The Teacher

by December 24, 2008

By Sam Rubenstein

Christmas Eve day. The perfect time for a Rubenstein to speak. I spent 14 weeks recently as a student teacher at a NYC public school in Hell’s Kitchen, while also going to grad school at night right near Khalid’s favorite Whole Foods. It was a busy time. Very busy. Oh God…

But the new SLAMonline look was unleashed and I love it! Very organized, and organization is essential to life. This is one of the many lessons I have learned over the past few months. Planning and structure is everything. If you fail to plan… death.

And that leads me into the whole purpose of this post. As you may know, my forte is comparing dis to dat. I still write my “Which NBA Player Are You” column for the mag where I get to compare an NBA player to a celeb, and I love me a good analogy. I have many for what it is like to be a teacher of 7th and 8th grade lunatics. It’s kind of like being the designated driver in a room full of sloppy drunks, but it is also like…

Being an NBA coach.

“Somehow the teaching game remind me of the basketball coaching game.” – Nas

In all of life as a sports fan, I never related to coaches. Even as I got older, I always saw things from the (imaginary) player’s side. I never thought about why guys don’t fit into systems. Of course… now I am a teacher, and teaching is coaching. My glory days are over, and I’m all about the younger generation. I just try to give them some guidance, keep them in line, work on their writing, help them explore their options, put down the scissors, spit out the gum, tone down the profanity, stop shoving/humping in the hallways, etc. Basically I make the vintage exasperated Rick Adelman face all day long. It’ fun times!

But Sam, get to the point. How is teaching like being an NBA coach already? Glad you asked.

Ball fundamentals are like grammar and basic literacy skills. You hope the players know them. This is the NBA son, I’m not here to teach you how to dribble, how to box out, how to take your warm-ups off and get on the floor without tripping over yourself. I was mistaken about that, fundamentals must be reinforced. Often.

A lesson plan is a game plan with like strategy and stuff. You have to tell kids/players to go here, then here, then do this, then that, NO! You can’t set that on fire! Now go here. It’s just like drawing little arrows on a dry erase board for a grown man. Without a plan, they have freedom. And don’t be fooled by the Constitution or your idealism. Too much freedom can be… very bad.

Very bad.

The fire and brimstone speech. Same principle. I have not done the Pat Riley chalkboard smashing, but I did a version of that with a desk and an aggressive walk. Some people need to be yelled at and threatened to be motivated. I’m telling you, I have three wrinkles on my face I did not have before, all from yelling at this one 12 year-old kid. He gave me a good-bye hug on my last day. Jealous?

Star treatment for a star player. Okay I’ll admit it. I let some kids get away with more than others. The ones that have a special ability, more creativity or intelligence, receive a little more slack. One kid, whenever he gets caught doing something he shouldn’t be doing, makes the Tim Duncan bulging eyeballs face. He has never done one thing wrong in his life, in his mind. But his talent, in this case being writing/thinking/scholasticizing, is so great that I will overlook most of what he does. Did I have to physically step in and take the chair out of his hands when he was using it to assault a bigger kid? I don’t know, it was a blur. Who knows what happened that day? He is Iverson and I’m some overwhelmed generic interim coach. If I lose him, then all is lost.

Like I said, it’s all about structure but it’s also about flexibility and listening to people. You wouldn’t have a big, slow NBA team running the D’Antoni offense. You have to have a plan of attack that meets the needs of your “talent”, but you can’t totally give up your philosophy. Getting there. The biggest thing is that you can’t be too friendly and you can’t be too domineering. And so, let’s take a look at all of the departed coaches from this season, and why they failed as teachers.

Cheeks – too friendly, too nice, too classy. You may think you are their friend. You are not.
Theus – Too happy, not scary enough. Reminds me of the art teacher. Kids rolling on the floor, throwing stuff, screaming, text messaging in class. No control.
Randy Wittman – A lot of teachers do poorly when they don’t have the proper resources, and then the prinicipal who should have been fired 10 years ago steps in. Well done McHale.
P.J. Carlesimo – This is the too rigid, too angry type. I know this man as a teacher, a much older guy who would suspend kids for the slightest bad behavior. He was removed from his class and they brought a younger, more idealistic replacement. I did not much care for the “P.J.” that I knew.
Eddie Jordan – Another resources problem, his lack of resources being healthy bodies. But he did have something to work with, and just maybe needed a different philosophy.
Sam Mitchell – In all professions, you will encounter people that are completely insane. There was a female Spanish teacher at this school who talked about her sex life at lunch in great detail, and she was just all around crazy. I miss her. I really hope she keeps her job and has a long career ahead of her. But much like Sam Mitchell, she’s nuts.

Now Vince wrote a column about how there could be a racial component to all this. In my experience, I am a white Jew and none of the 44 students I taught matched either one of those traits. I guess it’s like how minority coaches are underrepresented in the NBA. The kids liked me a lot more than their real teacher, my new mentor, who is a very smart, very strong black woman. (Just like Lang, my previous mentor) But that’s because I never called their parents or really did the hardcore discipline like she did. This school I was at is the way people wish the sports world would be. Everyone in upper management like the principal and staff, with one or two exceptions, is a minority, and most of the younger teachers, the bottom of the hierarchy, are white. Backwards!

There were some racially interesting moments, such as when we watched the slave ship revolt scene from Roots and the kids became excited when the white people were being murdered. My favorite racial moment was when a 13 year-old Dominican girl told me that if she became a stripper, she would try to find a rich white man to take care of her. She has the same name as Ben’s daughter. That was good for one chuckle a day.

Okay… good to “see” everyone again. The site looks great! Vacation is a wonderful time. I haven’t been paying as close attention to the NBA as I would have in the past, but I see that the Celtics are doing well. I liked it better when the Bulls were the best team ever cause I was younger and I don’t like having my childhood memories messed with. Big Celtics-Lakers Christmas Day game tomorrow. I will be…