The Art of Collaboration

by Laura Enos

A giant red foam hand waving in the air, the sound of a cowbell clanging across a high school gymnasium over the crowd’s applause as medalists’ names are announced. Students striking up conversations with the head girls’ wrestling coach. Sounds like a typical Saturday meet in front of an energetic crowd, right? Actually, in this case, it was the awards ceremony after a day-long competitive speech meet.  This is my current teaching reality and it’s fantastic.

As a 20-year secondary-level teacher, who has sponsored student council, book club, yearbook, newspaper, speech and one-act, the one role I’ve never been asked to serve, and for very good reason, is that of an athletic coach. Yet, I have a colleague who has only coached sports for his extra duties and whom I’d consider one of my speech team’s biggest fans. He is a respected colleague and dear friend – and he happens to be my school’s head girls wrestling coach.

In the earlier described scene, not only is said coach and high school SPED teacher, Anthony Ruzicka, attending speech meets on his Saturdays off, he’s the one donning the red foam hand and energetically ringing that cow bell with pride. He supports all the kids in our school district and all their activities.

Cross the Aisle
This is beyond just athletic and non-athletic coaches crossing the aisle to support one another’s programs. Even though we don’t have a lot of similar interests, we do share mutual respect, a passion to cheer on our students, and an important professional standard that we support and celebrate. Rather than being in competition with one another, we want each other to succeed.

Case in point: Coach Ruzicka’s wrestling season directly conflicts with my speech team’s season. Three of our school’s female speech team competitors this year are also dedicated wrestlers. Last season, one of the young ladies not only just marginally missed qualifying for Girls State Wrestling, she also competed at the State Speech tournament in March. Coach

Ruzicka was there to watch her, and eight other qualifying kids present their speeches at Kearney High School – burning a personal day, spending his own money on gas, mileage, hotel and food.

It’s not just at the big moments when my colleague’s support is felt.  It’s All. The. Time. On school van rides to and from wrestling tournaments, Coach Ruzicka knew his athlete was working on memorizing her competitive persuasive speech, so he’d ask her to recite it to him aloud while on the road. Here’s the kicker: the persuasive speech topic was about making menstrual products and services connected to women’s health more affordable and accessible. She’s giving a speech about PERIODS, and this thirty-something-year-old male teacher and wrestling coach didn’t blink an eye listening to her speech with sincere interest because he knew she was passionate about the topic.

Do we punish our shared students or pressure them to like one extra-curricular activity over the other?  Absolutely not.  This same student was nursing an injury last year. When she was cleared to competitively wrestle again, she let me know she was going to compete on the mat rather than give her persuasive speech on an upcoming conflicting weekend competition. I smiled and told her how excited I was for her that she was going to get to finish out her wrestling season. And I meant it. When the students witness adults modeling teamwork, civility, camaraderie and support for one another, they truly see it and demonstrate it among their peers as well. Kids are extremely observant and perceptive.

Celebrate and Collaborate
Neither one of us sees ourselves as top billing over the other. Mr. Ruzicka and I ask questions, learn about each other’s interests and let the kids know we care about them beyond our individual fishbowls of the activities that we coach.

When I wasn’t taking students to a speech competition last winter, I found myself driving to a girls’ wrestling tournament on a Saturday and walking into new territory. I became an instant fan. As a feminist, I immediately connected to how empowered and strong these young women are. The life skills and the physical and mental strength they were gaining from being a part of this sport was clear from my view in the bleachers.

I’ve been in work environments where athletic coaches and activity sponsors functioned on completely different islands with not much crossover or communication. We weren’t outright enemies, but we didn’t really know each other, or even try to collaborate, for that matter.  Not only is there the social separation in opposing athletics and activities, but let’s be honest, we see and hear the negative comparisons in opposing departments and grade levels within a district. Why? We should not be too afraid or too stubborn to celebrate one another and want each other to succeed.

The only competitive nature I have against Mr. Ruzicka now, is who can be the better fan for each other’s activity.  The man brought a foam hand and cowbell to a speech tournament, for goodness sakes! How does one top that? Face paint? Posters? Hmm…time to brainstorm.

About the author:
Laura Enos has taught for 20 years in Nebraska public schools. Today she teaches high school English at Scribner-Snyder Community Schools.