Health Concerns Spark Demand for Physical Education Teachers

These days, kids spend most of their time watching TV or playing on computers. As a result, youth are becoming less physically active and more sedentary. So how do we get them off the couch and moving again?

Some physical education experts in the U.S. may have found the answer.

The physical education teacher at Cabell-Midland High School in Virginia teaches children how to ride mountain bikes.

Kids at the Coleman Middle School in Kansas play air piano as they learn how to line dance at the hands of their physical education instructor. In Illinois, youth in the Naperville school district are exercising in their "target rate zones."

These are just some of the latest trends transforming the way physical education has traditionally been taught in schools. What has been dubbed the "new PE" is introducing youth to a wider range of physical activities, from mountain biking to ice-skating.

"It is all the forms of physical activity we can think of that might engage kids," says Judith Young. She is the executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE).

"In Alaska, some of our teachers are doing ice-skating and cross-country skiing. In some of our western states, they do things like juggling. Other programs include martial arts, aerobics, rock climbing and Rollerblading."

In fact, recent studies have indicated a drop in physical activity levels among North American youth. A report put out by the U.S. Surgeon General reveals that "nearly half of young people aged 12 to 21 are not vigorously active on a regular basis."

"We're in the midst of an unprecedented epidemic among young people," reported Howell Wechsler in an article in USA Today. "It's been consistent in every demographic group you can imagine." Wechsler works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's division of adolescent and school health.

Aside from leading to heart disease, obesity heightens one's risk of colon cancer, diabetes and adult diseases like osteoporosis. There are also emotional and psychological complications associated with weight gain, such as depression, anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

Andrea Grantham is a communications consultant with a physical education association. "If they are not getting it through a daily physical education program, then they are not going to get it," she says. "Hence, the health problems existing today in kids will continue and multiply into adulthood."

Marilies Rettig is a physical education teacher. She agrees. "That is why it is absolutely critical that schools provide a physical education program."

But when you look at the prevailing attitudes towards physical education, the situation doesn't look good.

Many people believe schools aren't delivering in the area of physical education. The average elementary student participates in one to three 25- to 30-minute blocks of physical activity a week. The average high school student gets a maximum of one year in a four-year period.

Time constraints are another reason why a lot of students don't take physical education in high school. "Knowledge has expanded in the last 100 years and the school day and the school year are the same as they always were," says Young. "We have a lot more to learn and the same amount of time to learn it in."

That is why more schools are going back to teaching the basics. The problem is that programs like physical education, art and music end up being compromised for courses in computers and technology.

The Hiring Crunch

Given that, employment prospects for physical education teachers remain up in the air.

But there is some glimmer of hope. Both the U.S. and Canada are facing massive teacher shortages within the next few years.

More openings for teachers could mean more employment possibilities for physical education teachers.

"There will be a demand for teachers in some subject areas. And certainly the demand for physical education teachers will escalate if indeed the appropriate stress and recognition is given to physical education," says Rettig.

Teachers who supplement a background in physical education with math, science or computers will be able to cash in on the teacher shortage by making themselves that much more marketable. "Those are good combinations [considering] there is a demand for those other subject areas," says Rettig.

The need for qualified teachers in these areas has already hit the U.S. "We already have a shortage of teachers in math and science," says Young. "And a number of teachers are already having to teach outside their qualified areas."

A good example is elementary teachers who double as physical education teachers. "In elementary, classroom teachers teach most of the physical education. It usually is a matter of perhaps supervising a few games."

But that also prevents more physical education teachers from being hired. And that's bad news at a time when specialists in this field are needed.

"We feel that this is really a negative turn, given the fact that physical education is viewed as a frill. It is not just a matter of getting kids to throw a few balls around," says Grantham.

"A physical education teacher is someone who knows how to teach children how to be active. They are not there to run around and do skipping at recess. They are there to learn the skills that are necessary to carry on into lifelong physical activity."

A Love for Sport

So what does it take to become a qualified physical education teacher?

"You don't have to be an athlete to be a physical education teacher," notes Young. A love for sports is enough. "It is the same qualities we would like in any teacher -- an interest and enthusiasm for the subject they are teaching. Physical education is the same."

A desire to share your passion for physical activity and fitness with children and youth also helps.

"That was my drive to be a physical education teacher, to instill in children and youth an enjoyment and desire to participate in physical education," says Rettig. "That has to be central, regardless of what your experience as an athlete is."

There is also the matter of obtaining the right credentials.

The path one must take to become a physical education teacher in the U.S. varies from state to state. "There are specific certifications in all states for physical education," says Young.

"Sometimes it is by level. Sometimes by K to 12. Those require a bachelor degree in physical education and some of them have to pass the national teacher exam or other state tests for teachers."

Those interested in pursuing a career in physical education can also expect to take courses in child development, anatomy and physiology, psychology and biomechanics.

The Future of Physical Education

Until schools make physical education a mandatory part of one's education, opportunities for physical education teachers will be limited. Organizations like NASPE are working hard to get that message out, but it isn't always easy.

"It is not like some other campaigns that we go out on like seat belts or bicycle helmets where we have very dramatic immediate results," says Young. "The impact of physical activity is cumulative over a period of time, so you do not have these striking incidents or problems as a result of not being active."

In the end, many hope that changes in public perception towards physical education will spark a demand for more physical education teachers. With time, people in all walks of life will come to understand the benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle.

As Young points out, "As the whole of society, both adults and children, get increasingly sedentary, we will begin to realize that we were meant to be moving entities."


National Association for Girls and Women in Sport
A nonprofit organization of over 25,000 professionals in the fitness and physical activity fields

Physical Activity and Health
Have a glance at the U.S. Surgeon General's report

PE Central
A site for physical education teachers

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