Coaching Little League baseball for 4-to-6-year-olds has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I confess that during the first month of games, I harbored a constant desire to get in my car and go home. The kids were all incredibly sweet, but on my team they were all closer to 4 than 6, and I’m not sure how many of them were even pre-disposed to play baseball. In the beginning, they would wear their gloves on their head, pick blades of grass, play in the dirt, wrestle with each other – anything but play baseball. One even told me, as he lay in the outfield, “I don’t even like baseball!” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that.
To compound matters, the league we were in didn’t make allowances for 4-year-olds. The expectations were that teams, no matter what their experience level, would play the game of baseball by the rules of baseball. Three strikes and you were out. Players tuck in their shirts Bases are regulation distances away from each other, and players are expected to make the throws and catches to put runners out. It all seemed a little insane to me, and the first games were a demonstration of this insanity. We lost our first four games by an average score of 16 to 0. It was a little disheartening, and I was beginning to question whether this was even an appropriate activity for a 4-to-6-year-old.
Then something crazy happened. The kids got better. We scored our first run. Then we had a game that ended in a score of 2 to 2, easily one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved in. As thrilling as any Yankees/Red Sox game. This past weekend, we won our first game. It has been amazing to watch these children develop. It’s something that hasn’t just happened for one or two children either. The whole team is progressing, each child at his or her own pace. Some making greater growth than others, but all showing growth.
Through this process, I’ve gotten a little insight into how standards can and should function. I admit that I’ve always been a little skeptical of how expectations can affect educational outcomes, perhaps because they’ve always been presented to me as a zero sum game. The Common Core State Standards were developed so that all children could be measured by a common stick across the country. To my eyes as a parent, these were meant to dictate at what level a child should be performing, with little accounting for any kind of outside variables. The results from the testing of these standards would allow us to rank children, teachers, and schools.
For example, teachers are to have high expectations of a child, and if that child does not meet those standards, then they, their teachers, and their whole school are labeled failures. There is no room for taking into consideration any kind of individual or unique challenges. Everybody is expected to reach proficiency at the same pace. Furthermore, just expecting a child to succeed is supposed to be enough and what is presently preventing mastery is not symptomatic of poverty or development, but merely low expectations.
What my Little League team has demonstrated is something different. There is an expectation that everyone will attempt to perform to a certain standard, but if a child should fall short, we attempt to coach and correct in a manner that recognizes the challenges of each child. The child who is just turned 4 is not expected to show the same ability as a child who is nearly 6. Some of the children are obviously more athletically inclined than others, but that doesn’t mean all aren’t capable of growth. That growth is what is important, and it does not look the same in all children. As coaches, we try to celebrate that growth in whatever form it takes and no matter how miniscule it may appear.
An educator friend of mine explained standards to me this way. When you go to a doctor, he has a list of guidelines that you should adhere to in order to be considered healthy. The doctor, however, doesn’t just recite those and send you on your way with a proclamation of healthy or unhealthy. He takes those guidelines and compares them with your lifestyle, family history, past medical history, and any other factors he can glean from you. Sometimes you may not be exactly healthy, but you are getting as close as you possibly can to adhering to those guidelines and so he recognizes that and offers praise. That’s what teachers do with children, expectations, and standards. They treat the child as a doctor would a patient and get them as close to those standards as possible. Sometimes that means a 100 percent and sometimes it might be a little less.
We have a kid on the team who can’t hold on to the bat. Every time he swings, he lets go and the bat gets flung. It’s a dangerous action and one that needs correction. The umpire has warned that if he continues to do this, he’ll be considered out. Yesterday, he struck out three times, but managed to hold on to the bat each time. We celebrated that accomplishment each time as if he’d gotten a hit. Overall, he failed to meet the expectation of getting a hit, but what he accomplished made the attainment of the expectation a possibility in the future. In my eyes, that’s trending towards healthy.
I’ve also seen firsthand the role outside variables play on a kid’s performance. Two weeks ago, we had a game that started on a Tuesday night at 6:45. The kids had already had a full day, and the last thing they were focused on was baseball. The game itself was an unmitigated disaster, but should in no way be considered reflective of these kids’ abilities. The kids were tired and that need took precedent over applying themselves to baseball. Despite what education reformers might argue, tired kids, whether mentally or physically, do not make focused learners. I’ve learned the same holds true for hungry kids and kids who have to go potty. Meet those pressing needs and suddenly, you’ve got better ball players on your hands. Crazy, I know, but I suspect the same holds true for students.
Yesterday, my own son’s mother was participating in a half marathon. So we were up at 5:00 a.m. to see her off and then cheer her on for the next two hours. When my son’s baseball game time arrived at noon, to say he was spent was an understatement. He’d had enough, and baseball was the last thing on his mind. It took a little cajoling, but he played. It was not his best game, but afterwards we celebrated his efforts. I praised him for the plays he made. In my eyes, though, the most important thing I did was recognize his challenges and praise him for overcoming those to take the field. I didn’t offer him excuses, but recognized the difficulties and his ability to face them.
It is my observation that in the never-ending argument about the role of poverty in education, it’s always presented as an either/or argument. Either the student overcomes the challenges, or the challenges are used as excuses. Either the teacher and the school overcome the challenges, or else they dismiss the challenges as excuses. I wonder how often we acknowledge the fact that just showing up to get in the game is worthy of a celebration on its own for a kid who has many difficulties at home. Instead, the expectation is that the child will show up and hit the mark every day, completely ignoring what might have happened outside the classroom, or else the term failure be evoked.
The majority of the kids on my Little League team will not master the skills to play baseball at the expected level this year. I believe they will continue to progress towards that standard though. More importantly, I think they will develop an appreciation for the complexities of the game of baseball. They will learn that you can fail at a task a multitude of times before mastering it. That’s not called being a failure, but rather, being a student. Hopefully, they will learn the joy that comes with growth when a task that once seemed impossible becomes rote. I hope that they will begin to understand that not everybody is capable of performing at the same level, but we are all capable of doing our best. And sometimes our best may not be good enough, and that’s all right, too, as long as we truly worked as hard as we could.
Funny thing is, I realize these hopes are no different than what I hope my children are receiving from their school. Currently kids are being tested ad nauseam, but are the results accurately measuring the child as a student? Are they showing to what degree the child embraces the beauty of learning? Are they instilling the realization that sometimes you may fall short, but if you are in the game there is always the potential to get a hit? Are they opening the child’s mind to all the beauty and mystery that the world has to offer, or are they closing their minds to anything that is not measurable? These are the standards and expectations that I want my children held to, and I seem to get the best measure of those by talking to my children’s teachers. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned through my son’s baseball experience is that standards are important, but only if applied as an expectation and not a value judgment.
Standards should be set and applied by parents, teachers, administrators and even communities and just like I don’t require a standardized test to evaluate my players skill level, I think the aforementioned can tell you how close their children are to reaching the standards without relying on a singular high stakes test as well. Some may argue that the kids on my team are stuck on a failing baseball team. Maybe, if you just measure by wins and losses. But should Little League baseball, or for that matter, life itself, only be measured by wins and losses?