Do No Harm

I resisted teaching/coaching for a long time because of the nightmare that was my time in high school.  High school sucked.  It was the worst three years of my life.  Teachers have the potential to do great damage to young people–just as they have the power to be a positive influence.  If you know me and how I teach, this will show why I take excruciating pains to avoid doing anything to damage a student.

In high school English class, we were required to write journals.  They could be on anything, of any length–with the understanding that we were trying to express our feelings.  The only limit was that we were not permitted to use profanity (a reasonable limit to impose).

Wait–first we’ll skip forward to my first teaching experience as a G.A. at Iowa State.  The absolute first thing we were taught, the one thing mentioned over and over and over to us as new teachers was, “Never say or do anything that can harm your student.”

Now back to 1984-85 and my high school experience.

Remember–high school sucked.  Since we could write about anything in our journals, I wrote about that semi-regularly, but not all the time.  I wrote on a lot of things–wrote some sophomoric humor I thought was really funny at the time, naïve thoughts on politics, excitement at the Cubs’ chances (I was off three decades with ‘this will be the year’…).  I wrote about my dreams of being an engineer, going to M.I.T.  And then, after a journal entry I wrote critical of my high school’s inadequate curriculum –an assertion I still stand by today–the teacher hit me with this as her comments on it (yes, I still have these journals):

“Jim, I am so very disappointed in you.  I have no idea why you are so bitter or intent on destroying your life.  You lie constantly, accuse others of cheating, and now, where you used to write with elegance and intelligence, you offer nothing but hate and bitterness.  I have done nothing but encourage you to be positive (as has every other teacher and administrator in this building), but you have wilfully [sic] chosen to become the most negative person I’ve ever had in a classroom.  I am tired of reading your billious [sic–>willfully has two ‘l’s while bilious only has one ‘l’…an English teacher shouldn’t use words she can’t spell] raving and won’t any more.  From now on, I’m not reading anything you turn in.  When you turn it in, put the grade you feel it deserves on the top and that will be your grade.  I was sure you were going to amount to something in life, but now, I am disappointed, disappointed in myself, for seeing how wrong I was for not seeing that you are pathetic and won’t ever do anything of value.”

Go ahead and read it again.  Can you ever think of a point in your life a teacher said that to you or put that sentiment in writing?  It’s fascinating if you know me, given how much I despise dishonesty.  Lie or cheat?  …maybe in creating a RPG character, sure, I’ll confess to fudging that…, but not in school.

I will note, too, for posterity,  I was 16.   16.  Those are hateful comments and they hurt.  Obviously since I keep those journals, they are significant to me.  Scarred goes too far, but I’ve never forgotten that teacher.  Like I said, I was 16–I took  a second something away from those words: I no longer had to do homework for that ‘teacher’ ever again–and that’s exactly what happened.  I just turned in a sheet saying I deserved a “98” on every assignment.  Think I’m doing homework for no reason?  No way, no how.

Ahhh, but while words are momentary, memories do not always fade to nothing.  That should be obvious since it is 35 years later and I’m still referring back to this.  I’ve kept those journals–specifically because of that comment on the last one I ever wrote.  I’m hoping it is obvious how much those words hurt the 16-yr old me.  When was the last time you had a teacher call you a liar or that they were disappointed for ever believing in you?  If all teachers thought that way or were so cynical, why would I want to become one?  Nope–it pushed education way down my list of career preferences.  (By the way, the principal’s response on that comment when my mom demanded the teacher be reprimanded, “Well, a teacher is entitled to her opinion.”)

And….

Here I am, coaching, teaching, writing about things, trying to teach facts, teach ways to think creatively and critically, to help people learn or maybe inspire them to become teachers themselves. What. The. Heck. Happened?

What happened is that by a miracle of Providence, Iowa State rejuvenated my belief in teachers.  In time, I met other people–good influences and teachers (Jorgen Rasmussen, Don Rawson, Richard Kottman, Robert Johannsen, Brigid Kelley, Bob Boston, Neil Bowers, Jim Stone, etc).  My mind didn’t change immediately.  I started in 1991 as a means to an end.  I’d teach and have my grad degree paid for.  It took nearly a full decade before I started teaching.   My malicious paragraph was written March, 8, 1985.  I taught my first class for EIU in Fall 1993.

It took me a long time to realize an important lesson: I had let someone else dictate MY life, letting her problems and personal issues shape me (not in a good way).  Anyone reading this from my high school is going to disagree or at least wonder, “What the heck, Dietz?”  She had the reputation of being a ‘good’ teacher because she was overly friendly with students, wanted to be their ‘mom’–but that’s not teaching.  It took me eight years to realize a good teacher would never write such a comment and hand it to a student.

So I remember that when I teach and coach.  I remember the willful hurt of those words, that she meant to inflict pain on a kid.  It was intentional.  It was done with malice.

When I taught adults–I remembered they’d been away from school for years (like when my mom went back to college at 40).  I remembered that in many instances, they LIVED the history we were discussing and just didn’t have a global framework for understanding it.  It’s different discussing things in living memory than a century ago.

When I taught ‘normal’ college students, I knew they needed to be treated differently than high school–with respect, but also the understanding that they were now adults with syllabus deadlines, etc, that had to be met–this is the transition to adulthood.  There’s no hand-holding, sorry.

When I taught high school, students had no choice–they were there because they had to be, day in, day out.  Some loved school, some hated it.  Some wanted to be doctors, others wanted to repair HVAC systems.  All deserved respect as they explored what they tried to figure out what they wanted to be–and I tried to do that (and from their social media pages–successfully!!).

As a coach, it is the same thing.  My program is a means to an end for my athletes.  My program is a temporary stop in life.  I am here to give them a circle of (hopefully lifelong) friends, a chance to grow as leaders through competition, and pick up a degree and move on to earn a four-year degree (if that’s what they want).

So why do I coach and teach?  Easy–I want to help people.  I don’t care if they are a 12-yr old or a college sophomore.  I want to help.  Sport (or education of any sort) is meant to empower us–adolescent AND adult, make us better, not harm anyone.

–Shouldn’t this be the reason everyone gets in to teaching or coaching–to make a difference?

I’d like to think that since that first EIU class I taught back in ’93, I’ve avoided doing anything like that note put on my English homework long ago.  I’ve feared doing harm to a student.

Here’s a bizarre revised thought: Maybe I should be thankful for her instead.  Without her bitterness, I don’t think I could be the teacher/coach I am–staying focused on ‘doing no harm’ and trying to do the right thing.  Without her, would I take such great care to avoid causing harm?  Probably not–because I’ve seen her attitude in other instructors through the years, high school and college.   Her outlook is not uncommon, sadly.

The minute I intentionally cause harm like that–that’s the absolute second I need to get out of education or sports or get tossed out.

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I’d appreciate a favor if you’re reading this.  Let others concerned and interested in education know about the Dietz Foundation and what we are trying to do.  You’re welcome to donate.  All donations go directly towards our efforts to endow scholarships for people who wish to become teachers as their avocation.  None of it goes to salaries, overhead or anything else–our game releases and other projects take care of that.  But if 100 people read this, are willing to donate $5/month, a scholarship could be endowed every year…all for giving up one Starbucks or a value-meal per month.