Redoing Gym Class
Physical education as a domain for redefining masculinity
*Note: The aims of the article are certainly applicable to girls’ physical education, but this particular piece centralizes boys and young men.
AS A RECENT elite-level athlete, varsity coach, and current educational researcher, I remain very concerned with the ways that locker rooms and physical education classes are still reproducing, reiterating, and regurgitating hegemonic forms of masculinity. A social hierarchy that rewards typical bodies, traditional expressions of masculinity, and athletic ability still seems to come to fruition as a result of the ways that gym class is taught. These elements of doing masculinity and doing sport collide head-on in gym class. Masculinity is policed and labelled by the ways that boys physically move their bodies (Kehler, 2016). Thus, male gym class must not be seen as an environment for “boys to be boys,” nor one of hardcore competitive sport. It is a comprehensive educational domain that needs to focus on the development of holistic young men (Gerdin & Larsson, 2017). School hierarchies will never change if gym class continues to reward the most physically typical and gender-conforming learners. Physical education can be about teamwork, collaboration, hard work, positivity, fun, and friendships (Gerdin & Larsson, 2017). Until this is applied to pedagogy, physical education will remain a regressive forum for the recapitulation and celebration of hegemonic masculinity.
Much research has recognized that the construction of masculinities is heavily linked to physical endeavours and sport (Wellard, 2009). This makes the appropriate facilitation of inclusive physical education even more important for the robust development of young men and boys. Despite the hegemony within physical education, now, more than ever, boys and young men are desperately trying to safely and publicly perform types of masculinity that do not meet the traditional requirements of what it means to be a “boy.” But these attempts at gender diversity seem to draw the most attention and danger in the realm of physical education and school-sanctioned sports. It is sadly known, province to province, that physical education enrolment numbers after Grade 9 often drop precipitously (Dwyer et al., 2006). Too often, educators are ignoring the early warning signs of many boys’ discomfort with physical education. Many boys intentionally forget their athletic wear, conjure up imaginary injuries, skip class, and create ailments, all as a way to avoid gym class. The same avoidance tactics are deployed within the locker room because many boys fear how their masculinity will be read based on their physicality. This means many of them nervously change in a washroom before entering the locker room, seek refuge in a cubicle, strategically position themselves in a corner, or simply do not participate (Kehler & Chaudhry, 2018).
Physical education should not promote an uncomfortable atmosphere of ableism and heteronormativity, and its pedagogy should not perpetuate this. I am concerned with how physical education is still pedagogically deployed in such an exclusive manner. Gym and physical education classes are comprised of learners who range from the lowest of physical capabilities to the highest, and of learners who express masculinity in a multiplicity of ways. Pedagogy should reflect this. It is certainly not always an easy task to fulfill the athletic or social needs of all learners, but the young men and boys who struggle in the domain of sport and fitness, or express diverse masculinity, deserve a serious effort. They deserve to not be forgotten and to not be left out. They deserve to flourish in an athletic environment that supports their broad range of masculine gender expressions and athletic skills.
I would like to encourage educators and teacher-coaches to foster a physical education environment that instills confidence, positivity, passion, and excitement in all learners, no matter their physical capabilities or unique expressions of masculinity. To do so, I provide a framework of steps that can be cyclically applied within the classroom, and on the field, court, or rink.
Step 1: Always start with a conversation. Before every class, unit, or semester it is important to transparently set the stage, much like providing learning goals. Learners need to know the structure of the class and what the aim of the time being spent there is. It is essential to let learners know that this is not a place of high-intensity competitive sport. It is a place to learn about inclusivity, collaboration, teamwork, fun, and friendship. Additionally, learners need to realize that understanding a sport is simply one assessed component of their time in gym class. They need to know that they are being evaluated in the areas listed above.
Step 2: Level the playing field. The curriculum is certainly a guideline for what to teach, but diversifying it as much as possible is an exciting way to reposition or disrupt traditional ability and the social power imbalance it can create. Incorporating adaptive modes of sport that make them accessible to all learners is a fantastic way to level the playing field (Wood, 2015; School Adapted Team Sports, n.d.) It is important to strive toward equally spreading the feeling of comfort. By disrupting or altering traditional sport, educators are allowing students who may have otherwise never felt it to feel comfortable in gym class. Or, create a more universal sense of discomfort by introducing new forms of sport that allow all students to be of equal ability and confidence.
Step 3: Never stop role modelling. Often physical education teachers or teacher-coaches are highly regarded by students as being cool. I encourage educators to use this influence as a way to constantly perform masculinity or allyship in a healthy, robust way. This means speaking up when phobic pejoratives are used, establishing relationships equally with all learners, and embodying inclusivity at all times.
Step 4: Always debrief. Allocate at least ten minutes to unpack the lesson, practice, or class. It is another explicit reminder of what was learned and gained from the session. Refer back to Step 1’s emphasis on inclusivity, collaboration, teamwork, fun, and friendship. Have students share moments where they collaborated, engaged in teamwork, had fun, and built new friendships. Let them leave knowing that these were the true goals of the session.
Step 5: Never stop checking in. Make it a habit to speak confidentially with learners or observe while teaching. Ask what their needs are. Discuss ways to address or remedy their needs. Restructure pedagogy in a way that facilitates the solution to these issues or needs. This step is the engine of inclusivity. Continue to come back to this step as way to persistently address the needs of all learners in a physical education class or school-sanctioned sport. When you begin a new season, class, practice, school year, or semester. Return to Step 1 and fuse it with Step 5. The cycle will then restart.
Photo: Adobe Stock
Dwyer, J., Allison, K., LeMoine, K., Adlaf, E., Goodman, J., Faulkner, G., & Lysy, D. (2006). A provincial study of opportunities for school-based physical activity in secondary schools. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39, 80–86.
Gerdin, G., & Larsson, H. (2017). The productive effect of power: (Dis)Pleasurable bodies materialising in and through the discursive practices of boys’ physical education. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 23(1), 66–83.
Kehler, M. with U. Chaudhry (2018). Body building or building bodies: Improving male body image through Health and Physical Education. What works? Research Into Practice, The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat.
Kehler, M. (2016) Examining boys, bodies and PE locker room spaces: “I don’t ever set foot in that locker room.” In M. Messner & M. Musto (Eds.), Child’s play: Sport in kids’ worlds (pp. 202–220). Rutgers University Press.
School Adapted Team Sports (n.d.). American Association of Adapted Sports Programs. http://adaptedsports.org/school-programs
Wellard, I. (2009). Sport, Masculinities and the Body. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203874400
Wood, R. (2015, August). Sports for the Disabled. Topend Sports. https://www.topendsports.com/sport/disabled-sports.htm