Classroom to sidelines: teaching and coaching a balancing act

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series which offers a glimpse into the lives of high school teachers who coach, a look into their classrooms and their practices, as well as some of the time in between.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series which offers a glimpse into the lives of high school teachers who coach, a look into their classrooms and their practices, as well as some of the time in between.

By Kris Hill and Katherine Smith

As Kentwood head football coach Rex Norris walked into the weight room after film study the afternoon of Sept. 23 and Mark Zender, the head baseball coach, stopped his colleague on his way out and told him he looked tired.

Sleep for Norris, in fact any of the coaches we interviewed during the past two weeks, is at a premium. We interviewed teachers who coach in the fall high school sports season. They all get up early. Many of them get home late from practices and games. And they do it for the love of coaching because the pay is small, anywhere from $4,500 to $7,000 for a season. One coach did the math and figures he makes 25 cents an hour for the time he puts in.

Still, the sacrifice is worth it because they know coaching makes a difference in the lives of the student-athletes they work with before, during and after school.


Jason Johnson started teaching at Tahoma High seven years ago. This year he has five sections of advanced placement psychology. There are 180 students who come through his small, stuffy portable which got quite warm when the Reporter visited him Sept. 19, a day which when the thermometer hit 77 degrees outside. His portable air conditioning unit helped some. It’s quite obvious from walking into his classroom from the wall of soccer scarves while another is covered with posters and team photos what sport he coaches and is passionate about.

Even with its shortcomings, Johnson said, “I love my room — because it’s mine.”

Johnson coaches girls soccer in the fall and boys soccer in the spring. After games he typically gets four hours of sleep because of how late he gets home, the adrenaline pumping, and the hour at which he has to get up in order to get from his home in Auburn to Tahoma High by 6 a.m.

High school wasn’t the best experience for Johnson. He loved soccer but loathed being in the classroom. He says it took him some time to find his direction after he graduated from Marysville-Pilchuck but he found it, first through a mentoring program while in high school, which is what led him to coach soccer. Eventually he found his way to Central Washington University where he studied a host of social sciences. He worked his way up to coaching club soccer. Johnson discovered he was able to connect with people socially in a way he never had before.

And after a while in club, Johnson said, he figured something out.

“I realized that I wanted to influence kids in a different way than just soccer,” Johnson said.

He started spending time in classrooms thanks to friends and family members. Working with kids in that setting just clicked for him.

Not to say it is always easy. When we visited the afternoon of Sept. 19 Johnson’s day started out with a series of challenges with students and with soccer including a series of emails about scheduling of matches while his students were taking a test and had to turn in a paper. In the middle of that, the girls soccer players would stop in to pick up bottled water from a small stack of cases in the back of the room. Johnson discovered the girls were not hydrating well when they played poorly in a game he felt they should have dominated, so, he required them to come to his room and get three bottles of water from him for more than a week.

This served two purposes. First, he knew they were drinking water during the day. Second, he could chat with the players and check in with them throughout the day, too. In many respects, the latter was considerably more important to Johnson, who says it is critical to build relationships with students in the classroom and athletes, both on and off the field.

One thing he likes to do with his players is try and use some of the psychology tricks on them. When Kris Hill interviewed his boys and girls players in the past year, he told them to try and work some words or numbers into their responses. Johnson said it’s to take their minds off the fact they’re being interviewed so they don’t get too nervous.

Senior Rachel Stoker, who shredded all the ligaments in her ankle during practice in September, talked about his methods as she watched practice Sept. 19.

“He always tries to use psychology because he teaches psychology,” Stoker said. “He tries to figure us out, but, it’s hard because we’re girls.”

The following Monday at Kentwood High School Norris arrived at 6:30 a.m. He expected a handful of football players to arrive by 6:45 for study table while some of his AP Psychology students came in to take a quiz they missed the previous week for Breaking Down the Walls, a daylong anti-bullying program the school hosts annually.

Shortly before 7 a.m. Norris pulled out a tub of biscotti and offered it to the teens in his classroom. Breakfast of some sort is important, he told them.

Norris started teaching at Kentwood 18 years ago and began his career in education 21 years ago after graduating from Arizona State. He grew up in west Texas but went to ASU because his father was a defensive line coach for the football team there.

While Norris wasn’t a huge fan of most of the classes he took at ASU he did enjoy history courses then started exploring education. He didn’t land a full time job right out of college, in fact he spent six months in Europe, then came back and decided to move to Washington state on the recommendation of a friend from ASU. When he first started teaching he worked as a substitute teacher for a long time.

“I thought I didn’t like teaching because I was around a lot of bitter people,” Norris said.

So, he left education and got a job at a resort in Palm Springs, Calif. He discovered bitter people there, too, and realized he needed to go back to education. It was just a matter of finding the right place.

He got onto the coaching staff at Kentwood because of his experience playing and coaching rugby. Then he got a job teaching there. Norris did leave Kentwood for a year to work in Texas but discovered that was not the right place for him and returned to Kent.

Four years ago he earned his master’s degree online while teaching full time and putting in at least 35 hours a week coaching the football team — Norris is in his 10th season as the head coach — sacrificing time with his wife and daughter as well as sleep.

This year and last year, however, he has not taught full time so he could spend time with his daughter, who is 10, before school on Thursdays and Fridays. He wouldn’t trade that time for anything.

For Dave Wright, who teaches advanced placement math at Tahoma High School where he also coaches the girls swim team, the day starts at 7 a.m. when he arrives at school, and a steady stream of students aren’t far behind. Wright opens his classroom to students before school and they come to chat as well as work on their math and swimmers drop off their bags in the corner of Wright’s portable and, on meet days like Sept. 19, to ask questions about the meet or glance at the afternoon’s lineup.

Wright has coached for more than 30 years, since his college days. Wright attended Central Washington University and during the summers worked at Fairwood Golf and Country Club outside Renton. After he graduated from Central, Wright was hired to coach the boys swim team at Kentridge High School where he was also began teaching math and later coached the girls swim team. Wright accepted a position teaching at Tahoma in 2006 and took a year off from coaching before taking up the post of coach for the Tahoma girls swim team.

“Coaching is a change of pace for me outside of the classroom, I get a difference experience coaching,” Wright said. “It’s a fun aspect of teaching, being able to coach.”

Wright said it’s the relationships that he gets to build with swimmers and seeing them improve in the sport that keeps him coming back every year.

“Watching kids get better, it’s really fun,” Wright said.

After a day of teaching AP calculus AB and BC and AP statistics Wright either has a team meeting or a dry land workout for swimmers followed by practice across campus at Covington Aquatic Center. In the offseason Wright’s room again open to students in the afternoon who have questions or need extra help with their math.

“I can’t help myself, I keep thinking about the next year as soon as the year is over,” Wright said.

For Kentwood boys and girls soccer coach Aaron Radford, coaching is a way to stay involved in a sport he loved growing up and give back to the soccer community.

Radford holds a bachelor’s degree in math education from Western Washington University as well as a masters in educational leadership and a principal certification. He started volunteering with Kentwood soccer in 1998 and became a coach for the junior varsity boys team in 2000. He began teaching math at Kentwood in 2003 and became the girls head coach in 2004 and the boys head coach in 2006.

“I had a good time playing growing up (and) I thought I’d like to still be involved in soccer,” Radford said. “I ended up getting the job (coaching) in the district to test the waters coaching.”

Like the other coaches, Radford’s days are full, arriving at school at 7 a.m., teaching, practice or a game in the evening and trying to get home in time to have dinner with his family, after which he works on lesson plans, planning practices and watching film.

“There’s plenty to do,” Radford said. “You get into a rhythm where your adrenaline level is at a higher constant then most people, and you go. You’re afraid actually to take a moment to yourself because then you have to gear it back up and it’s harder to gear it back up than keep it constant.”


There are times when Johnson, the soccer coach at Tahoma, will push the girls hard in practice. Sept. 19 he stopped a drill because the players, from his perspective, were not putting in enough effort.

“You have to have intensity to do things right,” Johnson said.

This is coach mode. He doesn’t operate in this mode all the time, though he will go into it when he deals with a kid in the classroom who is acting out, but for someone who is a more low key kind of person, as Johnson typically is, this mode takes too much energy to be in constantly. It is a motivational tool he uses when he feels necessary.

Once the drill is over and he is satisfied with the girls effort level as practice wrapped up, Johnson asks them to sit down on the edge of the turf field to discuss how the attack they just worked on is different in a game than in the drill. It is almost more a discussion of physics than soccer as they talk over the effect of trajectory of the ball, velocity and application of angles.

This is a moment he can capitalize on, Johnson said, a time where the girls will get a bigger message about how important hard work is not just on the pitch but in all aspects of life. Having coached club soccer, he thinks this is what separates high school sports.

“There’s that whole cliche of club versus high school, that the kids are getting all their skill and technical work in club,” Johnson said. “What we can offer as high school coaches are those teachable moments … that will stick with those kids a lot longer.”

He also wants his players to learn how to balance the demands of life and sport, particularly if they go on to college, as many of his Tahoma players have in the past few years.

“We can catch them in some moments parents and club coaches may not,” Johnson said.

In the classroom and on the pitch, Johnson said, it’s about relationships. He does not want to knock club coaches but he thinks high school sports offers something different which is why so many elite athletes choose to play for their schools. He wants to make sure his students and his players know he cares about them because they will listen to as well as trust him as a teacher and a coach.

“There’s no understanding of how much time we here at this school put into these kids,” Johnson said of the teachers who coach at Tahoma. “At the end of the day, we have to remember that they are kids. And every kid is different.”

Norris explained that despite the loss of sleep and hours away from his family, it is worth it because of the impact he and his coaching staff have on kids, as well as the impact they have on him.

“Coaching and teaching, one of the reasons I do it is because it makes you a better person,” Norris said. “The way sports have changed is that coach and parent to need to collaborate for the best interest of the kid. It’s about developing relationships. At least it is for me.”

Those relationships pay off in many ways, Norris said.

“I’ve had at least seven coaches on staff that were ex-players and countless others who come to practice and help,” Norris said. “To me that’s the biggest compliment because they don’t have to do that.”

Relationships are important, too, when he coaches girls in the spring for the Kent Crusaders Rugby Club.

“Coaching rugby girls has made me a better coach in football,” Norris said. “It has taught me to articulate better. If you don’t do that you have to work harder and coaching girls rugby has taught me to coach smarter.”

The message Wright has for his swimmers is simple: work hard, step up, do your best.

“You have to be ready to swim fast,” Wright told his swimmers Sept. 18, the day before the team was going to square off against rival Kentlake.

One of the swimmers said, “We have to win!”

“You don’t have to win, that’s not true,” Wright told the girls. “If you guys win a meet but you don’t swim fast, then I’ll be mad. If you swim fast and we lost, I won’t be mad.”

Wright went on to talk to the girls about the way meets are scored — a team can’t win on winning races alone. The other places matter, not just first.

“Lets say we win, our A relay gets first. And then we get down to our B relay and their A relay…and we lose. They get second, we get third. But we lose by .1. It’s like they come in and then we get in,” Wright said. “We just lost four points. We could have had four, instead we get two. I call that a four point swing. If it reverses they lose two, we get two. That’s four points. If we lost by three it’s because of .1 seconds. That’s all. And if it’s going to be close, we might lose by three. And if we lose by three because of .1 seconds, how happy are you going to be? Not very. Unless every person on that relay swam fast. If everybody goes by their best time and we lose by .1 I will not be sad at all. I want you to go fast. And if you lose because they’re better: nothing you can do about it.”

In the end, when his swimmers and his students graduate, Wright hopes they learn at least two things: hard work pays off and they are capable than more then they ever thought possible.

“Competitive swimming is a symbolic picture of life,” Wright said. “You work hard, you get success. It’s the same thing in life: you work hard, you get success. Sometimes you work hard and you accomplish things you never knew you could accomplish in swimming. And I see that throughout life. If you get that message, you’re golden. If you work hard you can accomplish things you never though you could accomplish. So that’s what I hope they walk away with after four years. There’s all the relationships you’re going to make, all the experiences. But really cool would be if they walk away with that thought. They don’t really ever realize it until way down the road. That’s pretty cool.”

For Radford the season goes by in a blur of practices, improving technique, helping his players learn to work together as a team, games, and administrative details.

But it’s also more than soccer, it’s equipping players for the rest of their lives and giving them skills that translate beyond the field.

“At a high school perspective, the team is in a position to learn,” Radford said. “They learn how to deal with adversity. How to deal with success. That they can hopefully apply to other areas of life. It’s another aspect of life where I hope they can learn about themselves.”

Radford said that the experiences and memories are a great part of being on the team, but he hopes his players walk away with more than that.

“I want them to walk away feeling like they know a little bit more about what they’re capable of as a person—are they able to overcome setbacks?” Radford said. “Ten years from now when they look back I want them to remember the experiences and the times they had together but if all they walk away with is we won x number of games and we did this, it’s not quite what I’m going for.”


When Johnson became a father two years ago a few weeks into the girls soccer season, the sleepless nights of a newborn were not as challenging for him as other new fathers because he typically gets so little sleep after matches, it was almost normal.

His wife is an attorney. When Johnson first started teaching, he worked at Mead Middle School and coached at Mead High School in Spokane while his wife went to Gonzaga Law School. On game days now, Johnson heads out right after school to pick up his daughter, then waits for his wife to get home about two hours later so he can then go back to meet his players for a pre-game meeting. Before he leaves school he usually takes time to put the game plan up on the whiteboard in his classroom so they can get right into it as soon as he gets back to Tahoma High. Because he arrives at school before 6 a.m., game days can be 15 to 16 hours long.

On this day, the Bears have a bye, so it will be a relatively short practice. After the last bell rings at 2:45 p.m. one of his boys soccer players visits to ask for a letter of recommendation for college. Johnson said he would happily write a letter. Once the boy leaves Johnson changes out of work clothes into soccer shorts and socks, a Tahoma T-shirt and sneakers. Practice began shortly after 3 p.m.

“The other thing that’s really hard that doesn’t get a lot of credit, if you’re a teacher and a coach … you can’t be the same person in the classroom that you are on the field,” Johnson said. “It’s the most exhausting thing I do.”

Though Norris teaches three sections of AP psychology, he is at Kentwood at 6:30 a.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for study table, something he instituted his second year as head coach because he had so many players who struggled academically his first year. In between answering questions, he worked on the game plan for the next contest against Kent-Meridian after he spent a few hours at school the night before for a coaches meeting. That came after Kentwood played Mount Rainier on a Saturday.

During first and second period, when he is not teaching, he checks to make sure players are in class and connects with freshmen because he does not see them as much. He also prepares for his teaching putting together PowerPoint slides as well as writing the plan for the week on a whiteboard in the back of his room before going over the key for the quiz most of the students took last week or that morning before school so he can help them review for a test he planed to give the next day.

Third period started Sept. 23 with a request from Norris to be cordial to people in person and email, greet people, he said, before launching into whatever it is you want. Then the students got their quizzes back to go over in groups of three or four.

“Don’t just worry about the answers, I want you to understand why,” Norris said. “No books, no notes. No books, no notes. You’re asking each other. You’re asking me.”

Before class he explained he wanted them to talk to each other because they would get more by hearing their peers explain the concepts behind the answers than if he talked at them. This would be a better approach to test preparation, Norris said.

The balancing act he manages coaching, teaching, being a husband and dad, it’s no easy feat.

“I’m at school (during plan periods) but I’m working on football,” Norris said. “Coaches in Texas would have a hard time here because of all the work we’re expected to do. They could handle the coaching.”

He’s not sure how he managed his schedule when he was teaching full time though he is incredibly organized. He plans out everything with charts and grids. Statistics for games are tracked and plotted methodically electronically. When it comes to teaching, Norris said, he could probably do it all from memory but he still prepares.

Next year he will likely have to go back to a full slate of teaching for financial reasons. His wife Natalie teaches French at Tahoma High. This year she is also teaching part time. Next year, though, their daughter will be in middle school so the schedule change will be a bit more manageable.

Wright’s portable at Tahoma High is decorated with pennants of college’s and university’s from around the country. They hang proudly, a testament to the students who have come before and survived the rigors of advanced math. Upon completing Wright’s class seniors are invited to sign their name to the pennant of the school they will be attending after they leave Tahoma.

Wright’s morning AP Statistics class on Sept. 19 opened with light hearted banter and discussions of the previous days’ sporting events—that day it was cross country and girls soccer. The laughter and chatter in the room and jokes as the students interact with each other, and with Wright, serve as evidence that they are comfortable here.

There’s also a feeling that they know when Wright means business. The class period focused on review of the previous days’ material and making sure students knew exactly what would be required of them come the AP test next May.

“Getting an answer right isn’t enough,” Wright told his students. “All the work is the key in this class.”

For Radford there’s a crossover between classroom and coach.

“It’s funny to me how I start to do things on the field that I do in the classroom or in the classroom that I do on the field,” Radford said.

He said both contexts challenge him to be a better teacher and coach, making him be creative to help his students and players understand what he’s trying to teach them, whether it be binomials or a new soccer skill.

“You might go through and teach them something in a way, and if they aren’t successful, (then) doing it a different way,” Radford said. “Motivating that belief in them – over the years the biggest issue is to get them to commit to the buy in, even if they aren’t successful.”

Soccer is a sport of constant communication. The girls are talking to each other and Radford is talking to them, whether it’s directing a drill, correcting a skill, encouraging them or challenging them.

In the classroom Radford is constantly on the move, walking across the classroom as he teaches and talking with students about the lesson.

“With Kentwood the culture is quite different, from my perspective,” Radford said. “The Kentwood atmosphere is a high level of excellence when it comes to academics and athletics.”