20 Mistakes Made in 20 Years of Teaching Physical Education


20 Mistakes Made in 20 Years of Teaching Physical Education

Alex Sporticus


Physical Education is not inherently good. Children and young people will not automatically improve their movement, health, academic success or their pro-social behaviours just by participating in the subject. To achieve that we need to become more intentional with how we shape PE, what we fill it with and how we offer it. To ensure that PE does not become a place of meaninglessness, fear, humiliation and alienation we need to learn from our past experiences and especially from our mistakes. Here are 20 of my own personal mistakes from the last 20 years of teaching PE.

1 – I thought I knew everything.

Very early in my teaching career I thought I knew everything there was to know about PE, school sport and school based physical activity. I was arrogant and blind to the many failures I was making on a daily basis. It didn’t even occur to me that I might be a contributing factor in many of the issues that caused me to become frustrated and angry with children in PE.

2 – I stopped reading and reflecting.

Part of what contributed to a myopic view about the quality of my teaching was that as soon as I had left teacher education I stopped reading about the subject (and beyond) and I also stopped reflecting. I had no time for that, I had to fix these children and get them to play sport well. No book or journal log was going to help me do that. It meant that my teaching practice was never challenged either by external sources or by myself.

3 – I judged my success as a PE Teacher on the success of school sport.

How did I know I was a good PE Teacher? It was because of the success of the school sports teams I coached and how many children I helped to get into county or national set-ups. My focus was on “the best” to the exclusion of the rest. I had developed a warped sense of what “the best” was and an inflated sense of how much I really contributed to their successes.

4 – I only managed behaviour rather than taught it.

I got very good at responding to and providing consequences for poor behaviour. However that was all I did. I failed to also model what good behaviour was, what it looked like and why it was important. Behaviour is a complimentary curriculum to the subject that needs to be taught and not just expected. This makes pro-social behaviour concrete for all students, by helping them see and understand what success looks like, to better ensure that PE is a caring and inclusive place for all.

5 – I mistook performance for learning.

There is a clear distinction between immediate performance gains in lessons and long term learning over a series of lessons, but it took me a long time to understand this. The activities and tasks I used that resulted in immediate improvments gave the impression that learning was taking place, and this built my reputation as a good teacher to those that observed me. However faster acquisition is not necessarily good for long term learning or transfer, which resulted in the children who needed the most support suffering in the long term.

6 – I covered too much, too quickly.

Linked to my misunderstanding of ‘performance vs learning’ I believed that a good teacher got through as much content as possible. This meant moving from one learning outcome to the next because of the stated intentions of scheme of work, without any careful analysis of whether the children could understand it or apply it. I was more worried about following the plan rather than being attentive to what was emerging in front of my eyes and making informed profession judgements and decisions.

7 – I used the game as a reward for practising technique.

I made playing a game one of my behaviour management techniques. It was driven to my thinking about learning – How can children play the game if they did not have the technical ability to play the game? This question was always on my mind, and it never occurred to me that I might be wrong on three counts. Firstly that the game did not need to be the adult version of the game, secondly that I had played 100s of games without an adult instructing me on technique and finally that the game provided meaning for techniques to be practiced.

8 – I didn’t see the point of play.

I just didn’t see the connection between play and learning. I thought of them as two separate things. Practice was where you learnt, and play was where you applied what you had practiced. It took me quite a while to realise that purposeful play, with well thought through constraints which allowed exploration and problem solving, is a wonderful medium for learning in PE.

9 – I only invested in children like me.

The child that loved PE, that found success easy, that played for all the sports teams, that engaged me in conversation about football or rugby in the corridor – these were the children that I lavished my attention on. Mainly because it was easy as they were most like me. I didn’t realise that by doing that I excluded other children, and children that required more of my attention and care.

10 – I never sought out my students feelings.

PE is more than knowing and doing, it is also about feeling. The subjective element of PE is an important part, especially if we want promote that lifelong involvement in physical activity is one of its key aims. I didn’t care about what mattered to children, or how my lessons made them feel about themselves or movement and I can see now how incredibly short sighted that was. Finding out what students like and dislike in PE and in turn helping them to find out what they like and dislike isn’t superfluous, but a key part of children learning about the role that movement can play in their lives.

11 – I rarely sought out shared understanding.

The curse of knowledge deprived me from recognising that not all students have the same movement experience as each other. That when I used language or terminology that were subject specific, or set an expectation or had a particular goal in mind I assumed that everyone knew what I meant. This caused a lot of confusion and anxiety, especially in children who required extra support.

12 – I underestimated what I could learn from colleagues.

My arrogance prevented me from learning from other teachers of PE and teachers of other subjects. I failed to recognise how much impact open, honest and critical collaboration with others could have on my personal and professional development. Taking the time to articulate teaching and learning problems and trying to solve them with others is a incredibly powerful form of ongoing professional development.

13 – I thought all physical problems could be solved with physical solutions.

When I watched a child perform poorly in my class, I would automatically go about fixing it through lots of technical feedback and lots of practice. However this did not solve all issues, and it caused a lot more of its own. Sometimes a lack of progress in PE can be attributed to the cognitive, social or affective domains, and being sensitive and curious about this together with children is a far more inclusive approach.

14 – I saw children as problems to fix.

My mindset of seeing children as an object to fix through PE led to me being highly critical and righting wrongs immediately. This meant I didn’t see opportunity and strengths and I wasn’t open or curious about the children I was teaching. Mindset shapes teaching behaviours; how you judge, instruct, question and respond to what emerges in a PE class. Your teaching behaviours then influence the experience children have of PE.

15 – I praised results over process.

I valued results, success, performance and winning and therefore that is what I praised and rewarded. This meant PE became a place where those children who already had the most movement experiences outside of school got validation and those that needed support got no recognition for the effort, progress and development they made considering their respective starting points. Personal development and learning is what needs to be promoted and praised in PE.

16 – I didn’t explicitly teach feeding.

So much of quality practice within PE requires children to feed objects to each other. I spent more time instructing and giving feedback about their technique, but failed to address how and where they should feed. A consistent good feed in practice or in games can enhance the quality of the experience and better help children to make progress.

17 – I saw asking for help as a sign of failure.

As I started to become aware that perhaps my teaching wasn’t as good as I thought and that I was making mistakes, I kept them to myself. I was worried and anxious in opening up and asking others for their thoughts and opinions. Tackling these issues on my own had limited success. Critical friends, whose judgements you value and trust makes the whole process of development a better one.

18 – I thought creating a safe environment was solely about reducing physical risk.

My classes tended to be safe places physically, but not socially and emotionally. I took steps to reduce the risk of injury but did not think about reducing the risk of shame, humiliation and anxiety. Key to making progress in PE is an individual child’s willingness to take risks and have a go, but that is greatly influenced by the motivational climate created by their peers. For PE to be a safe place, I needed to reduce the social and emotional risk as well as the physical.

19 – I got trapped in the details.

Teaching cricket provides a perfect example of this. I got so focused on helping each child improve their grip, stance and back-lift in batting I forgot what the point of cricket was in the curriculum and how it linked to the wider purpose of the curriculum. By getting distracted by the details I missed how it fitted into the bigger picture and this was contributing to the lack of personal relevance of PE for the children I taught.

20 – I didn’t think about purpose as much as I should.

It took me a while to understand that it is not content, activities, grades and sports that drive quality PE, but purpose. A clearly articulated and shared purpose that the whole school community understands and supports each other to achieve. However that is not the end. It then requires questioning whether the content, activities, sports and teaching behaviours we choose helps the children to make progress to the purpose or not. This is an ongoing process and something that is fundamental to ensuring PE is educative and relevant.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my teaching career, and I will no doubt continue to make many more. Teaching is not a career when you can be perfect every time. At least I’m more aware of some of my mistakes and continue to be vigilant when I’m not. It helps to have critical friends around me, people I can trust, be open and vulnerable with. A support network is incredibly important in helping to recognise and rectify mistakes, but the chief trick to making good mistakes which lead to learning is not to hide them – especially from yourself.

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