Are We Fiddling While Rome is Burning?

Legend has it that the Roman emperor, Nero, played the lyre while a great fire enveloped Rome in AD 64. Centuries later, the “fiddling while Rome is burning” charge is popularly directed at people who preoccupy themselves with trivial matters while ignoring potential crises.

As first a public school physical education teacher and later a university-based teacher educator, I’ve spent most of my working life trying to be a positive professional role-model and help others excel as teachers. I’ve immersed myself attempting to understand “best” teaching practices. I’ve studied and thought much about curriculum issues. I got intrigued enough about assessment to create a popular video. And I’ve tried hard to comprehend what was indeed different between traditional and “new” physical education programs. Now, looking back I can see that I’ve learned a lot and maybe even made a difference in the lives of some of my former students. But sadly, I haven’t seen the sort of professional transformation I’d have liked.

Years ago, public school physical educators didn’t get much respect. What we did during the day wasn’t viewed especially important by our teaching colleagues or school administrators. In elementary schools we served to create planning time for classroom teachers. At secondary levels we were valued mostly for our after-school athletic coaching. What students learned from us wasn’t considered especially important. As long as we kept kids busy and out of trouble most administrators were happy enough. The expectations held for us were low and we had no trouble meeting them.

But then things changed. For years, critics had bemoaned the lack of evidence about what schools were actually achieving. Where else in life they reasoned was it acceptable to be employed without needing to show results? They questioned this sort of “getting paid for showing up” mentality. And it gained traction. Accountability became a trendy term and legislators began pressuring schools to show what their students were learning.

Physical educators – somewhat reluctantly I’d argue – joined in. Notwithstanding a longstanding history of mostly assessing students on attendance, participation, attitude, and physical fitness, we raised our game. We created quizzes and folders, portfolios and projects. It was impressive especially when accompanied by teaching that looked different from the “drill and kill” militaristic style that characterized physical education in far too many adult minds. Things were good. School administrators were happy to see us assessing even though they rarely questioned what. Kids were happy to do more than team sports. Our jobs seemed secure. Life probably would have stayed that way but for the unanticipated national financial crises and the ensuing economic recession.

When the nation’s economic markets crumbled everything changed. Now, in addition to a focus on school accountability, school funding diminished. With fewer dollars to spend, schools had to choose between what to support and what to drop. Not surprisingly, the so-called core subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic rose to the top. All else sank. And so began more than a decade of declining support for physical education in K-12 public education.

In recent years, there have been ups and downs. Some places we’ve seen hiring while in others the replacement of physical educators with physical-activity touting commercial entities. The physical activity-fitness-brain association has probably helped us, but again – students don’t need college trained physical education teachers to organize physical activity. National concern about kids’ becoming increasingly sedentary and making unhealthy life style choices has grown. But supporting and expanding the physical education profession has not been recognized as the solution.

And so, while we –in our professional literature and even in these blogs – debate the best way to do this or that, discuss the latest gadgets, or get excited about the newest technology, I can’t help but feel that around us Rome is indeed burning. We live in this closeted world believing ourselves immune from the tidal changes sweeping across and transforming the world outside. I’m reminded that nothing lasts forever. The physical education profession won’t either unless we start attending to the critical challenges threatening our future.


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