I stood alone on that field, arm outstretched in the air. I closed my eyes tightly and prayed. Dear God please, please make this end. Make it all end. I wanted to die.
Though I am the first to criticise the faceless organisations which I believe suck life out of society and drain us of legitimate freedom, I tend to avoid being critical of individuals or groups of people – particularly if members of said groups are known to me and might feel I have personally attacked them. I’m not in the business of rubbishing people; ‘if you can’t take it then don’t dish it out‘ is a good motto to live by and I’m certainly someone who feels the slash of criticism even if, inevitably, it turns out to be merely a paper cut. So it is rare I’ll make comment on people who might take offence.
Nevertheless, I’m making an exception today after speaking to a friend on a subject which makes me boil right now. I won’t say why (I still live in my town and don’t want to get lynched) but I have good reason to throw my ire at certain kinds of people and I’m going to do so here. Before you say to yourself ‘oh dear, Ken I hope you’re not writing something in anger without thinking about it – write in haste, regret in leisure’ let me assure you that my initial outrage over an incident a few weeks ago has dimmed and I’m writing this with a level head. Indeed, I’ve taken several days to write this post and editing profusely.
I guess the ultimate test for assessing if you write in anger or out of belief in a cause is this: would you say it to the person-in-question’s face? In this case yes I would; and in fact I’d say it to anyone belonging to this class of people.
I am, of course, talking about Physical Education teachers (Games teachers for some of you, in the UK we normally call them PE teachers).
Quite honestly, in the forty-odd years I’ve lived on this earth I’ve not met a single one worth the wages they draw each month. Not the ones who used to bully me when I was at school and not the ones I worked with as a teacher. The scene I described at the beginning of this post was a genuine moment in my life when I was just 11 years old. The PE teacher, who never had a kind word to say to me, made all the boys stand in the field while he took the best sportsman out of us to pitch a cricket ball to him which he expertly batted high into the air towards us. Whoever caught it got to stand with him and mock the rest of us. Needless to say, I was the last on the pitch failing to catch that ball again and again and again, the boys jeering me, screaming with laughter when the ball, yet again, smacked into my hand and bounced away or simply fell to the ground at my feet as I misjudged its fall. Even the lads who were nearly as bad as I and had only just managed to join the group, catching the ball by fluke rather than skill, quickly joined in with the pack, grateful that someone else was subject to the mocking instead of them.
The closest I ever got to seeing decent Games teaching was while I worked at LAMB, Bangladesh and that was only because in my time there we never had a single professionally qualified PE teacher! The result was various staff – long-term and visiting – took on the role and muddled through with the kids. Though not perfect, there was a lot more fun and games (those two terms being essential to have together) on the playing field than anything I ever saw or heard of from a UK school. Things were more relaxed though even there they weren’t perfect.
The unimportance of Physical Education?
You may think I just have a grudge against PE and sports tuition but I don’t. As a music teacher for more that 21 years I’ve always kept up with latest research about the subject and its benefits. Research looking at how the brain works suggests that music study stimulates multiple parts of the brain (and therefore exercises them – which is a good thing of course)that other subjects don’t. There is only one other subject which has a similar effect and that is physical education. It is good for your brain, not just your body, to do games.
I tried (though I think I failed) to champion the cause of PE while at LAMB. I was responsible for preparing the reports for our O level students (aged 14-16) and I insisted that PE teachers included a report into each student’s effort and contribution through the year. PE wasn’t included in the lower school reports and, I suspect, was removed from the O level reports once I left; it was a step too far for most teachers to comprehend. PE simply wasn’t important because you couldn’t take a qualification in it (at least not one worth bothering with). I insisted it was a subject to take seriously and given equal weighting with others. Ironically, considering my background in music (which I didn’t teach at LAMB because they already had two or three music teachers) I never managed to persuade anyone at all that music was also an important subject; it too was left off the reports.
So I don’t have an axe to grind against the subject – I think it is much more important that most people in any country give it credit for. But its importance is what makes me so angry that PE teachers (in the UK at least) are easily the worst of any subject taught in the curriculum. I think there are two reasons for this:
Why PE teachers are so awful
Firstly, PE teachers get away it because their arrogance and bullying manners works with some kids, usually the ones who are already heavily involved in sport or ones who get a real adrenaline rush from the shouting and heavy cajoling. Also, I have no doubt they are much more friendly and supportive to kids who show talent and interest. I’m sure there could be – and maybe we’ll see in the comments below – some readers who will claim their PE teacher was the best ever and was fun, supportive and encouraged all. I would be amazed though if those same people weren’t good at sport in school to some degree. I have heard of no one who was terrible at sport and showed no talent at all yet felt their PE teacher was brilliant and encouraging – certainly not in the later stages of schooling. Even if such a person presents themselves here on the blog or in real life, it still won’t detract from the fact that for the majority it simply isn’t the case.
You may claim that this is natural – kids like the teachers whose subject they are good at/interested in. I would counter that by saying that music teachers have to deal with classes where it is almost certain most students have neither talent nor interest in the subject. Good music teachers still manage to encourage the students and help them gain motor skills and higher brain functions they otherwise would not have achieved. Bad music teachers – the ones who are elitist, giving their whole concentration only to the musicians in the classroom and treating the others as second class – are every bit as bad as PE teachers generally. Unfortunately a few such music teachers still exist, but not many.
The second reason I think PE teachers get away with being so awful is that there is an argument which says you can’t pander to the weak in a subject which requires you to ‘sink or swim’. Students have to be cajoled and bullied a bit if they are to be the best, the strongest, the fastest. Sports league tables matter more to PE teachers than Government inspection outcomes. Kids learn to toughen up with sports and face the world with determination even through the pain. This is an important life skill.
Rubbish, say I.
How PE teachers get it wrong and Music teachers get it right
This is a post-WWII mentality which should have died out decades ago and it’s one which is demonstrably false. Here’s why:
The reason I never pandered to my talented students when I was a music teacher was because I knew these students would very likely carry on with music without my input. They all had private lessons (and let me tell you that there is absolutely no substitute for one-to-one tutoring when it comes to learning an instrument) and were already pretty much self-motivated.
Instead I took the view of the old adage ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish for himself and you feed him for a lifetime‘. I wanted all kids to come away with some core understanding and skills in music and, more importantly, a love and appreciation of the subject. I’ve lost track of how many kids of mine showed no aptitude for the subject in school but years after leaving took up an instrument for themselves and flourished. Indeed, this is my own story – I was hopeless at music all the way through school until suddenly, aged 13, I fell in love with the subject and took O level music despite the fact I couldn’t play even a simple tune on an instrument!
I was lucky; that love came to me by accident rather than some inspiring music teacher (there were little things along the way but my first great inspiration was my O level teacher after I’d already fallen in love with music). In my career as a teacher I resolved to make the subject as interesting and fun for as many of my students as I could.
I’m pretty certain most music teachers do the same and I would justify this claim by saying look at how many people in the UK play an instrument. While it’s true less kids take up the violin (interestingly, violin teachers are often most guilty of retaining those outdated, traditionalist WWII ideas) it’s also true more kids are taking up guitar, or keyboards, or drums. The nature of musical education may be changing but it’s certainly not diminishing. I’m delighted that classical training (which has held an elitist grip on British music education for too long and nearly strangled it to death at one point) is on the decline and popular music training (Pop, Rock, Blues, Jazz etc.) is on the increase. More amateurs play instruments than have in decades if not centuries.
Alas, the same parallel can’t be said for sports.
I suspect some may throw statistics around and tell me gym membership is up, more people are swimming and so on. I would counter with one simple and irrefutable statistic: Britain is fat.
In fact, according to figures from the BBC a few days ago, the UK has the second fattest population in Europe. I remember returning to Cumbria a few years back after living in Bangladesh for a couple and being stunned and horrified as my family and I walked down a high street and didn’t see a single slim person. Every single person that day was fat, I mean not just chubby but huge. I lay the charge of failing to prevent us becoming a fat nation firmly at the door of the PE teachers. They have failed Britain and continue to do so even now.
How many kids leave school with little ability in PE yet say it was their favourite subject? How many consider their PE teacher as one of their greatest influences yet also concede they were hopeless on the pitch, in the gym or in the pool? I would say next to none. Most hate PE.
Yet I lose track of how many students I’ve heard from years after lessons finished who tell me music was their favourite subject at school and they wished they could have been any good at it because they would have chosen it for GCSE (equivalent to O levels in the UK). I’ve passed every OFSTED inspection I ever had and my choirs won awards, orchestras were praised as ‘almost professional’ and scores of students went on to take music as their degree subject; yet my proudest moment was overhearing two 12-year-old girls leaving my class one day. One said to the other “I really love music lessons. I’m crap at music but I really love the lessons”. This wasn’t said to me or for my benefit, it was a genuine statement which told me I was getting it right – I was teaching others how to fish. That was far more important to me than impressing OFSTED inspectors or wowing competition judges.
I’m not boasting. I can only sing my own praises (and that of my department staff) because I know the same story is happening all over the UK. I would guesstimate that two-thirds of all music teachers are having the same or similar effect on their students. The other third I’m as harsh on as I am with PE teachers: they should leave the profession and stop damaging lives.
The time to change attitudes of a nation – starting with the teachers
I held my hand out, still praying, hoping God would just strike me dead and be done. There was a swooshing sound and a thunk. I looked up and saw the cricket ball nestling firmly in my hand. By chance I’d finally caught it. As I wandered over to the group, humiliated and seething, my PE teacher dismissed the group but couldn’t resist one final shot at me. “You’re pathetic, boy,” he told me. “You’re a disgrace to this school.” I swore to myself I would never take part in sports again. I hate my teacher; I hated the subject; most of all I hated myself.
I believe it is high time that PE teachers reconsidered their approach to the subject. We need a nation of people who don’t sit on their arses all day eating junk food and watching TV. We need a people who come out of school loving physical activity. People for whom playing sport for fun is simply the norm. We need to undo generations of damage. I’m far from being alone in growing up for years believing I was physically hopeless, useless at sport, a freak to watch on any playing field, to be laughed at and pitied for my inadequacies. It has taken me my whole life to overcome this belief.
Even now, I exercise and train in private. I enjoy playing squash with my wife when we get the chance but I always insist we book the court which doesn’t have a glass back wall allowing other leisure centre users to watch our game. I hear a dozen PE teachers mocking me in my head if I even suspect someone might be watching our game. I’m only just beginning to allow myself to go running in our village. I do so having spent years as an outrageous teacher and even more embarrassing father having reached the point where I don’t give a fig what people think about me any longer. Nevertheless, when I run, the voices in my head tell me that everyone who sees me is laughing at the weird geek running like he’s from the Ministry of Funny Walks. I’ve spent the last year training hard and for the first time in my life I’m beginning to take pride in my body. It’s a tiny amount – I still see countless flaw and hear mocking voices – but I’m undoing the damage done in childhood. I don’t want my children to take forty years before they stop believing they are hopeless at sport and should give up trying. Alas, I fear it’s already too late.
I ask PE teachers to reconsider their priorities. What’s more important? To win games, competitions and push the elite few into ‘going for gold’ in the top national and international games? Or to turn sports sessions in to non-competitive, encouraging, ‘can-do’ moments in life where kids come out feeling good about themselves, feeling safe to fail, to cock-up, to ‘miss the ball’ and never ever feeling ashamed for who they are? Which approach will see a return to our nation’s health?
I believe G K Chesterton got it right when he said “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Psychologists agree.
Let us be a nation of lousy swimmers, hopeless guitarists, dreadful sportsmen, inadequate musicians and be happier for it. Because then we’d have a leaner, fitter country where people get together to make song and make merry rather than get pissed and have fights – or just slob alone at home, depressed, on the couch and eating their deep-fried heart attack awaiting a slow death.