Dear Physical Education Teachers,

Can we talk, please? It is time that we come to a consensus about what our job is. I understand we can’t fight the past, so articles will come out that pick at the low hanging fruit of horrible past experiences. However, this isn’t just about correcting the ills of the past. We already know playing dodge ball psychologically and emotionally traumatizes students. We also have the other side of the spectrum that believes that Physical and Health Education should be all about fitness.

We are not fitness experts. We do not run fitness classes. We are not fitness trainers. I am not knocking fitness nor do I believe that teaching about fitness is an issue. What I am saying is fitness is only one part of Physical Education and Health. I vehemently disagree with using MVPA, heart rate monitors, fitness testing or the Perceived Rate of Exertion as the sole focus of my class. The reason I believe this is because we are losing sight of our students. We are boiling our children down to numbers.

Now that I have told you what I believe Physical Education isn’t let’s delve into what it is. I will use Dr. Lynch’s words because I haven’t heard it phrased any better yet.

Educating the whole child means understanding that they are gifts that walk into our class and we need to appreciate them as such. I know that sounds like kumbaya hippie garbage but it is the truth. When we realize that each student is a gift walking through our doors we will see them. I am not talking about watching the children enter your area, I am talking about actually seeing them for who they are. We will see the gift of their race, sex, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, language, family, sexual orientation, and everything else that makes up their identity. We will see their humor, their energy, their enthusiasm, and even their attitudes as being a part of the class. This will erase the deficit mindset that we will have to “overcome” what they bring to our class. Once we fully see them then we can start to provide meaningful experiences for them.

Meaningful experiences are created when we can get to the core of the students. This takes hard work and lots of listening. We need to ask our students how they feel about our class. Figure out how to tweak our teaching so that we provide an atmosphere where our kids want to be there. Together we can co-construct a program where students walk away feeling ownership of their learning.

When we explicitly focus on the interpersonal aspect of our class we are allowing the students to focus on their social wellness. We can teach students how to engage in conflict resolution, interact with people they don’t like, and be assertive with what they want and need.

There are few people more critical of a theory or idea than myself. Here are some critiques that you may have that I can address right now.

Do I just let my students run the show? Why do I even need to be there then? I am not saying that you as the educator should turn your program over to the kids. What a co-constructed program looks like is the room for voice and choice. Our job as teachers is to know when to facilitate and when to direct. There is a need for both in our classes. Their knowledge and our knowledge work in tandem to create a learning space that allows everyone including ourselves to learn.

It sounds like fitness has no part of this “dream” program. Fitness is a part of a quality physical education program. We should teach about fitness and incorporate fitness into our program when we can. This means limiting the time students are standing around and not being engaged. I refuse to believe a student doing jumping jacks in line is learning more than a student who is blindfolded and being given directions by a partner. Fitness has its place in our program but it should not be the main focus.

The system of school doesn’t allow me the freedom to do this. I get it. Mortgages need to be paid. What we can do is slowly work identity, voice, and choice into our program. We give out surveys to students and show our administrators the how and why we are progressing towards a more inclusive program. We read and learn about child development, play, movement, and pedagogy. Then we can challenge the status quo with facts and data.

School is not a place to speak about identity. Identity is who our students are. If we ignore who they are then we are teaching what WE want them to learn and who WE think they are. This doesn’t bode well for creating meaningful movement experiences. Our students will go through the motions and then either forget our class or worse begin to hate our class. This negative association can have a long-lasting impact that may never be unlearned.

What about physical literacy? Here is the best part! Physical literacy will be in our class like it has always been!! Students will want to move more because they have a voice/choice and they are being seen as a human being. They will not be afraid that they will be made fun of because of the way they look, act, or their physical skills. The more they move and participate the more they will become confident and competent. The more confident and competent they are the more likely they will become life-long movers. Physical literacy is a result of our quality program that we have created just not the reason for it.

Physical and Health Educators let’s come together and start to figure out how to produce a program that starts creates a love of movement, educates the whole child (socially/emotionally) de-emphasizes hyper psychomotor focus (strength, flexibility) and start to teach through a sociocultural lens. Only then will we able to say that we are truly doing what’s best for kids.

 

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4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Physical Education Teachers

  1. Nate Babcock

    Justin,

    Great job!

    Perhaps the most important thing you said is that we should value and appreciate our students. We should SEE them!

    Carl Rogers (Person-Centered Therapy) thought that we should see our students with “Unconditional Positive Regard,” and that we should provide them with the conditions to foster their creative self-becoming. Seeing students with UPR is one of those conditions, as well as providing a non-judgmental climate and a great degree of autonomy. Perhaps that’s where PE should begin?? Not with the standards, but with the amazing kids (no matter how much of a “knucklehead” they may be) in front of us. It’s a dialogue, a conversation between us, the kids, the context, and whatever meaningful movement emerges from such a dialogue.

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  2. edifiedlistener

    Thank you, Justin, for doing some heavy lifting for many of us in the field. You’ve articulated not only what a meaningful PE program entails but also the whys of its composition. I agree with Wyatt, “PE is a microcosm of what education is (particularly public education) when it is underfunded and underappreciated. ” When so many are working against awful structural odds to create successful programs for kids, I empathize with how fraught it becomes for teachers to actually teach well AND advocate for their programs which are steadily under fire. I hope more folks are willing to wrestle with how they approach their kids’ needs in class and consider where adjustments might be necessary.

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  3. Wyatt Franz (@mrfranzworld)

    Hey Justin, I think what you are starting here is a good dialogue with questioning our own PE practices. Admittedly, the main focus of the PE classes I teach is fitness, though I constantly question even myself if fitness is the proper word to use. Without going to far in depth about my school’s PE department, I also believe every program is unique. We all have different class sizes, spaces, budgets, levels we teach, etc. which play a role in what we do. Furthermore, while some of us do have the students complete fitness testing, it also matters how we do it, and why we do it. For example, I think it does matter if is competitive and/or standardized, as in it can be harmful.

    Most importantly, it is hurtful to see Physical Education attacked from the outside and from within. Because what can you do when you are cut from seeing the students from two times per week to one? What can you do when students are constantly pulled out of class for testing re-takes, or for reading/math interventions? It’s is no surprise PE teachers assess their students on things like free-throw form when we sit through meetings on assessment, and having to implement them just like the other areas do. PE is a microcosm of what education is (particularly public education) when it is underfunded and underappreciated. When we become ineffective, it is easy for outsiders blame us, to consider us for further budget cuts. Art, Music, Library are you listening???

    Ultimately I am hopeful, and I agree with your last part that we need to not only come together, but stick together. We are the solutions to the problem, and how we run our programs should matter less, especially if we are of a growth mindset. You can certainly count me in on this front.

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  4. Ken Dyar

    Thank you Justin! You have just eloquently and powerfully put into words, what I have felt for a long time, but was unable to fully articulate. This piece will become a cornerstone of my current and future advocacy. Your words will become my elevator pitch, my sound bites, and my leadership. You’ll get the credit, but I need to carry this message to as many people inside and outside our profession that I can. Thanks so much for all you do. I am so grateful that you are a PE teacher!

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