Carnegie Education

What should a PE teacher look like

The stereotypical perception of ‘The PE Teacher’ suggests a physically fit, athletic, able-bodied, muscular, attractive, and perhaps, graceful person.

A sports coach

There has been a study in Finland looking at the role of physicality in physical education student teacher's professional identity. (Virta et al. 2019).  Their findings suggest a new generation of PE teachers who do not necessarily equate physical appearance with their effectiveness as a teacher.

The stereotypical perception of ‘The PE Teacher’ suggests a physically fit, athletic, able-bodied, muscular, attractive, and perhaps, graceful person. This image remains in the public perception today, but there are parodies in the media offering alternative views. In my day it was Brian Glover in the film KES (incidentally with the old Carnegie emblem displayed on the tracksuit). The image of a middle aged ‘slightly balding’ ex professional performer with an aggressive manner not out of place on the parade grounds of the sixties and seventies. Successive generations saw Billy Bob Thornton as ‘Mr Woodcock’ and Mr Gunn in ‘Big School’ played by Philip Glenister with similar roles and appearances. These images focused more on the psychological makeup of the characters (typically male) rather than their physical appearance and it is interesting to note there are strikingly few representations of the stereotypical female PE teacher and their physicality.

Over the decades, the ‘PE teacher’s role in schools has changed and with this change we have seen less images portraying muscular flawlessness and indeed less focus on body image and appearance as a requisite for the part. Descriptive axioms of the PE teacher over the last 50 years include the teacher centric bully, the competitive trophy hunter, the ‘try your best’ non-competitor, the facilitator of fun, the fitness fanatic and the lycra-clad exhibitionist. They all have a time and place in history usually representing the political ideals of the day. I posit the new generation of PE teachers are becoming more body conscious when dealing with pupils in schools. Increasing body image issues on social media and TV, such as obesity, anorexia, and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) are factors that are influencing the way pupils think today.  It is therefore incumbent on physical education departments in schools to shape the curriculum in order to address these issues. Body dissatisfaction, poor self-esteem, disordered eating and depression are often portrayed as being linked in some way to physical activity, body image and fitness. It is now more important than ever for PE teachers to educate pupils on diet, nutrition, health and well-being and dispel the myths around body image and eating disorders and their relationship with physical activity and healthy lifestyles. Diet, nutrition, exercise and physical development and the relationship to health and well-being are elements of core teaching in PE today and concepts such as inclusivity, enjoyment and activity are encouraged to maximise engagement for all. Pupils are now beginning to see their PE teacher as a good educator, role modelling health and well-being rather than champions of the perfect physique.

The Finnish study links student PE teacher’s perceptions of their bodies to how they teach their subject. Traditional approaches to the delivery of pedagogical content for trainee teachers of physical education used to focus on mind and body, flawless physicality and physical performance. Those days are now far behind. Modern day approaches to PE teacher training has a broader focus on learning outcomes relating to inclusivity, differentiation and pupil progress in an enjoyable arena. The focus of learning to teach has shifted from the teacher as a performer to the pupil as a learner. The size, shape and physicality of the PE teacher has less relevance today. Recruitment of the aspirant trainee teacher of PE involves considering individuals who engage in constructive dialogue with pupils to maximise learning rather than prioritising physical appearance. It holds true that society still perceives the PE teacher role model to have a good physical appearance, to be fit, able bodied and active, but that perception is changing. Pedagogy sessions aimed at new teachers, emphasise physical literacy, critical thinking, and positive attitudes to health and well-being. Trainees are encouraged to develop strategies to support pupils’ thinking and learning skills in a variety of ways, not just through didactic teaching. Good performance is accentuated and bad performance exists merely as an area for development or ‘even better if’. Lessons on diet, somatotyping, energy expenditure and the physiological benefits of exercise to physical and mental health are intrinsic in PE exams. Activities offer pupils different ways of learning and working with others. Learning outcomes explore tolerance, integration, teamwork, understanding and co-operation. PE trainee teachers deliver these concepts to pupils in a variety of ways. Being a good teacher is considered more important now than what size, shape, or level of fitness they are. Demonstrations are no longer the exclusive domain of the PE teacher. Pupils are encouraged to work out correct technique in small groups or individually and demonstrate to the rest of the class regardless of their physical appearance.

PE teachers feel liberated from the conformity of outdated stereotypes of their own body image. Physicality no longer plays lead role to professional identity and the quality of teaching and learning is centre-stage. Through more informed teaching of body awareness and the relationships between fitness, health and well-being in more inclusive learning environments, it is hoped that pupils will no longer feel intimidated or threatened in lessons by their own physicality. The ageing, overweight and less able-bodied PE teacher has become normalised and pupils are more comfortable receiving instruction from teachers with imperfections in physicality. It is having a positive effect on their learning and progress. They are learning from teachers who have less concern for their own physical appearance and more regard for pupil learning. That is great news for me. Maybe I should return to the playing fields!


Jukka Virta, Päivi Hökkä, Anneli Eteläpelto & Helena Rasku-Puttonen (2019): Professional identity among student teachers of physical education: the role of physicality, European Journal of Teacher Education, DOI: 10.1080/02619768.2019.1576628

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