04/11/2014  |  By Kathryn Schmidt and Ron Schmidt

In a recent New York Times article Nicholas Kristof tells a story from the 1950s about a kid who was a handful; he was a trouble maker, didn’t want to learn, never read, didn’t fit in and was disrespectful. He was from a large family, no electricity in the house, father was a farmer with a second grade education, he attended a small segregated school in the South and he was always mouthing off. He drove his teacher to tears.

Both coaches, a successful businessman and his school teacher daughter, share insights on how creating stronger communities can help us all get a better “final grade.”

So one day during senior year he cut class, and ended up in the library where he spotted a book by a black author with a risqué cover. Not wanting to jeopardize his reputation with his peers by being seen reading a book, he stole the book from the library rather than checking it out. He loved the book and sneaked it back on the shelf only to find another book by the same author. He continued this with four books by the same author and got hooked on reading. The student, Olly Neal, went on to college and law school and was appointed the first black district prosecuting attorney in Arkansas. And a few years later Neal became a judge.

Driving hundreds of miles to help a troubled kid
At a high school reunion years later, Neal’s English teacher, Mildred Grady, filled Olly in on the rest of the story. She had witnessed him stealing the book but recognized his embarrassment in checking out the book, so she didn’t confront him. But what happened next was most remarkable. Examining the bookshelves she found no more books by the same author. So she got in her car and drove 70 miles to a Memphis bookstore to find another book by the same author. She ended up making this trip four times for Olly, the incorrigible, disrespectful kid. The kid that many thought didn’t have a chance, the kid that many would have given up on.

In a recent interview, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s response parallels our story: “All of us can point to a great teacher who fundamentally changed the trajectory of our lives, and yet we know we don’t give teachers the recognition they deserve.”

My daughter is a first grade teacher and a grade school cheerleading coach, I’m a business owner and a youth baseball coach. We act both as coaches and teachers in our professional and athletic settings. Acting as a teacher and a coach in the classroom or in business has commonalities. Many people act as teachers to us, and they all can make a difference. We would like to share our thoughts and experiences on team building.

Why did Mrs. Grady do this for Olly? She had no idea he would one day become a judge. He was from the poorest of families. Why do something for a kid who was incorrigible and who most likely would never have a chance? We know Olly never thanked her at the time. In fact, she could have turned him in for stealing.

So what did she really do for him? She found a way to make Olly feel included. He was finally reading, doing what most students had been doing for years. He now felt a commonality to the community of education; he felt part of the team, part of the big picture that now enticed him to go to college. Mrs. Grady figured out a way to give him a fair shot at life. Mrs. Grady became a leader in the classroom and in the bigger educational community, and as a result, helped shape a significant contributor to society.

The teacher – the coach
Opportunities for teaching abound, beyond the traditional classroom setting. My colleague and I were asked to coach cheerleading, something we had never done before. Twenty-two girls tried out and we decided all would make the team because we sought to create a feeling of inclusion by building community. While each girl had a variety of talents we gladly accepted; we only accepted one standard for behavior: Each girl needed to treat their peers with respect and dignity. If they didn’t, they lost participation time.

As a cheerleader, the word “leadership” takes on a whole new meaning. Being a leader not only on the sidelines, but in the classroom and the community as well is a vital component of this role. Owning the title as a “cheerleader” is a fulltime job. Our goal was to instill the desire of becoming a positive role model for their school and community, on the court and off. It’s a lot to expect, but if the desire is there, each girl has the power and control to meet this expectation.

As a primary grade school student, each member of the team began to build tolerance and embrace their differences. We worked to help the squad always bear in mind that leadership is the process of influencing your team members to work hard and be committed to team goals. To be a good leader, you must take part in helping your teammates attain those goals every day.

Now think about the challenges of Olly’s times and today. Olly’s school was segregated, not unlike others throughout our country in the 1950s. His opportunities in the classroom were artificially restricted by the school he could attend. Then and now, for the benefit of the student, schools identify kids as gifted, cognitively delayed, or economically disadvantaged. These labels help schools to better meet the needs of every child, but they also have unintended consequences because these same labels can sometimes define boundaries and limit a student’s options.

The business owner – the coach
While I have been coaching kids for over 20 years, I have become a better coach in recent years when I didn’t have the talented kids that I did when I first started coaching. Through constantly affirming the belief that it’s important to raise everyone to a higher standard, our teams have been successful both in how they treat their teammates and competitors as well as making the championship series.

Working hard with each player, and making all of them commit to the team and their teammates has been rewarding as a coach. Also remember the adage that “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” can be said another way; “hard working teachers beat the odds when they build a school of inclusion.”

Successful communities of people – successful teams – successful schools – are built through effective relationships, by folks connecting with the humanity of others. The story of Olly and Mrs. Grady is an important example of building community – building the team. We do this by connecting and being accountable to all the players, the teachers, and to those we are educating, our students. This requires an attitude of being inclusive with all students and all teachers.

Making your “final grade” count
Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School reflected on his life after a close call with cancer. He concluded “that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. He went on to say “that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”

So what metric did Mrs. Grady live her life by? And what can Mrs. Grady teach us about our lives? What small steps can you take to help others become better people? What “Memphis like” path have you pursued? What leadership can you show for building community? As Mr. Christensen recommends, “Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”

Kathryn “Katie” Schmidt, a public school teacher of seven years, currently teaches a K-1 split in the urban center of Louisville, KY. Her 13-year competitive gymnastic experience instilled in her the drive to succeed and a vision to oppose fear of the unknown as she leads in her role as the cheerleading coach for her school. Her coaching role provides her a means of mentoring and guiding her students to achieve their goals as they face obstacles with honesty and hope.<

Ron Schmidt is a graduate of the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and the Weatherhead School of Business, Case Western University. A resident of Cleveland Heights, OH, for 30 years, consultant and business owner, he is also active in Rotary, Junior Achievement, an active board member of several community organizations, and a baseball coach. Schmidt is also a frequent keynote speaker at industry events and is published in industry publications. He is president of CBS Certified Public Accountants, LLC and Credit Union Business Solutions, LLC.

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