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Testing the Teachers

The future health of our nation falls, in part, on P.E. instructors. Will they pick up the ball and run?


Kathy Stahlin has a traveling show.

A shopping cart stuffed to tottering, filled with toys--whiffle balls and scoops, jump ropes--and rugs the size of welcome mats.

She travels throughout the Westminster School District, an itinerant elementary school coach, patiently breaking down the basics of fitness as if they were elements of a dance.

Nothing is what it seems. Tag is a game called Heart Attack (get tapped twice by the evil Stress or Cholesterol, and you can be unfrozen only by a doctor). Crunches incorporate a spelling list of muscles or parts of the skeleton. No one ever keeps score. Everyone gets a ball. Every face opens with a smile.

"Hopefully," says Stahlin, 38, "these little guys won't have those old attitudes."

While most elementary school officials ask classroom teachers to walk their herds through a daily dose of physical activity, this program on wheels, with an outside coach, is radical, rare and acutely important. Stahlin's approach incorporates elements of the Physical Education Framework for California, issued in 1994 to help students establish a healthy lifestyle by moving away from drills and relays toward academics, new equipment and activities such as windsurfing and Jazzercise. Because it is a guide and not a mandate, the framework's backers are uncertain how many schools have adopted portions of the strategy. But they do know that only a handful of Los Angeles County's 1,678 campuses have fully implemented it.

Innovative as the framework may be, it's just a piece of paper waiting for someone like Stahlin to pick it up and run. "The issue here," says Gudrun Armanski, former women's head track and field coach at Cal State Los Angeles and now a private fitness trainer, "is the teacher."

Schools might provide a good curriculum and facilities, Armanski says, "but if you don't have the money to pay a good coach, it won't work. A teacher who can correct a mistake without doing damage to a kid's psyche. A teacher who can apply all the tools properly, who can step in. You cannot just go out and roll out the ball."

Teachers in general bump up against a range of detractors. Physical education instructors in particular find themselves the butt of old jokes and rousting: "Those who can't, teach; those who can't teach, teach P.E."

At the middle- and high-school levels, where the pressure is on for administrators to shore up basic academics amid a swelling student population, staffing shortages might force a single P.E. teacher to preside over classes with 45, 60, even 75 students.

"In the mid-'60s, the thinking was [that] a great athlete makes a great coach," says Jeanne Bartelt, physical education consultant to the state education department. "And that isn't necessarily the truth. People think it's easy to do. Just keep kids busy running. They have no idea how to play this game."

Nowadays, the makeup of staff varies widely from campus to campus; pure P.E. teachers may share duties with the history teacher / coach. At the same time, teaching physical education has never been so multi-pronged and demanding. The new curriculum dictates age-appropriate programs, nontraditional sports and academic tie-ins. Cultural considerations add another layer of subtext.

At Belmont High School near downtown Los Angeles, for example, the largely immigrant student body has learned how to take their differences in stride. "When I was in the old country we had an itinerant P.E. [instructor]," explains Assistant Principal Ignacio Garcia, a native of Mexico. "So having this sort of formal class is unusual for some of our students. Especially the girls who've grown up with very traditional values and are not accustomed to undressing in front of others, or wearing shorts. . . ."

In the translation, says Principal Augustine Herrera, "there have been problems, but we're surprised at how few."

When working with such sensitive students, it's important for a teacher to stay fresh, says Clayre Petray, professor of physical education and kinesiology at Cal State Long Beach, because that first-blush experience can make a stunning difference. Attitude and enthusiasm--before words or rules--are the first things students glimpse.

"I wanted to be a high school coach," Petray recalls, "but I looked in the kids' eyes, and by junior / senior high they have a lot of attitudes already formed, so I decided [we should] focus on [training teachers to instruct] children."

As framework architects push the mind-body equation, schools must worry about attracting younger, vital, enthusiastic teachers to replace the old. Much damage has been done to the profession's collective morale, from the last-hired / first-fired fallout of periodic district budget cuts to the influx of ill-prepared, procured-in-a-pinch teachers.


Although the enrollment of P.E.-teachers-in-training has remained steady, Petray says, the number of jobs for them has dropped. So maintaining long-term interest in the discipline is yet another challenge for educators.

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