When the Teacher’s a Fan, Who’s on the Team?

A teacher's sports enthusiasm sparks a reflection

By Terry Burant

Illustrator: Stephen Kroninger

Illustration: Stephen Kroninger

I don’t often admit it, but my earliest career ambition was to become the first female wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers. I still thrill at the sight of a perfect spiral flying off my fingertips; and, I’m proud that at 47 years of age, I can, on occasion, launch an accurate bullet pass with enough velocity to make a receiver gasp. I keep a well-worn football in my office just in case the opportunity arises.

As much as I try to think rationally when it comes to Green Bay Packer football, its hold on me is testimony to the pervasive reaches of culture and the comforts of home.

So it’s no surprise that a full-page Packer ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on a cold Sunday afternoon caught my eye. The ad described the 10 finalists competing for the lone 2004 spot in the Green Bay Packer Fan Hall of Fame. A social services worker, several grandmothers, a man suffering from a life-threatening illness, and a 6th-grade teacher were among the fans vying for the honor.

A few days later, the Journal Sentinel featured an article about the “football fanaticism” of a green-and-gold-haired 6th-grade teacher, Mike Seavert, whose students nominated him for induction into the Hall of Fame.

According to the article, a life-sized, autographed cardboard figure of quarterback Brett Favre and street signs for Lombardi Avenue, Brett Favre Pass, and Super Bowl Road make entering Mike Seavert’s classroom a “little like stepping onto Lambeau Field.” The piece described the “Packer math” pedagogy Seavert uses with his students to plot game-day temperatures, graph player popularity, and make predictions for Packer victories based on previous win-loss records. Seavert infuses Packer lore into a system of classroom rewards with students accumulating Packer dollars as salaries that can be used to purchase Packer gear in classroom auctions.

With my ample share of green and gold blood, this upbeat account of a teacher who “makes math fun” by connecting it to one of Wisconsin’s most enduring cultural symbols captured my attention. It pulled me in like a wide receiver reaching for a catch. While I imagine that the article was intended as a feel-good piece, a winter-in-Wisconsin distraction amidst accounts of war casualties, budget deficits, and dwindling school funding, it provided ample fuel for raising questions about teaching that run deeper than Lambeau field’s legendary frozen tundra.

In a time of increasing federal regulation over curriculum, scientifically “approved” teaching methods, and what often feel like increasingly oppressive forms of assessment, this story, first of all, illustrated the power I have as a teacher — power I don’t always clearly see or claim. While I’m certain that Seavert has curricular guidelines in his district, creating and implementing “Packer math” demonstrates that ultimately he is in control of how concepts and skills are taught in his classroom.

As a teacher educator, when administrative pressures tighten around me or when policies feel as formidable as a strong offensive line, I often take one of two routes: I collapse and give up under the weight of what feels inevitable, or I react immediately — and not very productively — with poorly aimed anger. Seavert’s story provided me with a vivid and important reminder that I have more power than I think I do to make decisions about what, and how, I teach in my classroom and how I contribute to collective decision-making in my school. His story reminded me to be a smart and strategic quarterback when circumstances demand my active participation, when the stakes are high and my position on an issue could lead to a more just outcome.

As a homegrown Packer fan, Seavert also has the power of an emotionally charged cultural tradition behind him, both in Milwaukee and in the state of Wisconsin, where it’s common for the entire staff of a school to wear Packer gear on Fridays. As a region, part of the “we” that binds us is rooted in simple things like Packer football, bratwurst, and beer. Seavert’s example illustrates the unquestioned dominance and power of mainstream culture and its fierce emotional hold. His story reminded me how easy it is to accept popular and/or locally significant values as they are expressed in school practices, how schools clearly operate as mechanisms for cultural reproduction, how hard it can be to first recognize this cultural dominance and then to question local practice and values.

Seavert’s case also demonstrates that no matter how much standardizing of content or method goes on, no matter what the prevailing norms of my community, I really do teach who I am. Although Seavert may be more explicit in expressing his interests in his classroom, even without wearing a Packer sweatshirt, I still transmit a bit of my values and my commitments. But I also have a responsibility to carefully consider which parts of who I am and how much of who I am to display in my classroom.

What to Reveal?

A few years ago, I was on the faculty at the University of Wyoming when Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student, was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime. In the midst of the collective grief, horror, and soul-searching that followed, the university sponsored several teach-ins. At one of these events, a faculty member explained that she intentionally does not talk about her family life or the gender of her partner during conversation before class begins. If she told any personal stories in her classes at all, she consciously used the term “partner” rather than reveal who her partner was. She chose this route, she said, after she stood back with enough distance to imagine the compounded effect of this informal practice, an example of what Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality,” on the gay and lesbian students in her classes. The story she shared sparked numerous faculty conversations about honesty, authenticity, privacy, and distance, and the ethical dilemmas inherent in the daily acts of teaching.

After reading about Seavert’s Packer fan persona, I was reminded of her story and I questioned once again how much of me I want to make visible in my classroom — and for what reasons.

While I don’t come to class in sports jerseys (except when the topic for the day is the history of school mascots and school spirit in my introductory foundations course), Seavert’s story made me think about what I might represent — or might not represent — simply by showing up for class each day. Whether I’m wearing my favorite heels or pink and tan cowboy boots, I’m communicating something to my students. By simply being me on the outside — a physically strong, energetic, slightly irreverent, mildly outrageous, white woman with an eye for fashion — my students construct an idea of who I am. And beyond what I wear, they get to know a little more about me as the semester unfolds, often through seemingly insignificant moments. For example, I can always recite the bus routes when they seek directions to their field placements and eventually they find out that I don’t own a car. What assumptions, if any, do they make about my politics, beliefs, and values?

I’ve come to understand that I exhibit who I am in different ways depending on the nature of the courses I teach. In my secondary content-area literacy courses, for example, I teach mostly college seniors who are just a semester away from student teaching in secondary settings. Thinking about my high school teaching experiences, I am reminded of one of my former high school students who told me that the most important thing she learned from me and my teammates was that there isn’t just one way to live, that her best high school teachers broadened her view of how she might live a just and meaningful life. Because I see high schools as important sites for students to experiment and think about the kind of people they are and hope to become, I feel that high schools need teachers who represent a variety of models of intelligent, socially engaged, and interesting adults.

My secondary content-area literacy students are going to become those significant adults in the high schools where they will soon teach. Therefore, in this class, I unself-consciously come across like the “Aunt Terry” I am to my sister’s teenagers: independent, smart, simultaneously a little hip and a little bookish, unconventional, political, unflappable, and approachable. I have an aura in this class that says, “Nothing shocks me. Just ask.” Since I know that many of my students are grappling with who they want to be as teachers, I want them to feel like they can ask me anything. I talk candidly with them about the kind of high school teacher I was, why I was that kind of teacher, the mistakes I’ve made, why I am the kind of teacher I am, and why I am always questioning the kind of teacher I am and seek to be.

I also wonder which students gravitate toward me and which ones turn away — not only from me personally, but from the content I teach. I know it took me a long time to learn how to disconnect my personal feelings toward a teacher from the content of a course. I’ve been teaching introductory diversity courses in teacher education long enough to know that I will invariably disturb some of my students with the content I teach, and that my undergraduate students are at different points of readiness in dealing with issues of race and responding to information about educational inequity.

Although I am openly reflective and I try to build on my students’ experience and invite divergent views, some students read a diversity course as an exercise in “how to become a liberal.” In educating future teachers, I don’t want to come across as a single-issue teacher, one whose course content can be dismissed as simply a reflection of my political values. In that course, then, I take a gently unfolding approach to the curriculum and focus considerable attention on identifying and examining multiple perspectives on the issues at hand. It is a delicate balance to commit to holding the floor open to questions and competing political perspectives while foregrounding what is just, particularly around issues of race. To make this work, I know I withhold a little more of who I am, at least at the start of the semester, in order to allow ideas time to stand for themselves, at a greater distance from me.

Although I don’t like to admit it, in my classroom I sometimes share my interests and tell stories to my students because I like to tell stories, because I like to think that I am funny, because I can control who gets to talk, and because it is “my” classroom. I do this because I can, because I have the power to do so. Seavert’s story caused me to question how much of what I do as a teacher has more to do with ego and power, with entertainment and social interaction, than with teaching and learning.

Seavert’s interest-driven pedagogy also reminded me of how easy it is to speak about knowing and connecting with one’s students as a teacher, about building on students’ interests. It seems so elementary; yet these slogans mask the complexity involved in doing so. Sincere interest and passionate engagement are powerful motivators for learning. Fortunately, students come to school with a variety of established and budding identities and interests that teachers can use as bridges or invitations to exploring new ideas. Similarly, students come to school with a desire to connect with adults who share in their passions, whether they include cheering from the bleachers for the Chicago White Sox, restoring vintage Mustangs, or playing the guitar. I imagine that here in Packerland, many children learn to read via the local sports page or use their own form of Packer pedagogy to learn to calculate game statistics.

For these students, coming to Packer math class might encourage bounding out of bed in the morning with an eagerness to get to school. Yet I wonder about the girls and boys in Seavert’s classroom who might not care one bit about football, students who don’t care much for competition, the ones who aren’t very athletic, the “Billy Elliot” boys who would rather take ballet lessons, or students with fierce attachments to other sports teams. When the soul of a teacher is on a platform for all to see, the potential for academic disconnection and student resistance is just as strong as the potential for building bridges to important content and for forming community.

I can already imagine the outcry from the voice of the Green Bay Packers on my local sports radio station for even raising questions about Seavert’s Packer-based classroom story. I’m not suggesting a decree banning any use of sport-related themes in schools or prohibiting a teacher from wearing a jacket from a beloved team. I am not willing, at least at this point, to lose the teeny-tiny Cheesehead eraser that sits on the end of my pencil in a cup on my desk in my office. But as a result of reflecting on Seavert’s practice, I am examining my role and persona as a teacher, both inside my classroom and in the larger arena of my school community. I am questioning what I choose to exhibit about myself and my life to my students because I recognize more fully the power embedded in my position as a teacher. What do I stand for? What do I want to stand for?

Terry Burant (terry.burant@marquette.edu) is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership at Marquette University in Milwaukee. She is a Rethinking Schools editor.