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Physical Education: A Foreign World

Cartoon UFO and AlienWhat, I wonder, would a space alien visiting Earth think about the current state of American physical education?

Reading through past Gopher blog entries, perusing professional publications, attending workshops, conferences, or conventions, what’s most important to us jumps out clearly: If only the quality of teaching improved, all would be well with physical education. Reluctantly, I feel obliged to disagree and have to confess that it’s worrying to see myself an outlier.

As I argued in a previous Gopher blog post, I don’t see hoards of distressed parents complaining about the quality of their children’s physical education teaching. Where are they? Sure there are exceptions. Places where either poor teaching or non-teaching leaves parents questioning the value of having their kids in physical education classes. But mostly, I’d argue that the majority of parents think little about public school physical education.

Physical education was a class most of them “took,” in many cases endured, and in a few instances likely hated. But for the vast majority, PE was hardly something they cared about much then or bother much to think about now. In essence, physical education probably neither then nor now warrants much of a blip on their school-issue radar.

If I’m right, then all the hard work, all the devotion to improvement, all the caring and sharing, all the planning, and all the urging for more effective teaching that I see so passionately pursued today isn’t going to be enough to guarantee a future for the profession tomorrow. It’s not that the what’s happening is wrong. On the contrary, it’s fantastic and commendable. The explosive growth in instructional information sharing online is wonderful. The problem is that it’s almost totally targeting things that are NOT important to parents, school administrators, legislators and the general public. Put another way, what physical educators seem to care about the most, mostly are of concern only to physical educators.

If you step back and think about it, what do parents really care about when it comes to schools? It’s not enhancing the professional lives of their children’s teachers but bettering the lives of their kids. Putting all of the outside-of-the-profession groups together, when it comes to thinking about kids and schools there’s one thing worrying them above all others and it’s unrelated to academics. The single most important thing every parent surely wants more than anything for their child is for them to enjoy good health. Yes, everyone would love to see all students excel academically or perform some extraordinary skill, but absent good health, what’s the point?

What an incredible opportunity this is for the physical education profession! Something that the public cares about more than anything for kids also happens to be our raison d’etre – our true purpose. Who among our teachers, bloggers, and session presenters didn’t first choose to teach physical education because they wanted to get young people to enjoy playing and moving and living healthy? Isn’t that where we all began our professional journey?

If you think about it, we all could have chosen many things to do with our lives, jobs offering more money and less stress, but instead selected PE teaching. We started out wanting to change kids lives, to help them enjoy our love of moving, and to build a lifestyle foundation they’d benefit from.  Most of us still want the same today regardless of whether we work directly with students in schools or in colleges helping to prepare the next generation of teachers.  We and the public want the same thing. But sadly there’s a disconnect. And it’s this disconnect in messaging that explains why outside of our professional choir, we too often don’t get much respect.

Think about this year’s Super Bowl commercials. Companies invested millions for seconds worth of product promotion. Notice what they almost all did NOT do? Rarely did TV audiences learn much about the actual products being touted. Instead, utilizing a mixture of humor, empathy, adventure or a combination of all, Super Bowl commercials were cleverly designed to grab our attention. They spoke less to us about details or company promotion and instead struck at our emotions. To things we cared about. Millions were spent carefully crafting messages designed to be sticky. And for us to go forward that’s exactly what we’ve got to do.

No one, and certainly not me, is disinterested in advancing professional practice. Heck, it’s what I’ve mostly tried to do for many decades. But lately I’ve come to realize that simply preaching to the choir isn’t going to increase our supporters. We have what people want but are not doing a good job speaking their language. We have to do what every one of the current presidential candidates is striving to do – some clearly better than others – connect personally with our audience. And it’s kids’ health that has to be our focus.

This is what SHAPE America’s 50 Million Strong by 2029 commitment is all about. As the soon-to-be outgoing President, my plea to you is to understand that for you and the profession to move forward, you must start to look at everything you do through the lens of getting America’s students healthy. And you have to start doing a much better job of communicating this commitment to the people around you. Unless, and until, the public understands that our purpose as physical (and health) educators is to get kids moving and making healthy lifestyle choices, we will continue to struggle. Teaching better isn’t the BIG problem facing you.  Your priority must be to tell others that what you do is benefiting all kids and of course providing evidence that you are actually achieving it.

Obviously, we are a long way from this currently. A space alien watching our communications today would be surprised to hear me suggest that getting kids healthy is what physical education is all about. Fortunately, with close to a quarter of a million physical educators spread around the country change is quite doable. But there’s no time to wait. Leading the way isn’t going to be a national association. It’s got to be one of you. And specifically I ask, “Why not YOU?”

Hand pointing fingerMy prediction is that someone or maybe a few physical educators will very soon seize this focus on getting all of the students in their school physically active and healthy. When that happens, if it’s true that active and healthy kids do better academically, imagine the impact. We’ll hear parents rave about how healthy their kids are and how well they are doing with their studies. The media will swarm where schools and students are truly succeeding. School boards everywhere will wonder the secret and want their physical educators to join the revolution. It’s going to happen, so again, I ask, “Why wait? Why not YOU?”



  • Dr. Steve Jefferies

    Steve is a Professor Emeritus of Physical Education at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA. He is also the former 2015-16 President of SHAPE America (formerly AAHPERD). Steve was the 2008 NASPE President and 2007 Washington AAHPERD President. He is also the creator and publisher of

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