Aaron Sieminski’s middle school students ride bikes around town to find the safest routes to school. Jen Loomis’ students at Capital traverse a piranha-infested river as part of a ‘Survivor’ unit. Rene Cloninger’s students at Helena High earn awards for making gains in the weight room. And Mary Seitz’s elementary students move to oldies tunes like “Rock Around the Clock” and “Catch Me if You Can.”
They don’t run their classes the same way, but each teaches physical education as well as anyone in the business. Helena physical education teachers scored big at a state awards conference this year.
In fact, it was nearly a sweep. Helena earned teacher of the year honors at the elementary, middle and high school level, as well as a few other awards. Teacher of the year awards recognize outstanding educators in their field and are based on school and community involvement, leadership and quality of instruction.
Loomis won the state’s high school teacher honors in 2012, and this year earned the regional title.
Additionally, Wendy Bigler of Helena High won the Wellness award for exemplifying a healthy lifestyle and Shirley Chesterfield-Stanton, retired Capital high teacher, was given the Honor award for a lifetime of contributions to the profession.
“It is unusual for one town to take over and win all those awards,” said Nancy Stock, the director of the Montana Association for Health, PE, Recreation and Dance. “But it’s well-deserved, and we couldn’t be happier for them.”
Though it may be unusual to win so many at once, Helena has a history of developing outstanding P.E. teachers, the winners said.
“The tradition of a strong P.E. program goes back years and years,” Cloninger said. Seitz, who has taught for 31 years, said the school district supports its physical education programs and invests in its teachers’ professional development. Teachers in turn are motivated to become involved in the profession, publish, write grants and share their knowledge.
As a result, they have been successful in obtaining important grants that provide for equipment and programming and developed creative ways to instill in students a lifelong enjoyment of physical activity.
It’s a big change from a generation ago, when students grew up playing sports like basketball and dodge ball to the sound of the gym teacher’s whistle. In Helena, as in an increasing number of schools, dodge ball is banned because of the way it makes students targets. Seitz doesn’t use a whistle. Instead she trains her elementary students at Central and Jefferson to play when the music’s on and stop when it’s not.
The new physical education emphasizes skills over sports and love of fitness over competition. In many ways, that has opened a door for entirely new gym class activities — a challenge these P.E. teachers have embraced.
Elementary students have only one hour of physical education class each week, but Seitz said she makes sure her students are moving for every minute of class.
“You’re not only teaching P.E.,” she said. “You’re teaching life and life skills.”
For years Seitz has been finding ways to integrate reading, math and science into her activities, like her Dr. Seuss Day that challenges students to read and move at the same time. Not only does P.E. encourage students to develop active lifestyles, Seitz says it enhances students’ ability to learn.
“The brain focuses better if you move,” she said.
She has been teaching for 31 years, and has served as an instructional coach and mentor to numerous other P.E. teachers in the district.
A current project with a second grade classroom has them recording their physical activity, whether by foot, bike, rollerblade or anything else, in an effort to log 1,000 miles. That’s the distance between Helena and Sacramento, Calif., where the students’ classroom teacher is running a marathon this fall. Seitz has a large road map with the two cities marked, so the students can follow the road to Sacramento.
Last year, Seitz wrote a grant to bring ice skating into the curriculum. She has the tools in her office to create an ice rink on the Jefferson school grounds and is currently amassing a collection of skates.
Whatever the activity, Seitz said she ends each lesson the same way, by asking, “Did you have fun?” and “Did you learn something?”
Aaron Sieminski, who has been teaching at HMS for eight years, says the only thing that can hold back gym teachers is their willingness to be creative.
A case in point: Where many teachers might teach about hydration through lecture and slideshow, the topic sends Sieminski’s imagination spinning. His students have played games like “liquid limbo” and hot potato with water balloons. They also take turns hitting a pinata filled with water.
“The kids loved it. Occasionally I would drench one, but it was all good,” he said.
Sieminski brings a deep commitment to his work, and sees physical education as a way to make a positive difference in young people’s lives.
To that end, Sieminski uses the first few weeks of school to conduct a series of team-building exercises with his students. “I try at the beginning of the year to create a culture of family.” Sieminski said. He sticks with it until the students begin supporting one another.
Sieminski also likes to include games and sports he calls “the great equalizers,” in which students are exposed to unfamiliar skills. One of those is rodeo. “Typically every person in there doesn’t know how to rope,” he said. “They all struggle and help each other.”
Sieminski helped obtain a grant that provided a fleet of more than 60 bicycles for the elementary and high school districts. He uses Google Maps to help his students identify the safest routes to bike to school, and the classes take neighborhood rides together.
Sieminski noted that few students compete in sports after school and said P.E. class shouldn’t be designed with athletes in mind. “I want to cater to the 99 kids that won’t make it,” he said. “It’s totally based around the best you can do for your fitness and expertise.”
Loomis brings a similar mindset to Capital High, where she has taught for more than 20 years. “If you can build a relationship with the kids who aren’t athletes and you can get them to connect and engage with physical education, that’s it. That’s what this is about for me,” she said. “It’s really amazing to see kids grow in their own personal courage.”
Loomis was part of a team, including Chesterfield-Stanton, which secured a prestigious national STARS award that recognizes outstanding school physical education program.
Besides her “Survivor” activities, Loomis said she makes sure to give students an exposure and familiarity with some traditional sports. Students also use the school’s fitness center to learn proper behavior and usage of gym equipment.
Across town, students at Helena High can choose to take a personal wellness class, a recreational or competitive P.E. class or weight training. Rene Cloninger, a co-winner at the high school level this year, said the arrangement has allowed more students to feel comfortable in the gym. Personal wellness classes, for instance, include aerobic exercises, yoga and circuit training.
At any given time, a class will be in the weight room, the fitness center and the gymnasium floor, with another running somewhere between.
Cloninger tracks the improvement of her weight training students, and doles out awards at the end of the year. Often the students with the least experience in the gym make the biggest gains, she said.
“That is very rewarding as a teacher,” she said. “That is my favorite day of the year.”
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