The stigma attached to PE


‘But, anyway, I just decided to give up on myself and become a teacher, because those that can’t do, teach. And those that can’t teach, teach gym.’ Dewey Finn, School of Rock

People’s initial reaction when I tell them I teach PE isn’t always overly positive. There seems to be a stigma attached to the study of physical education or sport. Last year I went to Kenya with a colleague for charity work. Sitting in the back of the taxi, on the way to the airport, we engaged in conversation with the driver. This conversation naturally moved to the topic of our jobs. My colleague, a biology teacher, was praised by the taxi driver. He even went on to say that he hoped his daughter would end up in the field of science like him. When I told him I was a PE teacher he actually said ‘what has happened with your life?’ Needless to say he didn’t receive a tip from me.


Steve Stifler, above left, is a fictional character from the movie American Pie. He is the living embodiment of a ‘jock’. Muscular, full of energy, utterly devoid of empathy, selfish and as dumb as a doornail. He lives the life of the body and is only interested in his own self pleasure. In this, Stifler is what is wrong, in my opinion, with education today. The ‘idiot athlete’ has become so ingrained into today’s popular culture that we can forget its real meaning. Stifler has been born out of a conflict that has been raging for thousands of years, one that has once again raised it’s head this week. That is the educational conflict between the body and the mind.

This year I have have heard the following. GCSE PE is a soft subject because of it’s practical nature and that it lacks rigour. Dance and Drama have also come under fire. Studying Liberal Arts subjects will prevent a wider choice of job choice later on it life. I have heard this said by those in charge of our education system and by significant others. The media reports it. Parents hear it and pass it on to their children. This prejudice, I feel, is due to the belief that education only exists in the mind. It is a view point that sees physical and mental exertion as something that is very different. That you can only be a ‘body’ person or a ‘mind’ person. That you must choose one and forgo the other, and the mind is the one that is important for a career later on in life. I feel this is a dualist philosophy and what it does is rob children of a holistic education and one that may prepare them for life and not solely for a job. It also has the added impact of placing no real educational benefit of physical education and of sport.


This focus on the mind means that exercise becomes a dull duty, so no wonder so many children then take no part in it both inside and outside of school. My grandfather is Cypriot, and when he was still alive, we discussed Socrates over grilled haloumi and ouzo. He told me that Socrates believed that a fitter body allowed the person to better meet any challenge, including mental ones. That knowledge is driven out of the mind because of poor physical condition. However I personally feel it is more than that. I had forgotten how exercising can bring unity to the both the body and the mind and give a greater drive to lead a healthy and active life.

I feel the message being sent at the moment tells children this; mind at the top, and body at the bottom. That success in life is equated to a career and this in turn is only possible by studying Maths, Science, Engineering and Technology. The study of a subject for enjoyments sake is no longer important. It distracts from the pursuit of grades and even has the potential to corrupt your ability to achieve this, as my academic colleagues insist when they require pupils to no longer attend extra-curricular clubs but join them in ‘interventions’. This gives the impression that work and education is solely of the mind. That a professional life is one that is chiefly a mental and not a physical one. That success is due to the character of the mind and that our bodies contribution to that success is diminished.

Education should not be about the divorcing of the mind from the body. The debate between STEM or Liberal Arts and Physical Education should be a mute one. We should be encouraging an education of wholeness. I’d challenge a athlete to read. I’d challenge an artist to embrace science. I’d challenge a mathematician to perform on stage. I’d challenge a writer to try to make music. I’d challenge a coder to dance. I want a commitment to an understanding of our full humanity and embracing a broad range of subjects; practical and theoretical. Not promoting one over the other, but ensuring an educational system that allows for the life long pursuit of striving both physically and mentally and giving our students the best possible chance of success whatever they may want.

7 thoughts on “The stigma attached to PE

  1. Thanks for this piece on thinking about how mind and body should be seen as a whole. Embodiment is important for thinking about how learning is not just in the mind, but also how identity reflects and is shaped by both mind and body. You’ve captured an interesting element of this thinking from a PE perspective.


    1. Thanks for your comments Joanne. I think much of our current education is disembodied, as we often appeal to the mind and disregard the body. I think I can be guilty of this too at time. Obviously in PE there is a link between both, and I believe through my personal observations that this can have great impact on learning. However this to be seriously considered in other subject areas I think there needs to be some deep research to see if that link can have an impact in teaching and learning. However till then we need to ensure that subjects that have a practical element are part of our overall education system and not marginalised by the stigma unjustly attached to them.


  2. Very true what you say, but I would add that PE isn’t purely for enjoyment either. The science clearly shows the benefit that any form of physical activity has on the brain. I definitely want my students walking away from my PE program having enjoyed the experience and developing a love of movement and fitness, but more importantly, I want them to understand that physical activity connects the head, the heart, and the hands. It helps them to think and learn better. It helps them to build positive relationships in which they feel valued, and it allows them to build upon their physical skills.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.