The notion of isolation and marginalization has become increasingly prevalent over the last year. We are spending more time at home, in ‘social bubbles’, and away from our family and friends. Many of us can count the number of others in our ‘bubbles’ on the fingers of one hand. Some, however, only need one finger and are spending days and week’s home alone. We have small 6-inch windows into those bubbles (courtesy of our phones) but these are only snapshots of that individual’s reality.
It is my hope that the more regular ‘chats’ with friends and family I have started over lockdown remain part of my life beyond the current pandemic. I also hope, however, that I remember that there are other forms of isolation. Thousands upon thousands of people haven’t been to work in nearly a year. They have been furloughed or lost treasured jobs and see little on the horizon to suggest that they will be back to work any time soon. Where once they were valued and integral parts of something bigger, now they are home alone. For others, however, they have rarely or never been part of any bigger than themselves and have felt marginalized and isolated for a while now.
This is the piece that this week’s paper talks about (at least to me). We have colleagues around the globe in physical education roles who occupy a place on the margins of school life. They teach the subject that colleagues see as a break from thinking. They teach the subject that loses its indoor spaces to make space for extra classrooms and examination halls. They teach the subject that’s ‘just gym’ and they teach the subject that’s located in the back of beyond where only the intrepid dare to travel. When COVID ends they will still experience all of those things and we need to look out for them and prepare future generations to step out of the PE department and find allies and friends in other departments. We also need to challenge others to make sure the physical education teacher and department are as much a part of school life as any other subject.
The statement on the front of many of the schools I see in films and documentaries from the USA celebrate, on the front of the building, that this is “home to the parkway panthers” (or something similar). The key message I take from this week’s paper is don’t let home be one where physical education teachers are alone.
Cruickshank and colleagues set out to explore the notion of marginalization and found that while Health and Physical Education (HPE) teachers experienced feelings of marginalization this took many forms and was more prevalent in different types of teacher (for example: primary, secondary, more experienced and less experienced teachers). The shared challenges HPE teachers experienced related to “time, curriculum, planning and assessment and others’ perceptions of HPE.” These challenges appeared to be felt by all participants in their research (88 HPE teachers from Tasmania) regardless of their teaching experience and the school year level in which they taught.
When the findings were considered by school year level then issues of student engagement gained greater significance. Year level was most significant and the older the students taught got the less engaged in HPE they were perceived to be. Whereas younger students have regularly been shown to see HPE with their favourite lesson, older students commonly ‘get’ increasingly less interest in HPE. Cruickshank and colleagues draw on a body of research to suggest that a “combination of biological, social and psychological factors such as puberty-related body changes, negative experiences, low levels of perceived competence, changing interests, and for some students, a preference for academic subjects more related to future professions” are responsible for the marginalization of HPE. When considered by gender, then female students continue to move away from HPE because certain aspects of the subject i.e., showering, inappropriate sport uniforms, the dominance of boys and irrelevant (at least to them) choices of activity, put them off HPE.
It would be easy to stop there and suggest that decreasing engagement is one of the biggest causes of challenge, isolation and marginalization for HPE teachers but there are other, less viable contributors to HPE teacher marginalization. The first relates to special needs, the second to strength in numbers and the third to geography.
Experience played a big part in the knowledge and practice marginalization of teachers when it came to special needs. Cruickshank and colleagues found that teachers with more teaching experience felt better able to include students with special education needs in their lessons. “Teachers with more professional experience are likely to have had more involvement teaching students with special needs and therefore have more knowledge of strategies for inclusion, how to adjust activities for inclusion and where to find additional support when required.” Consequently, it is important to remember that newer teachers might feel isolated due to their lack of experience. As such, support needs to be provided for those working with special needs students early in their careers.
Whilst interest in HPE might dwindle with the age of the students, the numbers of colleagues around us increases as the students get older. Accordingly, primary school HPE teachers – as this paper suggests – are often more isolated in their schools than their secondary school peers. In some cases, they are the only physical education teacher in the school and are part-time to boot. What’s more PE is seen as a break for the classroom teacher and a chance to talk about curriculum and assessment matters – at the exclusion of the physical education teacher.
Geographical isolation is another cause of marginalization. PE needs space and this is often found at the periphery of the school (or in some cases off campus). In the UK the sports hall in a newer addition to older schools and this needed to be built on an existing field. This inevitably puts it on the edge of the school. The trip to PE may not seem great, but would you want to walk ten minutes in both directions to get to the staff room two or three times a day?
Subject isolation, geographical isolation and intellectually isolation (remember PE is a break from the academic part of school) highlight “a variety of institutional and teacher-related challenges…[and] can be attributed to the marginalization of their subject.” We need to be more aware of these and develop strategies to being colleagues and friends into the fold. We also need to remember that this isn’t solely a PE problem and need to look out for other staff. Consequently, the challenge is to reach out and see how your colleagues are doing both now and in the future.
What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching - Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).
Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe challenge the findings.
Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?
Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something, or are looking for help, then please let the community know about it.
I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.
Cruickshank, V., Hyndman, B., Patterson, K., & Kebble, P. (2020). Encounter in a marginalised subject: the experiential challenges faced by Tasmanian Health and Physical Education Teachers, Australian Journal of Education, iFirst.