Teaching Student-Athletes

Nate Kreuter and Eric Dieter discuss the stereotypes and the practicalities.
September 14, 2011

I’m not sure that I would have graduated from high school if it hadn't been for wrestling and lacrosse. During high school, where I performed very poorly academically, I wanted to enter our county's vocational education program and get a welding certificate. However, students had to be bussed to the county's vocational training center, and the buses returned too late in the day for vocational students to participate in athletics. Because I was literally in love with sport, I remained enrolled in "college prep" classes.

My life would likely have turned out very differently had I taken the vocational route. I still love building things and working with my hands, and have a deep respect for all those who undertake such work, but it may have been athletics that opened up for me the life of the mind (or at least kept it open as a possibility). Because of my own past as a high school and college (club-level, not varsity) athlete, I have tried to be attentive as a teacher to the special demands placed upon student-athletes, and have worked hard to understand the dual roles that they are expected to succeed within.

A graduate school friend and I recently had an e-mail exchange about some of the special considerations that can promote more positive classroom experiences for student-athletes and instructors alike. My friend and colleague, Eric Dieter, who was himself a collegiate athlete at Wabash College, has helped to develop tutoring curriculums for athletes at the University of Texas at Austin, and also at UT Austin has taught dozens of student-athletes within the framework of standard classes, as well as in classes designed exclusively for student-athletes. The list that follows is a distillation of Eric’s excellent advice, which is in turn derived from his (and my own) many years of experience educating student-athletes from every academic and athletic discipline.

It should be admitted from the outset here that there is academic malfeasance committed on behalf of athletic departments. It should be admitted that there are athletes uninterested in or disinclined toward their student status. However, it should also be admitted that not every student-athlete has classroom anxieties. Some are superb students and superb athletes. And it should be recognized that even student-athletes who do struggle academically are overwhelmingly honest and do not engage in unethical behaviors. So, for the remainder of this column I’ll be discussing student-athletes who haven't yet mastered how to be great in the classroom, but who deserve the benefit of the doubt.

When teaching struggling student-athletes ...

... forgo negative assumptions in the absence of direct evidence. Right? As an advanced graduate student with administrative responsibilities, I once mediated an alleged plagiarism case between a first-time graduate instructor and a student-athlete. The instructor had no evidence against the student-athlete, and the instructor’s accusation amounted to holding up the student-athlete’s paper and saying, "This sounds too smart to be you." It was a shameful and unfounded accusation, arising from only the worst assumptions that some teachers make about student-athletes. I was partly liable, for not having done my due diligence of examining the "evidence" prior to the mediation. I spent the entire "mediation" backpedaling in an attempt to avoid a (perhaps justified) lawsuit. I'm pretty aggressive about due diligence now, and more convinced than ever that all students (to include student-athletes) deserve the benefit of the doubt, and deserve not to be confronted with unfounded accusations.

...be aware of the stigmas that student-athletes face. They are aware of the uniqueness of their own situations, often sensitively aware. They are cognizant of the disparaging and discounting statements that get made about them and their status on campus, including by some of their classmates and professors, about the largesse shown them, about their assumed lack of intellectual abilities, about their assumed lack of academic dedication. They've all experienced prejudice on campus, assumptions that they are fed answers, or have schoolwork done for them, or don't have to work for grades. Be aware that they are aware of the negative stigmas often attached to student-athletes, and actively counter those stigmas by refusing to make similar assumptions, and by confronting issues associated with such stigmas directly when they arise.

... be upfront about their dual status. They know they're athletes, and their peers generally do, and so do you. So don't ignore it. But also don't make a production about it during class, which is really just another kind of singling out, even if it's well-intentioned. Outside class, have a private conversation with them about their anxieties about the class, what academic help they are receiving from their department and team, what you can do to help them succeed. You can also be assertive about asking when they anticipate missing class because of competition. Usually student-athletes are required to give you advance notice, but if you can begin that discussion and planning even earlier, you’re likely to see better performance. Certainly you can't give student-athletes "special treatment." But accommodating things like their schedules (within reason) doesn't, to me, constitute an unfair concession. I make similar "concessions" for students with children, and students with jobs, and students with serious health issues.

... work with their support structure. For instance, when meeting individually with student-athletes, have them take notes on specific elements that you want them to work on with their tutors. Respond in a timely manner to requests for status updates from authorized staff in the athletics department. If working with student-athletes' tutors, offer updates on students doing well and those doing less well, and provide specific advice for helping the latter group. If your university makes dedicated tutoring services available to student-athletes, as many do, work with those tutors, rather than viewing them with suspicion.

... if you're going to assume anything about them, assume that they understand what it takes to be excellent. They are successful athletes, which almost certainly means that they understand the time, resources, and energy that it takes to get good at something. They get that practice makes perfect. They get hard work and dedication. They don't expect immediate dividends. And not for nothing, they understand how to take instruction, which is really just another word for "coaching."

... help them transfer the mindset and skills that make them strong athletes into the classroom. For example, the writing process, the bread and butter of my own field of rhetoric and composition, is a lot like learning the mechanisms of any athletic activity, like a fastball or a three-point stance. It's an iteration of performance, evaluation, feedback, and increasingly minute adjustments, until the process and the writing get as good as they can get. Making the connection of how prior knowledge is useful to current, unique situations can help student-athletes to grasp the form and function of the class and its curriculum. Break tasks down into components, and then show how the components fit together.

... respect what athletics mean to the student. I once taught a women’s soccer player who, during her first semester of college as a scholarship athlete, realized that she no longer loved the game, that she could no longer endure the physical toll of sport, and resigned both her spot on the team and her scholarship. Even though it was wholly her own decision, this devastated the student, and was akin to experiencing a death, with all of the entailing stages of grief. The major life change affected her ability to perform in class for weeks, and required me to empathize with her situation. You don’t need to be a sports fan to teach student-athletes effectively, but you do need to understand what it is like to love something immeasurably.

... don’t be too heavy-handed about yoking everything in your class to athletics. Doing so will eventually erode your own ethos. It's a little like using current slang when you aren't comfortable doing so — clumsy and obvious. They are students, so it's important to treat them as students (who are athletes, instead of the reverse).

... finally, try to get student-athletes to be gentle with themselves and to not overestimate the consequences of making mistakes in your class. I actually say this to a lot of my students, athletes or not, since so many of our students are constantly worried about accomplishment culture and the seemingly omnipresent loom of "failure." Try to keep your own course in perspective — is it really the most important thing in the world? Might it be O.K. if a student, of any background, just tries to get through your course, instead of making it their highest priority in life?

I know that many faculty members fear dealing with student-athletes from high profile programs who are recalcitrant, feel entitled, or who constantly test the instructor’s authority. While I believe such fears are most frequently unfounded, of course there are always recalcitrant students (and student-athletes). My advice is to deal with such students as you would any other. You aren’t "going up" against the athletic department, just as you are never really "going up" against any student. If you are unable to resolve a situation with a student-athlete on your own, my recommendation is to bring in an outside resource. Take the problem discreetly and nonconfrontationally to either the student-athlete’s academic adviser or your department chair. As with any difficult situation, your best recourse is to seek appropriate help. The best step to avoiding confrontation, in my opinion, is not to treat the problem as a confrontation, but simply another, routine problem that requires timely and professional resolution.

Faculty can bemoan the role of athletics in today’s universities all they like. But it’s naïve to think that that role will change any time soon. In the meantime, there are real human beings caught in the mix, student-athletes who are balancing double the responsibilities of a non-athlete student. In some cases, athletics may have even provided their only avenue to college. Student-athletes deserve to be freed from the common negative assumptions made about them, and instructors have a responsibility to help them achieve classroom success.

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