03 January 2014

"Hey, you good?"

"It was a terrible pass.

Connor Cook knew it as he walked off the field; his back turned to a replay of the pass playing over and over from every possible angle above Michigan State's end zone.

Mark Dantonio knew it as he saw his quarterback slowly walk toward the sideline, his head slightly hung after he looked up at the scoreboard.

Cook, Michigan State's sophomore quarterback, was driving the Spartans near midfield with a little more than two minutes left in the first half and in position to either tie the game with a field goal or take the lead with the touchdown. Instead, he panicked when Stanford defensive back Usua Amanam blitzed him off the corner and he lofted a picture-perfect pass to Stanford linebacker Kevin Anderson, who ran it back 40 yards untouched for a touchdown.

It was the kind of play that usually turns the tide of a game.

"It did. But in a direction that would surprise everyone not standing on Michigan State's sideline.

"Cook had already thrown two other passes that could have easily met the same fate but didn't when they inexplicably went through the hands of Stanford defenders. It was understandable to wonder if the pressure of playing in the Rose Bowl was getting to Michigan State's 20-year-old quarterback.

"So as Cook walked toward the sideline, Dantonio met him and asked him what he normally asks him when he throws a bad pass: "You good?"

'"Coach D was just giving me this look, and I was hoping he wasn't going to be super-upset and say something to put me down," Cook said. "Coach D does a great job of just having a good relationship with all of his players no matter what. If you do something stupid, he's not going to degrade you, he's not going to yell at you, so I walked off the field and he said, 'Hey, you good?' I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm fine.' I gave him a little fist pump. Everything was good after that."' [ESPN blog]

OK, yes, I am a Michigan State fan, a very loyal one, even if I think the graduate programs in the MSU College of Education are often dangerous to the health and welfare of children in the United States and around the world. But aside from that I think MSU is a great university, from its deep respect for the land-grant university traditions, to its campus full of the most amazing range of incredible programs. And one of the programs on that campus in East Lansing is the set of "varsity" sports - Basketball, Hockey, Football, Swimming, Soccer, et al. These sports, yes, cost far too much, pay (some) coaches way too much, and at times twist campus priorities in ways that should, at least, annoy any educator. And yet, at their best, they can inspire, they can unify a community, and they can teach...

And on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California, educators everywhere could find a vital lesson in the moment described above. And even with my delight in the athletic accomplishment... a great win in a great game against a great opponent... my greater delight is in what Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio explained to too many teachers, too many administrators, and almost every "edu-politician" from Bill Gates to Michael Gove to Arne Duncan: failure by our students is OK, failure by our students is part of education, failure by our students is not only the only way to help them succeed, it is the only reason we teachers and administrators have jobs.

"he's not going to degrade you, he's not going to yell at you..." he's not going to "lower your grade," or "retain you," or drop you out of the "honors courses." "He," that is, a real educator, is going to treat you with human respect, support you, and ask you to give it another try. And wow, you see, that seems to work out. The Michigan State University football team picked itself up from disaster and completed a season in which, essentially, everybody received an "A." Everybody, including seniors Andrew Maxwell - who lost the quarterbacking job early in the year but was rewarded for his efforts by getting game appearances in both the Big Ten Championship and The Rose Bowl - and Max Bullough - the defensive captain suspended for this game and sent home who nonetheless cheered his teammates on from afar.
QB Andrew Maxwell is in the record
books - Dantonio put him in Spartans
last 2 games.
"The 13-acre Bullough estate, which sits atop a hill that overlooks West Arm Grand Traverse Bay and is marked by a Michigan State flag in the driveway, was still glowing with Christmas lights Friday evening."
I just see so many crucial things here. Because, sadly in the MSU College of Education, I was criticized for "giving out too many As" in courses I taught. "Really," I would say, "isn't that my goal an A for every kid? What kind of a teacher would I be if had any other goal?" And because sadly, across America and too much of the world, we believe that failure should always have costly imposed consequences. We have a whole group of idiots (my term for them) who believe that third graders who struggle with reading need to be punished. We have a world full of leaders - and again sadly, teachers as well - who think failure on a test, in a course, on an f---in' homework assignment, requires punishment.
An opposite tack: An educator was so proud of this
incredibly insulting sign he Tweeted it -
Can his students limit his wardrobe?
If he had real relationships with his kids,
would he need this sign?
I see far too many classrooms where the simple lessons Mark Dantonio knows go un-understood. Just as I was writing this a woman with a doctorate in "educational leadership" from Seattle University went on Twitter arguing that demeaning and insulting children with signs as they walk into a classroom is 'good for them' (assuming they have grown up poor).

"He's not going to degrade you, he's not going to yell at you,' said Cook about Dantonio, and we really don't need to explain the why of this, do we? There is only one ethical code of human conduct, not one for adults and one for children, not one for teachers and one for students, not one for elites and another for people born powerless.

And we teach effectively, we teach well, when we act as if there is one system, and we approach relationships and our work with each other as human-to-human interactions, not moments to exercise our momentary positional power.

"So I walked off the field," Cook said, "and he said, 'Hey, you good?' I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm fine.' I gave him a little fist pump." Young kid in his (not quite) first full season playing college football and veteran, million-dollar-making football coach. There could have been a whole lot of positional power exercised there, we've seen that a lot watching American college games, but here, there was none.

Rutgers University's (ex) Basketball Coach thought differently than Dantonio...

...a generational divide? or is it about human dignity?
"after all, its not about how many times you get knocked down,
its about how many times you get back up."

But in that moment Mark Dantonio taught Connor Cook one more amazing lesson, not just in football, in life, in leadership. And he established a level of trust which lies behind every successful educational outcome. Cook trusts his teacher, the Spartans trust their teachers, and from that point, the sky is the limit for any student.

Do the moments in your school look like this? And if you say, "no, but... we've got all these pressures, the tests, kids coming from poverty..." consider that the Cook/Dantonio moment came in the midst of just a bit of pressure as well...

- Ira Socol

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