Patti Bacchus: Fixing the PE problem

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      I recently tweeted a link to an article about an Iowa State University study that found when people have a bad experience in their school physical education (PE) classes, there are lifelong consequences. If the reaction to my tweet is any indication, the study is absolutely right. That’s a problem.

      It turns out people have all the feelings about PE, even decades after they graduate. And a lot of them are very, very bad.

      The study’s findings—that people who have humiliating or otherwise painful PE memories are less likely to be physically active as adults—are hardly surprising. What did surprise me was how many people chimed in with horror stories that they’ve been carrying with them through their adult life.

      That strikes me as a pressing public health issue, given what we know about how key regular exercise is to our physical and mental wellness.

      Now I’ve tweeted a lot over the last decade (roughy 44,000 times) and those who follow me know I don’t shy away from controversy. This time I tweeted a link the to the news story about the study and said “We need to talk about how horrible PE is for many students.” Because we do. I was astonished by the responses.

      They came fast and emotionally. I got messages from adults telling me they are scarred and traumatized by their high-school PE classes. I heard about humiliation and bullying in crowded school locker rooms. I heard about “super jock” teachers saying things that made students feel humiliated in front of classmates. I heard about students being subjected to the “beep test” fitness assessment but getting no training prior to doing it, and the horror of having to do it in front of their peers. I heard about kids being forced to do laps on a track without any training program to build up their fitness level to do it. And so on.

      I heard from gay men that high school was tough, but PE was the toughest and that’s where homophobic bullying was the worst. People told me they left school hating all things sports and exercise, and only discovered activities they enjoyed decades later. I heard from too many that they learned to enjoy physical activity in spite of PE classes, not because of them.

      And it wasn’t just older adults who had bad experiences. While I know PE has improved since I was in school, my kids are in their early 20s and they and their friends have their share of awful stories and bad memories. Although to be fair, I’ve heard about lots of good ones too.

      My tweet and the emotional responses struck a nerve with a few teachers as well, who said they felt blamed and stung by it. That was not my intention. My kids had some truly outstanding and kind PE teachers who found innovative ways to encourage and motivate kids who weren’t the sporty sort. I met lots of similarly wonderful PE teachers in my eight years as a Vancouver school trustee. I see them as part of the solution, not the problem.

      And we need a solution. With all of us, including children and youth, spending so much time in front of screens, being physically active is more important than ever.

      The goal of PE shouldn’t be to make kids get out and participate in sports and exercise they hate. It should be to foster a lifelong love of physical activity and an understanding of its importance. It doesn’t matter if that happens at a playing field, swimming pool, gym, ski slope, lake, or trail or even with regular walks or bike rides. We need to find better ways to help students discover activities they love and will keep doing. We need to do that in safe and supportive environments.

      Like most changes to our public education, that’s a whole lot easier said than done. I know most PE teachers do their best under terribly limiting conditions. They’re expected to deliver a program to several hundred kids broken up into blocks in buildings that often have too few gyms, lousy playing fields (if they have them at all), inadequate equipment, and little to no funding or time to get out and discover activities in the community and nature.

      They’re expected to assess and mark each student and enforce rigid rules about gym strip and attendance. Do kids still get a fail mark if they forget their PE strip too many times? Can someone please tell me what that accomplishes?

      I’d also like to know what value there is to those awful fitness assessments. Those are affirming for fit, athletic kids who probably don’t need PE class in the first place and humiliating for the rest. Of all the things I love about being an adult, one is not having to do sit-ups or flexed arm hangs in front of colleagues and being marked on them.

      The good news is there is a new and better curriculum in schools that gives teachers greater flexibility. The bad news is that culture change isn’t coming soon enough. We’d need a rethink of our whole approach, beyond what’s been done in the new B.C. curriculum.

      If I had a magic wand, I’d get rid of PE marks altogether. I’d search for ways to give students as much choice as possible. I’d make sure they had private places to change into appropriate clothing and shower afterward. Teachers would be personal coaches and advisers to students, tasked with helping each student find activities they love. I’d give them enough funding to support that, so if a student wanted to learn to kayak they could sign up for lessons to do that. If another wanted to do yoga, we’d have an agreement with a local community centre. And so on.

      My magic wand would mean PE wouldn’t have to fit into the normal school timetable. I hated having PE in the morning when I was in school. I made every effort I could not to break a sweat that could ruin my mascara or make my hair get frizzy. On the other hand, if I had PE last class in the afternoon, I’d give it my all.

      We need to figure out ways to schedule physical activity in a way that makes every student want to participate fully.

      The best way to get there is by asking students what will work for them. I can think of a zillion reasons why this is all too complicated and/or expensive and can’t work. But we can’t afford to not to change and to continue to set so many students up for a sedentary, unhealthy life.

      Let’s appoint a provincial student task force to come up with strategies for making PE work for all kids, not just the athletically inclined. Let’s open our minds to doing PE differently and doing it better. Let’s be prepared to invest today for a healthier tomorrow. (I can see that written on a government news conference podium already).

      The emotional scars from bad gym classes are bad enough. But if people don’t learn to love exercise—at least some form of it—we all pay steep costs in the long run through the health care system.

      Ready, set, let’s do this.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.