5 Tips for Moving Your Career Forward as a Health and Physical Education Teacher

When I meet higher ed colleagues from other PETE programs at conferences and other events, our conversations often turn to issues we are facing with our students. What I’ve learned from these conversations is that even though our PETE programs may be different, our students are almost all struggling with the same issue — their professional transition from students to teachers.

At one such lunch with Mary Henninger, professor in the PETE program at Illinois State University, we began jotting down notes on a napkin — strategies for launching a successful career as a health and physical education teacher. These notes became the foundation for a two-part series we would later write for the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance (JOPERD), “Transitioning From Students of Teaching to Teachers of Students.”

Running the Race

For first-year students arriving on campus, the what-am-I-going-to-do-next contemplations are distant and fleeting. As the clock ticks toward graduation, those innocent, every-once-in-a-while thoughts gain strength. The heat really gets turned up as students enter the internship or student teaching phase.

From an academic standpoint, it’s interesting to watch the metamorphosis of rather carefree students to individuals sprinting toward the finish line. In our race, some take the gold; they easily land what they think will be the perfect job. Others, however, are relegated to the sidelines where they watch the success of their peers.

From my little corner of the faculty world, this is so heartbreaking to watch, but the reality is that this scenario plays out in varying degrees across all of the roles within our field of health and physical education. A student entering the field is really just navigating the first of what will probably be many transitions — between school districts, among new colleagues, between different grade levels, or among varying content areas just to name a few.

While no one-size-fits-all solutions exist, employing some common strategies may help increase the odds of success in your career as a health and physical educator.

And, before you tune out because you’re not a student, here’s a news flash: These five tips can (and truthfully, should) be applied to all professional situations and environments. If you commit to these strategies, you can move your career forward as a health and physical education teacher:

  1. Develop Professional Dispositions
    In our JOPERD article “Transitioning from Students of Teaching to Teachers of Students: Developing Professional Dispositions (Part 1),” Mary Henninger and I walked readers through a checklist of sorts for professional dispositions or characteristics that each individual should possess. The list begins with developing collaborative skills, respectful attitudes toward others, and a reverence for teaching and learning. Our field requires us, students and practitioners alike, to work effectively with others and stay attuned to a dynamic, fluid teaching content area. As our student populations and environments become increasingly diverse, as students’ needs change, and as we learn more through research and application, our best practices should evolve. This requires a willingness to push ourselves to learn new ways of reaching students, and that’s where depth in our professional competencies comes into play.
  2. Develop Professional Competencies
    Change is hard. It’s so much easier to coast, but our stakeholders deserve better. I tell teacher candidates in our program that they should be working to make physical education the best part of each student’s school day. That’s the goal!Being thoroughly prepared, maximizing the potential of each lesson’s minutes, creating meaningful rapport with students and colleagues, and providing just the right scaffolding, so every student can be successful takes lots of work, but it’s so worth it. I can’t think of much that is better in life than knowing that what I did made a difference for someone else. This doesn’t happen by accident, though, and it takes intentionality toward continued professional development to really become an agent of change.
  1. Create Professional Marketing Materials
    A perfect mix of dispositions and competencies may still fall flat if you can’t strike a match with a desired position of employment. A well-crafted resume and cover letter can be extremely influential in landing the “perfect” job. The construction of these materials requires attention to detail and a thorough understanding of the expectations of the stakeholders. Be sure to perform your due diligence while researching job opportunities. Solicit letters of recommendation from others who know you well and can speak truthfully about the alignment of your personal qualities and your desired role. Enter the interview armed with the knowledge you’ve collected and be prepared to answer specific questions about your background and abilities. Having a few thoughtful questions for your potential employer demonstrates that you are a serious contender. Be the candidate who absolutely becomes the bar against which all others are measured.
  2. Establish a Positive Social Media Presence

    Even if you’re not currently looking for a job, this tip is important. We live in a digital age, and it’s no longer a question of if you need to connect through social media, it’s more a matter of how. Personally, this one is challenging for me. I know so many others in our field who are considerably better at this than I will ever be, but I know I can at least continue to work toward more fluently navigating the technology that helps my students learn. I also know that the access I have as an educator to others pulling the sled in the same direction can help provide energy and momentum. Connecting with like-minded others through social media provides so much synergy, and harnessing that simply makes good sense in light of our limited resources.
  3. Develop Your Best Professional Self

    The last tip requires personal accountability. We don’t become the best versions of our personal or professional selves by maintaining the status quo. This comes through perseverance and resilience. I love hearing stories in which someone finds the inner strength to transform themselves into something great. We, as teachers, are inherently placed in a position to exert influence and enact change — for the better. This isn’t possible, though, unless we are actively seeking empowerment for our own journey. Reflection and honest self-assessment often reveal painful truths about our true willingness to move forward and adapt. Ultimately, no one can (or should) care more about your growth process than you. It’s a responsibility that begins and ends with you, and we’re each accountable for initiating our own progress in that process.

Ready to Launch!

Well, hopefully, at least one of these tips has encouraged you to take action. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with all I’ve described, just start small. Choose one area of focus, and see what traction you can gain.

If I’ve learned anything over the time I’ve been teaching, it’s that we have so many champions in our field. We share resources. We share expertise. We celebrate one another’s accomplishments. Ready to move your career forward? You’ll find a broad network of health and physical education professionals on Twitter. But beyond that, join SHAPE America and, if possible, attend the annual SHAPE America National Convention & Expo.

Additional Resources

Julene Ensign

Julene Ensign, Ph.D., an assistant professor and co-chair of the Health and Exercise Science Department at Truman State University in Missouri, teaches courses for Truman’s Master of Arts in Education (MAE) in physical education. Her research focuses on the socialization, efficacy, and teaching performance of beginning physical educators. She can be reached at jensign@truman.edu.