My Best Teacher Wasn’t My Teacher

She was my coach.

The first significant failure in my life occurred when I was eight years old. I remember it vividly. I tried out for my town’s Pop Warner cheerleading team but didn’t make it. Back in the mid-80’s, children were actually cut during the tryout process, or at least they were in my hometown. Only the most talented kids were selected. Apparently I wasn’t one of those kids. At eight years old, I was faced with a choice; give up and accept failure or improve my skills and try out again. I chose the latter. In my eight-year old mind, there were no alternatives other than to work harder. So I did. In retrospect, I suppose I had grit before grit was a thing. The following year, at age nine, I experienced my first significant accomplishment. I made the team. That’s when I met Sue Sheridan; otherwise known as Coach. Coach had a profound impact on my life and the lives of hundreds of other student athletes. In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I wanted to share how Sue Sheridan was my greatest teacher. I wish I could start by saying everything between Coach and I was all rainbows and ponies, but I cannot. In fact, our relationship started out somewhat rocky. 

She benched me my first year on the team.

The team was cheering at a football game on a typical, fall New England Saturday. We had to do this cheer that I absolutely hated, and I didn’t pretend to like it. I wear my heart on my sleeve and have always had an issue putting on a poker face. This particular incident was no exception. Each person had to individually do this silly, or what I deemed very uncool and embarrassing cheer. When it was my turn, I didn’t belt out an enthusiastic, “What’d ya say gonna win this game?!” Instead, my stubborn little self practically whispered, looked down at my feet, and reluctantly executed the motions. After the excruciating cheer was over, I made eye contact with Coach. The look on her face said it all. I had made a big mistake. I was I trouble. This was not going to be good.

I was benched for the rest of the game for my unsportsmanlike like behavior.

Having to sit out for the remainder of the game, in front of my parents and all the fans, was even more embarrassing than doing the cheer. However, I understood exactly what I had done and why my conduct was unacceptable. It was then I knew Coach would hold me accountable for my actions, as she did with all her athletes. I realized I wasn’t going to get away with much. Despite knowing this, I did what many students do with their teachers, or what athletes may do with their coach, I tested the boundaries to see exactly how much I could get away with.

I did this for the next decade.

Throughout the rest of my elementary and middle school career, I continued to cheer for Coach. Her daughter was the same age as me and each time she transitioned to a different division, Coach transitioned with her, as did I. In the eighth grade, five years into my cheerleading career, my team won the Pop Warner State Championship. We were able to fund raise enough money to travel to San Jose, California and compete in the National Championship. This particular year was by far one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally grueling years of my adolescent life, but one hundred percent worth it. The hours of practice and dedication we put into our routine resulted in us winning the National Championship. I’ll never forget standing on the field during the awards ceremony, gripping my teammate’s hand and hearing the announcer state that the team from Merrimack, New Hampshire was national champions. The following year I entered high school. My goal: make the Varsity team as a freshman.

Once again, I failed.

I tried out, but didn’t make it…again! Instead, I was selected to be an alternate. This meant I had to attend all practices, learn the cheers and competition routines, but I couldn’t compete, unless someone was injured. Once again, I had a choice. I could quit and forget about cheerleading all together, or accept the position as an alternate, and try to earn a “real” spot on the team. I chose the latter. Fortunately, about mid-way through the season, state rules regarding the total number of people allowed to compete changed. Coach announced I was no longer an alternate and could compete. It was a huge accomplishment to have made it to the Varsity level as a freshman, but I had my work cut out for me. This was particularly true when I was Captain my senior year.

Coach set incredibly high, yet fair and realistic expectations of her athletes. She had zero tolerance for tardiness to practices, games, and team meetings and if you were late, there were consequences. She expected us to arrive at practice prepared, ready to learn, and work hard. When we failed at a particular skill, she provided constructive feedback, expected us to persevere, and encouraged us to keep trying until we were successful. When we succeeded, she praised us for our efforts. She helped us realize and reach our full potential as athletes, but also as people. She also emphasized respect. Respect for her, each other, our fans, opposing teams, and ourselves. She expected us to serve as role models for our peers in our school community. She expected us to earn good grades and to always put academics first. She expected us to have mature, positive attitudes. She expected us to communicate openly and problem-solve as a team if and when things weren’t going as planned. She gave us freedom and autonomy to collaborate and create our own competition routines, versus hiring a choreographer who didn’t know our strengths. As I look back, Sue essentially functioned as a 21st century coach in the 20th century.

Although she never emphasized winning, only to do our jobs to the best of our ability, from 1990-1994 we won first place in every single Co-Ed Division competition we entered. We also placed in the top three in the state (State Champions my junior year) in the All-Girl Division during that same time period. As my high school cheerleading career came to an end, I pursued yet anther lofty goal; Division I collegiate level cheerleading. I started preparing to tryout for a Division I college team my sophomore year of high school. When I got to college, this was where I experienced my biggest and most unexpected failure of all.

I cheered at the Division I level at the University of South Carolina, earning an in-state tuition scholarship, which my parents really appreciated! At the time, USC was one of the top ranked collegiate cheerleading programs in the country. I tried out and initially made the Junior Varsity team. I was incredibly proud of this accomplishment considering I was up against some of the best Division I athletes in the nation. My sophomore year I made JV again, but after a Varsity athlete quit the team, I was selected to move up to Varsity. I cheered on Varsity for most of the football season and all of basketball season. In the spring of sophomore year, we had tryouts for the following year. I was at my best skill wise, had the best tryout of my career, and honestly had no doubts I would make Varsity. 

Once again, I failed.

Discovering I didn’t make the team, was like a knife in my heart. Everything I had worked for my entire athletic career was gone and I was devastated. What’s worse was the reason I was given for being cut. When I met with the coach she said it was primarily because of my “physical fitness and weight” and that “I could lose a few pounds.” I’ll never forget those words and how confused I was by them. My four-foot nine (and a half), 98 pound frame hardly screamed “diet.” Here I was again. Faced with a choice. I chose to transfer back to New Hampshire and finish my degree as well as my cheerleading career. Once I graduated, I served as Head Coach for the NHC team, recruited a group of exceptional athletes and laid the foundation for an excellent program. Remembering everything she taught me, I employed many of the lessons I learned from Coach. 

As 21st century educators, we should be functioning like Sue. Teaching in the digital age is no longer about disseminating information to the students in our classrooms. Thanks to the Internet, students have access to all the same information we have and most of them have computers in their pocket. Being an educator today is much more so like coaching. It’s about setting high and clear expectations, building a positive classroom culture and community, establishing relationships with students, and developing personalized learning experiences which allow them to explore their passions. Teaching is ultimately about nurturing a love of learning.

These are all the things that Coach did and why I wanted to recognize the impact she had on my life.

Now that I’m an adult, I realize Coach was my greatest teacher. What I remember about her most is how she made me feel as a person. She believed in me and my talents. She helped me reach my full potential, she challenged me to work hard, and taught me how to accept success as well as failure. As mentioned earlier, she was way ahead of her time. Functioning as a true digital age teacher well B.G. (before Google) Sue was never a sage on the stage, but rather a guide on the side who facilitated learning, growth, and achievement. Sue Sheridan can easily be classified as a legacy in the town of Merrimack, New Hampshire. However, if you met her, you’d notice her humble and down to earth demeanor and amazing sense of humor. These qualities are what make her so unique and admired. She cares and inspires everyone she works with and it’s an honor to know her. I know I can continue to count on her for guidance, support and direction and in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I wanted to say thank you, Coach.

Thank you for everything you did and continue to do for me and so many others.

 

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