Jim Ressler knew he was on to something good in February, when he and his colleagues from the NIU PALS Group played host to 70 students from West Aurora High School for the first P.E. Leadership Summit.
Two months later, the associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education gained important validation that he was right.
Ressler applied for, and received, the college’s Senior Faculty Fellowship title for 2019-21 with a proposal that will intentionally grow his project to other school districts throughout NIU’s service region. He also will use the position’s additional funding to attend professional conferences to share his model and its results.
“I continue to appreciate the effort our college makes to reinvest in faculty and their pursuit of scholarship,” says Ressler, who joined the NIU College of Education a decade ago.
“As a teacher-educator, I am most interested in advancing research that improves the way we train teachers as well as the way we work with our local partners,” he adds. “The Senior Faculty Fellow program helps take that to other level while balancing some of the daily responsibilities of teaching.”
February’s inaugural summit provide an opportunity for the West Aurora students to interact with each other rather than serving in their typical co-teacher roles in the school gymnasium.
Students talked about the qualities of good leaders, the life skills learned through P.E. leadership and how those skills – decision-making, accountability, honesty, integrity, fairness, equity – translate to other parts of life.
They also enjoyed 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.
“Our program was a really nice first attempt because so many people were involved,” Ressler says. “I’m looking to do that again.”
Ressler’s immediate plans for expansion begin this fall by “gaining a better sense of what P.E. leadership looks like in other school districts” that include many of those that feed NIU’s enrollment.
He is reaching out to alumni who are teaching P.E. in those high schools, scheduling needs-assessment visits with high schools, making plans to attend multi-district strategic planning meetings held among suburban P.E. program administrators and even asking current NIU students about their P.E. experiences in high school.
The goal is to offer summits in the future – as early as 2020 – that welcome and blend students from numerous high schools.
“My aim is to intermix these students from different schools in this one-day professional development workshop,” Ressler says. “That really ratchets up the teaching and practicing of leadership skills. Physical education and physical activity are the backdrop, but the conversation and activities will center around leadership.”
Improving P.E. programs drives Ressler, who taught for three years at Rochelle Township High School and for one year at an elementary school in downstate Charleston while he earned his master’s degree.
Part of his mission, which now is also being advanced by the P.E. Leadership Summit, is to highlight learning outcomes in physical education that might not have been considered previously.
Too many adults overlook P.E.’s ability to create and teach personal and social interactions, he says. Some students, meanwhile, don’t consider P.E. a positive experience or find themselves “marginalized.”
“I’ve tried to spend most of my career at NIU researching and describing physical activity environments that are more inclusive to all participants, and not just a formal, traditional or dated curriculum,” Ressler says. “P.E. is meant to be for the value and enjoyment of movement for healthy, lifelong wellness that is open to current trends and interests for all populations and grounded in focused learning objectives.”
Current P.E. majors find Ressler’s mission in their NIU curriculum and now through their participation in the summits.
He hopes they take his philosophies with them into their careers.
“Our physical education-teacher education (PETE) students understand the purpose of P.E. Leaders for building community among their groups, and the value of normalizing effective communication and cooperation as the foundation for future success as leaders,” he says.
“It’s this same pursuit our PETE program supports in the ways we integrate clinical experiences to methods courses for our preservice teachers,” he adds. “When our NIU students, or our visiting high school P.E. Leaders are engaged, they are more likely to respond to the message of building relationships and helping others connect – in and outside of physical education.”