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Your Schools: Unlimited supply of cute stories and questions

Just when I think I've run out of ideas for this column and have no words left to write, someone at a school event or on the street will tell me they're reading my column and either 1) they wish that I would write about (fill in the blank), or 2) they have a cute story to share with readers.

First the cute story. Leroy Larson saw me at the Veterans' Day luncheon this year hosted at the Legion by high school students who prepared and served a meal for River Falls' veterans and their families.

Leroy told me about one of his grandchildren who had been in Pam Friede's third grade classroom at Rocky Branch.

Apparently, Mrs. Friede had taught the class the difficult concept of making change with coins. After helping them understand the value of quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies, she asked them to show her three different ways to pay for groceries that cost $1.86, guessing that the class would generate an answer like "7 quarters, 1 dime, and 1 penny."

Instead, Leroy's ingenious grandson raised his hand and proudly said, "I know three ways to pay for groceries... cash, check, or credit card!" Pam tells me that these moments are what make teaching such a joy.

The more serious topic I was asked about recently by two other residents is, "Why don't we have more coaches and advisors for the various activities who are also teachers on staff?"

The question is an accurate one.

Activities Director Rollie Hall tells me that 10 years ago, 16 of our 20 head coaches were also teachers in the district, while this year we are at only 10 of the 21 head varsity coaches who also teach for us. In some ways, teacher-coaches are becoming an endangered species.

I don't mean in any way to disparage non-staff coaches. We are blessed to be able to find men and women from the community willing to coach and advise students in activities when we can't find an employee already teaching in the district who is willing to also take over one of the many extra-curricular activities.

My experience of 34 years of educational administration has taught me that teacher-coaches spend more of their coaching time promoting lifelong learning in and out of the classroom with students and less time on the win-at-all-costs philosophy.

They develop stronger rapport with athletes and activity participants, and they work to develop better citizens and young people with strong character and shared core values.

So why don't we have more teacher-coaches? The reasons are varied and hard to get one's arms around.

Increasingly, schools are under intense pressure to meet state testing expectations which result in favorable "school report cards."

The focus on quality teachers is justified and necessary, and principals work hard to find the best teacher-academicians available, who may or may not have an interest or background in coaching.

Another issue is that the compensation for coaching or advising activities is pretty minimal when compared with the extensive amount of time required for coaching. While the school board continues to work to increase pay for teachers who give above and beyond the school day, when it's actually calculated out, the per hour wages don't match the commitment required of a good coach or supervisor for a student activity.

Other reasons for teachers in the schools declining to take on coaching positions include: time away from family, especially our younger teachers who are having their own children; unreasonable parent expectations of coaches; a struggling economy that requires employees or their spouses to take on more lucrative part-time evening and weekend work; and competition with outside club and travel teams that severely limits the identification, recruitment, and retention of certified teacher-coaches.

Mike Williams, athletics coordinator for a Maryland public school system, writes in the September issue of the High School Today magazine, "Schools with teacher-coaches who make participation fun and challenging have better school and community atmospheres.

"Improved school and community spirit improves the overall atmosphere for learning in the schoolhouse -- students want to be in school. In turn, the improved atmosphere enhances the support of the vision, mission, goals, policies, and procedures of the Board of Education while creating support for Board of Education short- and long-term budgets.

"Students who are not participating in activities and/or athletics are not connected to the school. Disconnected students who have no "ownership," at best, lack academic motivation and struggle with attendance. At worst, they become Columbine shooters."

I am grateful for all coaches and advisors of our students' activities, and I suspect parents are deeply grateful for the connections their children find in a successful experience on the field, in the gym, or at any form of competition or participation that extends beyond the school day.

I am especially indebted to our teacher-coaches and advisors, who at the end of a long teaching day, put on their "coaching hats" and give their remaining energies to the satisfying act of mentoring a student athlete or activity participant in meeting his or her previously unknown or untapped potential!

That act makes it all worthwhile.