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Playing the Game- Excellence in Teaching

By Michael Jones,, ECS
January 10, 2007

Steve Wright
Steve Wright

Steve Wright is engaged in a struggle—he might call it a battle. He advocates for the importance of physical education in our schools. “I tell my students, ‘You can’t go out to the schools and just teach students, you have to educate everybody—parents, teachers, administrators, the school board.’”

While “No Child Left Behind” is a federally mandated program emphasizing test scores in reading and mathematics, physical education is often jeopardized despite its obvious importance in the face of rising childhood obesity and diabetes.

Compounding matters, notes Wright, is the cliché of the phys ed teacher. “[Physical education] has changed dramatically in the last 20 years,” he says. “But, when you go out into the schools, you’re fighting a lot of battles about the perception of phys ed, based upon what they—teachers and principals—were taught when they were little kids.”

Wright has worked to debunk this stereotype. Much of his research is on teacher socialization, looking at teaching from three perspectives: the students who come into the teaching program; their experiences as they learn to teach; and then, their occupational socialization with emphasis on the critical first year of teaching.

Not surprisingly, Wright espouses a tactical approach to teaching—particularly the teaching of games, another of his interests. Traditionally games are taught through skill development and drills—then the game is played. Wright reverses the equation—first play a modification of the game and then assess the needs of the players.

“It’s a different way of teaching because it really focuses on contextual opportunities of the game. When we teach traditionally through skills and drills they are de-contextualized,” Wright explains. “When you do a lot of drills, the kids will ask, ‘Why are we doing this drill, when are we going to play the game?’”

“[Students] get to play the game through the tactical approach and then, when they do the drills, they don’t complain. They understand why they need to work on the skills to get better.”

Wright and his colleagues use tactical as well as traditional methods. “There is a qualifier to teaching this way,” he explains. “What researchers have found is that around fourth grade is when we should start teaching using the tactical approach—kids need basic skills first.” Still, he notes that in Australia there are a number of coaches using the approach with their teams. “So, it’s going beyond phys ed class.”

Wright notes that the tactical method was introduced in the seventies in England. He began employing it while teaching in Singapore, one of his many stops in a teaching career that has taken him to Thailand, Greece, Holland, and Australia—where he began as an outdoor educator.

An adviser in graduate school may have led him to Australia, but Wright points to an earlier influence that set him on a path to teaching.

“My dad was a music teacher,” he says with a smile. “On his 25th college reunion, he brought the family to Princeton—we had never been. We met most of his friends, all very successful people in my eyes. They all talked about how my dad was the most likely to succeed.

“I got back home and I said, ‘I don’t get it. All your friends are lawyers and doctors. You’re just a teacher.’

“He smiled and said, ‘Well, I guess it depends how you define success. I love music and I love working with young people. I think I am the most successful. I would never change a thing.’”

A self-described “black sheep” at the time, 15-year-old Wright decided to combine teaching with his love of sports—but not follow in his father’s footsteps too closely—by becoming a PE teacher and coach.

“I would see my dad crying sometimes,” Wright remembers. “It would be a card from a former student telling him how much he meant in his or her life. That’s why I got into teaching.”

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