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Episode 21: Student Athletes — Caring for the Whole Student

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


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Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

Hi and welcome to DOE Digest. In this episode we're going to be discussing supporting student athletes.

The first interview I have is related to supporting students in schools and all of the various ways that we can care for students.

The second segment is a roundtable with three educators from around the state related to the opportunities and the challenges of COVID-19 when it comes to student athletics.

As we start today's episode, I'd like to thank my two colleagues - Clark Coe and Kathy Whalen. They helped me identify this topic, hone the topic in, and also find guests to share important insights with all of you.

Let's dive right into the first interview.

Mary Liz Ivins

Mary: My name is Mary Liz Ivins. I was an educator for 43 years in the, um, Diocesan Catholic Education System. I was principal for 17 years, and actually interim president for one, at Notre Dame High School.  During that time I was -- was blessed to be able to part of the New Jersey [State] Interscholastic Athletic Association [NJSIAA] Executive Committee. And I became the President in 2019-20, of the Executive Committee. Um, tremendous experience of understanding, uh, sports across the state.

And then, just this past summer, I served as the Chair of the Medical Advisory Committee. Attempts to get our kids back to play during the COVID pandemic.

Ken: Excellent. And I'm so excited to have someone with your expertise, and also who has experience both at the state-wide level and at the school level, working directly with students.

So, in your experiences, can you tell me what you think of when you hear the term "student athlete"?

Mary: Sure. I think a student athlete is a young person who learns and grows by participating in sports. And there's a whole spectrum. There's the student-athlete who's exceptionally talented athletically. Shines from the time they're little. Participates in all the little leagues and building up-- particularly at high school where I had my experiences. And then the other side of the spectrum is just...the young person who likes the activity. Loves the collaborative experience of being on a team. Uh, just enjoys being involved. And everything in the middle.

It's generally a bunch of young people who...they are trying to define themselves. And one of the ways they're trying to define who they're gonna be in the world is by using these talents, either for athletic prowess, or for that team experience. That, um, expression that they get through athletics.

Ken: That's excellent. And I think that that's something that's so important to remember. That there really is a spectrum of -- of students that are participating, and a spectrum of reasons why students participate. What they want to get out of it and what their -- what their goals and aims are.
Mary: Absolutely.

Ken: So.

Mary: And you have to stay attuned to that, because with teenagers particularly, it changes. We had athletes who had been playing, let's say soccer, since the time they were three, and were gifted enough to maybe play Division 3, Division 2, college ball. And are just tired of it.
And then we had students who absolutely loved it and they weren't gonna play in a great big Division 1 school, but they just wanted to stay in the sport.

So you have to keep checking, cause they change along the way and they have to kind of evaluate their level of interest as they approach college.

Ken: [murmuring in agreement] Yeah.

What are some examples of ways that you have seen schools successfully support student athletes, academically, socially, and/or emotionally? So, things that -- things that schools do to surround students with care. Not just related to the sports that they're playing, but their whole lives as whole students.

Mary: So I think there are two important things a school community needs to do. First of all, I think all of the administrators and teachers need to be aware of the athletic schedule. It's important to know when your athletes are trying out, what three seasons exist. What sports exist within the season. And you don't have to know the detail of who we're playing Friday night, but it's just good that every educator within a school community has some sense of the athletic flow of energy. Because, and I learned this the hard way, that you don't want to schedule your big winter dance on the day of Mercer County Swim Championships. Or you don't want to schedule, as an administrator, Senior Awards Night when they're probably gonna be in the State Lacrosse Tournament.

From a teacher's perspective, it's so important to know your students. I think any good teacher knows that you gotta know who they are and what they're involved in, in order to teach them Calculus or science or Spanish.

And so it's important to know your athletes. And then again, know the ebb and flow of the athletic life. And so you support your athletes by, "okay, why is he tired?" Or "why is she so tired?" Well, it's the beginning of the season. This is winter season. It's right after Thanksgiving. I get it. Their level of physical activity has increased.

As a teacher, it's also important to consider that, perhaps, I think we learned this with educationally sound, I don't give practice assignments that are due every morning, every morning, every morning. But I give an assignment on Monday, saying "I want you to do some practice and we're gonna take a look at this again on Wednesday or Thursday."

Or, "here's a paper I'm gonna have you write. And we're gonna work up to it. But the first section, or outline, is gonna be due four days from now."

That helps the athlete, in particular, because you don't know when they're gonna be at school until 9:00 at night because of a game. If you schedule assignments every day, and you don't give them that little three to four day window, you don't allow them to do their best.

And I -- you don't want to schedule just for athletes. You should know what all your students are doing. Leadership activities. Performing Arts. But in particular, an athlete's calendar is very demanding. Some of them are getting up and showing up for a conditioning exercise at 6:00 in the morning. And they're, some days, they finish school at 3:00 and then they've got a game at 5:00, but they're traveling. And so they're not home until 9, sometimes 10:00.
If that's my Thursday and you assigned this on Thursday and it's due Friday, I'm just not gonna give you very good work. But if that assignment came in and I, it's due Monday, I'm gonna [have] plenty of time to organize my time so that I can put my best into that work.

So understanding the flow of, um, the athletic calendar, I think, is one really good way of helping support the athlete. 

Check, there's a program called "R School," that's used, in New Jersey. It's letter "R" School. It's actually, um, I've used it as a -- a principal. We had a website. We had all our games on there. I could look up there who was playing what. But I used R School because I had it on my phone. If a game was cancelled, or if a game was, uh, rained out, I knew right away. And you just throw it on your phone.

Now, let's say I'm not gonna go to any games. I don't have time. I'm raising my own children. I've got my family. But I know Johnny is in my class and somebody said something about a big game today. You look at R School, you say "Oh, we're playing Red Bank High. Okay." Tomorrow in math class I say "Johnny, did you play Red Bank last night? How'd that go?"

That goes so far for young people. Just being aware. 

So, I loved having R School. I couldn't get to every game that the kids were playing. But I could stay on top of what games were played, and then, a good teacher knows who their students are. Knows something about them outside of the classroom. Just saying to Mary the next day, "wasn't there a big softball game last night?" And have her say, "It was awesome." Or, "you look a little tired today. Was that because you had that big track meet?" Um.

It's just a great way to connect with the students and show your appreciation for who they are.

Many kids come to school so excited about the game after school, the practice after school. So tapping into that energy and that excitement as a teacher helps them know that I care about them as a whole person.

And you can also use the NJSIAA website. I'll tell you a secret, I was never an athlete. Um, and so, I learned all of what I had to do for the NJSIAA just one step at a time. And then through years of -- of hearing about it - young athletes.

Um, but the NJSIAA website has, uh, lots of information. It's really important as an educator that I understand a little bit about the NCAA regulations, because some of those young people, in front of me, are gonna want to play in college. So, absolutely, go to the NJSIAA website and see "what does a student need academically to be considered an athlete for college?" And they're some of the most important partnerships that can be built.

I really recommend that no teacher ever use the coach as a threat. "Oh, you better do your homework or I'm gonna call your coach." But use the coach as a learning partner because if a child doesn't have a certain GPA, and a certain, um, SAT score, they can't be cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse to play in college. And that's [unclear] teachers on. Help your athletes understand that performing in the classroom academically is gonna impact what schools might consider you as an athlete in college.

So just having a general knowledge of that, and being able to speak to it, and then use the coach as a learning partner. You know, that coach is getting that kid and teaching them skills and plays all through the season.

So if you have a child that just can't learn, that's struggling with a concept, you go to that coach and say "Give me a clue. How do you get him to learn plays? How do you get her to, um, memorize, what she's supposed to do out there. I can't get her to memorize these constructs Italian."

Um, so, a coach is a great resource and a learning partner. But never, I saw this happen sometimes where the coach and the teacher started, you know, they were threatening the kid. And yes, sometimes, a coach can motivate a young person to do well in a classroom [laughing]. But, I think I would never threaten a child and say "I'm gonna call your coach." But I'd use the coach as a learning partner. I think that's a great resource.

There's a lot being done in schools with social and emotional learning, and boy, no one has a better handle on the students they work with than a coach. Maybe because of the many hours he or she is spending with them. They've got these young people in these wonderful social groups, where they can observe behavior. And, sure, there's going to be days where he's down or she's down cause they lost a game, or they didn't play as well as they wanted. That's normal social-emotional expression.

But when we just won the last three games, she has shown in every single game but there's something off. If the coach is tuned in to the school's, uh, program with dealing with the social-emotional needs of young people, then that coach can go to the guidance counselor, can go to a student assistance counselor. He can go to somebody and say "Hm. Just noticed these few things. Why don't you follow up on it?"

But also, I think, having a positive relationship between your coaching staff and your teaching staff, you really are all professional educators, uh, also helps to support young people in their experience in high school. 

Ken: When you think of supporting all students and all athletes, what should educators think about when it comes to diversity and inclusion for the student-athletes in the classes?

Mary: So, I think that, um, it's really fertile ground for being able to help our young people understand that the world is diverse. And that to be a citizen in this world, uh, that appreciates the diversity and thrives in the diversity of our world, you need to have an open mind. You need to have an open heart. You need to feel like people are accepting you with open minds and hearts.

The NJSIAA is just starting a program of implicit bias training, and they're starting with the coaches and the refs. But eventually it's gonna move down and all athletes are gonna have to be a part of it.

The NFL is actually a partner with NJSIAA, put together a tremendous, uh, program that we had our first two presentations, um, a couple weeks ago.  And eventually that'll come down to the student-athlete, which I think will be wonderful and be a great start to the conversation.

NJSIAA also has partnership with Professional Olympics. And right now they've developed a unified sport, in basketball, track, bowling. Uh, I think that's it.

Uh, and it's a great way, also, for um, athletes with disabilities to meet athletes who are [unclear] ability. And to learn about each other. And to be a team together. The experiences that have been created have been tremendous.

So, we've got a group of kids, with adults they truly trust, doing something they love. They're very open to learning. And so I think there are a number of ways that, um, we can help our athletes open their minds and hearts to the diversity of our society.

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Roundtable Discussion

Ken: At the time of this podcast release, all of us are experiencing the impacts of COVID-19. In particular for student-athletes, many of them have had games and even whole seasons cancelled due to the pandemic. I so appreciate the way that the guests in this upcoming roundtable segment process through COVID-19, its effects on student-athletes, and the ways that schools can both view opportunities and overcome challenges that come their way as this pandemic continues and as we make adjustments to the way that we do school and that we do athletics in the state of New Jersey. 

Michael: My name is Michael Pede. I'm the Athletic Director and Director of Health and Phys. Ed. for Middlesex County Vocational Technical Schools. I'm also the President of the Greater Middlesex  [unclear].

Jason: I'm Jason Lester. I'm the Principal of Piscataway High School in Middlesex County.

Joe: My name is Joe Trentacosta. I'm at West Milford High School in Northern New Jersey. I'm the Director of Athletics at the high school here in West Milford, and the Supervisor of Health, Driver and Physical Education, K to 12. 

Ken: So, I wanted to ask first, what opportunities and struggles has COVID-19 presented to student-athletes in your context, where you're working right now?

Michael: Michael Pede. I'll go first. Talking about the kids--- the struggles for our student- athletes. Uh, you know it really started last spring with, uh, the pandemic hit and the cancellation of the spring seasons. They just -- our spring students lost absolutely everything. They had six days of practice. And then everything was cancelled.

So, our seniors never got a chance to participate in their athletics for their senior year for the spring. And then moving forward to this year, we've had a condensed fall season. We're gonna have a condensed winter season. We're still waiting on word about the spring season.

And, you know, for those spring athletes missing out last year, there's -- there's student-athletes that were going for records that might not be able to be obtained because they lost, um, you know they lost out a whole season.

Um, but with that came some opportunities. You know, the NJSIAA provided us with different phases over the summer. And, I think, at least in my district, more coaches had workouts in the summer than had in the past because they wanted to be out there with the kids.

So, that's kinda what the opportunities and struggles that I saw. 

Joe: If I could piggy back on Mike--Joe Trentacosta, Director of Athletics at West Milford High School-- um, I agree. Our summer, um, we had probably one of the better experiences that we've had in many years due to the increase in participation. Our numbers are better, um, this fall, in many of our sports. I think because student-athletes are seeing that, you know, uh, the experience they had with COVID in the spring, and losing out on the spring season. They're seizing more opportunities. You know, "seize the day."

Ken: Great. Thank you so much. Jason, do you have anything that you want to share? 

Jason: Uh, yes. Um, as many of you know, the struggles, again, I agree and concur with everybody on the line. Um, it started in the spring season where a lot of our athletes lost ample time. Ours continued, our Board of Education has decided to cancel all fall sports at this point in time. We're still pending, you know, word about winter athletics.

Um, but it has created some opportunities. Uh, our kids did practice, or they had workout sessions, um, either virtually or limited participation in person. Which I do feel as though it was a good benefit to our student-athletes, where they were able to connect with coaches and coaches were able to connect with them. It also gave our young people an opportunity to see one another that they didn't often see, because of the, uh, quarantine state that we were in.

It's going to continue to be a challenge, until we get this COVID-19 pandemic under some control. Again, we just got to keep kids' spirits high, and even for our coaches.

A lot of our great coaches around, all throughout all of our sports, you know, they get the itch. They wanna be around the kids. They want to do great things with them. It does allow for, you know, virtual conversations with parents about what kids should be doing and how they should be doin' it. It allows students to track themselves in the athletic world, just to, you know, stay fit. Get moving around and try to do something. But most of all, stay safe.

Ken: That's a great point. And it really comes down to what's best for students and how we can ensure their well-being and that they're thriving, in whatever way that we can.

And with that, as educators think about their classrooms, how can they build lessons and programs that take student-athletes into account? 

Jason: I would to go first on this as a building principal. Some of the things I've been having conversations about with teachers, is tailoring their lessons not only around real-life experiences, but throwing in some of the things that kids actually do on the sporting fields. Like when they're shooting basketball, when you're in a math class you can talk about arcs. When you're playing on the football field you can talk about g-force impact in their science classes. Again, knowing and building the relationships with kids surrounding around some of the sports that they participate in.

And again, just bringing in the article here, there. Having conversations about what they think about how the NBA is in the bubble. How does that affect them as a -- as well as, you know looking at baseball and football in a non-bubble situation.

Ken: That's great. And as schools and teachers think about who their student-athletes are and how they're recruiting student-athletes, what can schools do to ensure that they're recruiting and engaging a wide range and a diverse group of student-athletes in their setting?

Michael: This is Michael Pede. I'll jump on this one if you guys don't mind. Uh, here in Middlesex County--and Jason,  Jason probably knows as he has a representative from his building--we created a new organization called Student Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC). And what we did is we selected one student representative from each high school in the county. And then we selected captains from each of our divisions. And we meet virtually with these students. And they're basically going to be ambassadors to us from the schools, from the student-athlete's point of view.

So, you know, our--our SAAC representatives are in their schools. They're talking to the student population. Asking what we need to improve on, what we would need to do. And a part of that is recruiting a diverse population of student athletes. And what we could do as the organization to help them or to help attract a diverse population of students.

Ken: And as you're thinking about the school context and what's happening, what student resources would you encourage educators to create or share with their student-athletes to enhance their experience as students and to help them, again, just thrive as students in a school?

Jason: Well, as a principal and former athlete, it's important that educators help our students not only, you know, when March 13th hit, when we are all closed down for school, that was a realization that every time you go out to practice, make it like it's your last practice. So you practice that level of perfection. 

And there are things that we need to share. It's like, you never know when your ticket is going to be punched in terms of when you can't play anymore. And I--I think the overall experience for kids at this point in time was that, you know, like many of them, I thought that, you know what, we'll be back after Spring Break. We'll just continue as normal.

Here it is, it's October 7th, and we're still on the pandemic. Again, at least for Piscataway High School, we don't have our fall sports. And for me, on a Friday night, I'm used to being away or home, and that's not happening. So again, as educators, we need to create an environment that we allow students to not only share--share their personal feelings, but, you know, it's got to be something communal.

Michael: This is Mike Pede.

Uh, I know, I don't remember if Jason or Joe mentioned it before, but someone mentioned the--the mental health of our, uh, of our student athletes. And that's my biggest concern, you know. The resources that that I've reached talked -- expressed to my coaches and teachers, is any kind of counseling, because these kids have been through a lot, whether it's losing the season as we discussed before. Or, you know, we don't know what's going on in their personal lives.  Parents have lost jobs. Some student athletes might have relatives that have passed away from--from this pandemic. So there's there's a lot that's going on with our student athletes and my main concern is their mental health. 

Though we have been pushing any kind of counseling that the student athletes would need, I've reached out to our parents, you know, our community, to let them know that I am a resource for them. They could contact my office if they have any questions, if they need anything. I can steer them down to of one the you, know, avenues of help. I'm in constant contact with our principals to help any of our student athletes. 

So that's -- that's my biggest -- my biggest area of concern. And for the--for the resources is the student, um, the mental health of our student athletes.

Joe: I agree. I think that our emotional health is--is paramount. You can't perform if you're not well...emotionally. 

I was just on a Zoom last night with the New Jersey Alliance for Social-Emotional Character Development. We're doing more and more with the Big North Conference. I'm sharing a committee on character ed.

And ,um, through you can you can emphasize some of the practices, we call it promising practices. Or at least--at least the calls them promising practices. Things that you can highlight that you do to--to work on social emotional learning, um, service learning in the community. And all those things, think that those resources are really valuable against the NJASECD, uh, the Alliance for Social Emotional Character Development. I don't work for them. I'm not plugging them other than the fact that they've been instrumental. And, um, in--in my leadership of being an Athletic Director that promotes these programs, we've had numerous, probably over 10 to 12, um, awards, for, uh, promising practices. Or, you know, from field hockey to tennis to basketball. Um, and it's not anything that they're doing that is so different than any program that involves community, right? You know, on a daily basis we're always striving to make connections, like I said earlier, so I think that a resource that is very valuable is

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From all of us at the New Jersey Department of Education, we hope that this episode helped equip you as you serve student athletes in whatever context you find yourselves in. Also, I'd like to thank all of the guests all of the NJDOE staff who supported this episode. And especially Elizabeth Thomas at the NJDOE who does all of the transcripts for this podcast so that they are accessible to all.

I hope that you join us for our NJDOE Third Tuesday Twitter chat, the #NJEdPartner's Twitter chart on October 20, 2020 at 8:30 pm. As always, we'll be extending the conversation from this episode to a statewide platform on Twitter, and this month we're going to be discussing supporting student-athletes.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released.

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Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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