First Person

First Person: How Olympic athletes saved my teaching career

PHOTO: Craig Macleod
The author in his classroom.

Three years ago, I was dragging myself toward the end of my fourth year of teaching. The stress of testing and my struggles with the curriculum had me on the verge of burning out.

Today, I’m still a teacher. And, as odd as it may sound, what changed my outlook was two Olympic figure skaters.

At the end of that exhausting school year, I stumbled across an organization called Classroom Champions. It connects classrooms in low-income neighborhoods with Olympic and Paralympic athletes. I signed up, and my class of fifth graders was paired with then-U.S. Olympic silver medalist figure skaters, Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

In video chats over the course of the school year, Meryl and Charlie talked to my students about ways to set goals and what it looks like to persevere when situations get difficult. As a class, we created our own goals to raise money for the Penny Harvest program.

As Meryl and Charlie continued their journey to a second Olympics, we followed along. Then they won their first gold medal in the ice dancing competition at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. It was an unforgettable experience to watch my students’ excitement.

By then, inspired by Meryl and Charlie, I wanted to make the next year even better.

April Holmes, the U.S. Paralympic gold medalist, became our new mentor. My fifth graders, many of whom receive special-education services, easily made connections between their own lives and the struggles April faced after losing her leg in a train accident when she was 18. When we set our own goals, every one of my students contributed items to our school’s food drive.

This past school year, my class worked with luge bronze medalist Erin Hamlin. With her guidance, they took on monthly challenges. The students brainstormed scenes in which they needed to be honest, then created their own screenplays, assigned roles, and decided how each scene would look on camera before filming them. They also wrote about situations when they showed perseverance — from memorizing their multiplication tables to facing their greatest fear by snow-tubing down a humongous hill.

My students spoke more often about achieving their goals and seemed more likely to offer each other an encouraging word. As Meryl, Charlie, April, and Erin persevered, my students wanted to persevere alongside them.

If this all sounds cheesy, or too good to be true, I get it. But it’s a fact that each year, the Olympic mentors have changed the feel and the character of my class.

The personal connections the athletes built with my students through video lessons and live chats brought out strengths I didn’t even know they had. I saw students who were extremely shy or struggled with public speaking raise their hands to ask their athlete mentors questions. I saw students who shied away from the spotlight challenge themselves to become leaders in the classroom, on our sports teams, and in our school government.

The program re-sparked my own passion, too. Having a chance to engage my students with new technology and infusing character education lessons into my curriculum made me love teaching again. Simply stated, Classroom Champions saved my teaching career.

A quote from one of my students after a chat with Erin Hamlin puts it best: “I can do more than what I think I can.”

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.