Super(intendent) Wisdom: Part 1 — Always a Coach

football flickr dartmouth_harvard

Here’s a warning for you: if we ever get together to talk, or if I hear you speak, I’m going to be taking notes. Ninety percent of the time, I carry around a steno pad, but even if I don’t, I’ll grab a scrap of paper or napkin to write things down.

Being a visual and kinesthetic learner, I absorb information better when I see and apply them. Writing notes and sketching diagrams are two ways that I do this. Plus, writing helps me process at deeper level, and provides a good outlet for the constant flood of ideas in my brain. (This is evidenced by the 1000+ blog posts I’ve written on three blogs I started over the past 5.5 years.)

So, if we meet, I’m going to ask questions, and listen, and write down ideas. I’m not interrogating you or trying to catch you slipping up. I’m merely stealing your ideas.

This is what I did when I had the opportunity to hear from two school administrators earlier this year, my former high school football coach and the current interim Superintendent of Allendale County Schools.

Always a Coach

Robert Maddox is a graduate of Swansea High School, and he returned there to coach and teach before my freshman year in high school. I could not have asked for a better coach and coaching staff, both in on-the-field success (including 2 state championships) and life lessons.

While teaching and coaching, he earned his doctorate in education, and is now the Assistant Superintendent of the school district that includes Swansea. While most people call him “Dr. Maddox,” he’s still Coach Maddox to me, because he still is coaching me.

When I first began working in Allendale, my weekly commute included driving through Swansea. On one trip, I made an impromptu stop at the district office. I “just so happened” to catch Coach Maddox in the office. He blessed me with 45 minutes of his time, as we caught up. (He looked funny with a tie around his neck, instead of a coach’s whistle.)

And over the past three years, we have talked and emailed every few months. While he humbly asked me for advice and lovingly spoke words of encouragement, he also has dropped magnificent pieces of wisdom. I quickly write those down, and moved to take action.

book_teaching_poverty_mindFor example, he is the one who recommended Teaching With Poverty in Mind, which I referenced here, here, here, etc. And he was the first to send me information about the Circles initiative.

A Gameplan that Works

We last met in February, when I somehow crammed another 45 minutes of ideas into one page of notes. He asked me to share from our experiences of working with kids who are growing up in poverty. Likewise, I asked him for advice, since he and his district have been doing some great things and seeing monumental results on this issue. Without going into too much detail here are some principles that I took away from our conversation:

  • Students and adults need real community, “long-term relationships with people who are interested.” Life-on-life mentoring is crucial to changing mindsets.
  • Churches should be on the front line of providing resources (financial and time investments).
  • Summer reading programs are necessary to close the achievement gaps. Giving books to under-resourced kids has yielded positive results.
  • Non-cognitive skills (such as “soft skills” and character) are bigger determinants for long-term success, compared to education skills. Of course, improving cognitive skills are important, too! We just don’t need to ignore the importance of soft skills.
  • In this light, instead of recognizing talent (or the lack thereof), we need to praise strategy, effort, and persistence. For example, when someone fails to accomplish a task correctly, we can start with the question, “Was this your absolute best effort?”
  • Have a growth-mindset. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but in the areas that are weak, we need to remember that we can get better, with proper strategy, effort, and persistence.
  • Kids need physical exercise, which has been shown to increase cognitive ability.
  • Additionally, students who are not literacy proficient need to improve their stamina in reading and writing. He liked the idea that our Elevate Summer Camps included time to read at the beginning of each day, and time for writing at the end of each day.
  • Under-resourced children need alternative after school programs and summer camps, not just remediation. They need to be exposed to a variety of experiences, such as field trips and out-of-town camps.

“A Link in the Chain”

I’m thankful for the Coach Maddox’s investment in me — 20+ years ago and over the past 3 years. I hope that my life can bless others to a fraction of what he’s done for me.

When I told him this he humbly responded,

“I have been blessed by those who coached and taught me. I’m just a link in the chain, just like you are.”

May the chain continue far beyond me, and be strengthened and lengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Next time, I will share what I’ve learned from Dr. Walter Tobin, the interim Superintendent of Allendale County Schools.

Related Links:

**image courtesy of Boston Public Library

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