Indigenizing the Handsworth Japan Exchange

Last year I wrote a blog post on the indigenisation of education in BC and mentioned in it how I hoped to infuse more indigenous ways of learning into my practice. Having just returned from our annual Japan Exchange, I thought it was a good time now to update that previous post with some fresh perspective.

For the past 8 years I’ve led the our school’s Grade 9 Japan Exchange, welcoming students from Inage Secondary School in Chiba each October, and returning to Japan every April. This past year I endeavoured to add more curricular connections to the itinerary by revising our tour to go through Hokkaido, the ancestral home of Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu. This was done with the express purpose of better aligning our cultural experiences in Japan with the indigenization of BC’s new curriculum. My intent was to have students think critically about the commonalities between the historical narrative of the Ainu as compared to our own BC Indigenous peoples.

The following are some of my observations from those experiences, but I should stress that my understanding of the Ainu is cursory at best.

Ainu Museum

Our trip took us to the town of Shiraoi in Hokkadio, home to Ainu Museum at Porotokotan. The word ‘Porotokotan’ is actually an Ainu word that means “village by the large lake”. In fact, many of the names around Hokkaido including Shiraoi and Sapporo come from the Ainu language. This is not unlike North Vancouver (and BC more broadly), where places names like Capilano and Klahanie draw their origins to the Squamish language.

And the comparisons only begin there. In visiting the Ainu museum, our group of 30 students and 4 teachers learned a great deal about this once vibrant culture. For example, traditionally, Ainu girls would get large tattoos around their mouth, the result of ash smeared in small cuts, to show their marriage eligibility. Because the tattoos were so elaborate and painful, they were completed slowly over time typically starting at age 7. This was just the first of many examples of practices outlawed by Japan’s government. The Meiji government, similar to the Canadian government, also outlawed the use of the Ainu language. The erosion of Ainu culture and language were, at the time, seen as modern cultural advances – not unlike the dogma prescribed to in Canadian residential schools. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the Japanese government started to recognize the uniqueness of Ainu culture. In 1997 the Ainu Cultural Promotions law finally recognized the need to preserve their culture. Unfortunately for all intents and purposes it was too little too late.

Ainu Museum

What is even more unfortunate is that today studying the Ainu is really a cautionary tale – they represent, in essence, a dead culture. You don’t go to museums to see living, vibrant examples of culture. You go to museums to see relics of the past, and that’s really what it felt like going through the Ainu Museum. It’s frightening to think how close we came to having the very same end to some of our local indigenous cultures in North Vancouver. According to Wikipedia there are as few as 10 people who can still speak Ainu. As far as I can tell, unless at least a small sub-community is conversing regularly with each other in a language, it is all but extinct.
In Porotokotan we watched dance and musical perfomances in thatched-roof houses, smoked salmon hanging overhead. And although Hokkaido is almost 7,000 kilometers from Vancouver I strangely felt very close to home. Whether it was the song and dance, the hanging salmon, the carved dugout canoes outside or, sadly, the visibly devastating impact of colonialism on this community, it was clear to me that this culture had far more in common than not with Indigenious peoples of North Vancouver. It made me thankful, more than ever, that we are doing everything we can now to preserve and honour the Indigenous culture and heritage of Canada’s First Peoples, and not forgetting them in a dusty museum. 

On The Indigenisation of Education

This past Friday was the fourth annual “Orange Shirt Day” in schools across BC. This annual observance, coupled with the ushering in of BC’s new curriculum provides a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the movement to indigenise education.

Orange shirt day began in 2013 as a day to highlight the terrible treatment of First Nations students in residential schools across Canada. It was inspired by Phyllis Webstad, a Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation elder in Williams Lake, BC, and by her experience at residential school in 1973, when she was only 6 years old. As a young girl, upon entering the school, she was stripped of her prized orange shirt. Similarly, the identity of many First Nations students was stripped away as a result of their horrible experiences in residential schools across the country.

orange-shirt
                  Orange Shirt Day T-Shirt

Many people in North Vancouver don’t realize we had our own residential school here in our community. More than 2000 First Nation students were sent to St. Paul’s Indian Residential school, which was once located on Keith Road where St. Thomas Aquinas school now stands today. I think it’s important to know, as a North Vancouverite, that these schools were not just in far-flung, remote locations, but were embedded and accepted in our very own community at one time.

The recent move to indigenize BC’s curriculum came about in response to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 ‘calls to action’. These 94 policies and programs are intended to help repair the harm caused by residential schools and move our communities forward with the reconciliation process.

Among the calls to action included points specific to education, including making, “age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement,” and, “developing and implementing … curriculum and learning resources on Aboriginal peoples in Canadian history, and the history and legacy of residential schools.”

And so this year we continue our good work to try and find ways to incorporate indigenous teachings and ways of learning. It’s a sensitive task, and one that I believe deserves our most earnest and honest efforts. The path, however, is far from straight. There are examples that illustrate how muddled the path can become, such as Ecole Lajoie in Montreal where teachers and grade 3 students learning about indigenous history were given headdresses to wear. Unbeknownst to those teachers, it is seen as disrespectful for non-First Nations people to wear headdresses, as there is a cultural and spiritual significance associated with them. This is not to suggest, however, that we shouldn’t be trying. Sometimes we are too afraid of offending or saying the wrong thing that we do nothing. Having good intentions is noble, but it is equally as important to make sure the steps we are taking are culturally sensitive and authentic means of closing the reconciliatory gap.

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                 8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning

So what are some positive ways we can genuinely contribute to this process of indigenizing education for our students? To provide us with inspiration, we can begin by examining the 8 aboriginal ways of learning. This is a pedagogical framework that allows teachers to include aboriginal perspectives by using aboriginal learning techniques, and includes the following:

  1. Story Sharing: Approaching learning through narrative.
  2. Learning Maps: explicitly mapping or visualizing processes.
  3. Non-Verbal: Applying intra-personal and kinesthetic skills to thinking and learning.
  4. Symbols and images: Using images and metaphors to understand concepts and content.
  5. Land-links: Place-based learning, linking content to local land and place.
  6. Non-linear: Producing innovations and understanding by thinking laterally.
  7. Deconstruct / Reconstruct: Modeling and scaffolding, working from wholes to parts. Begin with the whole structure, rather than a series of sequenced steps.
  8. Community Links: Centering local viewpoints, applying learning for community benefit.

Some of these techniques you likely already recognize from your own classroom, or other classrooms you’ve been in. I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine taking his MBA at Simon Fraser University and he was telling me how his first class on leadership was all about the power of story telling, and how leaders can communicate messages more clearly and memorably through story. It struck me as interesting how one of the most rigorously academic programs one can take draws inspiration, perhaps unknowingly, from aboriginal oral tradition.

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   Students Creating ‘Sound Maps’

Simply being aware of the aboriginal ways of learning has allowed me to recognize it much more often in the daily teaching and learning practices I observe. Two weeks ago our school hosted a retreat for grade 8 students just entering high school. We took them up to our local outdoor school in Cheakamus for an overnight camp experience filled with workshops, many of which were infused with aboriginal ways of learning. In one exercise the students sat quietly, spaced out from their peers, drawing a sound map using symbols to represent what they heard around them. It was such a great activity, and blended so many of the ideas of aboriginal teaching together by being non-verbal, connecting with nature, using symbols and images, and by writing on a learning map. Not to mention the meditative qualities and social-emotional benefits that space and silence in a natural setting with peers provided.

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           Adina Williams, Key Note Speaker

Other examples in recent memory have been even more overt. At our schools “Heart Talks” assembly last year we had a remarkable keynote speaker named Adina Williams come and share her story of growing up as a member of the Squamish Nation in North Vancouver. We also had some of our English 11 classes learn a few words and phrases in traditional Squamish language. What an incredibly authentic learning experience, and a great opportunity for local First Nation youth to take a leadership role and pride in sharing their ancestral language. Yet another central tenet of aboriginal ways of learning relates to experiential learning – a concept I’ve already blogged about recently as an important way to connect students learning to their surroundings. These are all remarkable ways to help build community understanding and make a tangible effort to bridge that reconciliatory divide.

I’ve been trying to think of new and different ways to engage students in thoughtful reflection of the importance of learning about aboriginal communities, and in doing so have realized that the circumstances we find ourselves in are actually replicated similarly in other areas of the world. The past two summers I’ve taken students on study abroad tours to Australia, where the indigenous aborigines there have also suffered through generations of mistreatment, which to some extent still continues today. And the students who were with me were instantly able to recognize the parallels between aborigine and First Nation communities. On a related note, for the past 7 years I’ve also led our school’s annual Japan exchange. This year, and for the first time in over 25 years of its existence, I have altered our trip itinerary with the express purpose of exploring indigenous culture in Japan. Our route this year will now take us northwards to Hokkaido where we learn about the culture and traditions of Japan’s first people – the Ainu. It is my hope that we can, with our students, draw more parallels between the indigenous culture we find there and some of the traditions and ways of learning we see in First Nations culture. I’m excited to use this as yet one more opportunity to broaden students’ understanding of First Peoples.

The benefits to teaching using aboriginal ways of learning are many, and go far beyond the moral duty we have to try and heal our communities. One of the most important elements, I believe, is that the development of empathy in students can benefit everyone as we foster a more caring, peaceful and civil society.

The indigenization of education in BC through the new curriculum will take on many forms.   It’s important that we, as educators, and indeed as a wider community, continue to make every effort to build bridges and reconcile ourselves with our First Nations neighbours. Indigenous ways of learning are one way we can start that process in our schools.  As an educator I’m excited to see where this conversation takes us and am confident it will be, invariable, to a better place.

On Experiential Education

First let me say that experiential education is about more than travel. But after having taken students on more than 25 study abroad tours, I can certainly say that it illustrates most clearly what a profound impact a quality travel experience can have on the learning process. Experiential education is learning by doing: by seeing, by touching, by hearing and by feeling. If it’s good, it’s immersive. Which is why we can’t simply expect students to show up in an exotic, foreign location and have the learning be any deeper unless we, as teachers, make a concerted effort to make connections between the learning and world around us. Wouldn’t we all love to be able to learn about symbiotic relationships in the rainforests of Brazil? Relive the communist revolution while standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square? Or understand the tumultuous nature of the stock market on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange? I’ve seen what this does for student engagement, and it’s remarkable. Virtual reality may afford us the luxury of teaching in such settings on a daily basis at some point, but until that day comes, how can we bring a small piece of that fire into our classes now? If we look at the basic underlying ideas of what makes travel learning so profound, I think we’ll find some of those elements can still be applied in our everyday classes.

  1. Be active. In every lesson, ask yourself if there’s a way I can have students moving. Movement creates energy and excitement. It’s tough to be asleep at your desk if you’re required to be moving around the classroom.
    Students learning about Game Theory and the Prisoners Dilemma with an activity.
    Students learning about Game Theory and the Prisoners Dilemma with an activity.

    Questions where students can move into a line representing a spectrum of opinion, or challenges that involve organizing a group into a tableau or pose are fun.

  1. Be social. How much interaction can you promote between your students? Have them discuss. And not just with the person next to them. Shuffle the room. What a wonderful feeling it is, as a student, to have the opportunity to interact with each and every classmate. The emotional benefits to students feeling connected not only with their teacher, but also with all their classmates, can be immense. Jigsaw activities and randomizing the selection of working groups for projects can be great for this.
  1. Make connections. Context is important for lessons. Why are we learning this? If you can’t answer this as a teacher, chances are the students are going to find very little value in it, and therefore won’t be engaged. Why not start each lesson or each unit explaining the practicality of what’s being learned? We are learning about compound interest so you can calculate what you’ll earn on your Canada Savings Bonds. We’re learning Shakespeare so you can better deconstruct some of our most timeless stories and understand how he’s inspired many of our films and stories today.
  1. Use artifacts.   When traveling we often get to handle cultural objects: from tools and cloth, to carvings, fossils and coins.   There’s no reason we can’t bring those into our every day classes as well.
    Use Artifacts
    Students discovering archeology artifacts.

    Being able to touch something foreign makes it more real for students. Try on a kimono in Japanese class. In a European history class, distribute a few Euros and talk about who or what is on the coins.

  1. Appeal to the senses. Artefacts are great for touch, but what about smell, taste and sound? Food doesn’t have to be reserved for cooking class. Learning about Spanish culture over a delicious meal, or about this history of Japan with a sushi break can be a fun way to shake up a class. Play music. I can still remember my history teacher playing the song ‘Rasputin’ as we entered class to learn about the Russian Revolution.
  1. Encourage reflection. On the majority of student tours I’ve led, we’ve had our students journal on an almost daily basis. It’s remarkable to see the transformation in worldview, as they increasingly become global citizens. Journaling is only one form of reflection. Blogging, exit slips from class, and student interviews are just a few other small suggestions for ways to have students reflect on their experiences and thereby reinforce learning and clarify their own values.
  1. Find experts. Guest speakers are great way to introduce students to new ideas. Having a different voice in the class with a different set of experiences and knowledge can be a huge benefit. It also strengthens the connection between your school and wider community. Experts may be in your class. Don’t
    Find Experts
    Business students meet the Consul General of Canada in Hong Kong – An Expert on Import & Export

    underestimate the expertise of your students and their experience, or perhaps their parents. Use online resources like Twitter to connect directly with inspiring professionals like astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield or popular authors like JK Rowling to answer questions. All of these people can all be great resources for sharing and learning.

  1. Encourage a sense of wonder. Students who are curious about how and why things are as they are will be enthusiastic to increase their understanding and critical thinking skills. Why do the stars shine brighter away from cities? Why are there similar words for numbers in different languages? Why is it summer during Christmas time in the southern hemisphere? Model curiosity. It’s okay as a teacher not to know the answers… we can find out together as a class!

This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully will help you think about some other ways you can bring a love of experiential learning into your classroom. I love to learn by traveling, and enjoy sharing that passion with my students. Experiential education doesn’t have to be limited to those with a passport though. We can bring those same ideas into our everyday learning to help promote greater student engagement and quality learning.

In Praise of Team Teaching

Teaching is a social art. The interaction between teachers and students, and students with students is a process we as educators are always trying to find ways to refine. We’ve all heard about the push away from ‘the sage on the stage’ to ‘the guide on the side’, but hopefully it will come as no surprise to people that teaching, does, in fact, at some point require being in front of your students imparting some pearls of wisdom. There’s a reason the traditional lecture is still used in many post-secondary classes. It is still one of the most efficient ways to pack a lot of information into a lesson. But if we’re being honest, listening to one person deliver a monologue on any topic has its limits. If you’ve watched one of the many popular TED talks videos, or been to a TED event yourself you know that the majority of these engaging talks are less than 20 minutes in length. Listening to one voice for any longer can easily become tedious. And here, I would suggest, we find the first reason that team teaching is a technique that should be employed more often.

Two teachers collaborating to tackle a single topic can provide a much more interesting dynamic than any single teacher could. The difference in intonation, inflection and cadence of each speaker can reinvigorate a lesson. Moreover, with each teacher giving their unique perspective on the topic, greater insight and expertise is provided. Some speakers are better at giving concise explanations, while another may teach using anecdotes and stories. In a team teaching setting there’s room for both.

When delivering a lesson solo it can be easy for your plan to be side-tracked, or for you to lose focus on the intended outcomes. Having a second teacher to help guide things back on course can be a huge benefit.   In my experience, class discussions led by two teachers tend to be richer, as having a second ‘expert’ opinion and a second set of rich life experiences can help inform the conversation. Two teachers are able to debate opposing sides of an issue, build upon each others points and can even correct or clarify each others facts thereby ensuring students have an accurate understanding. Clearly a high level of trust and excellent rapport needs to exist between team teachers if they are going to be successful.

A team teaching scenario can provide the potential to pair a novice teacher with a more veteran teacher. Teaching is a profession that benefits immensely from having mentorship relationships. Too often new teachers are thrust unprepared into their first year classroom and are only able to seek out fleeting guidance during lunchtime or afterschool if any colleagues are available.   The mentorship possibilities alone have the potential to raise the quality of teaching for all students.

Another pedagogical advantage is the potential for small group activities. This is made possible by the decrease in the student to teacher ratio. In cases where team-teaching involves even more than two teachers, jigsaw activities and intense small group discussions with increased student engagement and accountability are possibilities. Cross-curricular possibilities abound, with team-teacher pairs emphasizing the connections during a lesson between each of their curricular expertise areas.

Simon and I team teaching in Central Park, New York
Simon and I team teaching in Central Park, New York

My best lessons are the ones I have done in a team-teaching environment. During summer I teach with MEI Academy, a study-abroad program that provides lessons on location around the world. The vast majority of the lessons I deliver during that time are done with a teaching partner. For the last 3 years I’ve been teaching with a remarkable educator and friend named Simon. In preparing together for lessons we’re able to identify which instructional elements each of us should be emphasizing. For example, in a business lesson on game theory I will make sure I’m prepared to discuss Nash Equilibrium and the prisoner’s dilemma, while Simon will make sure he has polished up the accompanying interactive activity which will sharpen the students understanding. In a lesson on debate perhaps I will focus on pathos, while Simon focuses on discussing logos or ethos. Each of us is responsible for making sure a particular element of the lesson is refined, while both being permitted to also contribute to the piece the other is preparing. By focusing on preparing only a portion of the lesson, the prep time required is actually decreased while the quality of instruction is simultaneously enhanced. And with practice and over time the lessons become seamless with each of us contributing our equal part.  In a time when we are, more than ever, asking our students to integrate, synthesize and think critically, having two teachers who are able model the integration of each other’s ideas in front of the class serves as a powerful example.

Simon and I team teaching at the Pantheon in Paris
Simon and I team teaching at the Pantheon in Paris

Simon is a far more entertaining speaker than I am, so I’m thankful when he’s able to interject with an amusing anecdote or story that supports the learning objectives I’m trying to achieve with the students. Having two teachers with different personalities also means we are connecting with the students in two distinctly unique ways. The importance of the teacher-student relationship has been increasingly emphasized as vital for student achievement. This end is clearly supported by having two teachers who are able to cultivate those relationships in different ways.

So why is team-teaching not more widely used? Firstly, it is not economical. For arguments sake let’s say the average classroom holds 30 students. To have two teachers instruct 30 students costs double the price a solo teacher would. “So why not double the space?” you ask. I remember there was a time when this used to be done. At Handsworth we used to have something called ‘large group’, where 60 students would pile into a double sized classroom and 2 teachers would deliver a lesson together. It was great. Students who were all going to be tested on the same content could be sure they weren’t missing something the other students were getting in another teachers class because they were all learning it in the same place at the same time. The novice teachers could see how the senior teachers taught the subject and everyone would be on the same page in terms of the assessment and expectations of the students. But, alas, it happens no more. The complexities of scheduling simultaneous blocks of the same class were such that students ended up taking the class at differing times, and so synchronizing a ‘large group’ appeared to become impossible. And with time it seems that scenario has become a lost discussion. Finally, the large group room that was once used has since been converted into two separate classrooms – a consequence of a school at capacity looking for more instructional space. I suspect the need for smaller separate spaces is similar in other schools that also follow the traditional classroom model.

Many teachers themselves are reluctant to try team-teaching. It falls outside the comfort zone of many who have long held routines and teach their subject the way they’ve always taught it. It takes a teacher who is willing to be vulnerable and not worried about being judged to have a colleague in their classroom while they teach. As professionals, some of us still have this fear that we might be inadequate at what we’re doing, or perhaps ‘behind the times’. And opening the door to another teacher is to expose all our instructional warts. My experience, however, has been that I work with remarkable teachers. And we have far more to learn from each other’s classrooms than we have to worry about. Team-teaching celebrates the great things each teacher has to bring to the table, and doesn’t place a value judgement on what’s not working – because to teach with a partner is to demonstrate a willingness to improve. I hope to have the opportunity to team-teach more in the future as I believe collaborating with colleagues raises the quality of the educational experience for students.

Why I Coach

With yet another basketball season upon us, I thought this might be a good opportunity to take stock of, and reflect upon why it is I coach.

I can still remember playing sports in high school and wondering to myself why on earth anyone would volunteer so much time to a team when their own kids didn’t play on it, and they themselves didn’t even get to play either! I mean, they just stood on the sidelines and did the substitutions and drew up a few plays… it didn’t seem like much fun to me.

Volunteering to coach basketball is a huge commitment. It’s 6 or 7 days a week for 4.5 months of the year. There’s overnight / away tournaments, which means you’re averaging upwards of 20 hours a week in time spent volunteering. ‘Cowichan’ has become a 4-letter word in my house as it means I’ll be away overnight yet again with the basketball team. I’m not popular on those weekends with my family, but it’s a chance to take the team away for some important bonding and quality time. So why do I continue to do it?

The first team I ever coached - Grade 7 Hillcrest Elementary.
The first team I ever coached – Grade 7 Hillcrest Elementary.  My sponsor and principal next to me.

For a bit of context let me take you back to my first real basketball coaching experience. I was in second year at the University of Victoria in 2001, and as part of my teacher preparation program we had to go volunteer to coach a team for a season. There was a local team of grade 7s at Hillcrest Elementary in Victoria that needed a coach for their season and so I dutifully went over to the school and met with the principal. I remember how ecstatic she was that I was there. It was wonderful to be so warmly welcomed by an administrator.  She told me that if I hadn’t come to coach that these boys likely would not have had a team. And what a team they were. Grade 7 is not a lot different than older grades when it comes to a recipe for success. They say you can’t coach height, which turned out to be a good thing for me because my team had 2 boys who were pushing 6 feet tall. I surprised myself with how much I genuinely enjoyed leading the boys through practices, drawing up plays for them to run, modeling good sportsmanship, and making every attempt to have all the boys playing time be as equitable as possible. Having a winning season made my first coaching experience enjoyable, but it was all those little things I had previously thought would be boring when I was a player watching my coaches that I found I really relished.

My Grade 6 Wanouchi Junior High boys team in Japan
My Grade 6 Wanouchi Junior High boys team in Japan. Toshiki is second from the bottom right.

And so I was hooked. For the past 15 years since I’ve been coaching. Even when I lived overseas I made sure I continued to coach. My team of grade 6 boys at Wanouchi Junior High in Japan were easily the least talented group of boys I have ever worked with. We spent an entire season working on the right-hand lay-up (their good hand!). I got to work on my Japanese by repeatedly yelling such phrases as “ASHI CHIGAU!” (wrong foot!) We lost every game that season. But we had so much fun. I can still remember Toshiki, the kid who looked like a sumo-wrestler and was my #5 ‘big man’ and the way he and I would high-five if he even caught some of the rim on one of his shots. I’m not sure he scored a basket that year. It was most evident to me during these times that extra-curricular involvement was where you had the opportunity to cultivate real bonds with students; bonds that tied them to you, and by extension tied them closer to their school community.

Over the years I’ve come to have a new appreciation for the time and effort my coaches put in for me as I went through my K-12 experience. People like Bob Baldwin, Vinny Alvano, Scott Bennett, Peter Therrien and Garth Thomson just to name a few. Without the hours and hours those men put into volunteering with me I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today, or be the person I am today. I often think about what their time with me has meant. I know many of the qualities I’ve developed as an adult are due, at least in part, to the guidance they helped provide throughout my own formative years.

Coaching means responsibility. It means leadership. It means having to bite your lip when you’re upset at an official’s call because you know you have a bench of 15 impressionable minds sitting next to you. It means knowing when to encourage and when to discipline. How to provide expectations and help athletes set goals. It’s about dealing with fragile egos, disappointments, and acting with humility when you win.

Coaching is not always easy. Cutting players is the worst – I wish everyone could make the team. I’ve been cut from teams and I’ve been one of the last players on the bench. It’s not fun when your name is not on the list or when you never get off the bench – I know that. Coaches have to make difficult decisions, but I try to focus on the fact that in volunteering I know I’ve been able to provide the opportunity for more students to participate than if I hadn’t volunteered at all.

I coach because I enjoy having the group rely on me for guidance and leadership. I coach to pay it forward and thank those coaches who took the time to guide me. I coach because I know the importance of providing opportunity for students to participate in extra-curricular activities. I coach because I enjoy the technical aspects of the game and being able to continually learn more. I coach, selfishly, because it gives me a better connection with my students, and most of all because I’ve found I genuinely enjoy it.

And with that, I’m excited to start another season!