The Shirts Off Their Backs

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.4, April 2004,

When a member of the maintenance staff at Thornton Fractional South High School in Lansing, Ill., decided to bake brownies for the school’s football team, she probably didn’t picture herself wearing a team jersey while being paraded around the field before a home game in return. But thanks to the school’s Faculty-Staff Appreciation Night program, that’s exactly what happened.

"Each player selects a teacher or one of the support people here at school—such as a hall monitor, an administrator, a maintenance person, or a secretary—who has gone out of their way to help them in one way or another," explains Tom Padjen, Head Football Coach at TF South. The player then hand-delivers a letter thanking the person and asks him or her to wear his road jersey during school on game day and to accompany him to a pre-game ceremony that night.

During the ceremony, honorees are marched through the goal posts to midfield alongside the player who honored them. The staff member and the player are introduced, and the staff member is publicly thanked. "The program has been very popular with the players," Padjen says. "It seems like every player has a favorite teacher or other person here at school, and this gives them a way to recognize that person in a way that’s really going to mean something."

The four-year-old program has been a hit with the staff members as well. "In athletics, you understand the role you’re playing, but sometimes a teacher who isn’t involved in an activity doesn’t really understand how much of a role model they are to certain individuals," says TF South Athletic Director Robert Mitchell. "When a football player comes up to them and asks if they would do this, I’ll tell you, it’s an ego boost. A couple of our teachers got tears in their eyes because they were so flattered by it. They said, ‘My gosh. I didn’t realize this student liked me that much.’ It’s a great bonding experience."

Padjen works to make sure student-athletes are thinking expansively when they make their selections so that less visible staff members aren’t overlooked. "It’s important to keep an eye out for important people in the school whose roles might not be as obvious and to encourage players to include a variety of people," he says. "It’s worked out so that we usually have a great mix of people represented."

Other programs at the school are picking up the idea, as are other schools in the area. Joe Skowronski, Athletic Director at Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Ill., began using it with several of his programs after taking in a pre-game ceremony when Eisenhower played at TF South. "I saw that and said, ‘Wow! What a great idea,’" Skowronski says. "It was so nice to see the faculty and staff members together with the students. It seemed like a great way for students to show respect for their teachers—or other people in the building—who had maybe changed their lives a bit."