The Chemistry of Coaching
Growing up, coaches were some of the most important people in Laura McKelvey’s life. Learn how she’s bringing that spirit of support and rigor to both her baseball team and chemistry classroom.
Laura McKelvey (Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana, ’14) is no stranger to fields that have typically been dominated by men. At Johnson College Prep on the city’s South Side she not only teaches chemistry, she is also the boys’ baseball coach. This makes her the only woman varsity head coach among the Chicago area's 289 baseball teams.
Growing up, Laura was passionate about two things: sports and school. “My mom has been an educator for thirty years, her mom was an educator for forty years. School always felt like home to me,” she says. Though in college she was encouraged to pursue different, potentially more lucrative career paths, when her senior year rolled around she decided to follow her passion. She joined Teach For America as a Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana corps member.
This fall, Laura is going into her sixth year at Johnson, which was her placement school as a corps member. “I love this school because of the kids—they are so wonderful and amazing—but also because my administration really values my development and allows me to push myself,” she says. This is obvious when she begins to talk about her approach to teaching chemistry. With her colleague Alicen Buder, another Teach For America alumna, she has completely redesigned the curriculum.
Laura’s classroom is built on a discussion-based model, something not often seen in STEM fields. Instead of lecturing, Laura has students read about scientific concepts as homework. The next day in class, Laura presents them with problems that they have all of the information to solve for, and they get in to small groups to figure out their approach. They then debate as a full group, with a student as moderator. “It took a lot of practice to remove myself as the explainer,” she says. “But our kids are so smart, they can explain everything. And they can do it in a way that helps their peers understand the concept better than I can, because of all of my years of chemistry.”
She brings this innovation to grading as well. “Their grades used to feel like a mystery to them,” she says. “When we’d ask them why they had a C, they’d say it was because they needed to do better on tests, which isn’t really actionable or empowering.” Instead, Laura completely reimagined the grading system, building it around learning strands. Alongside Alicen she rewrote rubrics and tests so students could see what particular concepts—like density—they were struggling with, rather than just scores by assignment type. This has led to incredible growth. “Compared to last year, on more than 90 percent of the standards the scores improved,” Laura says.
It’s clear that this same spirit of empowerment carries over to Laura’s coaching. When she began her time in the corps she hoped to coach the girls’ softball team, but the year before she joined Johnson the boys’ baseball coach left, leaving them in need of a leader. Laura decided to step up to the plate, and every year since the team has grown. “Coaching is a real privilege—you see kids be so vulnerable. Coaches were some of the most important people in my life. These people showed me how to win, how to lose, and how to bounce back,” Laura says. She sees the pride her players have in their team when they walk down the halls in their uniforms. “It gives them a sense of belonging,” she says. “And because of that, they’re more likely to stay in school.”
When asked how she approaches both fields as a woman, she shrugs. “There is no gender to expertise,” she says. “Students are young and open minded, and they’re the perfect ones to prove to that this is true. I love that my kids that graduate and go on to college can say, ‘What do you mean your high school didn’t have a woman coaching your baseball team?’”