shoe
When players on my grandfather’s team took the field, they ran at breakneck pace from the locker room to the field, and were met with deafening cheers from the tens of thousands of fans in the stadium. Despite the overwhelming noise, I don’t think my grandfather heard any of it. The millions of armchair quarterbacks throughout the nation that were tuned in to see the pending battle of wills hooted and hollered in front of their television sets too, but he didn’t hear them, either.
Immediately before the game, the PA crackled to life.
“Please join us in singing the national anthem,” a disembodied voice always said. Hats were removed, and the stadium reverberated with tens of thousands of voices singing in unison as the Stars and Stripes were hoisted up the flagpole at the closed end of the stadium.
Throughout the game, my grandfather stood with his squad gathered together, and stalked the sidelines like a caged animal. A chalk-dust line was the only thing separating him from his team on the field, sometimes failing to hold him back. During the game, he received constant updates from his assistant coaches as to the progress of his team. He could and did bark “Robust Fullback Delay” or the other names of plays to his players on the field from the sidelines to influence the course of the game.
If the referee flagged my grandfather’s team on a play for an irregularity on the field, the decision would come quickly and could have been a setback to the team, but would not necessarily cost them the game.
My grandfather always knew who had the ball, and what down it was. If there was any question as to the progress of the game, he could quickly glance over at the scoreboard. Fans and my grandfather alike counted down the last few seconds of the sixty minute game from the scoreboard. The players on my grandfather’s team would know the final score of the season’s most important game as soon as the time ran out.
Fan reaction would vary at the end of my grandfather’s players’ game. If the players won, the thousands of fans would swarm the field, tear down the goalposts and bedlam would ensue. If the players lost, the mass of Ohio State fans would quietly file out of the stadium.
Game Time At The ‘Haven
Shortly before my players take the field, the PA crackles to life.
“Teachers, please make sure you remove all of the flags from your room before the students arrive to take the Social Studies OGT,” the disembodied voice says.
The directive is well intentioned, but a mistake. In the previous state achievement test given before the OGT, there were questions asked about the significance of the number of stripes and stars on the Flag-none exist on this test. In rooms across the school, teachers hurry to move Flags to rooms where students aren’t testing.
When players on my team get ready to take the field, they walk, calmly and carefully. No fans cheer them on, save one-me. As each passes me by, I give them each a “Deal or No Deal” Howie Mandel “fist bump”, meeting their gaze with mine and saying only three words.
“You got this.”
Throughout my players’ game, they are separated into different rooms-split up, categorized by last name. My players are scrutinized by the silent gazes of two teachers assigned to their room as proctors-referees, not fans. They are the only individuals that will bear witness to the game that my players have been training for over the past six months that is about to play out before them.
I am not even on the field with them-I am assigned to be a hall monitor. I catch glimpses of my players throughout the game as I stalk the halls. During the game, I have no updates regarding the progress of my team. Even if I was on the field with my players, I cannot bark “Constructed Response Delay”, lest I lose my teaching license.
If my players are flagged by the referees in the room for a perceived testing irregularity, the state is the final arbiter. Their decision takes months and could cost one or more of my players their game.
I am intentionally kept in the dark as to the progress of my players’ game-even if I have questions, I cannot find out answers during the game. The two proctors in each one of my students’ stadiums count down the last few minutes of the two and a half hour matchup.
The reaction of the proctors at the end of my players’ matchup is always the same, three short sentences:
“Stop. Put your pencils down. Testing is now over.”
The players on my team won’t be notified by the state of the score of their most important game until nearly two and a half months from when their time ran out.
After His Michigan Game: Everything’s Coming Up Roses
My grandfather’s players prepared for the game as a team and won or lost as a team. For the senior players on the squad, a game-winning score was met with jubilance- smiles, hugs, high-fives, even tears of joy. Seniors who didn’t win their game walked out of the stadium in a somber mood; most were quiet, dejected. Others were visibly angry-some cried. Spring graduation couldn’t come quickly enough for some of them.
Regardless of whether his players won or lost, my grandfather was always besieged by the media to comment on the game, its significance to him, his players, Ohio State’s football program or college athletics in general. If my grandfather did comment, he would always credit the hard work of his players and his assistant coaches.
After My Michigan Game: Is Everything Coming Up Roses?
My players prepared for the game as a team but will win or lose as individuals.
My senior players won’t learn the score of their game until a month before they are supposed to graduate.
My seniors will greet their game-winning score with smiles, sighs of relief, hugs, high-fives, even tears of joy
If there are those who don’t win their game, they too will be somber. Most will be quiet, many will be angry- some may cry. Only a month away, graduation with their class is not a possibility. They must take the OGT again, endure the long wait for their score and graduate in late summer.
No reporters will stay to talk to me when I learn my players’ scores and ask me about the game I didn’t see, its significance to me, my students, Columbus City Schools or the future of urban education. If I were asked, I would credit my players for their hard work and their families for supporting them in the biggest game of their lives.
The Saturday after the OGT, I begin to prepare for the remainder of my players’ year.
What’s Really Important?
In his early years, my grandfather was met by ivory-tower opinion from a handful of Ohio State faculty members about the growing emphasis on the University’s football program over its academic program.
“Football,” they opined privately and publicly, “should always come after academics.”
Education armchair quarterbacks who have never set foot in a classroom like mine question teachers who they think put too much emphasis on their students passing achievement tests alone. In their ivory-tower opinion, “teaching to the test” debases the very point of standardized achievement testing and “dumbs down” the curriculum.
I don’t teach to the test; I teach around it, behind it, through it and over and above it.
My grandfather used football as an analogy and a metaphor for life-the lessons his players learned on the field was more than X’s and O’s, playbooks and statistics. From him, they learned about hard work, about perfection and especially the will to win-lessons that would be used repeatedly throughout their lives.
I use the time I have with my students to get them ready for what lies in wait for them. I want them to learn more about hard work, about perfection and especially the will to win-lessons my students will use repeatedly throughout their lives.
Words of Wisdom
Several of my grandfather’s statements about hard work have gained a life of their own.
“In all my years of coaching,” he would state at his speaking engagements, cleft chin jutting out, “I’ve never seen anyone make a tackle with a smile on their face.” Crowds would nod their approval, murmuring among themselves.
“And,” he would inevitably add at some point later on in the same speech, “you win with people.”
In all my years of teaching, I’ve never seen anyone pass the OGT with a smile on their face either. And you do win with people.