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QI’m a high school math teacher in California, and sports in my district seem to take precedence over everything else, including academics. It seems like my students are constantly leaving early for a baseball, basketball, or football game. It’s disruptive and disrespectful, and I don’t get why this is allowed in a school. Sure, sports are great, but the students are primarily here to learn. And it doesn’t stop at leaving early — these kids are practicing hours upon hours every day and showing up for my class unprepared and exhausted. They’re so overextended, and it’s enough already. It’s not like they’re going to be professional athletes. How can I change the culture so learning doesn’t take a back seat to athletics? 

A: I wouldn’t approach this as “academics vs. athletics.” That will turn your coaches into adversaries, and besides, you might discover that sports are the tip of the iceberg. Other teachers might be upset that debaters or math team members are leaving early for competitions. Violinists in the orchestra could be practicing as hard as the baseball players. Editors for the school paper might be as sleep-deprived as the football players. I’d consider taking a more holistic approach. Does the school have messaging around the concept of balance? If so, are school policies aligned with students’ needs and well-being? How do all the pieces — from exam schedules to sports practices — fit together? As you begin to talk to colleagues, you might discover that students’ lives are out of whack across the board, and it’s not all about athletics. 

Everything is connected. High school students are attempting to juggle academics, teams, jobs, and other extracurricular activities with family time, sleep, and more. They’re at an age when they need 8-10 hours of sleep a night, but many are getting by on five or six. They may be feeling pressure from all sides, including their coaches, teachers, parents, and peers. As a result, many schools are examining whether they need to make systemic changes.  

You happen to be in California, where Denise Pope cofounded Challenge Success at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. The organization helps educators and parents around the country teach students how to manage stress and lead balanced lives. Pope believes that everything should be done in moderation; for example, she believes that older kids should only play one sport per season. There’s plenty of research showing that too much of anything is bad, whether it’s sports practices, homework, or other extracurricular activities. Even the NCAA has mandated that athletic activities can’t amount to more than 20 hours per week (or four hours per day). Many high schools have instituted similar policies. Perhaps your school hasn’t tackled this issue. Maybe your coaches feel so much pressure to win, they keep lengthening practice time. It might help if all the “rival” athletic directors met and collectively agreed on some practice limits.  

Your logistical question about kids leaving class early is much easier to answer than the broader question of life balance. I’d talk to the athletic director and see if the school’s coaches can be more mindful of teachers’ time with students. Could they work with other schools in the division to tweak the game schedule? Explain that while you appreciate all the lessons students are absorbing playing sports, from collaboration to grit, they also need to learn algebra. Your coaches may be on the same page anyway, especially if they’re teachers, too. Plus, it’s best for everyone if students keep up in class, especially if they have to meet grade eligibility requirements to play in the first place.  

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