Coming soon to a classroom near you!
by Suzanne Blake
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When College member Alison Bradley lifts her baton to put the high school band through its paces, her mind is not on her upcoming Olympic debut or her next softball game or the fact that she is one of the best in the world in her sport. She is thinking of what she can do to help her students be the best that they can be. She's listening to their phrasing and pitch and talking them through the difficult parts of music they have yet to master.
Bradley's two worlds - sport and teaching music - may seem miles apart, but they are more intertwined than you think. "There is a common saying among teachers that you must be a lifelong learner, and the same mantra applies to elite athletes. In order to stay at the top of your game - in sport or teaching - you need to be familiar with new things and open-minded about trying them."
Growing up in Pinkerton, the outfielder/pitcher was often told that she would have to choose between her musical aspirations and her softball, but she found that they complemented each other.
Bradley received her Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Western Ontario in 2003 while competing for the Canadian national women's softball team. She jokes about playing the piano in music festivals with her softball sliders on underneath her skirt, but adds that, as a music teacher, she hopes to show her students that you can succeed in a number of areas and that you don't have to sacrifice one talent to achieve success in another. Like many of the athletes who want to teach, Bradley found that balance was important in her life - so that every success or failure did not revolve around sport.
Teachers to be
Swimmer Liz Warden is also going for balance. She completed her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Toronto while establishing herself as one of the world's best swimmers in the individual medley event. She has already completed training that will permit her to become an elementary teacher when her swimming career is over. She says that her job last summer teaching young children reassured her that a classroom is definitely where she wants to be next.
Warden feels that many skills she's learning now will stand her in good stead as a teacher. She talks about organizational skills, learning to balance responsibilities, and being energetic and willing to take on new challenges. "I definitely think there is a connection between high-level sport and teaching," she says. "Elite athletes are in the business of learning and practising new ways to improve in their sport. Students, though they may not always do it consciously, are also constantly learning new skills in order to prepare themselves for life."
Former Montrealer Jessica Chase also plans to pursue an education degree when her competition days are over. But for now Chase trains in Etobicoke as part of the national synchronized swimming team.
Fencer Sherraine MacKay received her teacher training at the University of Ottawa, graduating in 2001. Currently living and training in Paris, France, MacKay consistently ranks among the world's top three in women's épée.
This medal hopeful says her perfect job will have her teaching and coaching fencing in the same school. MacKay says she loved the connections she made with her students during her practice teaching at York Street Public School in Ottawa - connections she felt were enhanced by the travelling she did as a competitive athlete. "I think I brought a greater knowledge of the world, which helped me understand my students more and also taught them compassion and understanding of others."
Tradition and experience
The idea of athletes in the classroom is not a new one. Even Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, extolled the virtue of "education through sport." He spoke of Olympism as a "philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind."
Judy Goss, who works with Athlete Services of the Canadian Olympic Committee in Toronto, feels that this link between elite athletes and teaching probably has a lot to do with the athlete/coach relationship.
"Athletes know first-hand how to encourage others, having been encouraged themselves," Goss explains. After spending years learning from their coaches, athletes want to be the ones sharing. "Athletes can connect with the kids, they can motivate them," she continues, "and for both sport and teaching, it's all about problem solving - critically analyzing what they're doing and then breaking it down."
Success on the sporting field doesn't necessarily guarantee success in the classroom, but it does give you a very different bag of tricks to draw on when looking for teaching strategies.
Twenty years ago, Larry Cain was enjoying the celebrity status that comes with winning not just one, but two medals at the Olympics Games. The canoeist won a gold and silver at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Today, Cain is a physical education teacher at St. Mildred's-Lightbourn School in Oakville.
"Being a teacher is a lot like being an athlete. You set high standards for yourself as an athlete, and as a teacher you want to help your students set high standards for themselves."
Cain's students today weren't even born when he was a Canadian sports star. But he's content to focus on what he does best now. Cain began teaching part time when he didn't make the 1996 Canadian Olympic team. Growing up, he says he had a lot of teachers and coaches who made an impression on him. It seems to have been pretty easy to make the transition from Olympian to educator. Coaching was always in his plans and teaching seemed to be a natural fit.
"Teachers are the same type of people as athletes. They both bring passion to what they do. Amateur athletes tend to wear their passion on their sleeves and that is infectious. They enjoy helping people who want to help themselves and they can motivate kids to want to do more," he explains.
Cain feels that any school with a former athlete on staff has a great resource. "This is someone who loves being physically active and knows how to eat healthy. With less time in the teaching schedule for physical education and with more childhood obesity around, these teachers can really have an affect on the health of students."
Cain also notes that athletes are usually goal oriented and good at keeping things in perspective - characteristics that make for good teachers. His only caution: going into the classroom as an Olympian can create a lot of excitement amongst students and parents. The athlete must be prepared for these raised expectations. Winning a gold at the Olympics doesn't guarantee a gold-medal performance in the classroom.
But then again, who would know more about the pitfalls of raised expectations than competitive athletes?
Calgary-based high school teacher Christine Nordhagen will cope with similar pressures this August. She goes to Athens as a six-time world champion in women's wrestling - an event making its Olympic debut.
Nordhagen says that she always wanted to be a teacher and often draws on coaching strategies to inspire students - whether in math, dance or phys ed.
"I push them to work hard and move past their comfort level. It's something I've always done as an athlete but something kids would never do on their own," Nordhagen explains. "That's how I help them achieve things they never thought were possible."
A former International Wrestler of the Year, Nordhagen admits that it is hard to balance teaching with the requirements of her sport. Having time off during the summer and on holidays is great when you're trying to stay on top of the medal podium, but she found it difficult to give her all to both during the school year. So she's taken a leave of absence this year to prepare for the Olympics.
Like Nordhagen, most amateur athletes put other careers on hold until they've retired from their sport, but some do manage to combine the two.
Between training camps and tournaments, softball player and music teacher Alison Bradley supply teaches near her home in Pinkerton. When not traveling the globe to enter competitions, freestyle wrestler Tonya Verbeek, a College member, supply teaches in Beamsville.
And in Ontario, there are a few full-time teacher athletes. Among them, marathoners Andy Hahn and Drew Macaulay and high jumper Jeff Caton are squeezing training, competitions and full-time teaching careers into each 24-hour day.
Hahn, now in his second year of teaching, says some days are very tough. He frequently turns up at Century Secondary in Windsor directly from training. He trains before and after school, then spends his day playing soccer or ball hockey with his students.
"Growing up, I had such a great experience both with sport and in school." Now the experience has changed from being the student to being the teacher and from being an enthusiast to being an aspiring competitor. Hahn remembers how one of his own teachers fuelled dreams of becoming a teacher and of continuing with competitive sport. "He gave us such great experiences and opportunities that we would work harder for him than we'd ever worked before."
Hahn describes himself as a really big sports fan who's always wanted to compete in a big multi-sport event like the Olympics. So alongside fellow teacher and marathon hopeful, Drew Macaulay, he will be giving it a try for 2004.
Macaulay, like Hahn, was all-Canadian in cross-country and track at the University of Windsor. Now they'll both be running in the ING Ottawa National Capital Marathon at the end of May - their last chance to win one of three spots on the Canadian Olympic team. And they will have to be fast, as only those who run the 26.2 miles in less than 2 hours and 15 minutes have a chance at an Olympic berth.
Macaulay is pretty confident but says whether he makes the team or not, the effort has been worth it. "Honestly, I'm doing it for the sport of it," he explains, "I have a shot at going for the Olympics. I've always believed in living for the here and now so I'll try my best now and if I don't make it, I'll know I gave it everything I had."
By "everything" he means running 80 miles a week, before and after school.
He says his students aren't too aware of the Olympic trials but his colleagues are enthusiastically behind him. "It's a little overwhelming," he admits. "They've kind of taken ownership of me and tell people they meet that I have a shot."
One thing is certain: Macaulay is no quitter. He tried out for the 1996 Olympic team as well, falling short in the 1500-metre event. And he's not ruling out the possibility of trying out for the 2008 Olympic team or for future Commonwealth or Pan American Games teams. He just loves to run, knows that there is nothing to lose in trying and so much to gain - for both him and his students.
"Teamwork, co-operation and sportsmanship: those are the qualities that you hope your students learn and develop and those are the qualities I learn in my running and competitions," Macaulay says. "I want to be the model for my students - gracious in defeat and cheerful in success."
Take us higher
High jumper Jeff Caton also teaches full time while training and competing. Caton, who was third at the 2003 Canadian championships, hopes to qualify for Athens at the Canadian track and field trials this spring in Victoria - just weeks before the Olympics begin on August 13. Until then, he continues to teach Grades 9 and 10 physical education and science at Forest Hill Collegiate in Toronto.
Caton loves teaching and is a very talented high jumper, so he is doing his best to combine the two. He also admits it would be nice to be able to train full time but he doesn't have that luxury. Teaching is also a necessity for him - both to pay back student loans and to fund his training.
Caton is a little shy about discussing his talents in the classroom. If his students ask, he will answer, but he doesn't go out of his way to talk about his Olympic aspirations. He thinks it's important that his students see him as more than just an Olympic hopeful, but he knows that his experiences as a competing athlete have value to him as a teacher.
"As an athlete you have the chance to see more of the country and the world. You get a sense of the global and you can bring that to the classroom," he says.
For Caton, the best part of teaching is seeing that light bulb go on when the students put it all together. "I get so much joy and excitement out of watching them become more independent in their learning. I love watching them achieve, strive and put the process together."
For many, corruption and drugs have overshadowed the Olympic ideal - the chance for athletes to compete and become the best they can be. Perhaps the Olympic ideal is more easily seen in the aspirations of these current classroom teachers and these others who hope to be classroom-bound in the future.
There is incredible value for students in knowing that their teachers have had dreams and have pursued them. With such role models in their classroom every day, they can also learn that a dream is a first step in the ongoing process of learning and growing.
Suzanne Blake is a researcher with CBC Television Sports, a recent graduate of the Faculty of Education at York University and a member of the Ontario College of Teachers. She hopes to teach full time this fall.