I spent a few years teaching gym as the formal “gym teacher” as well as teaching my homeroom class their P.E. I have to admit, I first went into the role thinking it was going to be completely slack. I learned pretty quickly that I was sorely mistaken.
Right away, I realized the amount of structure, class management, and strong repertoire needed with all kids in order to succeed was greater than I had in my other classes. Not only that, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that there were no “off days”. I couldn’t just throw a movie on if report cards were due or give the students a work period because I had to finish parent emails.
I also discovered pretty damn quickly that if you’re privvy to headaches, teaching gym class just isn’t for you (side note: nor is elementary music). Note to self: keep it to two beers or less a on weeknight pizza nights when the grade 4s have P.E. the next morning.
Anyway, in the years I formally taught gym – and when I occassionally teach it now – I’ve learned some great tips that I think are great for all teachers. Here’s what I’ve found out in my experience and want to share with you:
start off with a games unit
I spend the first two or three weeks with kids doing a games unit. This is great because it forces them very quickly into the routine you decide to set up for the start of class and when you’re giving instructions since you have to explain each game to them.
Additionally, all of the games I introduce to the students are what we end up doing as warm up or transition games for the rest of the year or semester. If they’ve learned them all at the beginning of the year and they know the rules and expectations, you can simply call out the name of the game (like “revenge tag, GO!”) and the kids can start right away.
I’m big into having students use all the time we have in a class period to be moving, cooperating, practicing team-building, and so on. So, the more I can front-load our go-to games and they can jump in right away, the better.
always be brutally honest with the Students
I find the best way to have kids actually follow your rules, respect you, and build a rapport with them is to be straightforward and honest. If we can’t play dodgeball anymore because the kids keep ignoring my rules and aiming for each others’ heads, well I tell them flat out.
I always let students know that it’s not safe when they don’t follow my rules, and it makes it so gym isn’t fun for everyone. Then, I tell them they have to earn back my trust. When they know expectations and exactly what they’ve done wrong and/or need to improve, then they can actually strive to meet my expectations.
Further, gym is a fun class for most kids, they want to play specific games or do certain activities. When we can’t do them for some reason, I tell them exactly why. Instead of just saying “no”, I’ll say something like “we can’t play volleyball today because the nets aren’t set up and most of the balls are flat, by the time we get everything set up, we’ll only have a few minutes to play”.
When students know your reasoning behind the choices you’ve made, they’ll respect you more and participate better in the activity that is being done (note: I find this works in all classes, not just gym).
Flat out, I’ve also found some of my male students in the past have looked side-eyed at me as a female gym teacher, and this tactic generally set them straight.
take advantage of participation grades
Gym is basically the only grade we can actually give a participation grade for as it’s actually written into the curriculum. So, take advantage of it!
Students don’t need to be super athletic to participate in gym class, they just need to try to the best of their ability. Make sure you make this very clear to all students and throw that participation grade right on in!
focus on skills more than competition
To follow up on my last point, students don’t need to be super athletic to participate in gym class – and they shouldn’t have to be to get a good grade. The curriculum focuses on skills which coincide with certain sports, but it doesn’t ever say you need to build a sports-based program.
Now I might get a little soap-boxy here, but I don’t care. Gym class is not competitive sports class. When you build your program soley around sports and competition, you are serving a small amount of your school population. This inevitably causes all those students who aren’t competitive, aren’t athletic, don’t care about sports, and so on, feel uncomfortable during class and possibly even believe they dislike exercise/physical movement.
Instead, build your program around building certain skills.
For example, if you have a three week “badminton” unit, you can play games involving tossing and catching using racquets, using badminton racquets to volley independently and with a partner, aiming birdies at or into certain targets, and so on. Then, as the unit comes to a close, spend a class or two playing different types of badmintin games, from fun games to round robin tournaments.
When you set up a unit in this way, starting with building skills, and then ending with using those skills during a more formal game, every student should find enjoyment in some aspects and you build every child’s skill set.
Just like participation, leadership is something you can grade in physical education class. I emphasize this a lot because it means kids can’t be jerks to each other. No calling people out for being less athletic, or missing shots, or saying you don’t want to partner up with someone.
It doesn’t matter how athletic you are in my class, if you don’t play well with others, you’re not getting a good grade.
create a routine
Make sure you start with a solid routine right from the very first day and that kids know it. Spend the first few weeks drilling this routine in and you’ll be set for the rest of the year. Even if it takes a bit more time on the front end, it’s more than worth it.
Make sure kids know where to sit and how to behave after they change, ensure they know there’s no talking when you’re speaking, what to do when you blow your whistle (or whatever you use to get their attention), and so on.
Always ensure that you’re consistent with your rules, as well. If you start to slip on beng strict when it matters, rules and structure will start to slip and the class could quickly descend into chaos.
structure your “fun” days
I always plan for “Fun Fridays” for the kids. That being said, I’m pretty strict with this because I don’t want to just play dodgeball every Friday or let kids just do whatever they want.
First of all, I only have Fun Fridays when class actually falls on a Friday. There’s no “Fun Thursday” because we have Friday off or don’t have gym that day. I found I had to do this because we started missing out on completing units at the end of the school year.
I will also rotate between what we do for Fun Fridays. Sometimes I’ll split the gym into four different corners and the kids can choose different activities in each, other times I will pick a few different activities and we’ll have a vote.
I plan this way because if the kids just did what they wanted all class, they’d end up bored and just chatting (i.e not being physically active) by the end of the period. Also, if we voted for their favourite activity each Fun Friday, dodgeball would always win and the kids who don’t like dodgeball would always lose. I want the class to be fun for everyone.
Of course, this will always change with the different classes you have. I’ve had some classes where the kids were so mature and responsible that they really could choose their own activity. But, that’s very rare in my experience.
grade during classtime
There’s a reason administrators who also have teaching assignments are generally assigned gym and not something like ELA – the grading workload is significantly lower. Obviously this is a trade-off for other things (like the fact that the majority of coaching often falls on the P.E. teacher’s shoulders), but you can still take advantage of it.
I suggest grading about three or four classes during a unit, depending on length, classes, and so on. You can simply walk around during those classes and note kids on things like leadership, participation, skill acquisition, and so on.
You may also incorporate testing in your classes, but if you do so, I highly suggest grading kids on their understanding of things like game rules and healthy lifestyle choices, not on physical capabilities. For example, avoid the “run for 20 minutes” style testing most of the kids hate and which also embarasses tons of them.
use student help
Don’t break your back trying to set things up, take things down, and so on. Kids love to help and are glad to do so. They’ll even lead the class in stretches or demonstrate how to perform skills, if you need them to.
For example, I will usually do things like demonstrate how to properly kick a soccer ball, but I had shoulder surgery a few years ago and can’t properly throw a ball overhand. So, I’ll always pull up a volunteer to show this. It’s better than me either hurting myself or demonstrating incorrectly, and the students love showing off their skills.
listen to student feedback
Gym should be a fun class! We need to show the kids how awesome it is to live active and healthy lifestyles. So, it’s really important to actually listen to your students when they let you know what activities they love and which ones they don’t ever want to do again.
Obviously, you’re the teachers and you don’t want to let them start running the class, but definitely incorporate their ideas and feedback when you plan.
What do you think, did I forget anything? What are the best tips you have for teaching gym class? Share them with me below!