Wisconsin High School Teacher-Coaches Effective, but Dwindling

Tim Newton, here sporting his homecoming gear, says having teachers head sports teams is a "perfect fit."

Tim Newton, here sporting his homecoming gear, says having teachers head sports teams is a "perfect fit."

In January 2009, Kentucky high school technology teacher and varsity football coach, Jason Stinson, was charged with reckless homicide and wanton endangerment after one of his 15-year-old players died of a heat stroke. The scenario tucked itself neatly into a common stereotype. Though Stinson was ultimately acquitted, in the court of public opinion, he was just another one of those high school coaches with obstinate tunnel vision fixed on winning, student-athletes be damned.

The coach stereotype plays out on the silver screens of Hollywood (think Jon Voight in “Varsity Blues”) and in oversized high school stadiums found in the midst of west Texas oil fields: the high school coach who teaches solely as a prerequisite to coaching.

These coaches live by the saying popularized by legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” They push their high school athletes to inhumane lengths in search of that year’s state title, all while neglecting their teaching responsibilities and favoring their players in the classroom.

The problem with the stereotype, however, is that not many–in fact, extremely few–places actually see this type of teacher-coach. Case in point: In Door County, the mostly rural, scenic “thumb” of the state, populated by just less than 28,000 people (the annual tourist influx notwithstanding), there is almost universal agreement that a teacher who can coach is the best arrangement for all parties.

Those who do both say it is simply easier for them to handle coaching duties when they are immersed in the school environment for eight hours a day, compared to someone who arrives at the school to coach after the final bell of the day has rung, a so-called “lay coach.”

“I’m not saying that teachers are always going to make the best coaches,” says Tim Newton, a boyish-looking junior high math teacher, varsity softball coach and athletic director at the K-12 Sevastopol School in Institute, Wis. But Newton says a teacher who is able to translate passion in the classroom to passion in the coaching realm will often be successful.

For him, Newton cannot get enough of coaching. Since graduating from UW-La Crosse 12 years ago, he has coached one sport or another, trying his hand at everything from hockey to track and field to football to softball, which he led to the 2008 state championship.

According to Newton, 36, and some of his teacher-coach colleagues, the benefits in doing both are manifold and vastly outweigh any conflicts of interest potentially perceived by the community.

“When you’re not around the kids all the time, you don’t really know what’s going on in school,” says Pat Delcore, 44, a soft-spoken junior high and high school health teacher, varsity softball coach and former varsity girls basketball coach at Southern Door Schools in Brussels, Wis. “You don’t know if [a] kid had a bad day—if they got into an argument with their boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever at lunchtime. If you’re there, you can be kind of aware of some of those things, where otherwise the lay coach comes in from the outside and they might not know what’s going on with a kid during the day that could cause them to go off at practice or whatever. I think overall it’s probably better that the coaches are teachers within the school.”

And it is not just a benefit from the teacher-coach’s angle. By and large, student-athletes convey a fondness for having access to their coach at a moment’s notice.

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