Esports Programs Help Engage Students and Teachers

When I walk into a classroom where esports is part of the curriculum, I see students having fun. Rarely are teachers struggling to keep students awake or off their phones because the students are doing something they love. There is a synergy between everyone in the room, and I think what I’m feeling is excitement. It’s been such a long time since I’ve felt excitement in classrooms, that I’m not sure. 

Since March 2020, schools have become triage centers where educators are the first-line of defense in caring for students in crisis. The problem is that educators are not trained or resourced to handle this kind of care. Educators are hemorrhaging out of education with one educator out of four considering leaving the profession

I’m one of those educators who actually left. I remember the exact moment that I decided to quit my job after 24 years in education.

I was talking with a student about his habit of walking out of class without asking the teacher for permission. As the principal at an alternative school, the student’s part of the encounter wasn’t unlike what I had experienced hundreds of times before. “I ‘f’n’ hate that teacher. I ‘f’n’ hate this school. I ‘f’n’ hate you. I’m just going to ‘f’n’ drop out,” he yelled.

Although it may seem shocking, it was a fairly typical fight or flight reaction from a student experiencing a perceived danger (disciplinary action from me) without knowing the appropriate self-regulatory skills to cope, and I knew dozens of strategies that could help de-escalate the situation.

The shocking part of this story came from me. Well, it almost came from me. In response to his tirade, on the very, very, very tip of my tongue, were the words, “Why don’t you just  ‘f’n’ go ahead and drop out and see how that ‘f’n’ works out for you!”

And at that moment, I meant it.

I’m the poster-child for a successful dropout prevention administrator. I’m the Kansas Principal of the Year. I’ve helped lead our school to two National School of Character awards, as well as multiple civic advocacy recognitions. Surely this was a random thought in a fleeting moment. But, it wasn’t. From that point forward, I began to hate the job that for 20 years I had loved.

Throughout my years serving at a school for at-risk students, when students came to the staff with issues, we could provide programs or resources to help. If we didn’t already have a program or resource, we created one: teenage pregnancy--Parents as Teachers, academic needs--multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), drug addiction--onsite drug counselor, help deciding future plans--Individual Plans of Study (IPS). Since March of 2020, however, the issues that students started bringing to us were different.  

Early post-Covid research indicates that what we saw at our school was not unusual.  Nationwide, not only did educators continue seeing educational gaps in access, opportunities, achievement and outcomes, especially in students of color, ESL students, and students with disabilities, but the gaps became wider with some students even regressing. Almost all students faced mental health challenges and risks to their well-being that resulted in increased anxiety and stress. In addition, sexual harassment, identity harassement, abuse and violence hit all-time highs, especially online, while access to school-based student organizations, services and supports where largely unavailable. 

Since leaving the profession, I’ve thought a lot about the friends in education that I left behind. I’m using my experiences with at-risk youth to help provide educators with tools they already know how to use to help the students they serve. My part is writing for-credit courses that align scholastic gaming with social emotional learning (SEL), digital citizenship and college and career readiness. So far, the courses, all viewing education through an esports lens, have helped improve student attendance and engagement while providing a digital framework that leads to more equity and access in STEM-related fields. 

I’m not saying that bringing esports into schools is going to solve all of the issues educators are facing. But, I will say that adding esports to the curriculum can be a powerful tool that will engage many students who are struggling to find their “Why?” when it comes to attending school. Perhaps, more importantly, it might help educators find theirs, too.

Dr. Kristy Custer is the VP of Educational Innovation for the High School Esports League. Prior to joining HSEL, Dr. Custer worked in education for 24 years as a teacher, assistant principal and principal. The past 20 years she has worked with at-risk students helping her school earn two National School of Character designations as well as a Crystal Star Award for dropout prevention from the National Dropout Prevention Network. Dr. Custer is the 2018 Kansas High School Principal of the year.