Trust, Empathy…and John H. Reagan Raiders Football

DSC_0089-LThe John H. Reagan Raiders football team had a record of 9 wins to 71 losses between the years 2004 and 2011.  In the past 2 years, they have won 9 games (2 games still left in the 2015 season)! This is a team surging forward in a massive comeback.  What could be driving this powerful #ReturnofReagan? Fresh talent? Harder workouts? New strategies?

Try trust and empathy.  Head Coach Keith Carey joined the team in February 2012, with the quote “The sooner that we can earn each other’s trust and start caring about each other, then the Xs and Os will take care of themselves and the wins will take care of themselves.”  From the moment he first stepped onto the Raider home field, Coach Carey has been steadfast in his goal to build a team rooted in care and trust and growing in success–on that field, in school, and in life.


Traditionally, the words “caring” and “empathy” seem out of place within the context of full-body contact, earth-shattering tackles and clashing helmets. A football field doesn’t usually leap to mind as a place to get in touch with emotion. Football players have been expected to act like “men,” based on a negative definition of men as invulnerable people unaffected by feelings. Coach Carey is working with the young men on his team to change the very core of this traditional attitude about football. He says, “Now we understand that we can use the idea of a real team–made up of men who share their feelings, fears, and care for one another–to redefine manhood.”


The team engages in intentional exercises to tell their stories, share their fears, communicate their feelings and openly appreciate each other. “The truth is that young people are struggling every day with terrible fear, insignificance, sadness, pain. We acknowledge that we are all struggling with deep pain.  Then it’s easier to share it,” says Carey. For many students that Carey coaches, football practice may be the only venue to share authentically about their painful struggles. Holding a team space that is safe, respectful, non-judgmental, positive and open has been Carey’s mission. This is how he is building his powerhouse of a cohesive team. “We talk every day about how the #1 predictor of success for our team is how much we care about one another.”

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The mission is even bigger than that, though, for the Reagan Raiders: By redefining the idea of men as caring, open team members who speak about their emotions, they are growing social and emotional leaders of the school and the future. “We address that it can feel awkward to talk to each other in an emotional way. But we keep telling these kids that they will be the generation that changes traditional ideas about male identity and even breaks the cycle of domestic violence by learning to express their feelings in appropriate, authentic ways.”  When the team faces challenges and setbacks, Coach Carey frames them in terms of the greater purpose–learning to be resilient and successful in life. “Every setback prepares us for situations that will arise as we take on the most important roles in our lives, like being husbands and fathers.  That is our mission as a team; it is bigger than any setback.”


Coach Keith Carey and the John H. Reagan Raiders are doing impactful work both on and off the football field. This video, which shows core team values juxtaposed with spectacular Raider football plays, sums it up nicely:

We are #AISDProud of the Reagan Raiders! Keep it up! #NotWithoutHonor

More about SEL in school athletics:

SEL in Action! Part I

SEL in Action! Part II

SEL in Action! Part III

SEL in Action! Part IV

Social and Emotional Learning in Action! Part IV: Archer Hadley

Our series continues this week with another football story. More accurately, this story starts with middle school football and expands to include the winning Austin High Maroons football team, the whole of Austin High becoming more accessible for people of all abilities, and a winning short documentary film that saw its subjects and creators honored recently by President Barack Obama in Washington, DC.  Intrigued? Prepare to be inspired!

Archer Hadley, an active member of the Austin High Maroons football team and graduating senior, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.  His career in athletics began in 7th grade at O.Henry Middle School, where he recently returned as the keynote speaker honoring student athletes.  Pease Elementary principal Matthew Nelson, former assistant principal and football coach at O.Henry, introduced Archer with this story:

Six and a half years ago, two days before Archer was to start his 7th grade year here at O.Henry, his mother came to campus to meet the staff and inquire about the possibility of her son participating in sports at O.Henry.  I was the 7th grade football coach at the time and spoke with her about the possibilities.  She spoke of how he loved football and how he wanted to participate in some way.  Participation not fully defined yet.  I told her to have him at the football field at 6:45 am the 2nd day of school and we would get to work.  And man, did we get to work.  Archer showed up every morning bright and early with a smile and enthusiasm and went about passing out pennies, counting pushups, leading the team in warm-ups, calling plays in the huddle, picking up kicking tees, counting players on special teams, all the while motivating and encouraging and ensuring each and every student out there, coaches included, gave their very best.  Because if not, as Archer would yell, what’s the point of even coming to practice.

The game became not “what can Archer do?” but rather “what can’t Archer do!”  And the possibilities were endless.  We, myself and the coaches, pushed Archer just as hard, if not harder, than the other students, but not nearly as hard as Archer pushed himself.  Archer and I would time how long it would take him to pick up the kicking tee after kick off, then try to beat it every time.  We then took the same mentality of practicing perfectly and trying to improve each time into school settings.  We spent hours upon hours perfecting the art of opening the doors in the library and would video tape our results.  Not only to send to his mother and father, but to also look at as “game film” to see what we could improve upon.

Which leads us to today: Archer Hadley can open any door in the world, literally and metaphorically, that he wants because of his work ethic, his attention to detail, and most of all, his “stick-to-itiveness.”   This young man, who began his athletics career at O.Henry, who has continued to be involved in athletics for 6 years after, and has probably inspired more students, coaches, parents and fans over the years than anybody I can think of, has made it his goal not to just open doors for himself, but to open doors for others.  Archer will never be daunted by society’s inability to accept the fact that he can do anything.  He will not be deterred by people who say “he can’t.”  Nobody who has ever spent more than 30 seconds with him will ever say “he can’t.”  He can.  He will.  Austin High now has wheelchair accessible doors for the first time in 130 years due to this young man’s dedication and heart.  The doors aren’t for him, his time there is ending–but rather for future generations of Archer Hadleys so they can have access to everything and anything they put their sights on.  Doing what Archer did wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight.  The lessons he learned about positive thinking, dedication, perseverance, and never giving anything less than 100% effort were helped developed here, many years ago, in this same school, in this same gym where you sit now.

I can’t think of any better person to speak to you wonderful student athletes today than Mr. Archer Hadley.  At this time, please put your hands together for the student to my teacher, the athlete to my coach, the Padwan to my Jedi, the Robin to My Batman, and, and I feel very fortunate to say this, my Friend…Archer Hadley.


 Archer has used the same grit and determination that he has applied to his successful football coaching career to create the “Mr. Maroo Challenge” campaign, which raised $87,000 in two months to purchase and install five automatic push-button doors on the Austin High campus. The door installation occurred over the December ’14 holiday break.  At a January celebration to fete this achievement and installation, Texas governor Greg Abbott, another person who uses a wheelchair, greeted Archer and spoke about how his story inspires Abbott personally and reaches out from Austin High into the greater Austin community and beyond.  Indeed, several other Austin high schools have taken on the Mr. Maroo Challenge to raise funds toward push-button accessible doors on their own campuses.

And to top it all off, Archer and a few other Austin High students created a short documentary film:

This film, telling the story of Archer and the Mr. Maroo campaign, was one of fifteen selected from over 1500 entries in the second annual White House Student Film Festival.  So, in keeping with our blog series on the power of extracurricular activities to build social and emotional skills in student and adult participants: Archer Hadley honed his grit and determination in the football programs at O.Henry Middle School and Austin High, kicked off a campaign to make his high school more accessible to all, made a winning short documentary film about the process with friends and allies, and inspired everybody from his middle school football coach to the President of the United States.

How’s that for 21st Century Social and Emotional Skills? #AISDproud! #SELsmart!

Thanks to Sarah Stone, SEL Specialist, for contributing to this post.

Social and Emotional Learning in Action! Part III: Inspiration Basketball

Our continuing series focuses on the social and emotional learning presented by extracurricular activities, and how these lessons reverberate through classrooms, schools and the lives of young people.  The inspiration for this exploration came from this basketball video:

Just to emphasize the empathetic awesome:

“I think, in a way, this is how sports should be…it’s just kind of showing the impact that encouragement and support for anybody can make.” –one of the Waco student basketball players, to the bemused reporter

Clearly, playing on a basketball team can create an organic space to grow and practice perspective-taking and empathy.  What other SEL skills can develop on a school basketball team, under the wing of a talented, nurturing coach?  Check out this letter from a parent to the principal of Lamar Middle School:

To Whom It May Concern:

Perhaps you are already aware of this great Coach, Teacher, Facilitator, Mentor of middle school students.
Either way, I feel compelled to share our perspective and what we learned from Coach Derek Wright.

This year our 7th grade son made the brave choice to try out for basketball at Lamar Middle School. He had never played before and had a lot to learn! He was nervous, but determined.

Coach Derek Wright was charged with developing a team ready to win on the court in just a few short weeks. Never an easy feat and one that takes a great deal of commitment, patience and knowledge of the game. Of course Coach Wright has all these qualities, as he’s been at it awhile. However, it’s his keen awareness of player’s strengths and needs that is truly inspiring.

We hoped our son’s basketball skills would improve and they did, but what we weren’t prepared for was the incredible change in his self-confidence, resilience and positive attitude.

Coach Wright deserves most of the credit for this positive growth in our son and many others. I watched in amazement many times as Coach Wright guided his players with a sense of calm, clear, specific goals. He seemed to know exactly what each player needed to hear in order to dig deep and find the strength to ‘win’ the game. He shared his love of the game in a way that made the experience fun, yet focused.

The Lamar Scotties 7th grade basketball team played their final game of the season on Thursday.
I would say it was a good season looking at the stats. Winning games is always a good feeling. Winning at life and learning skills that will stay with you forever…priceless!

Thanks for believing in your team Coach Wright!

A coach that recognizes the social and emotional learning opportunities inherent in athletic activities has the power to positively impact young people in ways that will stick with them their whole lives.  We saw teacher-coaches like this in last week’s post about Consuelo Mendez Middle School, and the first post in the series featuring conversations with former football coaches.  Compassionate educators who bring their SEL-infused coaching strategies from the gyms into their classrooms, schools, and leadership roles are truly educating the whole child.  And that’s the name of the SEL game!


Social and Emotional Learning in Action! Part II: Consuelo Mendez Mavericks

Last week in our “SEL in Action!” series, we explored the Social and Emotional Learning opportunities inherent in football.  We spoke with a high school administrator who has taken his coaching and player experience into his academic leadership role, and a Social and Emotional Learning Specialist whose administrative work and current position continue to be informed by his history as an athlete and coach.  This past week I had the chance to spend some quality time with some quality coach-educators at Consuelo Mendez Middle School, and let me tell y’all, the SEL happening over in Maverick Land is exemplary.

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Michelle Friede (back-center, pink shirt/shoe!) is not only the long-time dance coach at Consuelo Mendez–she also happens to be the Social and Emotional Learning Facilitator on campus, so she knows a thing or two about SEL.  Stand in her gym for five seconds, and you can feel the relationship-building work and positive, safe environment she has built.  Dance class is not easy; not only is it challenging physical exercise, it also requires huge confidence and risk-taking as one learns new body movements and practices them in front of peers and teacher.  For dance instruction to progress, it is critical that each dancer feels safe in the gym and connected to each other and the coach–this is no place to fear mistakes, criticism or ridicule.   Friede says that the success she enjoys with her classes flows from the positive, process-based focus she models for and instills in each participant.  By pointing out the hard work and genuine effort they display in each stage of learning a new move or choreography, she is able to inspire her students to accomplish advanced, complex pieces. When I (an unusual presence in the gym) asked to take a picture for this post, Friede called to her 6th graders, “OK girls, let’s strike that final pose!” Every young lady enthusiastically ran to her spot and fearlessly struck that final pose, Friede right there on the floor with them.  The fact that these young people had the confidence in themselves and trust in their instructor to spontaneously perform for a near-stranger speaks volumes about the Social and Emotional Learning happening in dance class at Mendez.

Photo 2When I asked for anecdotes about extracurricular SEL while hanging out in the instructional coaches’ office, Roxanne Walker, the literacy specialist, delightedly brought up the running club that has evolved out of a homegrown teacher-student mentoring program. Ms. Walker said this club came to be when the teacher mentors, including herself, listened to their students’ budding interest in running, and agreed to challenge themselves (even if they weren’t runners before!) while encouraging their “mentee’s” engagement. Simply called “Running Club,” about 12 students and their teacher mentors have started training for 5k races after school, and participating in various weekend running events around town.  Ms. Walker told me that the sometimes difficult relationships between these teachers and students began to change for the better, as students felt that adults were hearing their voices and striving to meet their needs for positive connection and belonging.  These new attitudes learned and practiced in after-school Running Club have spilled over into the school day, where teachers and students use their positive connection skills to heal and improve relationships and create a safer, more trusting culture within the classroom and school.  The picture above shows Consuelo Mendez middle schoolers and teachers getting close to the finish line in a recent 5k.  The English Language Arts teacher in black in the middle, Ms. Helmink, finished the race with these students, then jogged back into the race to cross the finish line with the rest of the student participants.  Talk about building a culture of belonging and connectedness!

2015-04-24 14.03.39Speaking of belonging and connectedness, this 8th grade ELA teacher,  Ms. Michelle Thomas, knows first-hand how critical those components are in building a winning team and a winning classroom.  As a sophomore at Texas Tech university, Thomas and her team rose to win the 1993 NCAA Women’s Division I Tournament, earning the Red Raiders their first NCAA title.  In addition to her basketball prowess, Thomas was an academic all-star at Texas Tech–she completed her bachelor’s with a major in English and went on to earn her law degree, both proudly displayed alongside the Red Raider basketball swag.  Her background of elite athleticism combined with her commitment to academic success has given her a unique social and emotional learning lens, which she uses to create a palpable culture of trust, belonging, and connectedness in her classroom.

As students come into the room, they deposit their backpacks in a corner and find their seats.  Ms. Thomas runs down the agenda for the day, and a student passes out the books for an ongoing novel study.  They take turns reading paragraphs from the chapter, each reader trying his or her best with occasional help or word of encouragement from Ms. Thomas.  She then facilitates a full-class discussion of the reading, addressing each student respectfully as “Mr. Martinez” or “Ms. Smith.”  As class members give thoughtful answers to the questions she presents, she addresses the whole class: “…And what do we say?” The class turns to the student who answered and says, in unison and with feeling, “Good Job!!” Partner work is next, and Ms. Thomas answers questions as they arise with encouragement and an easy smile–the students feel comfortable asking for help, and everyone is engaged.  And finally, in the last few minutes of class, pencils are put down, books are collected: it’s time for the Class Motto and Jammy Jam.

2015-04-24 14.12.57 Ms. Thomas told me that her experiences on a winning team inform her teaching practice every day. She understands the importance of building positive relationships with each individual student, between individual students, and between herself and the class as a whole, much as her college basketball coaches did. She says that she tries to “teach like a coach.” She uses predictable routines and daily “rituals” like the Class Motto and Jammy Jam to reinforce the class culture of safety and connectedness, and she strives to attend to each student’s academic and emotional needs, because the class “team” depends on the academic and emotional strength of each individual member to effectively learn and thrive.  So at the end of class, Ms. Thomas and every student stands up and recites together the Class Motto in one strong voice: “Shoot for the moon!  Even if you miss, you will land among the stars!” And then, of course, the Jammy Jam:

‘Nuff said.  Thanks for being so SEL awesome, Consuelo Mendez Middle School!  Tune in next week for more SEL, sports, and extracurriculars!

Social and Emotional Learning in Action! Part I: School Athletics

Social and Emotional Learning is getting a lot of press lately, as more and more research emerges showing its broad benefits to students across all ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic levels and geographic location.  The fact is, however, SEL has been happening in schools in various ways for decades, maybe even centuries.  Teachers, administrators, coaches and other school staff members have known for years that the best learning happens when students feel safe, nurtured and heard.  If a class, school, or program creates a welcoming environment where students feel that they belong, amazing things happen.  And one of the classic ways to create such an environment is through fine arts, athletic, and other in-school and extra-curricular special interest activities.


Click this picture for a story about GRIT and Marathon High at Dobie Middle School!

The seeds of belonging and connectedness are often naturally planted when special interest groups meet, as they begin with a shared interest and common purpose. In this post and several more to follow, we will explore how Social and Emotional Learning can flow through and anchor programs like athletics, music, theater, dance and others. Such activities can create nurturing places for young people to grow as skilled collaborators, perspective-takers and well-rounded humans.


Featherstone, coaching away

For this first post, I asked two former football coaches to think about their experiences as both a player and a coach from an SEL perspective. Larry Featherstone, current assistant principal at McCallum High School and former long-time football coach and player, said that he remembers seeing the slogan “BIG TEAM, little me” painted in his college football locker room.  He said that the deep meaning of this slogan had a major impact on him: that the team was bigger than each individual member, and that it depended completely on the relationships and trust built between the players themselves, each player and each coach, and the players and coaches as a whole entity. The “little me” part wasn’t meant to diminish the contribution of the individual, but that it was both the individual contribution and the interconnectedness of all the individuals and contributions that made the team successful.  He told me that this realization informed his successful football career and all his coaching afterward–by putting the emphasis on building deep interconnectedness within his team, he built winning teams.  It wasn’t about how hard they practiced or how many times they did a certain drill; it wasn’t even about how good each player was.  It was about how they trusted each other and collaborated; how they each acted not for individual pride, but for the good of the team.  These self-management and perspective-taking skills have stuck with him, and the young people he coached, for much longer than a football season!


When I asked Jason Littlefield, current SEL specialist and former high school coach and player, to reflect on his SEL sport experience, he wrote this beautiful piece:

Athletics creates an educational dream scenario: it provides young people opportunities to collaborate and persevere together within a nurturing environment, while presenting life lessons of victory and defeat.  Hundreds of AISD students and educators share these experiences every day in the various sport programs available in schools across our city.

As a former high school coach, I understand the value of creating and maintaining trusting relationships.  These relationships built between coaches and players help student athletes set, realize, and often supersede goals that seem just out of reach.   When we came up short, there were often tears, but also pats on the back and encouragement to regroup and work harder.  This development of strong character, collaborative skills, and growth mindset is often the valuable result of participating in school athletics.

As a current SEL coach, I now have an even deeper understanding of the importance of athletics in young peoples’ lives, and the lifelong impact a coach can have on a student athlete.  To some, I will always be “coach.” But after working with a particular young man for four years, the graduation announcement was addressed to “Dad.”  Athletics represents an opportunity to grow in all five AISD Social and Emotional Learning competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social-Awareness, Relationship Skills and Responsible Decision Making Skills.  When coaches help to develop these capacities along with sheer athleticism in their student players, a stronger, more resilient athlete is the product– as well as a person that carries valuable life and career skills into the future after the glory of school sport competition fades.


Coach Littlefield’s “T-Dogs” ’04

I am thankful for these two perspectives, as they know first-hand what SEL in sports is all about, far beyond my ability to speculate. (I wasn’t into sports in school; I was the band kid, so when this series gets to the music part, LOOK OUT!) There are many perspectives in the conversation about social and emotional learning in sports, and more points of view (and different sports!) will be explored in the next post in this series.  In conclusion, and as a preview for next time, I leave you with this video–what kinds of social and emotional skills are evident in this story of a first and only home run? (WARNING: may require tissues)

Tune in next week and in the future for more on social and emotional learning, sports, and beyond!