News & Features

Beyond The Gym Floor Tobin

Beyond The Gym Floor—Donn Tobin

Jamie O'Connor, a teaching assistant professor at the University of Illinois, speaks with 2019 SHAPE America Teacher of the Year, Donn Tobin of Lakeview Elementary in Mahopac, New York.

Click here to see the full transcript.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Welcome to Beyond the Gym Floor. Today, we are joined by Donn Tobin of Lakeview Elementary School in New York State. Loyal listeners, I am so sorry for bringing in an East Coast teacher, but this guy was a SHAPE America Teacher of the Year in 2019, so I could not resist. Donn, how are you today?


DONN TOBIN: I'm excellent. Thank you so much for having me.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Absolutely. So Donn, where did you grow up?

DONN TOBIN: I grew up in Yorktown, New York, which is in Westchester County. It's the county right above the Bronx, so approximately 45 miles north of Manhattan.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Nice. And so then growing up where you grew up, what led you to a career in physical education?

DONN TOBIN: So I was always involved in athletics to some degree or another, most specifically, the martial arts. I was involved in a traditional style of karate since I was a young child. And I was fairly successful at it where I was required to teach adults as a young kid.

I was moved into an adult class around the age of 11 or 12. And it was considered a requirement to teach adults. And I really got an opportunity to learn, I guess, the basics of how you can break down a skill.

Throughout my high school years, as well as college, I did the whole camp counselor thing where I was working with children. And it was suggested by my father that since I have such a love of athletics and I loved working with kids, why don't I combine the two for a degree in physical education? So I have-- I was lucky that I declared a major going into on my undergrad experience.

Although, I have to say that this was going to be my fallback career, because what I had really wanted to be was either a podiatrist or a chiropractor. And so what I figured I would do is get my degree, do everything I needed to do so that way I have a fallback career. And then once I started teaching, I could go on to work on some of the prerequisites that I would need to do one of those other things.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: It's funny, you're not the first person to tell me that PE was their fallback degree in case something else didn't work out. And yet, the people that I talked to have no regrets about what ended up happening with the trajectory of their career. So I find that fascinating.

DONN TOBIN: And I would agree. I mean, I always enjoyed doing physical education. And I really liked the theory behind it and the practical applications of it. But in the back of my mind, I knew, OK, I was pretty good at this, but let's see how this other track goes. And then if it doesn't work, well then that's OK. It's something that I enjoy.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Do you infuse-- I had one undergraduate student, Jeremy Hardy when I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, who martial arts was his pathway into physical education. Do you infuse that into your curriculum?

DONN TOBIN: Not in the slightest bit. I am, unfortunately, retired at sort of like the age of 16, or whatever. No, not at all. I just-- it was just a nice opener for me.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Donn, that's the most disappointing answer I've ever heard. I, as a fanatic of Karate Kid as a child, I was really hoping that you were teaching your kids some martial arts. I really wanted to hear that that was a core part of your curriculum. So I'm disappointed. Oh. So where did you do your teacher training?

DONN TOBIN: I was an undergrad at SUNY Cortland, State University of New York at Cortland. And I-- my undergrad degree's in physical education, but I did a concentration in elementary physical education. I knew right away that I wanted to work with the little ones, and I'm blessed that I was able to do that.

And I got my Master's degree in school administration supervision from Mercy College. At the time, I was able to get a-- I was nominated for a scholarship by my superintendent for a new program. I thought that maybe that would open some doors and give me the opportunity to try that.

I did my internship. I realized I hated it. And I just wanted to stay in physical education.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great. And what would you change-- I mean, obviously, as a 2019 Teacher of the Year, you must still carry that passion for PE. What would you change about physical education in normal non-COVID circumstances? What would you change about it?

DONN TOBIN: I-- there's a part of me that really does not like the disrespect that our profession deserves. We deserve better than that. Maybe it's rightfully so.

I mean, I've seen some people along the ways of my schooling where I can kind of understand that quote, unquote, "gym teacher mentality." But I feel like I've done a lot to try to change the minds of people. And it's only works to a small degree. So in my personal opinion, I would like to see that where we are a little bit more elevated amongst other fields in education.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I 100% agree. One of the reasons why I do this podcast is to promote what we're trying to do. And the fact that it really has the potential to be such a valuable part of the school day for kids and adolescents. So what's the most important lesson your students have taught you over the years of teaching?

DONN TOBIN: So there's been a couple. First and foremost, the ability to listen. When I'm teaching children, I do not believe in teaching just the athletes of the group.

It's-- physical education is for every single child, regardless of ability, regardless of disability. And a lot of times when you try to-- when you learn some sort of method to do something, it does not always work. And then you have to modify and adapt and change on the fly.

And a lot of times you see that from observation and from listening to children. So children have taught me to be-- my kids have taught me to be a better listener, and also to have patience. I'm a pretty patient person, in the first place, but at the elementary level, you really need to be patient. And so my-- the kids I have had over the years definitely taught me those two important aspects of teaching.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: And the fact that you learned how to break down skills at such an early age, because I feel like that is a rare pathway into PE in a lot of ways. I mean, so many, and myself included, as a person who was just kind of naturally athletic, I never thought about step-by-step how I executed a certain skill. And I certainly wasn't thinking at the beginning of my career, OK, how do I then make a small adjustments to make this a little bit more accessible for the students who are struggling? So I think that is such an important skill set.

DONN TOBIN: I-- at the elementary level, in my opinion, it's not about sport. It's about skill, and development. And teaching a child how to break down a simple skill that would allow them to incorporate that in other game play, or other sort of activities is-- it's paramount for that age group.

You can't expect every child to know how to do the instep pass, or how to properly do the overhand throw, or strike an object with a long handle implement. It has to be taught. And then everything gets masked in gameplay. So it's not a sport. It's that lead-up activity. Very important.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: And I had a moment of-- it's been a while since I've taught elementary PE, and so I had a moment of joy about a month ago when I taught-- successfully taught my four-year-old how to skip. And I was just flying high for the rest of the day trying to remember kind of like those cues for breaking down a skip. And we nailed it. And it was a good day for us.

DONN TOBIN: That is a good day.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah. So any advice you would share with our current group of Illinois undergrads who are contemplating a career in PE?

DONN TOBIN: It is a wonderful career, especially, if you love teaching children and you want to see your students grow. It is 100% worth getting into. My advice for them is to expose themselves in a networking capacity.

And I do this for myself. I've been teaching-- this is the middle of my 24th year-- and I live for my networking-- going to conferences, speaking to people both locally, in a distance. The thing that kids got to understand is they don't care where an activity or some sort of technique comes from.

If you see something that works for you, you make it your own. And then you change and adapt and modify it as you need to be. So I would tell all undergrads to expose yourself to that network.

And one of the easiest ways to do this is through Twitter. I mean, Twitter for physical education, it's 24 hours of PD, professional development.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Absolutely.

DONN TOBIN: And anybody that is not on Twitter-- and you don't need to post anything, and it doesn't have to be anything political. But anyone that is in the pre-service or in our industry, you're really doing yourself a disservice because you could be getting something from someone that you could say, hey, that-- I'm going to do that immediately in my classes on Monday, or whatever. So I would suggest that, getting involved in their local association, whether it's on the state level, or in a localized zone level, is another way to network themselves.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: No doubt. And I think this actually combines a couple of your responses. You mentioned that as a marginalized profession, sometimes we can start to have a little bit of a pity party. And having a connection to countless other physical educators across the world helps you realize you do have a community who values what you're doing.

And so not only can you lean on each other for lesson ideas, but you can lean on each other for emotional support, too. What's your Twitter handle, Donn, just so the students can find you?

DONN TOBIN: Oh, it's the least boring name possible. It's just my full name. It's at D-O-N-N T-O-B-I-N, Donn Tobin.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Perfect. That's great. And that way our-- because Donn, I know this is your first time associated with this show. But we have thousands of listeners who are all going to be following you on Twitter now. JK, we are lucky to have 10.

So Donn, do you have a teaching highlight, or just-- and I know that's hard to probably pinpoint with a 24 year career. But is there something recently that has really struck a chord with you?

DONN TOBIN: There's been one or two over the course of my career. The one that always stands out for me is the thought of-- I had a student many years ago, maybe 16, 18 or so, years ago, who had a lot of difficulty in my class. She had an IEP. She was involved in general physical education class, but she always struggled from kindergarten all the way through fifth grade.

And she-- I remember getting this amazing written letter from her when she left my school. She handed it to me on our fifth grade moving up day. And I have yet to see this girl since. I have not seen her.

But she thanked me on not only making a class so enjoyable for her, but helping her with what she was doing over the course of those years. And not all children are able to speak up, especially someone like-- something coming from a child like her. And that's always stuck with me because that's a huge teaching moment for me.

Because all along the way, she kind of-- she gave me a bit of a fit. And it's not always known if you are reaching that child. And she flat out put it in writing for me. And it just-- it gets me every time.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, that's beautiful.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: So Donn, as an educational hero, people need to know a few extra things about you. If you weren't a teacher, what would you be doing? So would you be a podiatrist? Would you be a chiropractor? What would you be doing right now if you weren't educating?

DONN TOBIN: Well, I think I'd make a great-- an amazing lotto winner, but that hasn't happened. But that standing aside, yeah, I would love to still have been a podiatrist or a chiropractor. I did not do very well with physics at the college level. It didn't work well with me. So that's probably not going to happen.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Donn, I dropped out of high school physics on day one because my teacher wouldn't let me go to the bathroom. And I was a petulant 17-year-old who said, and I'm done with physics. So you made it a lot further than I did. So congrats there. Donn, are you an early bird or a night owl?

DONN TOBIN: I am an early bird. I can wake up and I'm ready to go.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Same. Totally agree. What's your typical go to breakfast?

DONN TOBIN: Oh, goodness, it varies. But lately, it's been either like a bowl of oatmeal, a smoothie. If I have time on the weekend, I love pancakes, or just like an omelet of some type.

I tend to be kind of boring. And I lay everything out in the morning so that way I don't have to dawdle when I'm out the door.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, I love it. I'm the same way. I am absolutely the same way-- consistency, smoothies, eggs, kind of the whole thing. If you're on a road trip, what's your guilty pleasure fast food?

DONN TOBIN: Oh, God. I'm a huge fan of M&M's.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, wow. So-- well, what about you have to pull over for lunch, where are you going to pull over?

DONN TOBIN: Oh, if there was some sort of real-- like real barbecue, like smoked barbecue, I would 100% do that.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK. You're pretty good. So you avoid like the Taco Bells of the world then is what you're telling me.

DONN TOBIN: Yeah. No, I tend to not eat fast food. I'm a pretty decent clean eater. But like real barbecue, you can't turn it up.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, all right. Favorite TV show right now, like what are you watching? What are you binging?

DONN TOBIN: I mean, I'm a huge Big Bang Theory fan. I mean, I can-- if I want just background noise, it's Big Bang Theory. I mean, I--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's an absolute comfort show.

DONN TOBIN: Oh, yeah, totally. Totally.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I agree. Donn, thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor.

DONN TOBIN: Well, thank you so, so much. I really appreciate it. And best of luck to everybody. May we have a wonderful 2021.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Fingers crossed, man.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor. And if you would like to be a guest or simply have a comment or a question, you can reach me, jamieo'connor@be Encourage your friends to listen and subscribe to the show either through iTunes, iHeart Radio, or Spotify. Thanks for listening, folks.

back to news