‘Traditional PE just doesn’t cut it – it never has’

Teenagers are far more likely to enjoy physical education if they are not forced to change in front of each other and do team sport, says this teacher

Sam Tassiker

‘Traditional PE just doesn’t cut it – it never has’

We have an obesity crisis on our hands and, despite there being a number of ways to make participation in sports at school more appealing, someone, somewhere, is missing a trick.

I have a love/hate relationship with the gym: I’m in love with the idea of being fit but hate feeling out of my depth. I’m in love with the fancy Jacuzzi, pretty lighting and snazzy machines, but I hate the faff of getting changed after a workout. Yet, unlike schoolchildren, I have as much time as I give myself. It’s no surprise, then, that students aren’t enthusiastic about getting sweaty and red-faced when they have to throw their clothes on in two minutes without showering (because they are far too embarrassed) and then be back in a classroom, ready to learn some more.

Isn’t it just a bit old-fashioned to expect teenagers to shower communally? We know that they are a self-conscious bunch – what with navigating puberty, constantly being under scrutiny and being desperately concerned about what their peers think – so it seems silly that we don’t provide them with more privacy in the changing rooms.

It still baffles me why PE lessons aren’t timetabled as double lessons as standard. Why does everything have to be rushed and frantic? Giving students longer to get changed – allowing them to bringing their heart rate down, get properly clean and feel invigorated (rather than frazzled) – would help them to get back in the right frame of mind to learn, and in the right physical state to be back in a classroom behind a desk.

Team sports still seem to be almost exclusively on the agenda in schools, and this provides another barrier to participation. I was a keen netball player at school and did rugby at university, so I know a bit about the benefits of team sports. In fact, I loved the adrenaline and competition. However, being part of a team in a sport you chose to train in is rather different from how teams are organised during PE lessons. The practicalities dictate this, of course; staff expertise, ratios of students to staff and availability of equipment are all factors, it’s true. Yet offering gym time, yoga and step aerobics would be preferable to many, and would surely increase participation and enjoyment.

Then there’s the issue of kit. Thankfully, my current school allows students to choose (within reason) what they wear for working out. It’s a sensible move, giving students the opportunity to feel comfortable in a subject in which many feel exposed to ridicule or judgement. Ill-fitting uniform is one thing when you’re writing an essay in a corner – it is quite another when you’re running cross-country under the full glare of all your peers, particularly if you are already self-conscious.

There’s also the funding issue, of course (there’s always that). I’m paying for my own photocopying at the moment and, if the budget can’t stretch to that, then paying for individual shower cubicles is likely to be rather far down the list.

But the point still stands: I think we could drastically improve the uptake of physical activity among young people and hugely increase their enjoyment of sport if we thought more about how they like to keep fit. Traditional approaches to PE just don’t work for everyone – far from it.

Sam Tassiker is a secondary teacher in Scotland

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Sam Tassiker

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