Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District in Delaware and a member of the NFHS Board of Directors, regarding the role of the superintendent in high school athletics. To set the stage for his current views on the importance of athletics within our nation’s high schools, Fitzgerald shares how those opinions were framed in his first job as a teacher.
“My first teaching experience was as a middle school English/Social Studies teacher on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. My classes were composed primarily of at-risk students who struggled both in and out of the classroom. As a novice teacher, I struggled as well and by March, I was in the assistant principal’s office asking for help. I distinctly remember her response. She told me either I would be around at the end of the year or they would be! Needless to say, I didn’t think my future as an educator looked bright. I was ready to look for another career field.
“It was at that time that I met Aaron Martin, the school’s PE teacher, who took me under his wing. A former professional football player, he witnessed my struggles and suggested a way to connect with my students outside the class: become a volunteer assistant track coach. Having run track myself, I thought why not? What I didn’t know at the time was that Coach Martin had talked many of my students into going out for the track team. The connection was made. The bond that developed on the track carried into the classroom and we all survived the school year.
“From that lesson, I learned the power of connecting with students outside the classroom as well as the essential role athletics play in a student’s development. In my 38 years in education as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and superintendent, I have been proud of the many accomplishments of my students, teachers and administrators. However, I am never more proud than when someone walks up to me and calls me coach.”
Q: What role does athletics have within your school district? And what part does an administrator – a superintendent or principal – take to ensure that your program is education-based in which winning is not the only or ultimate objective?
Fitzgerald: The Caesar Rodney School District has incorporated into its logo the “Four As – Academics, Athletics, Arts and Atmosphere.” As a school district and as a learning community, we believe in the importance of educating the whole child both in the classroom, on the playing field, in the studio or on the stage. Coaches are teachers first. Regarding our expectations, we explain our priorities. We expect student-athletes to learn the game they are participating in and develop skills that will not only help them succeed in the sport, but also in life. The students are to have fun and learn what teamwork is all about. They are expected to make us proud of them every time they put on the uniform. Wins and losses are irrelevant; it is really about what students have learned through participation and competition. We certainly want our teams to be successful, but we believe if you do those other things, winning will happen.
Q: In these difficult economic times, how do you juggle your resources to support athletic and performing arts programs?
Fitzgerald: The challenge is not as much at the high school level as it is at the middle school and elementary school levels. There is so much more we could do to help students grow and develop at an early age. However, since we just don’t have funds, we must leave it to outside organizations or programs to help. What we do offer, however, is space and fields for outside programs. We also offer clinics and workshops. We try to educate those working with children outside our control and we try to teach children basic skills. Whenever possible, we use high school athletes as role models and mentors to the students in the early grades.
Q: How do you handle a parent who calls or emails you to complain about a coach, or that their son or daughter isn’t starting or playing a lot?
Fitzgerald: Before getting involved in any situation involving playing time or making a team, our policy is to ensure that the parent has spoken with the coach, athletic director and the building principal. As superintendent, my role is to ensure that Board policy is being followed and that students are being given a fair and equal opportunity to try out and compete. I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to learn, grow and develop. That’s the purpose of athletics in high school. At the freshman and junior varsity levels, our expectation is that everyone should be given an opportunity to participate as long as they attend practice and follow the rules. However, at the varsity level, playing time is earned. As superintendent, I have to trust the decision-making of coaches, whether it’s what play to call or who to play in a certain situation.
Q: Around the country, some districts find it increasingly difficult to locate and hire quality coaches and there are also fewer teachers each year who elect to serve in these positions. This means that there is a greater dependence upon community members to serve as coaches. How do you address these challenges?
Fitzgerald: Finding quality coaches has become a major challenge just as trying to find someone who can direct Shakespeare! We have hired “emergency” coaches from our community. However, we try to grow our own coaches by ensuring that when we hire new staff, they are willing to be involved in some sort of student activity. We then send these new “coaches” to clinics and workshops. We have them work under the watchful eye of a veteran coach and have them demonstrate that they have the ability and an understanding to teach/coach that athlete. Our state athletic organization and coaches organizations have worked hard to provide courses and opportunities for new coaches to grow in their sport. We never want to put someone in a position in which they could hurt a child or in a position in which they would not succeed. But with money as tight as it is, and with coaching salaries not being a priority in a budget crunch, those who do coach do it for the right reasons and not because of money.
Q: How do you positively engage parents so that they exhibit good sportsmanship, are supportive of the coaches and appreciate the opportunities that are afforded their children?
Fitzgerald: Parents sign our student athletic code which stresses sportsmanship. A sportsmanship statement or pledge is made prior to every contest at every level. Yet, should a parent act in an unsportsmanlike manner, they are addressed immediately by an administrator supervising the contest. If that’s not possible, and they are identified, either the principal or I will speak with them. Spectators and parents who do not exhibit good sportsmanship are subject to restrictions placed on them by the school district, the conference and the state.
Q: As the ultimate leader of the school district, what can and should you do about getting your coaches to take NFHS Coach Education courses that lead to national certification? How important is this initiative for high schools and what are some suggestions for implementing and paying for this effort?
Fitzgerald: Two major issues facing superintendents and building principals is the lack of quality coaches and very little continuing education to help coaches get better at what they do. While teachers are required to meet certain professional development requirements for re-certification, no such requirement exists for coaches. Having participated, coached and officiated at the high school level, I understand the different aspects and requirements of each. I counted on my coaches to prepare me as an athlete to compete. I counted on my officials organization to train me in the rules, positioning and fundamentals. However, I was left on my own to become a better coach. Now I’m not talking about X’s and O’s. I’m talking about the other aspects of being a coach. This is where the NFHS Coach Education courses prove to be a valuable resource. They provide the support and insight that coaches need to improve. The national certification that can be obtained by completing the program is not only an accomplishment but a seal of approval for those coaches seeking a position. While funds are always tight, I believe coaches should be encouraged with a stipend upon completion of the course or national certification. I also understand that while I may not be able to fund coaches seeking to take the courses under my current collective bargaining agreement, I would support higher fees so state athletic associations can offer grants to coaches wishing to take the courses.
Q: In athletics and performing arts, the danger of hazing and cyber-bullying sadly exists in some settings. How do you raise awareness and educate your student-athletes, coaches and parents to combat and eliminate these serious abuses?
Fitzgerald: Teachers and coaches participate in professional development. Parents and student-athletes are encouraged to attend workshops. Students attend an assembly at the beginning of the school year where expectations are addressed. While tolerance is a cornerstone of education, a culture that allows bullying and hazing to exist cannot be tolerated. In essence, the superintendent is the head coach of the school district. His or her responsibility is to set the tone and create a positive culture.
Dr. David Hoch is a former athletic director at Loch Raven High School in Towson, Maryland (Baltimore County). He assumed this position in 2003 after nine years as director of athletics at Eastern Technological High School in Baltimore County. He has 24 years experience coaching basketball, including 14 years on the collegiate level. Hoch, who has a doctorate in sports management from Temple (Pennsylvania) University, is past president of the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association, and he formerly was president of the Maryland State Coaches Association. He has had more than 450 articles published in professional magazines and journals, as well as two textbook chapters. He is the author of a new book entitled Blueprint for Better Coaching. Hoch is a member of the NFHS High School Today Publications Committee.