Dru Tomlin

Creating a Better Tomorrow Today in the Middle Level: Lessons from Donald Sterling and the Los Angeles Clippers

Most of us know the story by now. Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was recently caught making inflammatory racial comments that stoked the cinders of hatred, burning through the NBA and creating a firestorm in the media and the nation.

When I heard about this story, I recoiled and surged with anger. And then, as a middle school teacher and administrator, I looked for the lessons. What could we learn from Mr. Sterling? What could we learn from the team? How could this experience inform middle level education as we reach and teach young adolescents who are creating their tomorrows today?

Donald Sterling can teach us about the curriculum of financial literacy. He clearly wielded the tools of money to gain power and accrue wealth, so it could be argued that he was financially literate.

But is that enough?

If Donald Sterling was a young adolescent walking the halls in your school house, what else would you want him to learn about financial literacy? Because we value young adolescents, it is critical that we help them understand the value of money and how it works. Students ages 10–15 years old need to know how to manage the tools of personal finance so they can be secure, engaged, and empowered. However, it is also vital that we help them understand how to build relationships, how to create teams, and how to serve within the curriculum of financial literacy.

For example, while our students gain insights into the world of wealth, shouldn't they also know how to use language (verbal and non-verbal) to bring people together and forge strong teams that are built on trust, integrity, and respect? And while they reach for handholds on the monetary mountain, shouldn't we also help our students learn about serving others through their financial gains?

In addition, Sterling can also teach us about the Common Core. To advance through the school system, Mr. Sterling had to achieve certain content area standards. He had to pass specific standardized assessments to demonstrate his mastery of those standards. He had to have data in his academic portfolio to graduate.

But is that enough?

If Donald Sterling was a young adolescent on the verge of transitioning to the next grade level, what else would you want him to learn? An effective middle school is created when a shared vision is developed by all stakeholders, so perhaps another core lesson our students can learn is that we all share things in common. Of course, we want them to get critical information, to gain literacy and numeracy skills, and to perform well on assessments. But more importantly, we want our students to grasp the idea that there are aims that we can joyously achieve together through our collective effort.

And while we want them to succeed with the Common Core, our students should also excel with the Common Care—to achieve in areas like empathy and understanding that make our middle schools inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive of all. Helping our middle school kids embrace these lessons is both an obligation and a duty that we should relish.

Fortunately, there were other characters in this story from whom we can learn. We can take their experiences and use them in the middle grades, as well. Doc Rivers, the coach of the Clippers, and the entire Clippers team taught us lessons that illuminate what matters most in the middle level.

Once the team heard about Mr. Sterling's offensive words, they could have quit. Even with the NBA playoffs on the line, they could have refused to play for such an individual. Coach Rivers understood the pain and frustration that his players were going through, but with an empathic heart and mind he asked them to endure as a team.

So they put their jerseys on, walked out on the court, and valiantly forged ahead. With Mr. Sterling's vile words in their minds, they persisted and prevailed together, and in doing so, demonstrated what we want for every middle grades student we serve: resilience in the face of challenge, hope in the midst of hardship, and the understanding that they are never alone as they create their bright tomorrows today.

As the director of middle level services for the Association of Middle Level Education (AMLE), Dru Tomlin, PhD, has a commitment to educational improvement and a passion for teaching, learning, and middle school. A former teacher and administrator, he also has been a school system staff development trainer and a faculty member for AMLE's Leadership Institute, believing firmly in the power of professional learning. For his work, Tomlin has been recognized as a school system Teacher of the Year and as Georgia's Middle School Assistant Principal of the Year. Connect with Tomlin on Twitter @DruTomlin_AMLE.

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