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Building Classroom Relationships With Esports

Updated: Oct 6, 2023


In the spring of 2021 I was in an admin meeting to discuss the coming year’s schedule and my time commitments, classes, and PD. Here, I was approached to investigate esports. My initial thought was, “No, I am not adding more to my plate as I am trying to get out of the classroom.” After some discussion, I agreed to take the project on with the idea that it would be a pilot that I could build for another teacher to take over the following year. As August rolled closer and closer, I needed to begin planning. I had no idea what esports was, other than people played games competitively, and it was on ESPN late at night when they were out of highlight reels. I did a Google search for an esports curriculum and hoped to find some templates or a few sites that offered a guide to starting this in school. While I found a lot about the competitive side, the in-school aspect only returned one option–Gaming Concepts. From that moment, my career took an unexpected turn.

I started teaching in 2011 after a failed attempt at being an architect, a career designed around form, function, and control. These characteristics personify my professional life exceptionally well, and in turn, translated into my classroom and teaching style of “sage on the stage.”

I began my teaching career in middle school with a myriad of preps ranging from Computer Applications to Intro to Engineering and everything in between, all the while keeping my distance from students to maintain professionalism and connection to a minimum. I studied education during a transitional period in education, where districts and teachers were being caught up in social media as it relates to students. This time reinforced the idea that educators should keep contact with students to the absolute minimum, especially if it involved their personal lives.

“It's OK to have your eggs in one basket as long as you control what happens to that basket.” -Elon Musk

I love teaching and the profession, but my love for it comes from those tenets of architecture--form, function, and control. The best part of teaching to me was crafting lessons and building an experience for students to engage with. The feeling of working hard to get complex ideas and content broken into manageable and active learning targets was my drive, and I loved it, but it was unsustainable. I supplemented this drive with building-level leadership roles, additional degrees, and speaking at conferences about my knowledge of “lesson flow.”

I succeeded in teaching this way for nearly ten years, moving in various directions within the educational landscape and ending up with a district-level position working with teachers, significantly lowering my exposure to students all but two hours a day, with plans to be removed from the classroom altogether to focus on professional development and curriculum design.

I nearly made it.

I found myself getting ready to teach my first esports lesson. I had been pouring over the Gaming Concepts book and the Gameplan LMS that the district purchased and was for the first time nervous about teaching. Was it because I didn’t write the curriculum for this? Was it the weight of building out a new pilot pathway for our high school? Was it that I was going to teach about something the students and I shared a common experience in? BINGO!

In all my years of teaching, I was the expert, the master, the gatekeeper, retaining the knowledge to disseminate as I saw fit in my controlled and designed classroom instruction. Not now. Now, I was essentially a peer to these students who knew more about these video games than I could ever hope to know or even remember. Over the previous nine years, it was a rare occasion that a student connected with me, some was by my doing, but on the whole not many relationships are built on the love for dovetail joinery or the hotkeys for copying and pasting mesh in Blender models.

My professional life was just that, professional. Never before had I experienced the ability or the desire to relate to students on a personal level. Seeing other teachers do it over the years just seemed like that was their personality. I was always the “Snape” of the school because my attention fell to the craft of teaching and lesson design over building relationships. That being said, it was uncomfortable, awkward, and unnerving. I felt like a first-year teacher trying to find my rhythm.

With nothing to lose, I embraced the change and leaned into this new experience.

Working through the lessons and the curriculum with my students, I found great joy in my teaching again. There was a lot to like about this new esports class and my newfound passion for teaching. I was seeing education from a different angle. Students from all different groups and cohorts had joined my class, and over the course of the semester had melded into a community that was supportive, understanding, competitive, and responsible–character traits that any teacher would want in a class. The strange thing was that I felt as if I was part of it too, not just the adult in the room. I

realized, for me, this was a new way of teaching that engaged students better than any designed lesson ever could. This was real education to the core–meeting students where they were and building outward to promote and connect the skills they possessed to the real world.

In terms I understood, this was the perfect balance of form and function. What I will remember most about that class are the conversations. The conversations drove that class to being the best I had taught in my 10 years as an educator, and all it took was letting the students talk about themselves and their experiences relating to the content. It was so simple, and that simplicity will always stay with me as the spark that re-ignited my passion for education and my desire to teach students.

Alex Hirbe grew up in St. Louis, MO where he (unknowingly) developed a passion for discovery learning, leadership, and video games. He later attended Kansas State University in an attempt to become an Architect but compromised and settled on high school social studies. When seeking his first job, he pivoted again to industrial technology to secure a teaching position at Oak Grove Middle School where he infuriated the tech department daily. He attended the University of Central Missouri to gain a Master’s in Educational Technology that he used to start work at Basehor-Linwood School District as the Technology Integration Specialist. He has taught in the classroom for over 10 years and presented at dozens of state and national conferences on the importance of meaningful technology integration and discovery learning. He currently assists with this as the LMS Integration Manager at Generation Esports where he works to develop meaningful interactions and integrations through online curriculum design and implementation.

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