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viewpoint

From the Golden Dome to the classroom

| Friday, January 30, 2015

Playing basketball for the Fighting Irish was a huge part of my life at Notre Dame. I loved my classes in O’Shaughnessy Hall, my friends, nights at Finny’s Bar, but I also always looked forward to the next time I could step onto the Joyce Center floor in my blue and gold jersey. Playing basketball taught me so much — from how to execute offensive plays and improve my free-throws, to time management and teamwork. But it wasn’t until I thought about what I wanted to do after I’d hung up my jersey that I realized how playing for Notre Dame had prepared me for a job few of us on the team had given much thought to: teaching.

I first realized the parallels between my life as a basketball player and the work on education’s front lines when I noticed the paradox of success for many African-American college-athletes: often achieving on the sports field and falling behind in the classroom. I wanted to explore the multitude of factors causing this opportunity gap. I also knew I had the potential to serve as an example against the stereotypes facing children of color. So I applied to Teach For America, where I planned to hold my students to high expectations, support them on the way to meeting them and show them that their futures were their own to design.

As I found my feet in the classroom, I had to grow quickly in areas like explicit instruction and classroom management. As I did, many of the traits that had propelled me to my starting spot at Notre Dame, drove my work as a teacher forward too. All those times you had to play, and play well, in front of thousands of people — that taught you how to perform under pressure. Those games where you knew you were the underdog, but you continued to push forward — That translates to resilience. The hundreds of hours you’ve spent playing the game with your teammates, working together to strategize, communicate and press toward your goals — these built the foundation of skills and mindsets that principals and parents look for in the teachers they want for their kids.

As Fighting Irish, we hold ourselves and each other to high standards. Daily, we live out our community’s commitment to resiliency, teamwork and overcoming adversity. As a teacher, I bring those mindsets to the classroom and work to cultivate them in my students. My kids and I are a team and, in order to succeed, we have to work together, communicate, trust one another, take responsibility for and learn from our mistakes and overcome the significant challenges in front of us to reach our goals. In short, we have to leave it all on the court.

And when we reached our goals – when my students began to write and express their emotions, create poetry and articulate their thoughts and speak with confidence and conviction — I felt the same rush I used to get from dunking in front of 9,149 screaming fans in the Joyce Center. That feeling that drives your commitment to your sport – that sense of deep pride that comes only after practicing and working and persevering to do your part for the people counting on you – it doesn’t go away when you trade your jersey for a jacket and tie. As athletes, we strive to jump higher, run faster, push farther. When we become teachers, we ask our kids to do the same – give their all and reach new heights. It’s a legacy that lives on long past any conference title or national championship.

One of my proudest moments in the classroom was hearing Tyler, a fifth-grade student who started the year reading at a second-grade level, begin to practice reading fluency lessons daily. He attended intervention, retook tests, completed homework and ultimately built the work ethic to read 136 words per minute – one word above grade level. Victory never tasted so sweet.

 

Dennis Latimore is a former forward for the Fighting Irish (Notre Dame ’05) and a Teach For America alum. He teaches 7/8th grade English at ICEF Inglewood Middle Charter Academy and is head basketball coach for View Park High School in Los Angeles, CA.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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