Lessons From My Dad

Henry L. Jennings is currently living his retired years with his wife Rose on a gorgeous plot of land in southeast Iowa. Henry was born in New York and raised in New Jersey before finding his way to Central College in Pella, Iowa. Teetering (I say that generously) on the hippie lifestyle he worked his way through college on odd construction jobs and painting houses.

He graduated (I think, I suppose I don’t know that for sure), married Rose and became a math teacher. Like many teachers, he also spent his after-school hours coaching a variety of sports and never really stopped working on construction projects and painting (although if you ask him now, he hates to paint).

All in all, Henry has spent decades as a teacher, coach, carpenter, and my favorite of all, my father. By the time his sons (I have two brothers) became old enough to play organized sports, he stopped coaching sports for the schools and became the coach for baseball, basketball, and soccer for all three of us! This continued until we grew out of the local little leagues and started playing school sports ourselves.

From then on, he and my mom became our biggest fans, making it to nearly every single game we ever played, FOR EVERY SPORT. I can count on one hand the games they missed for their three sons from middle school through our college careers!

Outside of sports, I never had my dad as a teacher, but I was constantly working on projects around the house, or at some of their rental properties (sometimes excitedly, other times…not so much). Whether painting, mowing, collecting firewood, roofing, hanging drywall, framing, or anything in between, I spent countless hours doing what I could. Looking back now, I can’t believe my dad had the patience on a hot, Midwest day in August to have an 11-year-old kid carry shingles up a ladder for a new roof!

Fast forward a few years, as a former teacher and coach myself, and still working in the education system, I realized just how powerful those experiences I had with my dad were. I didn’t know it at the time, but I took a lot away from the little things he would consistently say and remind me of. I also realized that my dad was pretty much the same to me at home, when working on the “job site,” or on the field/court. He was saying the same things, teaching the same lessons, being patient, having high expectations, wanting what was best for me, and always pushing to be the best I could be, no matter what that was. A couple years into teaching and coaching myself, I recognized another powerful truth: my dad was that same guy to HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of students and players over the years.

I know this because I have had more people than I can count, some I knew, some I didn’t, tell me how much they loved my dad as a teacher or coach. Oftentimes remembering specific instances and even sayings that he would use!

As of late, I have found myself reflecting on a lot of those lessons, what they meant at the time, and how they have manifested themselves in various aspects of my life outside of sport or carpentry. I’m writing this to honor and thank my father for the lessons he has instilled in me, but also as a reminder to ALL teachers, coaches, camp counselors, or the like, that work regularly with young people. YOU are more powerful than you realize and have an impact that far outreaches your classroom content or the X’s and O’s. Like my dad, you will come in contact with HUNDREDS of young people and whether you mean to or not, you will leave a lasting impression.

Below are six lessons I learned from my dad. These are the lessons that I have found myself referring to, quite often in both my personal and professional life. You will recognize a few, as he didn’t come up with them himself, but nonetheless instilled them in me. I have taken them from him (although he never really owned them, just believed they were important) and found over the years that in some shape or form, I was passing them on to the young people I had the privilege to serve. The words might not appear like much at first glance and might not sound like much when a 12, 13, 14, or 17 year old hears them, but they have a significance that spans many aspects of life. So here we go, in no particular order, lessons from my dad:

Lesson 1: Be Polite

From as early as I can remember, my dad would harp on me about manners, respecting elders, opening and holding the door open for people, please and thank you, sir and ma’am, appropriate language, asking to be excused from the dinner table, a firm handshake with solid eye contact, looking the person you’re talking to in the eyes, and much more. Trivial, tedious, and quite frankly obnoxious things for an 11-year-old to remember to do. However, I do remember on multiple occasions, teachers, coaches, other kids’ parents, and restaurant staff explaining to my parents how much they appreciated their sons’ manners. Even hearing those comments, the importance of being polite didn’t really sink in. Regardless, I continued to be polite, especially to those I did not know and those who were older, more experienced, and/or an authority figure of some kind. I can confidently say, I have had a wonderful relationship with all the people in my life that fall into one of those distinctions and I am certain that is due, in part, at least a little, to being polite. In addition to that, as a teacher and coach, the students and student-athletes I remember the most aren’t the best or brightest, they aren’t the funniest or most quiet, they are the ones that looked me in the eyes when they spoke to me, shook my hand firmly, and said yes sir and thank you sir. Those are the kids and people in general someone remembers. And that is why my dad always wanted me to be polite.

Lesson 2: You Will Always Build It Better the Next Time

Like many kids, I spent many, many hours trying to build the “world’s tallest tower.” I used Legos, Lincoln Logs, blocks, and just about anything else I could. As you likely remember, a common occurrence when a kid is attempting to build the “world’s tallest tower,” it is often destroyed by a mean older brother, knocked over by a clumsy baby brother, or more often than not poor structural engineering! Regardless, the disappointment in the collapse of the tower was always devastating! Frustration and anger were often accompanied by tears and the thought of never trying it again. Insert dad, sympathetic but not necessarily sorry, reminding me of one thing, “you will always build it better then next time.” And when I mustered up the courage to attempt the record again, it was better! I’d build the tower when my older brother wasn’t around. I’d place it in a spot where my younger brother couldn’t reach, or I’d add an extra block to the base for more support. Low and behold, that next time was better, and the time after that was better. Although I never actually broke any tower building records, I did realize that failure can be an excellent teacher and that there is nothing wrong with trial and error. Think about the first time you did a specific lesson for a new unit or tried something new at practice, it might have gone horribly or it may have gone really well! Either way, I’m willing to bet that the next time you did that lesson or activity, it was even better than the first! That’s because trial and error is part of life, it’s because no one is perfect, and no tower will last forever. But don’t be afraid, bend down, pick up the pieces, and start again, because you will always build it better the next time.

Lesson 3: Use Your Left Hand

From the first day of 5-year-old soccer practice, my dad would tell me and the rest of the team to be sure to use our left foot when we were on the left side of the field. This is obviously pretty tough for a bunch of kids who potentially don’t even have their shoes on the correct feet! Nevertheless, my dad was adamant about the players on the team being able to use both feet throughout the course of practice and games. This same mantra resonated in basketball, when you’re on the left side of the basket attempting a layup, we should use our left hand. Of course, there is very much a strategic and technical advantage to doing so, it places your entire body between the ball and the defender who is trying to prevent you from scoring. My dad placed so much importance on the ability to use both feet and both hands, I even heard about it when I was playing high school basketball and he was in the stands. I can remember missing a contested layup while using my right hand when I was on the left side of the basket, as the crowd all sighed simultaneously, my dad shouted, “USE YOUR LEFT HAND!” The important lesson here isn’t just about soccer or basketball strategy, it’s about the fact that there is more than one way to do things or solve problems. And sometimes, the easy or comfortable way might not be the best way to get it done. Sometimes, we need to do what is uncomfortable, difficult, or challenging. Sometimes we need to do the things that we are less confident in order to grow. That’s why, if you ever find yourself in the dilemma of choosing between ease and comfort or challenge and discomfort, to remind yourself to use your left hand.

Lesson 4: If a Project Needs a Tool, Buy It

To this day, I am still amazed at all the tools, equipment, and other random trinkets my dad has at his disposal when working on a project. You name it, he likely has it. Some of the tools (many of which he still uses regularly) are 30+ years old! At this stage in his life, rarely does he come across a project that he is not equipped for. I do my best to keep up with him and his abilities as an amateur woodworker/carpenter and have a decent collection of tools myself. Some of which are hand-me-downs, some of which were gifts, and some I purchased. My dad very rarely rented a tool or piece of equipment. He always said, “if a project needs a tool, buy it! Because if you need it now, you’ll need it again.” There’s a great deal of merit to that thought process, as anyone who has attempted a DIY project knows that there isn’t much more frustrating than being stuck because you don’t have the necessary tools to move forward. If you rent a tool, you have to give it back and when you give it back, it’s not there when you need it next! Seems a bit trivial, but in the grand scheme of things, you could conceivably save money AND time just purchasing the tool in need. The same is true in everyday life when it comes to skills, knowledge, and relationships. If we don’t commit to owning the skills we have, the saying is true, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Yeah, you might not ever forget how to ride a bike, but I’ll bet that if you haven’t ridden a bike in 20 years, you won’t be NEARLY as good as you were when you were 12. Every day presents itself with learning opportunities, pay attention and own what you have learned. Take it with you, it’s better to be prepared for conversations, interviews, questions at work, situations in a game or classroom, then it is to be stuck trying to remember. As for relationships, build them, and build them strong. Focus when you meet someone new and remember their name. You never know when a relationship from your life will need to be called upon. You never know when you’ll need to know someone more than you know something. So, remember, if a project needs a tool, buy it!

Lesson 5: Think It Through

There’s really no other way to put this, my dad is notoriously slow at starting a project. The running joke in the family is that you always add two days to any project timeline my dad throws out. Not necessarily because he underestimates how long something will take, but because he’ll spend a day or two just THINKING about the project. He’ll sit and stew, plan and measure, draw and sketch, talk to himself, and change his mind multiple times before a tool even comes out of the shed. To this day, I still have a hard time being patient and not just jumping into something. I would beg and plead as a kid to just get started so we could finish earlier, and I could play. Much to my dismay and sometimes costly frustrations, the few times we did just jump into a project and “figure it out as we go” we ended up spending more money, making more mistakes, and taking more time to complete. Just as he always said as a coach, we have to anticipate! What could happen? What needs to happen? What do we do if THIS happens? Having the answers, or at least ideas of what the answers could be can make or break a lesson, class, activity, practice, game, or DIY project. There is certainly a time and place to just jump in headfirst, but more often than not, it pays to think it through.

Lesson 6: The Cream Always Rises to the Top

If I’m speaking plainly, my middle school and high school sporting career was not an overly successful one when it came to wins and losses, especially when it came to basketball and football. In basketball, we rarely won 50% of our games and we won five total games in the three years I played varsity football. Needless to say, that was quite discouraging for a teenager. In those sad car rides after games or in between seasons, a common thing my dad would say is “the cream always rises to the top.” He had been saying that to me for a while and to be honest, I never really knew what it meant. Eventually I asked and he explained that in the days that milk would be delivered to houses in glass jars inside a crate, the milk would separate. The cream would rise and collect on the top of the liquid. This happens with natural, unhomogenized milk, even today. That cream is where the majority of the milk’s nutrients reside, and all the flavor is! All in all, it’s the best part of the milk. Even armed with this knowledge, I still wasn’t sure what he was trying to tell me. For some reason though, I took solace in those words, I continued to work hard and stay the course. After high school, I had the extreme fortune of being able to continue playing football in college, where I had a substantially more successful playing career. It wasn’t until I was well into my college career that I really appreciated the idea that the cream always rises to the top. Because regardless of what you do to the milk, stir it up, pour it into a different container, or shake it, eventually the cream would still rise. If you give the milk a firm foundation, time, and patience, the good stuff will reach the top! There are challenges in life, setbacks, upsets, pitfalls, frustrations, disappointments, losses, and much more that shake us up. We have to remember that if we continue to focus, work hard, and give it time, good things will happen. This is especially important to remember when talking about teaching and coaching. Learning is messy, development (physical, cognitive, emotional, social, etc.) is shaky! It isn’t a light switch that we can just turn on. We need a firm foundation, time, and patience. With that, the cream always rises to the top.

I don’t know if my dad ever meant for me to take these lessons as I have. I’m not sure he knew I was listening (I’m not even sure I knew I was listening). I have no idea if he thought of these things as lessons. But that isn’t the point. The point is that those lessons have resonated with me throughout my entire life. That’s the power that teachers and coaches have. I am beyond fortunate to have a teacher/coach who also happens to be my dad. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for everyone. The sad truth is that many young people we serve do not have a father in the home. As a teacher and/or coach, we are often that role model. We are often the ones kids look to for guidance, support, care, advice, and everything in between. I encourage you to take these lessons, edit them, and make them your own. More importantly, I encourage you to never forget your reach as a teacher and/or coach. Never forget that kids hear you, see you, and remember you. They might not remember the content you taught or the plays you installed, but they will remember how you made them feel, how you helped them, how you supported them, and how you cared for them.

So, whether you are an actual father with your own children or play that role to a couple hundred students or players, I say this from the bottom of my heart…

Happy Father’s Day Dad!

Michael Jennings has over a decade of experience teaching and coaching at every level. He has a master’s degree in Secondary Education with an emphasis in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, as well as a Master’s in Exercise Physiology. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength & Conditioning Association. He has also spent several years in various youth development fields in both the public and private sectors. Michael is a proponent of physical literacy, long term athletic development, movement in schools, and the holistic development and education of all students. Currently Michael works for Athlos Education, an educational service provider, where he serves as the Director of Physical Education & Character Development. In this role, he is dedicated to redefining physical education. He is a content and curriculum curator, as well as, a provider of virtual and on site professional development and support for schools and educators in all things movement, fitness, physical activity, and coaching. He is a regular presenter at local, state, and regional conferences. He also speaks both nationally and internationally. His presentation topics have included: showing student growth, assessment & feedback, use of data in PE, curriculum development, developing a culture of physical activity in schools, developing school culture, long term athletic development, youth resistance training, communicating with students, fundamental movement skills, recognizing social-emotional learning, cultivating performance character, and much more.


Twitter: @THEschmike