Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, physical education teachers faced two big challenges in particular: student engagement and cuts to PE time. As districts were forced to shift to distance learning last spring, however, those problems were compounded.
As concerns around pandemic learning loss grew, focus on core academic areas was prioritized. But beyond that, getting students to engage with confidence at home, on camera, can be even more challenging than in-person.
"Education is all about building relationships," Brett Fuller, curriculum specialist for health and physical education at Milwaukee Public Schools and president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators, told K-12 Dive. "If you build relationships with your students and those students know you're sincere and you're consistent with them, and at the end they trust what you're doing, you're going to have a much better chance of getting the purchase rate in your activities."
We recently caught up with Fuller to learn more about the challenges of overlooking PE during the pandemic, getting student buy-in online or in-person, and the risks of overlooking the subject all together.
Editor's Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
K-12 DIVE: What are some of the biggest challenges over the past year for delivering physical education instruction?
BRETT FULLER: Obviously the biggest challenge is student engagement. That is always a challenge, especially for middle school and physical education, because things are changing at that age level.
Some teachers especially struggle getting student engagement in our normal physical education class. Now we're asking them to be physically active on a camera, from home. So that is probably the biggest challenge, and our teachers have really stepped up and tried to make things more interesting for their students.
I would also say they've also been making a better connection as to why we should be physically active, but I think the engagement part is the biggest one. I've talked with teachers, and they said they have a hard time getting students to turn on cameras in older elementary, middle school and high school. So they're putting themselves out there demonstrating and participating in the activities and don't know if anybody's following along, you know?
When it comes to building trust with students, how much of that is also building the confidence of students who might not feel like they have the athletic abilities they think they need to be successful in a PE class?
Well, again, you're hitting the [Wisconsin PE] standards here, too. Standards four and five do a lot more with social-emotional learning. The short name of [standard six] is “valuing physical activity.” It's understanding that there are challenges.
You want to actually have something that is somewhat challenging, but not too challenging. If it's too hard, you’re going to shut down. But if it's enough to pique your interest and work harder, that's the balance.
Think of video games right now. Video games are very popular and they've got lots of skill challenges built within them. And if it's too difficult, everybody shuts down. “Oh, I’m not going to play that one.” But if they're given these little positive reinforcements in their game, they will end up getting past those challenges.
It's kind of what we have to do in physical education in a lot of ways, is balance that challenge within a class where you're going to have those athletes and those non-athletes in the same activities. One of the things we did when I was teaching is when we had a basketball unit or any team sport, I always had two leagues when we got to gameplay: the competitive league and the noncompetitive league.
Students could select which league they wanted to participate in. So those students who were really engaged, who were athletic and wanted high competition, almost always wanted the competitive league. And students who were not so sure of their own skills chose noncompetitive league. We ended up having some phenomenal games in those noncompetitive leagues because kids were self-selecting down to their own skill levels. It worked out really well.
With standards-based grading, which is the direction we're going, we're looking for proof students have met proficiency. When I was teaching, we were looking for compliance. It was all a participation grade for the most part. We didn't look at skills ... It was just about getting kids active.
And while that by itself is a good thing, it doesn't talk about how we are showing what students are learning. So back to the question, here’s the thing about skills in standards-based grading: We are no longer doing [participation grades] where you get points every day in a class. We're looking at our five standards, finding out what we want you to learn from those. If things are going correctly, we're pre-testing, and then we're going to see how much you improve.
But here's the other part about it: Nowhere in the standard does it say the kid has to be good at basketball. Nowhere in the standards does it say that they have to be good at baseball or softball. What it says, especially at the high school level, is specifically “good at two or three lifetime sports or activities.” Proficient at it.
Well, proficient also doesn't mean that you're going to be an athlete on the varsity team. Proficient is really, “Are you good enough that you're going to be able to play that activity in a recreational setting?”
PE teachers shouldn't be making athletes. We are providing the environment for students to learn the knowledge, skills and, hopefully, the attitude to be physically active over their lifetime. While, yes, sports are still in there, it’s also a lot of those other things that because of the pandemic, we've actually been able to stress a little bit more this last year.
When schools are disrupted by things like COVID-19, what are the risks of potentially overlooking PE and health instruction in curriculum?
This is much like districts around the country are all dealing with how much physical education time do we have on a regular basis. We've got state statutes in Wisconsin that require physical education to be taught kindergarten through 6th grade, at least three times a week. At the middle school level, it’s minimum one time a week, but they've got the caveat it must be taught by a licensed physical education teacher. For elementary, it is by a physical education teacher or under the direction of. And at high school, you have to have three semesters over three separate years by a licensed physical education teacher.
Districts around the country, just like around our state, often do not meet the state requirements for physical education. That’s a local control issue, and then it's also a monitoring issue for the state department of public instruction.
If someone says, “You know what? I'm gonna have one day a week by a licensed PE teacher, and the classroom teachers are handling the rest of the physical education,” that technically is legal under state statute if the physical education teacher is providing support to those classroom teachers. That’s a local school decision. So we're basically cutting back on our PE time, which no physical education teacher ever wants to have happen.
The same situation going on right now with COVID is that individual school districts are handling this differently, and we need to continue to be advocates so we don't have time cut. I'm very proud of the work that's going on in our district. Principals were told that they had to allocate time for art, music and physical education during their weekly schedules.
I'm lucky to be in a district like this. Other districts may not have had that same type of support, so there is a danger. But I think one thing that we in the profession have to do is make sure everyone’s aware of it. We have to become our own best advocates to advocate for our kids.
Especially in light of how much more sedentary everyone probably is during this last year of pandemic disruption and the fact also that childhood obesity rates have been on the rise for about the last 30 years.
You bring up a great point, and that's why I'm actually really looking at the things that happened last year as an opportunity. Too often, our physical education classes — again, this is my personal observation from having been doing this for 30 years — focus so heavily on sports. While we talk about the benefits of regular physical activity, I don't think it's been stressed as much as it could have been. And again, this is a blanket statement that's not fair to every teacher, because there are some teachers who are phenomenal about making certain their kids understand why we do physical education and why it's important to be physically active for a lifetime. Right now, I've seen more work in that area, focusing on the fitness parts of standard three, and then the other two standards, which are respect and social-emotional learning in standards four and five.
Those are being covered much more heavily right now than they have been in the past [because of] virtual learning. I would have to say from what I'm hearing from some of my teachers and from what I've heard from some parents … they are really happy with their kids talking about, “Oh, I need to go get some physical activity.”
First off, we're assigning it as homework now. And we're telling kids the “why.” Because the kids are getting the “why,” so are the parents. So physical education in some places around the country is seeing a better understanding of our purpose.
That is an opportunity for us. When I said we have to become our own best advocates, we’ve got to make certain that people understand we're not here to make athletes. We're here to help build the skills, knowledge and hopefully attitude to be physically active for a lifetime.