Dear PE Teachers,We don’t talk enough. You see, I’m an English teacher. When we were growing up, as you were feeling the triumph of scoring the winning penalty for the school team, I was enviously penning poems about what that might feel like. And now, as I teach sub-clauses from the blissful warmth of my classroom, you’re out there and shivering and shuffling subs on the muddy gradient we all call ‘the field’. And in the future -if educational folklore has it correct- when I’m still a classroom teacher, you’ll be SLT.
Today, I want to breach the gap between us and bring us together in the aim of achieving one goal. Today, I am not concerned with our futures, but the futures of the students we teach and I’m concerned with the power and the responsibility that you –PE teachers- have now, to ensure that these students have the physical and intellectual means to access the marvellous futures they deserve.
Data released by UCAS earlier this month, reveals that young, white working-class men are 50% less likely to attend University than their female counterparts. A recent report from the Sutton Trust showed that only 29% of white working class boys living in socially deprived areas continue in education past the age of 16. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commision, white working-class boys have the lowest levels of attainment at GCSE than any other social or ethnic groups. All teachers have a responsibility to reverse this trend, but I ask you to consider this: Who has the most power to influence this change: Mrs Smith from Geography who ‘only buys Waitrose’? Mr Jones from History who road bikes around France in half term? Mr Pink from English who eats pastrami and rocket sandwiches? The answer, of course, is none of these. The answer is you.
The link between physical activity and the working class is an age old one. You only have to walk through a school playground to realise that the thing that most working-class boys love, more than anything else, is sport. As PE teachers, you are ambassadors of sport and as a result of this, our young working class boys idolise you. As a casual, and slightly envious, observer of the influence you possess, I want you to know I’m fed up. I’m fed up of fifteen year old captains of sports teams proudly telling me, someone they should want to impress, that they’ve, ‘never finished a book’. I’m fed up of giving detentions to boys, who refuse to engage in lessons, whose blazers are littered with badges that commend them for their sporting achievment. I’m fed up of hearing students – and teachers-, perpetuating the false dichotomy that people are either ‘clever’ or ‘sporty.’ If smart people can become more active, active people can become smart.
So, this is what I ask of you.
Please, stop picking naughty boys for your school teams. Boys shouldn’t be given the opportunity to score tries if they’re not trying in class. If they can’t get themselves to maths, you shouldn’t be taking them to fixtures. If they refuse to exercise their brains, then they shouldn’t be exercising their legs. When making selections for school sports teams, ask students to bring their most recent academic report and check for progress made. If they’re not making progress, they’re not on the team. Alternatively, ask students to bring written statements of commendation from their academic subject teachers. If they’re proving themselves in Science or History or ICT, give them the opportunity to prove themselves on the field.
Get your tracksuited torsos into assemblies and tell students what you’re reading. Tell them about your favourite books and how reading has benefitted you personally. If you don’t read yourself, start and start now. It’s never too late. There’s lots of books out there, and they’re not all sports biographies. Try genres you’ve never tried before and get students to do the same.
Ask students what they’ve learnt in Science.
Ask students what they’ve learnt in Maths.
Ask students what they’ve learnt.
Fill your mini-buses with books and paint hulking great lines of poetry onto the walls of your changing rooms. Lines from poems such as ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling in which he asserts:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.
I’m aware that people will tell me that for some students, PE is their only opportunity to shine and depriving them of this opportunity is cruel and unfair. Rubbish. High-achieving students who despise PE don’t get a choice: they have to do PE. Likewise, students who love PE shouldn’t be giving anything less than their best in academic subjects.
I want to finish today by asking you to think about how PE is not only a subject worthy of study in its own right, but also the means by which we can encourage students to achieve in other subjects. The students who love your subject won’t all become athletes. This is not necessarily because they lack the talent to do so, but because they lack drive and determination. Tell your students, if they want to realise their sporting potential then they need to practice persistence and they need to practice resilience. They need to practise what it feels like to try and fail. If you think PE is the only subject which can instill these values in pupils then you’ve never read Shakespeare or attempted balancing an equation or tested a chemical compound for its elements.
I strongly believe that PE teachers are the most powerful teachers we have at our disposal. As an English teacher, I value your subject. I just need your help in getting students to value mine.