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Mark P. Murphy
Educational Leadership
The Pennsylvania State University

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

As if I needed more motivation to gripe about local school politics...

Critical Incident

My first passion has always been baseball. I still fantasize about a career covering a major league baseball team for a newspaper, or calling games on the radio each night, or anchoring SportsCenter on ESPN. I let my obsession wane as I got into my career, but having XM Satellite radio with every broadcast of every game has rekindled some of the old flame.

I read baseball books constantly as a boy. Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, Peter Gammons, David Halberstam, and others were my literary role models; my fellow English teachers wonder why I haven’t read Hawthorne or Fitzgerald. I wonder why they don’t appreciate what it meant to be a Brooklyn Dodger fan in the early 1950’s.

For as much as I appreciate the history of the game and the literary tradition of baseball, I enjoy playing and coaching the sport even more. I’ve been in a competitive men’s league in my hometown area for the past 13 years, and had the opportunity to coach at the Junior Varsity level for two years while teaching in Local School District. This time as a coach is the subject of my critical incident.

When I first took the position, an area man who ran an auto body shop had taken the varsity coaching position from a teacher who had coached for a number of years but had very little success. The new coach, who we’ll just call BB, had played softball with my dad in their younger adult years. My father also officiated his wedding ceremony, so yes, we had met. He also had a reputation as a hot-head who was notoriously more interested in his players on the field than in the classroom or outside school. Knowing all of this, I learned quickly to expect the unexpected from BB.

During that first year, we were able to keep nearly all the players who started. BB’s varsity team did a fair job of playing up the their competition, but were not talented enough to win a lot of games. My JV team did not fare very well, but we played hard and were competitive in some games where we should not have been. I declined the offer to move up and be the varsity assistant, however, because of many instances where BB and I clashed over how issues such as the importance of players being academically eligible and my high expectations for my players to grasp complex nuances of the game. BB said on numerous occasions that he didn’t care about his players in the classroom, and also that our players could not handle advanced signal systems because they were “just from around here.” He also did a poor job of managing games on the field and routinely embarrassed himself with poor conduct directed toward umpires and other coaches.

Our second year went poorly, as you can tell. Record-wise, my JV team did very well, winning a very prestigious tournament against three top teams. The varsity players quit the team in droves, leaving BB little choice but to call up players from my team to fill the holes. I was left with as few as two players for practice. My role as a teacher, and a well-liked teacher, was to catch the players who quit and try to bring them back, while commiserating with them that playing for BB had become nearly impossible.

At the end of the season, I applied against BB for the varsity job, knowing full well that I would not be offered the position. BB had painted the school’s golf cart, and donated money for the after-prom party. I had done great work in the classroom and on the field as a coach. The politics of the school leaned toward BB. I did not choose to come back as JV coach again. There is some tongue-in-cheek material in this paragraph.

Thankfully, I met the new softball coach and worked alongside him as the varsity assistant for the next two years. The bitter taste that had been left in my mouth by a corrupt organization that would rather have BB as its varsity coach than me was appeased somewhat by the fun Jack and I had with the softball team. We didn’t win much, but we molded a group of young women into a team that learned how to care about their performance. This opportunity to teach young people to take pride in preparation and how you carry yourself despite long odds for success was great character-building experience.

Value Auditing a Critical Incident (Paul Begley, Penn State, 2005)

Step 1: Interpretation of the Problem (ethic of critique)

The stakeholders in this critical incident were quite varied, ranging from players and parents of players to the coaches involved to the administrators charged with hiring coaches. The stakeholders with the most voice were BB and the administrators, both of whom had much more influence with their voices than the players. I had a voice, although it was subordinated by my lack of political “pull.”

Throughout this time, relevant arenas of practice included self, group, profession, organization, and community. There was much conflict between these arenas. For example, my personal passions for teaching and coaching young people in an ethical manner with strong moral components clashed with administrators and BB’s desire to maintain organizational practices focused on political and bureaucratic traditions. This struggle between self and organization is one that dominated my years at Local School District. I will maintain, however, that without this struggle I would not have entered administration and encountered the measure of success I have had. I can fairly maintain that the turbulence of the conflicts between BB and myself pushed me out of the pit of bureaucracy and community politics and above the fray. This is the first time I’ve ever commented that I am better for not getting the job I wanted so badly.

Step 2: Towards a Humane Response (ethic of care)

The stakeholders involved had divergent motivations. But, and here is where I have a more cynical view of meta-values, each major stakeholder claimed the same motivation.

I had motivations concerned with self and personal preference (my passion for baseball); motivations concerned with desired outcomes (a winning baseball program with young men who were successful on and off the field); and motivations concerned with ethical postures (a baseball program needed a coach that cared about doing things the right way).

BB’s motivations were concerned with self (his son was on the team, he played there in high school); avoidance of undesirable (winning was placed above player development and academics); and ethical postures (a baseball program needed a coach that cared about doing things the right way).

The administration’s motivations were concerned with self, desired outcomes, along with an interesting twist of concern for the perceptions of others. At the meta-value level, however, that similar ethical posture was there as a refrain (the baseball program needed a coach that cared about doing things the right way).

So, we have three different stakeholders who cared about “doing things the right way.” What was the right way? Was it my value system? Was it BB’s? Was it the administration’s? Each set of values was different, although we each wanted the same result. Hence, my hesitation to blindly advocate for meta-values; there must be more grass-roots effort expended to establish common “mini-values” before a meta-value can mean anything at the organizational level.

Step 3: Ethical Action (ethic of justice)

There is an old saying in baseball: “you’re only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher.” I feel the same way about justice in public school systems. While the maximized benefits for the student athletes involved in the baseball program would have been to have a coach in the school who valued each person’s overall worth and contributions both on and off the field, the administration did not see the situation the same way. They felt that they owed the auto body shop owner who painted the golf cart a coaching job, even though he repeatedly embarrassed himself with umpires, lost many players due to personality conflicts, and alienated parents because of his coarse manner.

The decision made was wrong. There is no question in my mind that an unethical decision was made by the athletic director when I applied for the coaching job. It has little to do with me personally, and I feel comfortable saying that now that I am at a school where we deliberately work to make ethical decisions free from political influence. It was the wrong decision because those involved had to suspend their own morality and values to retain a coach who consciously subverted their administrative vision for student programs.

Now, let me qualify something: I made the right decision for myself and the players. I could not continue as JV coach. The “ends” of a successful program were interfered by me being in the building and BB being out of the building. The best solution for the program, no matter who the coach turned out to be, was for one of us not to be involved any longer. The players had too much of an outlet for complaining about BB with me, which undermined his efforts. This was addition by subtraction since one of us would not be involved any longer.


karen said...

I'm glad to hear you've found a position where you believe the organization strives to make ethical decisions free of political influences. As a parent, or outsider of the organization, I've always felt that sports are very political in high schools. I've rarely seen a coach's son or daughter, for example that doesn't get to play regularly. Parents who are influential in the community or give large donations usually have their children play.
I also think that winning is a meta-value that is shared by administration, many faculty members, and the community. Have you ever noticed that football coaches who don't win don't get to stay very long?
My three children and their friends continually pointed out that teachers passed athletes when they barely did any work.

Bridget said...

Sports were my continuity in high school; my home life was not as great from the inside as it looked from the outside. I participated in three sports and the same woman coached two of the three sports. I learned the value of team work, of individual drive, and of desire. Upon reflection, I believe this era shaped my ethics of care, justice, and critique. I believe very strongly that education includes more than academics; athletics, music, art, and clubs should be among the offerings for children. The politics of winning pull hard on teams. In Dave’s dilemma the focus was not on what’s best for the children. As a parent, I argued that it is not all about winning; this is often met with blank stares.