Alan Byrne

4th March 2011 at 00:00
The principal teacher of PE at Stonelaw Academy won the 2010 TES Lifetime Achievement Award. Here he reveals how his subject has changed, how to rein in the naughty kids - and why his own PE teacher did nothing to inspire him. Photography by Chris James

What's the best part of being a teacher?

Kids. They are all different. My wife works in special education and loves it. She says just because a child has problems, doesn't mean they can't learn to behave. I agree. People think a label is an excuse for telling a teacher to take a running jump. It's not. We're strict in this department. We make sure kids have manners, show respect, wear their kit. It will stand them in good stead when they leave.

Do you ever shout at the kids?

No, that's not going to work. You have to understand the needs of the kids. You have to treat each one differently. We have two boys in first year who were complete nuisances when they came. But on the board where we celebrate success, there's now a photo of them with a caption that says "most improved attitude".

What made the difference?

I sat down and talked with them, gave them their say, then told them how it was going to be, and kept to it. Don't get me wrong. They can still be nuisances. You can't change kids overnight. That's what I like about them. They are all individuals. We are strict here but we care. We think about what's best for the kids. We have fun."

You've been a teacher for 40 years, 27 of them at Stonelaw. What are the biggest changes you've seen?

The single most important thing in teaching has always been the teacher's personality. That hasn't changed. But my subject has and so has education as a whole. The leisure industry is massive now. The kids we teach are able to use their academic qualities, because there's much more theory to PE now. They can even get into university to do law or medicine based on their Higher PE. That's the major change in my subject.

And in education as a whole?

Curriculum for Excellence. A lot of good professionals see assessment as the main focus now - they're thinking about the endproduct. They should be thinking about active learning and how to engage the kids. In PE we used to go in and do warm-up, skills, drills and games. It all came from the teacher. Now we get a couple of kids to prepare a warm-up. We ask others to demonstrate activities. We try everything we can to get kids active and keep them engaged.

Do you welcome Curriculum for Excellence?

Yes. But it's still fuzzy. They say it's about giving you responsibility in your own school. But eventually we'll have to compare what's going on in schools in Dumfries and Aberdeen. I'm not sure how. I was involved in moderation for Higher, which was very well defined, and that was hard enough.

What could be done to help teachers with the new curriculum?

We need more exemplars. We're already in the middle of the first year and there is one example for PE on the Learning and Teaching Scotland website. That's just not good enough. People would be much more comfortable if they had case studies from other schools they could use or adapt.

Have you seen a big change in the children you teach?

Huge. Teachers need to work ten times as hard to get their respect. You have to use different tactics with different groups. They're prepared to dispute anything, and not just the badly behaved. But there is a positive side. You get more out of them. They get to develop their personalities.

You've started setting PE pupils by ability from S1 at Stonelaw. Is that a good idea?

Yes. Fitness levels in our young people have fallen dramatically in the past 15 years. So we find the most talented games players in the first few weeks and put them in one group. We find the least fit and put them in another. We're teaching to talented sections, middle groups and fitness sections.

Is that about producing elite athletes and sports players?

Only partly. It's about matching the curriculum to the kids' needs and abilities. Nothing is set in stone. We move kids from one group to another. We can push the talented kids to new levels. If all schools did this, the effects might well filter through to our teams at national level. But we're every bit as interested in the fitness section. We give them pedometers and targets for numbers of steps a day. We match what we ask to what we know they can do. It's making a big difference. Fitness levels have risen. Pupils who used to hate PE are enjoying it and achieving. It's been highlighted as good practice by HMIE.

Who inspired you to become a PE teacher? Was it your own PE teacher?

It was not. He was dreadfully strict. They all were in those days. You'd get belted if you couldn't do something or if you accidentally kicked the ball in the air. It was the Boys' Brigade that gave me the idea. I learned so much with them. I thought it would be brilliant if somebody would pay me to play sport, do gymnastics and teach children.

And was it?

It still is.

Entries for the 2011 TES Schools Awards (TESSAs), which celebrate outstanding teams in the UK state and independent sector, must be submitted by 11 March.


Born: Bellshill, 1950

Educated: Cathkin Primary, Rutherglen Academy, Jordanhill College of Education

Career: 1971 PE teacher, Cathkin High; 1973 assistant principal teacher guidance; 1975 APT PE; 1983 principal teacher PE, Stonelaw High.

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