Teaching, coaching in different districts brings an array of challenges

Sycamore's head coach Adam Wickness talks to his players during a break in play against Hampshire during the Batavia MLK Showdown at Batavia High School on Monday, Jan 17, 2022.

For coaches who teach in a different district than their coaching gig, a 20-minute car ride can serve a surprising number of vital roles.

It’s a chance for some to switch out of teaching mode and into coaching mode. It can prepare others for getting ready to coach high schoolers after teaching elementary students all day. It can be a chance to catch up on some phone calls.

Or it can just be the closest thing to a break in a 12-plus hour day.

“Some days I get to decompress,” said Kaneland cross country coach Chad Clarey, who’s been an elementary teacher in the Batavia district all 27 years he’s been coaching the Knights. “Some days I get to reload for the next job, which is coaching. Some days I have to connect with someone to get some closure from the day I just had so I can start the next part of the day.”

Of course, a lot of times a coach is leaving a district trying to get to another in time for practice. Those logistics can be messy depending on what time districts let out, but assistants can make all the difference.

Melanie Chambers, in her eighth year as the head coach for both the boys and girls swim teams for the DeKalb-Sycamore co-op, said Colette LeBlanc has made things much easier all the way around. The assistant coach also teaches science at DeKalb High, giving the coaching staff a presence in the building. Chambers teaches first grade at John Shields Elementary School in Sugar Grove.

DeKalb-Sycamore girls swimming coach Melanie Chambers talks to her team Friday afternoon during practice at the Huntley Middle School pool in DeKalb.

With her school getting out 40 minutes after DeKalb High, it’s LeBlanc who starts practices and rides busses to events with the team while Chambers drives herself straight from Sugar Grove.

“Just the bussing situation for competitions has been the trickiest piece,” Chambers said. “I typically drive myself to the meets and my assistant coach will ride the bus, or there were a couple seasons we had to find bus riders because I didn’t have an assistant coach who was able to do that.”

Sycamore softball coach Jill Carpenter has been teaching physical education in Kaneland for 17 years, one month longer than she’s been the head softball coach at Sycamore. She said for the first decade or so her entire staff was from outside Sycamore, which created a lot of challenges.

Jill Carpenter, Sycamore head coach, adjusts her outfileld during their game Wednesday against Harlem at Sycamore High school.

She said that since Sarah Chapman came on board as an assistant, things have gotten much less hectic.

“There’s a lot more going on with the kids today than when I started 17, almost 20 years ago,” Carpenter said. “I’m not saying kids didn’t have their issues back then, but it’s just trying to keep a better pulse on how they’re doing academically, how they’re doing with their social-emotional mental health, having that rapport with social workers or a school psychologist or just their guidance counselor.”

Like Carpenter, Adam Wickness teaches in Kaneland and coaches at Sycamore, taking over the girls basketball program six years ago. And like Carpenter, he said having an assistant in the district is a game-changer.

For him, that assistant is Wickness’ niece, Meg Cohrs. A Kaneland graduate, Cohrs teaches math at Sycamore and is a Spartans assistant.

“They could pop in between classes and say what’s up,” Wickness said. “It creates a bond with the entire staff because coach Cohrs was able to relate to the entire staff different things that were bothering people or we needed to celebrate. It was nice to have an extra set of ears in the school. ... It’s girls basketball‚ and coach Cohrs is a female and it’s nice to have another female you can go to about things. There are some things high school girls aren’t open to sharing with their male high school coach.”

Wickness and Carpenter face an additional wrinkle — the school they teach at and the school they coach at are rivals. Clarey said it’s nice when he sees his former students competing against Kaneland since, as an elementary school teacher, he’s a few years removed from teaching them.

But Wickness and Carpenter teach students they’re trying to beat on the field or court a few hours later, generally speaking in a high-stakes game between conference rivals.

“How do you pep up Kaneland when you’re out there, then all of a sudden Kaneland’s playing Sycamore?” Wickness said. “That was a little awkward at first, especially because I coached for 12 years in Kaneland in the boys’ program. It just became part of the routine after a while.”

Carpenter said she doesn’t exactly have the games against Kaneland circled on her calendar each year.

“They’re not my two most favorite games of the year, that’s for sure,” Carpenter said. “That rivalry existed before I came along and will exist after I go. I’ll be honest, I don’t talk a lot about softball with my students. Most probably don’t realize I coach somewhere else. The softball players I do happen to teach, we keep it pretty light.”

Carpenter said the arrangement isn’t one that’s a fit for everyone.

“I would highly not recommend it,” Carpenter said. “It is very difficult. There’s many more challenges than there are positives about it. ... It requires a lot of extra help and planning. I can’t just walk to Chauncey [Carrick, Sycamore athletic director]’s office when I have something I need to talk to him about or a problem.”

Clarey said he’s felt blessed to coach at Kaneland and teach in Batavia for the past three decades.

“My primary responsibility is being the best first-grade teacher I can be for the students of Grace McWayne school, where I teach,” Clarey said. “That is my primary role in this whole thing. Making sure I have everything done, everything is ready and prepared for a full day of first grade every day.”