Let me start by being completely transparent – I am aware AfPE guidelines dictate that joining in with students in PE lessons is a no no, largely due to safety and liability reasons. However, my aim in writing this post is to suggest the situation should not be so black and white, and in fact there are several scenarios within PE that I believe it is something that can benefit the students we teach.
Brian Glover’s portrayal of Mr Sugden in Kes is often used as a striking example of what not to do, and is shown to aspiring PE teachers at training centres nationwide.
Obviously, I am not advocating anything close to this horror show. In this context, joining in serves only the ego of the PE teacher at the unequivocal detriment of all the students in the lesson. Instead, what I am going to outline below are various scenarios where joining in can achieve the polar opposite and actually benefit students that we teach. First, however, I suggest you try very hard to erase the image of Mr Sugden from your mind before reading any further!
Scenario 1 – To include the less able
Team games are the foundation of PE curriculums across the country. I myself am a big believer in a games for understanding (TGfU) model and try to use small sided games as a tool for learning wherever possible. However, we have all witnessed situations where there is one student who possesses an ability and experience level significantly lower than other students, and therefore his teammates are less willing to give him the ball. Yes, we can impose conditions on a game to encourage inclusion of these individuals, but in my experience, these can sometimes be detrimental as they can highlight said students shortcomings even more.
By joining in with a team game activity, the teacher can hold greater control of the inclusion of these students. Of course, I am not suggesting you apply this in a game of rugby, but in certain sports I have found it really beneficial for those students. In handball, a sport that has a relatively low level of skill required to access it, a simple pass to a lower ability student can do their confidence and enjoyment of the lesson a world of good. In tchoukball, a sport that I am a huge fan of because of its unique ruleset and varied tactical application, it is incredibly easy to bypass the less able student. The teacher joining in as a passive player can alleviate such a problem in a very subtle way.
Scenario 2 – To challenge the most able
To badminton now, a sport where competing against an opponent of a a similar level is beneficial to all students. No one can progress at a suitable rate in badminton if their counterpart over the net is unable to return the shuttle. My suggestion here is to stretch the most able student who, in a lesson of badminton, can sometimes go an entire lesson without losing a point/match because of their superior experience or ability. By providing them a contest against a more experienced player, you are going to develop their shot selection, their movement around the court and their tactical gameplay. Simply by joining in, you can turn a boring and unchallenging lesson into one which is quite the opposite.
Scenario 3 – To encourage positive behaviours and tactics
On to basketball, where I spend a series of lessons explaining to students the merits of a half court man-to-man defensive structure, getting them to demonstrate it in non-competitive, small sided drills. Then, you add in some competition in the form of a game, and they forget everything you tell them to do because their sole goal is to now try and win. Similarly, in volleyball, after taking students through lessons on digs and sets, you place them in a competition and it is far easier for them to simply bump the ball straight back over the net, in the knowledge that their opponent is very likely to make a mistake and they will probably in a point.
A simple solution – put yourself in the game with the students, and demonstrate the behaviours you want them to exhibit. This alone can help them remain focussed, and altogether much more willing to do what you have requested. Yes, again, some of you will argue the answer to this is to instil a culture in our lessons where students value progress and learning over simply winning. Of course this is what we all desire, but in reality, sometimes students enjoy the thrill of winning in the short term more than in developing their performance in the long term.
Scenario 4 – To maintain pace and motivation
Back to handball now, and a phenomenon that every student remembers from their PE lessons at school – it is fun, and highly motivating, to try and beat the teacher! Simply by including yourself as a passive player on a team can make the opposition more willing to put in maximal effort to try and win a game.
Scenario 5 – To improve individuals confidence
On to swimming, where this year I have been fortunate enough to teach a year 7 class with a support member of staff (a fellow PE teacher). Our delivery has involved one of us acting as the class teacher, while the other immerses themselves in the lesson in the shallow end of the pool, supporting the less able and less confident swimmers (sadly in this group, there were many). Being in the water allowed that member of staff to provide targeted interventions to those that needed it most, and also to demonstrate the techniques he was asking them to show themselves. This proved incredibly successful, and I now find myself wishing I had a support member of staff for every swimming lesson!
Again, let me be clear about the purpose of this post. I am not encouraging you to start taking part in every lesson that you teach. I am not suggesting it is something that should become the norm in your lessons. What I am simply trying to do is challenge the notion that joining in is simply a no no in every situation in our lessons. Of course, for the scenarios I have outlined above to genuinely support the progress of the students we teach, it is imperative the teacher is capable of applying themselves in the situation without losing site of their initial goals for doing so – developing the students. As PE teachers, we are often known for being ultra competitive, but this outlook has no place in what I am suggesting here.
I have no doubt that some of you reading this may find it controversial, or may disagree wholeheartedly. But I also expect that many of you reading this have used one of the above scenarios in your lessons, and probably did it solely for the benefit of the students you teach.
I would welcome comments from people in both camps, and would end by recommending you watch the scene from Kes just one last time, if nothing else but to remind you of how not to go about things!