What’s the vision you have in your head of P.E. class? Hoping not to get picked last in dodgeball? Are you climbing a rope?
That’s what physical education was for a lot of people. But now, in many schools, technology is crafting the next generation of gym class while teachers focus more on mental health than getting fit.
“There was definitely a rope that needed to be climbed,” Mike Graham laughed remembering his P.E. classes growing up. He’s taught for over 20 years, now at Williamsburg Elementary in Geneva. Last year he was named the Illinois Elementary P.E. Teacher of Year.
P.E. has evolved quite a bit since he started. For one, physical fitness isn’t the goal, especially at his K-5 grade levels.
“There's really no research that supports like a training effect on prepubescent kids, right?” said Graham. “You're not going to make these fitness freaks out of these kids by my two-day-a-week program.”
He believes in 2020 his class should strive to be about health, both physical and social-emotional.
That’s why in Graham’s gym there’s a giant poster hung on the wall that says, “I see you. I care about you. I want you to succeed.”
He got the sign idea from Twitter. He’s been active on social media for years, building a network of other teachers. In many schools, like Graham’s, he’s the only P.E. teacher. So it’s easy to fall into a routine.
“Getting them to, to shift the whole paradigm and flip it upside down and say like ‘This is another classroom.’ Gym the biggest classroom in the school and we're here, we're learning things and we're working on different skills,” he said. “If there’s no reason behind the game, I’m just a glorified activity director.”
Graham has a website where he curates his class and keeps parents up to date. He also has a YouTube channel sharing his lessons, like one where his students play a rollerskating balance game that’s connected to an iPad app called Classroom Roulette.
Over in Sycamore, Shelly Tranchita teaches high school P.E. She also has a YouTube channel where she and her club of “Chita Girls” -- a nod to her last name -- make fitness tutorials.
Their health & wellness club produces a podcast too, where Tranchita and a student have health-related conversations with other students and teachers.
She says it’s time to stop seeing physical education as limited to physical.
“I think just as the research comes through and as we learn more, the physical is the mental, the mental is the physical and they hold hands and they're tied together,” she said.
Her “Mind & Body” fitness class is an exercise in that concept. Sometimes it’s an uptempo workout, sometimes they venture into breathing and meditation.
“I do some chanting medititations -- which the first time we do it everyone looks at me like I have five heads -- but then the feedback that I get from that is 'Oh my gosh, let's do it again, I felt amzaing afterwards,'” said Tranchita.
In 2017 , Illinois rescinded its daily P.E. requirement. Several bills since have pushed for a mandatory minutes minimum that aligns with national standards, but it’s failed to find legislative footing.
SHAPE America sets those standards for teaching P.E. Michelle Carter is a senior program manager.
She says there are still some states where you can teach P.E. without a specific content-area credential or certification.
“It definitely is one of the factors that play into why of physical education might not be considered an academic subject or that it's not as essential as other subjects,” said Carter.
In Texas, their “Fitness Now” program pumped money into P.E. but failed to produce positive outcomes in part due to relaxed standards.
It’s also undeniable that P.E. can be a uniquely vulnerable space in a school. Bullying can wreck a student's interest in P.E. and stop them from building the healthy habits teachers aim for.
Advocates also rail against widespread P.E. exemptions for kids involved in sports or extra-curriculars.
That bothers Carter with SHAPE America.
“This is the most practical subject or the most important subject that you're going to get,” she said.
And, once again, that’s not just with exercise, that’s also health, nutrition, even healthy romantic and sexual behavior.
Rob Bisceglie is the CEO of Action for Healthy Kids. They’re a Chicago-based non-profit providing grants and supporting schools and parents implementing health programs.
He says research identified three main challenges for children’s health into 2020 and beyond. One of them is the nutrition and physical health aspect. But the most difficult one is finding trusted adults in a kid’s life.
“I think really saying to ourselves, okay, I can't remove all these different stressors in their lives, but I can help them build the capacity to deal with them when they come down the pike,” said Bisceglie. “And I think that's really important.”
And both Bisceglie and the others agree P.E. teachers are in a prime position to help as schools try to develop healthy kids, on the inside and out.