Why I Teach: Coaching Kids to Break the Impossible


Monday, May 18, 2015

Teach For America's Top Stories is proud to present "Why I Teach," a weekly series where our 2015 Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching recipients share what makes them passionate about the classroom. 

We start with James Sheridan (Houston '00), who teaches 11th Grade AP English Literature and 11th-12th Grade Film at YES Prep Southeast High School. A two-time ESL Teacher of the Year and 16-time district champion at the helm of the school's cross country program, James describes the dual power of coaching and educating.



That’s what Mr. Newton, my cross country coach, shouted at me during a brutal 400-meter run my senior year. Dripping with sweat and legs tying up with lactic acid, I was fading. He saw it and held me accountable, publicly and loudly.

Mr. Newton, a master motivator and former Olympic coach, knew that calling me out at that moment in the workout would trigger something in my brain—some fragment of pride that would cause me to hang on and get back with Group One at the head of the pack. It did.

His feedback was honest and spurred me to push my body further; I surged forward and stayed with Group One. Later that summer, I led those workouts instead of just surviving them. Today, I’m the cross country coach at my school, YES Prep Southeast in Houston.


James Sheridan (Houston '00) with one of his cross country runners at YES Prep in Houston.
James Sheridan (Houston '00) with one of his triumphant athletes, Joe Balderas (left).


As a teacher, I always think of myself as a coach in the classroom because I remember that the right word at the right time can translate into an epiphany. As teachers, we are coaches. We train our students, build morale, and map out a long-term vision of growth and success, while keeping in mind what the scoreboard says.

In AP English Literature, students can all succeed and do not directly compete against each other; rather, they compete against themselves in that all 45 of them can earn college credit by passing the test with a 3 or higher. During my time at YES Prep, we’ve doubled our pass rate.

I teach the way I coach. At practice, every workout has a purpose and aligns with the end goal. In class, I constantly connect all of the texts studied over the year, encouraging recall of patterns and continuity. Gatsby’s choice to wear a façade to hide his past relates to Macbeth’s decision to mask his true desire for power.

Students set goals at the top of every timed writing for both score and amount written; growth is tracked and celebrated. I’m always shouting out successes, having one-on-one conversations with students, and frequently empowering students to lead the class to build confidence. As a coach needs to earn the team’s trust and buy-in, so must a teacher with his students. 

Last October, I stood 300 meters from the finish line of the Texas State Cross Country Meet. I had measured that distance because it was the exact amount of a 45-second finishing kick that I had trained my teams to have at the end of a race.


Joe Balderas with his Texas state championship gold medal after Sheridan's last-second crucial advice propelled him to victory.
Joe Balderas with his Texas state championship gold medal after Sheridan's last-second crucial advice propelled him to victory.


With one minute left, the leader flew by me. My heart jumped because my senior runner, Joe Balderas, had been leading the race but had fallen back. I calmly counted five seconds out. Then, Joe flew around the turn, and I shouted, “The leader’s FIVE SECONDS ahead of you! You can get him, but you gotta go NOW!”

Joe disappeared around the corner in frenzied, blurred pursuit. After the race, I walked over to the finish line, not knowing what had ultimately transpired. I told my wife, “Joe was close. Second place!”  She looked at me, shaking her head. “No,” she said. “He won! Joe beat him by five seconds.”

Later, Joe told me that he couldn’t see the runner and thought he had no chance to recover: “But when you told me ‘five seconds,’ I realized that he was closer than I thought. I kicked and I got him!” The right training, the right moment, and the right piece of feedback resulted in Joe becoming a state champion. 

We have such power as teachers and coaches. We can give our students the leadership that spurs action, the word that inspires a student to believe, and the hope that what seems impossible is totally within reach. 


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