My very first lesson as a qualified teacher was also nearly my very last. I was teaching Olympic Gymnastics to 34 Year 11 boys; rings, pommels, parallel bars, vaulting and floor work. Thankfully I had the chance to tweak my lesson as I had the opportunity to watch Noel, a very experienced member of the department, teach the same lesson the period before. The class came in, he explained to them what he wanted them to do with setting up and they followed his instructions. Whilst they were getting out the equipment Noel was engaging them in discussions about rugby, holidays, family, work and more rugby. It was an excellent lesson. I too had hoped to get to teaching some basic sequences on each of the apparatus by the end of my lesson, but things didn’t go quite to plan. We didn’t get past the ‘getting out the equipment phase’ without a sprained wrist, injured rotator cuff, a broken springboard, an impromptu Royal Rumble on the crash mats and a stand-up argument with a boy in front of the whole class ending with him telling me in no uncertain and colloquial terms how poor I was and where I should go. After the ‘lesson’ I sat dazed and confused in the PE Office, dissecting the unfortunate event with Noel. ‘I’m not sure where I went wrong’, I explained ‘I did and said exactly what you did and said’. ‘Well, that is where you went wrong, what I said and did was the result of four years of managing behaviour to build relationships. You should come and watch me teach my Year 7 gymnastics class.’
I did. In fact, I watched Noel teach every lesson of that Year 7 gymnastics unit of work. What I saw wasn’t particularly good teaching of gymnastics, it certainly didn’t push my subject knowledge as a newly qualified teacher. Instead, I got a masterclass on how to build a positive classroom environment that could ensure the good teaching of any other activity in the curriculum through the establishment of consistent rules, routines and responses. Two things became very clear to me watching Noel clearly articulate his rules, practice routines and respond consistently to the first two either being met or not met. Firstly that a good PE environment needs its own set of rules, routines and responses on top of the schools. Secondly that those rules, routines and responses are needed for both survival and success as a PE Teacher.
Without a clear idea about what rules, routines and responses are needed within your PE classroom (or specific ones in certain activities like gymnastics, swimming or rugby) and then consistent application and practice of them it is hard to survive. The opportunities for injury or confrontations in PE increase without them, especially if you are new to the profession or an experienced PE teacher moving to a new school. Every lesson becomes a challenge about managing behaviour, rather than changing sedentary behaviours to more active ones. It isn’t just physical safety our rules, routines and responses are ensuring, it is also ensuring psychological safety. More and more in my experience the fear of failure, the fear of what others will say and the quality of social interactions all impact on children’s willingness to perform in PE. Without establishing a physical and psychological safety net, especially at secondary schools where peer group evaluation and acceptance drives a lot of their decisions, we will not create a ‘have a go culture’. This type of environment is essential if PE is to have any chance of meeting its aims.
However, survival is not enough. We can’t establish authority for authorities sake. Managing behaviour is not success in PE, it isn’t the end. The culture we build in our PE classrooms must be in pursuit of something greater; valuing movement, meaning making, exploring playgrounds, relationships, skill acquisition, motor learning and more. These are the ends that we must continually seek to build on the back of the safety net we have worked hard to erect. The seeds of Noel’s success in Year 11 Gymnastics were sown in Year 7. His doggedness at the beginning to ensure the rules were understood, routines were habitual and his responses of support, sanction and praise were consistently applied meant that he could then spend his time on behavioural change rather than managing behaviours.
As I’m about to start my seventeenth summer of teaching PE, I will once again return to establishing and refining my rules, routines and responses. I have come to understand that this part of my craft is never to be undervalued and is never done. They can always be better. Athletics will challenge me to adapt some of my rules. In recent times my classroom routines have changed from team-based to cooperative learning to improve social interactions. Data seems to suggest my responses become less consistent through the week, (don’t get taught by me on a Friday), something that I’m trying hard to rectify. A colleague once told me a quote attributed to Theodore Rosevelt ”people won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This may be true, but they won’t be able to know how much I care until they feel safe, both physically and psychologically. How can I build trust and relationships when I’m constantly having to fight fires? How can a willingness to have a go, perform and learn occur if children are frightened to do so? How can delight, enjoyment and flourishing through movement happen if all I do is try to manage their behaviour?
Rules, routines and responses can and must open the door to more.