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A photo of Mr Gaddam's PE class. Mr Gaddam is standing over a group of 5th graders, blowing his whistle, while the students crowd around him.

Doing Hard Things

Imagine two rooms, one a nursery and the other a 5th grade classroom. From one, you hear wailing and crying and the other, silence. But the wailing is not coming from the nursery this time, but from the 5th graders who have just had to do the unthinkable run a mile. Before me, after exactly such an event took place, lay seven 5th graders trying to soak every ounce of the coolness the cement floor had to offer into themselves. When they were not focused on that effort they would take the time to accuse me of trying to kill them, saying that my only intent was to bring about their misery.

Flash forward 5 weeks and two “Run Day Fun Days” (this term came from the more enthusiastic 3rd graders, not the 5th graders) later. After a short, ten minute break we did our exercises and started discussing what sport they wanted to learn. Nary a complaint or wail. One might think that maybe I had gotten a new class of students that were better prepared for the hard things I ask them to do, but no, instead they had learned two important things. First, that running a mile was not, in fact, likely to kill them. Second, that their wailing was not going to cause me to go easier on them.

Teaching physical education last year taught me a lot for how I was going to approach my students, of all ages, this year. The biggest thing that stuck out to me, in my students, was that they generally thought something fun and easy was good and something hard and uncomfortable was bad. Not to say that fun is bad, but if your foundational belief leads you to avoid discomfort, it is hard to improve. So, I approached this year with two foundational ideas for all of my classes: I am going to ask my students to do hard things and we are going to learn and explore the idea of self-discipline. I introduced this idea to my students by letting them know that sometimes their bodies do not want to do the hard things that we are going to do in our class, because our bodies naturally want to conserve energy. As far as they know, at any moment you could be attacked by a bear and you need the energy to be able to fight and get away. Fortunately we have not had any bear attacks at The Saint Constantine School and can use some of that energy without that fear.

After this discussion, I had them run, do stretches and exercises, then as we did our cool down I asked the students how they were feeling. Some of their feet hurt, some felt their hearts beating fast, others felt like it was harder to breathe, and some felt just fine. This was the perfect time to discuss that sometimes improving is not the most comfortable process and that it takes effort and hard work to improve ourselves. A great example is a student I had who could not do a proper carioca (running sideways, while alternating which foot is in front and behind) and after a semester of trying, finally nailed it. For most of the semester, he told me it was impossible for him and that he could just never do it right, but I kept telling him to try and slow down, and do one step at a time, until eventually he didn’t even have to think about it or look down at his feet to make sure he was moving correctly.

To accompany all of this, I added a fourth rule to my class, to follow ‘be safe, respectful, and be a mover. The one nonnegotiable rule, no sitting. Of course the things my students want to do after running a lap or two is sit down, and now they can’t. Which is just my way of introducing self-discipline from the get go, but as it is clear, doing hard things and self-discipline are not that different and are very related.

The great thing about these ideas, especially with the 5th graders, is that it prepares them for what is to come, in both their education and their lives in a physical world. The ability to tell oneself that getting your homework done or taking care of yourself even when you do not want to is going to help them be good students and people. The thing that brings me the most happiness from teaching Motor Movements (our elementary PE classes) is seeing a student accomplish something they could not do before.