Jim Ressler is a strong advocate for the power and potential of Physical Education leadership programs.
“First, they offer a different experience for high school students in P.E. classes,” says Ressler, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education.
“Second, the theme of leadership resonates differently for everyone involved. My own research interests are in adventure-based learning – or adventure education – that emphasize the affective domain, and in personal and social interactions among young people,” he adds. “In schools, these opportunities occur most often in physical education and physical activity environments.”
During several trips last fall to West Aurora High School to consult and mentor young P.E. leaders, however, he noticed something unexpected.
“West Aurora is large; there are 16 P.E. teachers. The P.E. leaders are students in grades 10 through 12 who go through an application process to become assistants to the P.E. teachers,” Ressler says.
“They have the expertise and are comfortable with being co-teachers – leading small groups, running equipment, working one-on-one with students have special needs,” he adds. “What was missing was that the P.E. leaders don’t often mix with each other. That realization put things in motion for me.”
Ressler, also an associate director of the Physical Activity Life Skills (PALS) group, welcomed 70 of those students, and four of their teachers, to campus Feb. 13 for a P.E. Leadership Summit to interact and to ponder deeper questions.
Beyond P.E. class, what makes a good leader? What life skills are learned through P.E. leadership, and how can those skills translate to other parts of life?
Participants also got a close-up look at college life during a tour of New Hall, lunch in the cafeteria and during a panel discussion led by current NIU Physical Education majors.
“It was a great day for NIU, the College of Education, our department and our program,” Ressler says. “I’m hopeful that this was just the inaugural P.E. Leadership Summit with West Aurora. We have a really good relationships with them. These are our friends. I’d also like to explore opportunities to invite other school districts.”
The day began with 90 minutes of activity sessions that included the creation of celebratory dances with partners and a “Marco Polo”-type game with blindfolds and partners on either side of the gym with code words that also included “peanut butter” and “jelly” as well as “yoyo and yogurt.”
An activity called “Time to Meet” encouraged students to make “appointments” with classmates they had never met and to ask them questions about their favorite things, their desired super powers and their personal definitions of leadership.
“Mergers,” meanwhile, asked the West Aurora students to put parts of their bodies inside colorful hoops. Students then were told how many people could share one hoop; the number started at four per hoop and soon rose to as many as 24 as hoops were removed.
Questions after “Mergers” focused on positive and negative behaviors, the skills at play in achieving the right numbers, teamwork and decision-making.
By 11:15 a.m., the group had moved to New Hall for lunch and a tour. It was an important part of the day, Ressler says. “West Aurora is “a unique and diverse school district,” he says. “Plenty of people put their hands up when we asked who had never been an on a college campus before.”
While at New Hall, the students also listened to a panel discussion of current Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education majors who talked about “adulting” – everything from being a college student in control of their own learning to “doing laundry, feeding themselves and putting gas in the car.”
“Our five students just crushed it,” Ressler says. “I was proud of them, answering honest questions in such a thoughtful way.”
Claire Zittel, a senior at West Aurora, was happy to take part it “an absolutely amazing event” with “activities both active and more personal” that “helped us work on many leadership skills such as communication, trust and openness.”
Zittel believes the NIU trip “will help us to become better leaders and role models.”
“These skills are ones that many of us use every day at West when we are in the gym helping out as P.E. Leaders,” Zittel says. “It is important for West students to learn and begin to use these skills our roles as PE Leaders at school but also in the community.”
While at school, she says, these talents are necessary to fully help teachers
“In anything from leading stretches to running back to the office to grab extra basketballs to demonstrating the skills needed to kick a soccer ball, P.E. Leaders are important to the teacher but also to their classmates,” she says. “Having the appropriate leadership skills helps the classroom, or more likely the gym, run smoother and helps build better relationships between the students and the leaders and the teachers.”
Away from school, she adds, “these skills are what will help any of us in whatever job we end up working. If it’s college, a job or everyday life, leadership skills help people to stand out and excel.”
Todd Gingerich, K-12 curriculum coordinator for Physical Education/Health/Driver Education in the West Aurora School District, agrees with Zittel that “the day was a fantastic experience.”
Students left with “a different lens of what leadership looks like,” he says.
“Our P.E. Leadership students are strong but can always learn new strategies to develop their own leadership style. The skills learned can not only be utilized in the P.E. classroom but also in their real life experiences and future careers,” says Gingerich, who also oversees four health teachers and four driver education teachers. “We hope that our P.E. leaders take back these skills and integrate them into our current lessons. The skills learned can give them many more opportunities to lead in our classrooms and be effective in their roles.”
Charlie Graves, a P.E. teacher at West Aurora, glimpsed more than the raised awareness “about what’s out there beyond high school” for his students.
“I think it’s important for them to take a minute and realize that they all have some sort of leadership characteristics in them. We do similar activities, but don’t always spend the time explaining those skills. It’s also different for them to hear it coming from a college professor rather than their high school P.E. teacher,” says Graves, a KNPE alum who earned his M.S.Ed. in Physical Education in 2017.
“My biggest hope would be for them to communicate these skills to many of their peers,” he adds. “They may not sit and talk about it, but these leadership skills might click for them one day when doing an activity in another class, at work with their co-workers, or even after high school when they are in their educational careers or careers in life.”
Graves says he feels confident that “these students will remember their skills and training and think back to NIU” when they put them into action.
Indeed, surveys taken the day of the event showed that nearly all participants had fun, developed a better understanding of leadership and college life, felt more connected to other P.E. Leaders at West Aurora, practiced skills that will help them succeed in other leadership roles and formed positive impressions of NIU.
Ressler now is eager to watch the results of those reactions back at West Aurora.
“I’d like to see these students just being more intentional in their daily activities at their high school and in demonstrating their leadership qualities,” he says. “They’ve been modeling these for some time, but they might not have made these connections or realized the important role they play in serving with their teachers and with their peers in the school community.”