Game Changers

“You might as well give me an ‘F’ now —get it out of the way. Then I’ll just go sit in the corner.”

Doris Dorr could hear the despondent defiance in Tim’s voice on the first day of physical education. The 10th-grader was “chubby,” not into sports and resigned to the humiliation he was sure awaited him in the locker room and gym.

Dorr, a veteran physical education teacher at Toppenish High School in Washington State, recognized his fears. But she asked her new student for a deal: Dress for every class and trust her to be a good teacher. “You can do this,” she told him. “Keep trying.”

Dorr taught Tim’s class five days a week, including 20 minutes in the classroom teaching about the connections between health, fitness and diet. Tim dressed every day and joined his classmates in compiling their personal fitness data. He took part in class: aerobic exercise, strength building, skill development and playing cooperative instead of competitive games.

Tim measured his progress using charts, graphs and a journal. He also noticed how supportive his teacher and classmates were of him and each other. Kids would finish their laps, then circle back and walk alongside him. They cheered when a classmate graduated from one push-up to five. “There’s only one way kids can get in serious trouble in my class,” Dorr says. “Only if they’re unkind.”

The sophomore shed 45 pounds during the semester.

“One day, I heard screaming from the other side of the gym,” Dorr recalls. “And there’s Tim with his arms above his head. He was shouting and the other kids were clapping and cheering. He had just taken his body weight and fat index and had reached his personal goal.”

But he wasn’t done yet.

Clichés of the Locker Room
Movies and TV shows often play up the harsh stereotypes of gym classes and school sports ruled by the law of the jungle, often for laughs. These clichés, sometimes deserved, portray a realm where jocks dominate and the timid or hopeless or bespectacled cower as far from the action as possible. The PE teacher, often a bewhistled person called “Coach,” tosses out balls of one shape or another, then walks off to strategize for Friday night’s game.

Even when real-world PE classes do not sink to that level, they can be intimidating places. As Doris Dorr’s discouraged student demonstrated, many students feel that flunking such a class carries less pain and shame than physical failure and taunting.

These unfortunate traditions may take a while to disappear from schools. But there is an up-and-coming generation of teachers and coaches like Dorr who are dedicated to inclusive practices. They are passionate about helping all kids discover the physical, social and emotional benefits— as well as pleasures—of physical activity.

The benefits are too great to forfeit, says Lynn Couturier. She is chair of the physical education department at the State University of New York, Cortland, and past president of the National Association of Sport and Physical Education (NASPE). “Physical education class might be the only activity some students get all day,” Couturier says. “It’s a huge loss if they do not develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes that can inspire them to be physically active throughout their lives.”

Benefits vs. Budgets
The losses go beyond matters of fairness and personal development. They have a direct bearing on the nation’s physical and fiscal health. Diets featuring fast food, sugary soft drinks and declining physical activity have contributed to a tripling of childhood obesity rates in the United States in the last 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Today, nearly a third of American kids qualify as overweight or obese. Poor eating habits and sedentary childhoods have also contributed to more kids with asthma, heart problems and a spike in type 2 juvenile diabetes.

Some policymakers are looking to schools in general, and physical education in particular, to reverse this national trend. First Lady Michelle Obama has championed the “Let’s Move” initiative to raise awareness of childhood obesity while educating kids and communities about the advantages of healthier food and regular exercise. “Let’s Move In School” (which is unrelated to Let’s Move) is sponsored by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD). The program promotes physical activity throughout the school day by means of education, grants and professional development.

Even more than emphasizing the negative consequences of obesity, advocates of PE and sports programs seek to play up positive links between regular physical activity and overall well-being. Couturier and others cite a growing library of research that seems to confirm the obvious: Kids who regularly run, play and sweat demonstrate fewer behavioral problems, greater concentration and improved performances on standardized tests.

However, in many districts such long-term benefits are being undercut by short-term budget realities at the federal, state and local levels. Data on the national picture is hard to come by. But anecdotes about the impact of cuts abound. A Florida law mandating one semester of middle school PE each year is at risk of defunding as Gov. Rick Scott seeks to cut $2 billion from the state’s education budget. And last year in Toledo, Ohio, a $39 million shortfall meant the dismantling of all middle school and ninthgrade sports, as well as wrestling, cross-country and other team sports in high schools.

The federal No Child Left Behind law has prompted statehouses and school boards to emphasize the testing of core academics. So lawmakers across the country see cuts to physical education, sports and arts programs as changes that will trigger the least fuss. However, while wealthier communities will almost certainly fill the resulting voids through private means, that is less likely in communities with fewer resources.

Couturier says this trend is sadly shortsighted. “I understand that schools have to prepare children to become useful citizens,” she says. “But in the long run, there are few things more important than preparing our children to lead healthy lifestyles.”

Upgrading PE Advocacy
NASPE and other advocacy groups recognize their programs are under the gun. In response, they are urging members to advocate for their curriculum by reaching out to every constituency—students, parents, fellow teachers, principals, school board members and lawmakers. NASPE has assembled an “Advocacy Toolkit” on their website with resources to help members communicate the story of why “quality physical education” matters. They also encourage PE teachers and coaches to apply for grants and forge community partnerships that can raise the profile and viability of their programs.

Doris Dorr sets out to prove the worth of what she does, kid by kid. Her classes are highly personalized, with students setting personal goals and assessing their own efforts and progress using target heart-rate monitors and other tools.

She also runs an after-school weight-loss program at Toppenish High, a school where 89 percent of students live below the poverty line. The young women, many who have endured neglect and abuse, often join weighing more than 300 pounds, Dorr says. But together with friends and classmates, they shed 70 pounds on average while gaining self-confidence. NASPE recently recognized her above-and-beyond efforts with its “Unsung Hero for Youth Award.”

“You make your program so good, and the kids love it so much, people will throw a fit if they try to eliminate it,” Dorr says, noting the support she gets from her colleagues, principal and district. “We have set up a curriculum that will benefit the kids, not just do what is easy.

“And we need to stop hiring coaches to teach physical education,” she insists. “We need teachers who look at their kids, and know they’re responsible for the well-being of all those kids.”

The Case for Inclusive PE
Couturier, a teacher of PE teachers, agrees that contemporary PE curricula need to emphasize health and fitness over competitive sports. One of the difficulties, she says, is that those who pursue physical education as a career often have a background of success in athletics. They don’t necessarily identify with challenges experienced by less-skilled and less-fit kids.

An increasing number of degree programs in physical education are trying to disabuse new teacher candidates of this old model. “We put them into school early on to expose them to the student population they will be working with, a minority of whom will have the same passion about sports as the teacher,” Couturier says. “We want [our teacher candidates] to practice adapting curricula so it includes and motivates as many kids as possible.”

Proponents of inclusive PE, including Dorr and Couturier, remain big fans of sports and competition. Most recognize their importance as a means for young athletes to practice discipline, hone physical skills and teamwork and strive for excellence, among other positive outcomes. But they see the mission and goals of athletics as distinct from those of inclusive physical education, where knowledge, effort and development should take priority over performance.

PE programs that value inclusiveness and refuse to give up on students also cannot help but improve a school’s climate. Exhibit A is Dorr’s reluctant sophomore, Tim. The semester after meeting his personal goals, Tim signed up for an elective PE class to continue exercising. One day, Dorr noticed he had wandered over from that other class and joined her students.

He was walking laps alongside the next “chubby kid.”

Illustration by Joe McKendry


Reflection: Game

Submitted by Lillian N. on 30 January 2012 - 10:25pm.

Reflection: Game Changers
Tim wasn’t the only kid in school that loathed physical education. I can understand how he immediately had a defeatist attitude because he knew he was overweight. If i were overweight as a child, I would probably have the same outlook on physical education. I can think of classmates in my middle school physical eduction who were overweight and just like Tim, dreaded the subject. I will never be fully able to identify with these students because I loved physical education in school. I was highly competitive and set goals for me like improving my mile time. I have nothing to complain about when it comes to the teachers themselves, they helped shape my outlook on fitness for the rest of my life. This article is about an exceptional physical eduction teacher who did not bark at the student to follow directions, but rather specifically observed his fear and trepidation, came down to his level and made physical eduction “doable” for Tim, making as simple a deal as encouraging him to dress for class. What followed was baby-step efforts on his part along with the positive-reinforcement of his teacher to aid in his success. making sure he dressed gently encouraged him to not give up. What resulted was his success in the class, as well as his personal weight goal. I was very surprised that the students supported him and cheered him on as well. I hope there are many more physical education teachers like Doris Dorr.-Lillian N.

I don't think the students

Submitted by Nancy Barsky on 1 November 2011 - 10:52pm.

I don't think the students weight was publicly displayed. It sounded more to me as if each student kept track of these numbers themselves. As an overweight kid I hated PE because I wasn't athletic. I remember being humiliated in more than one gym class by the teacher because I couldn't keep up or didn't understand a concept.
In high school I had a health style class and was able to loose some weight. Any numbers were kept private. When my classmates applauded me at the end of the year I was amazed, I didn't think anyone else had noticed the hard work I had put in. It made me feel very special.
In the high school I teach at I both attitudes from our PE teachers. It wasn't until after I had the positive PE experience that I began to explore my athletic abilities more and realized the the earlier sigma should not have been mine but the instructor's.

Also, weight loss of 45

Submitted by Amy on 17 October 2011 - 10:57am.

Also, weight loss of 45 pounds in a semester is not anything to be celebrated. Assuming a standard semester of 18 weeks, the average for American schools, that would mean that the child lost upwards of 2.5 pounds per week, well above what most doctors and registered dietitians consider to be a healthy, sustainable rate of weight loss. Fast weight loss puts stress on major bodily organs and encourages starvation-diet practices that make substantial regain much more likely. Please do not encourage crash dieting in children by making this story your poster child.

I'm extremely troubled by the

Submitted by Amy on 17 October 2011 - 10:53am.

I'm extremely troubled by the idea that a program called "Teaching Tolerance" is championing high school teachers who act as weight loss coaches for troubled students. First of all, a child's weight should not be the business of his teachers. A child deserves to be loved and accepted at any weight, and schools should support physical activity for all children as an end in itself, not as a means to require that fat children change themselves in order to become deserving of acceptance and support from teachers and peers.

Secondly, this article, like many materials for teachers, contains several misconceptions about weight and children's bodies. There is little evidence to support the idea that children are markedly heavier than in previous generations or that their diets are substantially worse. Claims that children are fat because they are sedentary or eat poorly serve to stigmatize fat children, when in fact there is no way to tell from looking at a person what she eats or how she exercises.

Finally, eating disorders, including anorexia and exercise bulimia, kill many more children than fat ever has. Encouraging teachers to track children's weight, eating habits, and exercise can exacerbate the tendency for eating disordered youth to engage in self-harming behavior. Schools should not be tracking kids' weight.

I applaud SPLC's efforts to encourage physical activity in schools. But I fear that the programs they are encouraging in the name of "tolerance" will more likely serve to marginalize fat children, encourage obsessive control over their eating and exercise habits, and place schools in the inappropriate position of monitoring the private health decisions of children and their families.

This article would have been

Submitted by Dee on 17 October 2011 - 7:46am.

This article would have been a lot better if it had focused on fitness rather than weight.

I was a fat teenager. Unlike "Tim," I did fully participate in gym classes, although I got Bs and Cs instead of As because of my size.

Aerobic exercise, strength building, skill development and playing cooperative instead of competitive games: that all sounds good (although competitive games are fine as long as the class culture is cooperative and supportive).

However, If I'd been forced to track my weight as part of gym class as a teenager, then I'd have been the one in a corner with a book, refusing to participate. As someone who has actually been a fat kid, take my word for this. Having your weight publicly outted and commented on is far worse than playing competitive games with the jocks. If I'd had a choice between a standard competitive gym class and a non-competitive class with weight tracking, I'd have gone for the old fashioned class.

Of course, the ideal class would combine teaching about physiology with a cooperative culture and non-weight centered approach.

I too was a fat child in high

Submitted by Kristi on 20 January 2012 - 1:06pm.

I too was a fat child in high school.
But I woud have loved for this program to have been established for me since I did not get the training at home.

I also think keeping track of everything is benefitual as well.
That is how I lost weight, keep a budget, etc.

This information DOES NOT have to be public!
No one needs to know the results except for the student and teacher.
Getting out there working towards a goal is what's important.

Great tool, Great advice.

A very good article. I teach

Submitted by Jason Maki on 29 September 2011 - 1:30pm.

A very good article. I teach Physical Education at a HS and in my PE1 class, we do yoga, walking, aerobics, as well as non-traditional sports like ultimate frisbee. We also spend time on traditional sports as that is important in our society as well. I believe it is my job to help every student find an activity they enjoy to help them stay fit and healthy for their entire life. We set fitness goals and work with health classes to talk about BMI and nutrition. We try to make PE inclusive for all students; if we are playing a sport that day, we divide into a competitive and a recreational game. We encourage everyone to be involved.

Oh, by the way, I'm also the school's basketball coach and I was very offended by Doris Dorr's comment "we need to stop hiring coaches to teach physical education." I think if she would do some checking around, she would see that more and more coaches are teaching the same way that she is teaching. It was very insulting for her to say that I don't look out for all my kids.

I hope she doesn't discriminate against the "jocks" the way she does against coaches. Like she said, we need to look out for all of our kids.

Thank you.

Jason Maki
PE Teacher
Boys Basketball Coach
Sandy HS
Sandy, Oregon

Jason, you speak of not

Submitted by Bill on 23 September 2012 - 3:20pm.

Jason, you speak of not discriminating against coaches and "jocks." (Yes, we all know that "jocks" are marginalized youth who suffer from prejudice in our schools.) How about the institutionalized discrimination that nonathletic boys have been subjected to in mandatory P.E. classes for generations? Do you have anything to say about that? Are you aware that generations of nonathletic boys have known junior-high and high-school gyms to be places of terror and torment? Do you realize there are middle-aged men who still carry the emotional scars of having experienced physical bullying of a demeaning nature in P.E. classes they were forced to take against their will? Do mandatory boys' P.E. coaches have a history of being morally opposed to nonathletic boys being bullied in their classes?

That certainly wasn't my experience when I had to endure mandatory "sports only" P.E. from the fourth grade through junior high school in 1965. Every single one of my P.E. teachers and coaches viewed nonathletic boys with an attitude of either indifference or outright contempt. No exercise programs were provided for the nonathletic boys so they could get into shape. No, the nonathletic boys were treated like trash. Who's been discriminated against the most and for generations?

Was there even any instruction provided about the sports themselves? With the exception of my sixth-grade P.E. coach spending barely a minute on wrestling holds, there was virtually none. In none of my classes was there ever any teaching about how the games of baseball, basketball, and football were played. There never was any teaching about how a baseball or a football is to be thrown or how to shoot a basketball. Despite the fact that nonathletic boys were never taught these things, they were penalized, anyway. Is that something the P.E. establishment can be proud of? "Sports only" P.E. should have always been optional instead of mandatory. Had they been allowed to opt out, nonathletic boys would have been better off.

Have you ever considered all the negative stereotyping and stigmatization to which nonathletic boys are subjected to in our sports-crazed society? This often begins at a very tender age, even before the age of 9. Nonathletic boys are likely to be bullied simply for having no interest in sports. They are told they are "sissies," wimps, "fags" -- despite the fact that there have been men of great courage who never participated in sports (not because they had no opportunity to participate, but simply because they chose not to).

Several years ago I started to work with a personal trainer at a local health club on a bodybuilding program. I finally became aware of what I was deprived by the mandatory "sports only" P.E. of my youth. The experience has not only been physically beneficial and gratifying, but has also been therapeutic as well. I get more exercise out of a single workout session than I ever did in an entire year of P.E. I never so much as worked up a sweat in any of my P.E. classes. All I learned in mandatory "sports only" P.E. was to fear and resent coaches and athlete classmates.

I wish the P.E. establishment would realize and accept the fact that some boys have no interest in sports and would stop victimizing these kids. Why should nonathletic boys be forced to participate in sports? Do you really believe this encourages them to become physically active, as they are humiliated by their classmates and sometimes even by the coaches? I know from my own personal experience what doesn't work and what does work for nonathletic boys. Believe me, forcing nonathletic boys to participate in sports in mandatory P.E. classes simply doesn't work.

Sports aren't for everyone, The only rationale for a mandatory P.E. class is to promote physical fitness and encourage healthy physical activity. But for generations nonathletic boys have been nonpersons at best in the world of school sports. In the name of compassion and empathy, either provide genuine fitness programs (such as PE4Life) for the nonathletic boys, give them the option of letting them work with a personal trainer at a health club, or leave them alone!

For generations nonathletic boys have been deeply hurt and sometimes even traumatized by their experiences in mandatory P.E. with all of its stupidity, hypocrisy, and cruelty; yet you feel that coaches and school athletes are discriminated against. You have no idea what discrimination is. Get real!

Jason, I agree with you 100%!

Submitted by Randy Rhoades on 3 October 2011 - 7:12am.

Jason, I agree with you 100%! I do not even coach and I found her statement to be discriminatory.

I think Dorr was talking

Submitted by Maureen Costello on 4 October 2011 - 5:06pm.

I think Dorr was talking about hiring decisions rather than making judgements about coaches generally. When a school needs both a football coach and a PE teacher, which position takes precedence? Would most schools hire the great PE teacher who can relate to all students, but maybe isn't so good at leading athletes into a very competitive sport? Or would most school hire the great coach and figure he has the skills and dispositions to teach PE well? I suspect, too often, filling the PE position is given less weight in the decision.

What has your school done to

Submitted by Sean Price on 19 September 2011 - 12:26pm.

What has your school done to make PE more inclusive? And what would you like to do?