Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the “SPU Voices” podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert. And today we sat down with Chantel Vinson, a senior wellness instructor at Culver Academies, who has coached volleyball and basketball for them. For two years before that she taught health and physical education at Plymouth High School and coached junior high basketball. But the reason she has won awards for her selflessness and is beloved by so many students and parents, is because she has chosen to pay forward the gift she was given growing up. Chantel, thank you so much for joining us today.
Chantel Vinson: Thank you for the opportunity. I’m so excited to sit down with you.
Amanda: Well, let’s start with some background about your childhood and experience with teachers. I know you’ve described your story as the blindside or some of those other movies where teachers and mentors really made a huge difference in someone’s life.
Chantel: I often do relate my story to like a lifetime movie or something. I feel grateful for even having that as kind of a comparison, just to keep in perspective the things that I’ve gone through and to be able to see my way out of that, as well as just the acknowledgement that a lot of people go through things and they don’t come out of that, or some people have been through some things that I would never even can imagine.
Amanda: Well, tell us a little bit about how those teachers were able to help you and keep you focused on a good path.
Chantel: Yes, when I was in junior high and even elementary school, my mom, first of all, my mom got pregnant when she was 14 and had me when she was 15. And then my father died in a drug deal when I was three, and then my mom went to prison when I was nine. And so kind of the Riga Monroe of in and out of different homes. And just trying to make my way through the basics as an elementary school student.
I had several teachers just without me even telling my story to them, do what teachers I think should do, kind of pay attention and recognize that I was in need or hurting or wanting to thrive, but maybe not knowing how and where I saw it the most was in junior high.
I had a teacher Mrs. Cornell. And she was my gym teacher and she was a coach. And there were times where I would be late, but I took public transportation. So I would maybe miss the bus or be riding the bus home really late or walking home. And she would just offer to give me a ride. And my walk was pretty far walk and I didn’t even know that she knew that, but just even that, being able to get home safely in the evenings. And she encouraged me to, I would actually just have to say to try, there were times where my circumstances just, I didn’t see a way out of it. And so she gave me light on that there would be opportunities for me if I was willing to try and even maybe fail. And that wasn’t something that someone was encouraging me to do.
And on through high school, I have lived with my volleyball coach. I have been mentored by basketball coaches. I’ve been brought lunch to school by people. And most importantly, I was told by teachers and given opportunities to figure out how to excel in the classroom when I really didn’t think I could. Where for some teachers it’s, Hey, this is all you got and, or okay, here’s your grade, or some teachers are definitely more of like, I want you to try, or I know you’re trying, how can I help? And I had enough of those that I was able to recognize or recognized and forced me to allow them to help.
“I was told by teachers and given opportunities to figure out how to excel in the classroom when I really didn’t think I could.”
Amanda: Yeah, something you said earlier on when you said I wanted to thrive, but I didn’t know how, or I didn’t have the opportunity. And I think it’s so important to see kids in that light and I’m sure, and it’s not every child of course, but sometimes it’s easy to see a child who’s not doing well and just blame the child. If they tried harder, if they would just do this, if they would just do that, when we don’t always know what the obstacle is. We don’t really always know what that wall is they’re trying to get over to succeed.
Chantel: Absolutely. And I’m so grateful for my experiences in life that have benefited me as an educator and as a coach. And so knowing my own story, that there’s usually a story behind the action, behind the attitude, behind the demeanor, behind the push or the not push. Like there’s typically some story behind that. And I know that first hand. And so I really try to make a concerted effort to know those things or to at least seek to find out how I can help push a person to be their best selves, despite of whatever the things are.
Amanda: When did you decide yourself that you wanted to become that teacher and coach?
Chantel: I literally think that I knew seventh and eighth grade. Mrs Cornell. And I think I’ve shared that, I actually wrote into like Oprah, because it was asking for who are your heroes in education? And I wanted the world to know about Mrs Cornell, even though I had at that time lost touch with her because I just moved around quite a bit. And she just accepted me for who I was, but she was also very real with me. She didn’t sugar coat things to stroke my ego or make me feel better by being empathetic, but also being very honest with me.
And I really appreciate that. And so I think that around seventh or eighth grade, I knew that I wanted to work with young people in some capacity. But I can tell you that I wasn’t thinking college or career at that time. I still was in a place where I didn’t know that was something that I can do. The people around me were not going to college and not having careers, they were having jobs.
Amanda: Yeah, so you weren’t able to see the future where, oh, I see myself in that future.
Amanda: Yeah. Well, I know that now that you are the teacher and the coach, that you have many, many stories of how you were able to be there for different students, but one story I know is Shania’s story. Can you tell that one?
Chantel: Absolutely. One of the reasons why I think Shania’s story came about just backstory is that I had a family when I moved to Washington for like a bunch of reasons, but that parent and that friend took me in, they recognized the need. Nancy, the daughter of that mom began to bring me lunches that her mom, Mrs. Blackwood packed for me. Bringing me lunches to school, making sure that I was able to get my homework done and just kind of like caring for me when I didn’t ask for it. And I was in a position where I didn’t really know how to receive that, but I saw this in a young lady, Shania, who she was in need. And she was a really good kid who you can tell by the work that she did in class, but even the work that wasn’t great work, that there was an attempt to try to keep up, to understand.
And I could tell also, just by observation, that there were times where her clothes were kind of rugged or ragged where her hygiene may have just been lacking a little bit, or she was more tired than most would be during a time in the week like that. And so I just kind of got to know her a little bit through some writing that I challenged her in a mental health unit and in a chemical substances unit. And just in paying attention to her writing, I struck up conversation about athletics and different things. And one thing that I make a point to do is to share my story with students. And so in sharing my story, she was more open about something that she was going through, which was that there were some drug abuse in her home. And with that information, I did all the things that I thought were necessary to help protect her as a young lady.
“One thing that I make a point to do is to share my story with students.”
But before some of that I just went home one day and I was kind of going through some items and I was just like, I have way more than I need. And I just packed a duffel bag. It was around Christmas time, we were getting ready to go on break. I just packed the duffel bag full of athletic wear, feminine hygiene, shoes, clothes, just a bunch of stuff, and I just let her know one day, Hey, I had something that I wanted to give you. Can you stop by my office? Whatever, after school come by the classroom and I’m going to have a bag. I just want you to take that bag. And she did. And we went on to break. And when we came back, she expressed, thank you. She expressed thanks in an email.
But later on, I didn’t even know I changed schools. I wasn’t teaching at that school anymore. I knew she kind of graduated or whatever, but I didn’t know what happened to Shania. And then I ran to someone at the academy that I teach at during an activity, and she was just saying, you look so familiar, you sound familiar. I’m not sure why your name sounds familiar. Something about you that’s so familiar other than being colleagues. And it turned out that his son was dating Shania and that his family had taken her in in high school in those last couple years and helped her to graduate and get a job and apply for college. And she had expressed to them a lot about what I did that helped her to continue to kind of push forward and get back to school and kind of work through what would be best for her in terms of being away from her parents and such.
So it was a kind of a nice, full circle to know. And then I went down, she works in my community and I actually went down and visited her at her job. So that was pretty cool.
Amanda: So how does it feel to have, we all have full circle moments, but to stand there and see Shania and see yourself in her and say when you were in seventh or eighth grade, working with a teacher and saying, I want to do this for someone else. And now you have this person in front of you that shows you did. You did do that. Like how does that feel?
Chantel: It gives me goosebumps right now just to even just think about her and how well she’s doing. And to even remember that moment of just her and the smile that was on her face. And I’m sure mine was equally as large just to greet her and see her. It was an easy reminder that the person who did it for me, didn’t ask anything from me, except for somehow in an unwritten way, I want you to succeed. I need you to succeed. And that’s what they were asking from me by doing for me, they weren’t asking me for thank yous or anything else in the time. And when I ran into Shania, I was grateful to see how her story panned out, but it just felt really good to know that it did pan out, but that I did that because you’re right, I saw her in me and I know the possibilities for her to succeed and make something of herself we’re there. And I was just really grateful that I could be a part of that in any kind of way.
And it’s always humbling too, because it’s a reminder of like, not that I’m saying that I have everything that I want now, but it’s just a reminder of where I came from. And almost everybody has a story.
Amanda: And I know Shania is not the only story like that that you have. I know you have many, but before we get onto some more of those stories, let’s talk about the boarding school where you teach now, I’ve heard you describe it as Harry Potter, as Hogwarts. Is this the kind of school where you thought you would end up?
Chantel: Talking about, I mean, inner city kid from Los Angeles, I literally had no idea that these kind of places really existed. And even as an educated adult, I know that there are boarding schools out there, but I had not myself ever visited one. You see it on TV or depicted in a film. And when I came to interview here, I was just in awe of the beauty of the campus, the way that the students and the faculty really just seemed to know each other and to care for one another. And it is an incredible place to be. And I can tell you that I, 100% never would’ve pictured myself teaching at a school like this for several reasons.
“When I came to interview here, I was just in awe of the beauty of the campus, the way that the students and the faculty really just seemed to know each other and to care for one another.”
One is because of my story, I always really wanted to work in inner city schools. I always wanted to be in the trenches with kids that I felt who were in need in that always brings you back to like underprivileged, lower income communities, but that is actually not always the case, even at this very prestigious boarding school where tuition is up over $50,000 a year, are kids with a story and kids in need. And I still find opportunities to connect with kids. And it’s not always a financial thing.
Amanda: What are some of the similarities, because I agree with you, right, there kids who need love. There are kids who need help. Kids who need to be seen on every level of the economic spectrum, so what are some of those similarities that you’ve found between all the places you’ve been?
Chantel: One thing that comes to mind is that even at our boarding school, there are a range of socio-economical backgrounds. I personally serve on a scholarship committee that gives scholarships to students who would not be able to afford a place like this and vetting those kids and having conversations with those kids. A reminder that amongst all of us that are walking around at this incredible place, that there’s some kids who they would’ve never been able to afford to go here. And because the generosity of someone else they’re getting this incredible experience. And so when we look at our kids in uniform, you can’t really tell whose dad is the CEO of whatever or whose parents is the ambassador or prince of [inaudible 00:16:21], I mean, we have kids that are like, it’s an international school also. And so I cannot tell which kid is that their mom works three jobs just to help contribute to this experience.
And so you find that there are kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds, even in some of the inner city schools, there are kids that are doing okay, they just happen to live in the district. So also one thing that I have found to be equally normalizing is that mental health for our kids is a real thing. And you don’t have to be rich or poor to be struggling with mental and emotional health. And so I can connect those pieces because kids are kids and life is life and their circumstances surrounding how we move and how we grow as people. And so I think that’s a very equalizing thing that no matter whether you’re in the best schools or the worst schools, our kids and they all have, they have life to do. And obviously in the middle of this pandemic.
Amanda: Yeah, yeah, for sure. Well, we’re not all teachers and coaches that have all these students right in front of us every day, but we all have young people in our lives, whether it’s our own children, our faith communities, our neighborhoods, how can we as just citizens of the world, how can we help those young people around us that might need something, might need help and support outside of their own families?
Chantel: What comes to the forefront immediately, is that just in general, we are growing up, even as adults, we are growing up different than we did as kids. And we are so disconnected because of technology and media and social media, even in our own homes. As a mom, I have to check myself on my connectedness with my own kids, whether we’re in the car and my kids just put on his headphones. Being aware and interested and what people were doing, my son, he gets so mad at me because when we go to the stores, I purposely speak to people that I don’t know, I’ll comment on something. And he’ll just like, why do you do that? And I said I never know. You never know when I’m going to be stranded on the side of the road and that person’s going to pull up to help me.
You never know who or how you’re going to come full circle back to that person. And I think just even with our young people, we are only interested currently in literally, what are they doing today? How was today? How was school? How did that game go?
And our kids are sometimes just living in the moment and that is often, what’s so dangerous for them, right? It’s not able to see ahead or actually put the past in perspective. And so taking opportunities to engage when we go to a friend’s house, we have adult functions or whatever, but if our kids are here, it is the expectation that they come and engage and that they say hello, and that they introduce themselves and that they answer questions and then they go about their business, but it’s not like they are unseen.
“It’s important that we take opportunities to get to know kids.”
And so it’s important that we take opportunities to get to know kids. And I think even as adults, we don’t really take the opportunity the way we used to engage people. And I can’t blame it all on technology, but I just feel that given the opportunity to sit down with someone, to engage them and kids don’t like to be probed, but they need to be probed a little bit more because we often, we all know how to kind of put on a face and give the right answers to be left alone, especially.
Chantel: And so sometimes the kid is seeking for someone to ask the deeper question and that we missed those opportunities.
Amanda: Yeah, I remember when our kids were a little bit younger, they’re both in college now, but like if we would go to Starbucks and they would say, can I have a whatever. Do I get a food choice and a drink choice, or do I just have to pick one? And I would routinely say, you can have both, if you go order it yourself or oh, you didn’t get what you wanted? Well, then you’re going to have to go tell them that you need a new one. And most of the time they would look at me as if I was torturing them. They would look at me as if I was punishing them.
And I said, this is something you need to learn how to do. Like you said, there are times in life where you have no choice, but to interact with someone behind a counter, there’s times where you need to not just ask for help or ask for something. But there are times where you see someone else in need and you are going to have to step in. And it’s been so wonderful to watch our kids sort of grow into that and blossom and be able to get over themselves and go help someone who might be in need that day. And I think you’re so right, that it’s so easy to be plugged into our phones and our electronics, that what we ask our kids is how is your day? And they say fine, and that’s it.
Chantel: Right. And it was so refreshing to actually hear you say how you have taught and engaged your children in those situations because we are very similar in that way. But as a teacher and a coach, we can see kids who have not ever been asked to advocate for themselves, or to step into a situation that’s uncomfortable with another adult or another student. And so I think obviously some of that begins in the home. And then while given the opportunity, especially here at a boarding school, because we are caring for these kids 24/7, I love taking those opportunities to… I force my students to speak out often.
And I kind of go old school where we do a lot of things, maybe on paper, as opposed to the computer, because they’re so plugged in to the computer. So teaching them another skill, like to write these things down and come back to them.
But it’s awesome that you just express that teaching your children a forum of advocating for themselves or advocating for someone else.
Amanda: Right, because we all know that if you can’t do it for yourself, it’s more difficult even to do it for someone else. And so you have to start somewhere. And so many of those life skills and character skills, it’s just harder to teach those things and math, I’ve nothing against math. We all need to know the basic building blocks of math, but we also have a phone and we can look things up. You can’t look up on your phone how to talk to someone behind the counter when you’re not getting what you want or they seem to be suffering. And how do I handle that? And how do I reach out? Those are things that it’s just not really baked into the curriculum anywhere.
Amanda: Yeah. As a coach, do you feel like teaching those life skills along with the sport itself actually makes a winning team?
Chantel: 100%. And in fact, I like to win and I want to win, but the emphasis is on winning in life, being a good contributing citizen. And the kids are going to maybe remember their record, maybe remember the rival team that they beat on any given year or amount of points. But they’re going to remember the relationships with one another the most, those are the things that they’re going to come back to, the reasons why they’re going to want to come back together and be in contact is because of the relationships that they formed, not the games that they won. And so a part of growing any team is teaching just the life skills of communicating, advocating, being honest, and having good virtues and values. And kids are typically more willing to work hard for one another in the athletic realm when they can rely and trust in one another in those ways that are just human ways and not anything to do with my athletic ability per se.
“Kids are typically more willing to work hard for one another in the athletic realm when they can rely and trust in one another.”
Amanda: Well, we have our famous last question that we ask everyone. And I’m very interested in your answer here. If you could have everyone in the Seattle area do one thing differently tomorrow, that’s going to make the world a better place. What would you tell all of us to do?
Chantel: I’m constantly, I wouldn’t say concerned, but hoping and wanting for us to be aware of, I would say for me it would’ve been like the generational curse, right? So like getting in touch with our young people because they are the future of our country and what we give them is what they’re going to give back to their kids. And so the conversation that we just had was to be able to plug into our young people or into each other in general, and actually ask questions that you want to know the answer to, have conversations that you are actually listening to instead of just hearing so that you can actually be sometimes things happen where we had a conversation and I wasn’t listening. And I was just hearing you, and I missed that important piece that could have helped that person.
And so I would say for people in the Seattle area is to reach out and engage the young people in communities, give them opportunities to get to know you, give yourself opportunities to get to know them and teach them how to engage one another. And those things will become fruitful like in how they give back to their communities, how they give back to their school, how they give back to their parents. I think those things will all pay themselves forward 10 times.
Amanda: Absolutely. And I think it can be easy to think, what change did I make? How did I help? I only was with one child for a short amount of time, but as you’ve shown through your own life and through so many lives as a teacher and a coach, sometimes that’s all it takes, because you’re just one piece of the puzzle, but you may be the key piece. You may be the linchpin to changing an entire life. And as you said, a whole generation of a family, because when you change one life that changes all the lives they touch as well.
Chantel: Absolutely. And I always say it takes a village and whether we know it or not, we are a critical piece of somebody’s village.
Chantel: At all times of our lives. At every age and every stage.
Amanda: I think I’m going to make that my new morning mantra. I am a key piece of someone’s story today and you may never know what it was, but it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t true and that you didn’t affect someone for the good. And it also makes you a little bit more aware of your surroundings. Like we said, just getting that coffee at Starbucks, you don’t know how that’s going to affect everybody else’s life around you. And it’s important to pay attention.
Well, Chantel, thank you so much. You are such an inspiration to me and to, I think all of our educators out there. So let’s end today with our prayer of blessing.
May the Lord bless you and all you put your hand to, may the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May God bring unity to our community and peace to us all.
Thank you so much for all that you do.