By Jaime Aron
Anyone who goes into teaching, coaching or any other role that involves guiding youngsters is likely to hear this saying: They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
A reminder of the truth behind that line emerged at Media Day for the College Football Playoff championship.
Because the CFP Foundation supports K-12 educators through its Extra Yard for Teachers platform, LSU and Clemson players were asked about the most important teachers in their lives – and how those adults connected with them so deeply. In their own ways, their answers connected back to that wise old saying.
“There has to be a connection between the teacher and student first before the student will ever listen to the teacher,” said LSU deep snapper Blake Ferguson, who is among the ultimate examples of a student-athlete as he earned a marketing degree and an MBA all while starting for four seasons and being a team captain the last two. “That’s absolutely the sign of a teacher or professor that cares about what they do. They connect with you first, then they teach you what they want you to know.”
The person who did that best for him is Karen Schnell, his fourth-grade teacher at Cogburn Woods Elementary in Alpharetta, Georgia.
“She stands out in my education because of the way she approached every day,” Ferguson said. “Her energy was infectious. The way she communicated with us was different from any teacher of professor I’ve ever had. You could tell that she truly cared first.”
She still does, too. They’ve remained in contact through Facebook, with Mrs. Schnell often commenting on his posts.
For Clemson center Sean Pollard, the educator he’ll always cherish is Rhonda Bullock at Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines, North Carolina.
Funny thing is, their relationship was first marked by butting heads when he was in her 10th grade English class.
“She was always trying to get me to take harder classes,” he said. “She would say, `You’re smart enough to do it. Stop trying to take the easy route. You need to do the extra stuff.’”
He eventually did. And he graduated high school a semester early. At Clemson, he’s made the ACC Honor Roll three times and on Monday night will play in his third national championship game.
But setting him on that path is the only first layer of their relationship.
Bullock also taught Pollard during his final semester of high school. That October, she was the person who told Pollard that his beloved grandmother died. She went on to help him navigate the next few months, steering him through the challenges of overlapping his grief with school and getting recruited by colleges.
“She was there for me,” said Pollard, whose right arm includes an elaborate tattoo in memory of his Nana. “If I missed school for a few days, she would call and check on me. When I was at school, she would come see me. I don’t think she realizes how important and special it was for me to know that I had someone backing me up.”
LSU defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko had the advantage of growing up with a teacher – his mom. While she’s obviously his No. 1 educator, the leader in the non-family category is his freshman algebra teacher, Sean Wentworth at Farrington High School in Honolulu.
“Mr. Wentworth was one of those teachers who went the extra mile,” Fehoko said. “We spent every lunch together talking about academics and – more than that – we also talked about faith. It was so awesome to have a teacher like that to start off high school. It helped shape me into the way I am today.”
Fehoko has made the SEC Honor Roll and already has graduated with a degree in communications. You can also look out for No. 91 storming into the Clemson backfield on Monday night. And before the game, he’s likely to get a Scripture texted from Mr. Wentworth.
“It’s just a great relationship,” Fehoko said.
Among the people at Media Day who most enjoyed hearing the praising of educators was Rodney Robinson, the reigning National Teacher of the Year.
Robinson is from Richmond, Virginia. So is Clemson safety K’Von Wallace.
In fact, Robinson worked with Wallace’s mom; she was a counselor at his school.
Robinson and the Teacher of the Year from each state and U.S. territory are in New Orleans as part of the celebration of the profession by Extra Yard for Teachers.
While several of those teachers attended LSU and Clemson, there are also connections to individual players. For instance:
- When LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. was in eighth grade at Elm Grove Middle School in Bossier City, Louisiana, he was a pupil of Spencer Kiper, the Louisiana Teacher of the Year.
- Clemson backup quarterback Taisun Phommachanh attended Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for ninth and 10th grades; Sheena Graham of that school is the Connecticut Teacher of the Year.
Phommachanh didn’t know Graham. But he fondly recalled one of her colleagues, a Mr. Taylor who taught him social studies.
“You could talk to him about anything,” Phommachanh said. “He was really cool. Relatable.”
In other words, Taylor was yet another example of a teacher who reached a student’s mind by first touching his heart.
“It was both, definitely,” Phommachanh said. “He taught me in the classroom and he helped me outside the classroom. We talked about life. I could talk to him about football. Just having somebody that I could go talk to and feel comfortable with – that’s big for a student.”