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Sporting chance

If you're a primary school teacher - and an honest one - you'll admit that there is at least one subject that fills you with the kind of cold dread usually reserved for injections, spiders and traffic wardens.

For me, it's physical education. Through a cunning combination of luck and only teaching part-time, I have for the past few years managed to evade the humiliation of having to confess that I have all the coordination of an intoxicated duck, because PE has fallen on one of my days away from school.

But the house always wins in the end, and so last Thursday I found myself, jogging-bottom clad and whistle in hand, on a bleak and blustery March day, with 30 faces turned towards me wearing expressions ranging from resigned stoicism right through to genuine enthusiasm.

My school is trialling a system of setting in PE and this was the lower-ability class, prompting unwelcome flashbacks of my own school experiences: shivering at the end of the field, being hit in the face with hockey sticks and genuinely thinking my parents might be guilty of child abuse because of their stubborn resistance to writing me the occasional (weekly) excuse note.

But although it would have been easy to imagine a group of 30 mini-mes, huddling together for warmth like penguins, the truth is that children have lots of different reasons for not always achieving in PE and these nine- and 10-year-olds were no different. Some children really didn't want to be there, but there were others who were keen to improve their skills and who enjoyed PE, regardless of their level. And it was my job to try to make sure they all had fun and learned something.

The expression "fake it till you make it" has more truth to it than I often care to acknowledge. As a teacher, you don't have the option of moaning about the cold or doing the bare minimum. The excuse of "but I'm rubbish at kicking a ball" just isn't going to cut it. We tried some passing practice, and when my ball veered off sideways, the student I was partnered with laughed along and listened carefully as I talked about what I'd done wrong, using the advice to pass with increasing accuracy himself.

I started to realise that what I was telling the children was true: practising really does help you to get better. Freed of the demotivating example of peers far more skilled than they were, the vast majority of the group were absorbed in simply doing their best. Later, we moved on to attempting to score goals, and the genuine jubilation of children who had been withdrawn at the start of the lesson was infectious.

The best moment of all, though, came towards the very end, when we'd decided to give a simplified version of a football game a go. Although it may sound like artistic licence, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds, illuminating a group of students who were focused and engaged on a subject that didn't come naturally to them.

Were they Olympic athletes in the making? Probably not. But they were exercising their bodies and having fun doing it. And in the end, that's far more important.

Kate Townshend is a teacher and freelance journalist based in Cheltenham, England

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