5 Ways to Change How Students View PE Class

A few months ago, someone asked me what I hoped students would remember about my PE class and say about me as a physical education teacher.

The question hit me kind of hard and I started to tear up a bit. My answer surprised me: “I hope they say I was nice.”

Growing up, I had a pretty bad experience in PE class. First, my asthma was so bad in elementary school that I usually couldn’t participate, so I felt left out.

I could participate more in middle school and high school, but I was a skinny, unathletic, shy kid who was often bullied. I was called names, punched, kicked, and thrown into the shower while wearing my PE uniform.

Although I enjoyed physical activity, PE class was pretty bad. I never really had any adults I could trust to tell about the bullying, so it went on for years.

Unfortunately, negative stereotypes of physical education teachers exist for a reason. Some are aggressive, competitive, and focused on management and control rather than student learning.

I believe changing our professional image begins with creating a safe learning environment and becoming a teacher that students can trust.

Here are 5 things you can do to change the way students view PE class:

  1. Incorporate Positive Social and Emotional Learning
  2. We are models for student behavior. We have to work with our department members in a respectful manner to share facilities and equipment. Students are watching us. While it can be a challenge in the stressful environment we often work in, we must be kind to one another if we expect students to do the same.

  3. Be a Hummingbird, Not a Vulture
  4. When you give feedback to students — whether behavioral or skill-related — look for the positive. Be a hummingbird and find the sweet stuff. Don’t be a vulture — always looking for what is going wrong and calling out the negative. Imagine if you were a student: which would you prefer?

  5. Refrain From Yelling at Students
  6. Yes, it can be frustrating to have a student not follow your directions but yelling angrily at them in class often leads to a power struggle in front of all the students. No matter the outcome, there is no winner. And, yelling at a student one-on-one just shows the student that you are probably not someone they can trust.

  7. Listen Before Reacting
  8. We don’t know what has happened to our students before they arrived in our PE class. Maybe they have problems at home, challenges with friendships, or other things that have happened during their day. Sometimes students are on edge and take it out on us. Allow students and yourself to take a breath before reacting to a student’s defiance. When you have an opportunity to meet with the student and talk one-on-one with them, just listen to them. That might be what they really needed.

  9. Never Put Students in Embarrassing Situations
  10. So many of the negative stereotypes about physical education teachers come from putting students in situations that are embarrassing for one reason or another.

    Here are three ways to avoid those types of situations:

    • Don’t have captains pick teams — Having captains pick teams uses up valuable class time and always results in one kid getting picked last. One time in high school, the teacher had captains pick teams for softball. It came down to the kid with the broken arm and me. The captain picked the kid with the broken arm and the other team got stuck with me.
    • Don’t do fitness testing one student at a time in front of a class — It’s hard to administer fitness tests and keep your class active, learning, and under control at the same time, but having the entire class watch one student at a time is not a good solution. I was proud of the two pull-ups I completed in my high school class until one of my classmates who was watching with the rest of the class called me a name. I lost all enthusiasm to try for a third pull-up.
    • Don’t force students into an aggressive, intimidating activity — In middle school, we played slaughterball. It was a rough red rubber ball version of dodgeball. I was actually very good at dodging, mainly because there wasn’t much of me to hit. In the end, though, it would be me against the athletes and I would be forced to show off my lackluster arm strength to the other team and all the other students sitting on the sidelines. The other team would soon send a barrage of balls barreling into my body.

If the negative, stereotypical image of PE teachers is going to change, it is going to be up to us as physical educators. We must be the ones to create a physically and emotionally safe learning environment for students — and become the adult students believe they can trust.

As Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Yes … I would be quite satisfied if my former students said I was “nice.”

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Dan DeJager
Dan DeJager

Dan DeJager is a university lecturer, curriculum writer and teacher in Sacramento, CA. He has taught diverse groups of students in a variety of settings. In 2019, he was named SHAPE America National High School Physical Education Teacher of the Year. He can be contacted through Twitter @thepechallenge or by email at dddejager@yahoo.com.