Teaching abroad is a wonderful thing. You step outside of your comfort zone as you travel to different countries, immerse yourself in a foreign culture, all while doing the one true thing you love, teaching. It has been a short but rewarding experience so far that has come with its fair share of challenges and triumphs. Class sizes, facilities, equipment, interest and students are all factors that we deal with all over the world. In my experiences, these are also where some of my challenges have come from; however, maybe not in the ways one might expect.
Teaching Physical Education at International Schools
Before I touch on my adaptations, challenges and positives, I should give you an idea of my situation. I am currently a grade 2-5 physical education and health teacher in an international school. Currently we have limited equipment, a limited budget and limited facilities for primary and elementary PE. There are 2 primary and elementary PE teachers and a high school teacher, and we all share the same equipment and facilities. Our timetables are basically jam packed, and we are also the athletics directors for our respective grades. I am in a country where education is well respected and there is a strong focus on academics. The student body has a 0% obesity rate within the school; intramurals are mandatory participation and athletics are strongly encouraged. Our on-campus facility is a small auditorium, approximately the size of a standard classroom, that we use for PE for grade JK-2. Grades 3-12 will bus off campus to a soccer pitch nearby where we have outdoor PE daily. In Asia, there are some issues with air quality and there are days we are not permitted to take the children outside, and being near the ocean and in a humid climate, we do tend to get rain.
Facilities are key to any PE program. Ideally anyone teaching PE would enjoy a full sized gymnasium that is set up to meet the movement needs of all the children that enter. Unfortunately, not all international school have been blessed with the same facilities. In our area, we see some school that have training centers that would meet the training needs of Olympic athletes, while others barely have anything. As a teacher, we have to adapt and be flexible. Making the most of what we have and making it an enjoyable and meaningful experience for the children we teach. Creativity and imagination have become a crucial part of my daily planning. By engaging my students’ creativity, my movement education program and fundamental skills training is flourishing in this environment. My current small auditorium/gymnasium has given me the opportunity to really focus on spatial awareness and the concepts of self and general space. We reinforce these concepts daily and focus heavily on safety as we move within the confined space.
On the other end, with my upper primary and elementary students (3-5) I have a full sized soccer pitch. My classes must bus over to this field for each class, and we need to transport the equipment there as well. The great thing here is how easily we can adapt the size of the boundaries with such an abundance of space. Sometimes restricting them to small areas to focus on fine movements and spatial awareness. Other times allowing free reign to explore the space and move independently and freely through the vast area. While this facility is very workable we have the ultimate issue of the weather and air quality that can cause you to adapt your lesson for inside with only a moments notice. Being planned and prepared is important, but being flexible and creative is imperative.
Examples of PE Adaptations
I hope some of these examples can be of help to those of you who are struggling with space.
- I use a series of music oriented warm-ups that can have students moving in many different ways. This has helped them become more aware of their surroundings, and the way that they move through space. For example, we have done a “Clothes on the Line” Activity where students use their imagination to mimic a day of clothes washing at their homes. We simulate violent movements of being washed, and slight gentle movements of floating through the air on a summer’s breeze. We still complete many of the main locomotor and non-locomotor skills in the confined space but I continuously remind them about our main rules for safety: No running into other people, No running into the walls, and No sliding on the floor. By continuously reinforcing these three facts I have helped cut down on the number of accidental bumps and bruises that could be avoided with a bigger space.
- We work our soccer intramural program in our tiny “gymnasium” so to adapt to make it work, we actually don’t use any nets. We use floor tape to create our lines (the auditorium/gymnasium doesn’t have any) and our nets. The nets are traced in tape on the wall and the students are actively engaged every day at lunch. With such a small student body from k-12 (250) the 3-6’s have 1-2 intramural games per week. Depending on the numbers we supervise playing time and rotate children in and out of the game to keep playing time equal. Its not an ideal situation but sometimes it is just too dangerous to have 8vs.8 being played in that confined area. We can also use the softer soccer ball alternative to the standard ball as students tend to get hit frequently as there isn’t much time to react when a ball is coming at you.
- Outside, we adapt our lessons in a different sense. I have class sizes that range from 9-14 students. And my classes are taking place on a soccer pitch for a double block (70mins) Generally for these classes, I restrict the general space with cones or use pre painted lines on the field. Then I proceed with the game within that space. The game are generally not what you would expect to see. My version of football with 9 students looks more like a compacted game of ultimate Frisbee. Or, we find ways of adding competition to skills development games. This gets our students more actively involved, and they love trying to set new records and beat a previous personal best.
I know these aren’t overly specific examples, but I must admit, it is hard to pick some out and just say that these are great o do if you have limited space, because every case is different. What I can say is that being flexible and creative will be your best friend. Don’t hesitate to try new things and make up games or modifications that the children might whine about at first. Some of the most successful games so far for me have been ones that I have changed slightly and added my enthusiasm to when I describe them. The children will enjoy most everything we offer them in P.E. as long as we believe in it as well.
Since moving to Korea, I have had to adapt on many levels. Personally, I’m adapting to a new culture. I just left Cairo a few short months ago where the cultural norms are much different than those here in Korea. Furthermore, I am adapting to a new staff and administration. Getting to know my coworkers and who they are and what they expect from the children helps make my job a little easier. Being on the same page can allow us to set clear and concise expectations across the board. Finally, once I have finally met my kids and began my classes, I must adapt to my class sizes, special restrictions and time constraints. So as previously mentioned, on the international circuit, you learn to become more of a contortionist than just a flexible teacher.
Building a Good PE Program
Personally I believe that a good PE program is built on expectations and routines that can be passed on and carried out over years. The students gain a sense of what the curriculum is through the implementation of a well rounded program that is crafted by specialists who adapt to the given populations needs. International teaching has the ultimate challenge of turnover and pedagogical differences. With 1-2 year contracts and the chance that teachers will move on for new experiences it is tough to create a program that carries some of your heart and soul that will carry on. The fact is that each teacher has their own approaches and ways of delivering their ideal program, this can be challenging for the children as they have to be flexible and quick to adapt to the new expectations and goals that arise each year.
About the Author:
Michael Walsh is PE specialist who graduated from Memorial University of Newfoundland (B.PE) and Concordia University of Edmonton (B.Ed). He is am currently taking his master’s in physical education from Memorial University of Newfoundland, while teaching grades 2-5 full time in Incheon, South Korea at an international school. Michael has also taught in Cairo, Egypt. He is proud of his commitment to international teaching.