News & Features

Beyond the Gym Floor logo

Beyond the Gym Floor Episode 2: Justin Barnhart of Centennial High School

Jamie O'Connor, a Teaching Associate Professor in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, speaks with Justin Barnhart, Assistant Athletic Director at Centennial High School, about his health and fitness background and working as a physical educator.

Click here to see the full transcript.

Welcome to Beyond the Gym Floor. My name is Jamie O'Connor, and I am here with my very first guest, Justin Barnhart from Centennial High School. Justin, welcome.


JAMIE O'CONNOR: So, I-- this year-- have taken over the job for Gary Crowell who was an instructor at the University of Illinois for 100 years. And so, I was going to tell you. So, Justin I worked the sports fitness program probably 20 years ago, maybe more. Honestly, we were such youngsters-- 20, 21 at that time?


JAMIE O'CONNOR: And so when I came into Gary's office when I was going to take over his position, he immediately-- had been going through old file cabinets, and he had a handful of pictures, and one of which was a picture of you, me, and Julia Valli working sports fitness. And my jaw dropped, because I had just returned from studying abroad in England and had gained probably 15 pounds, but only in my face.

And so, he said, hey, do you want this picture? And I'm looking horrified at this picture, realizing that, wow, I spent a little bit too much time in the pubs while I was in England. And so I said, yeah, absolutely. I'll take that picture. And I immediately started a bonfire with it when I got home. Yeah, it was-- it's one thing to gain 15 pounds. It's another to gain it in only one spot, i.e., my face. So I just wanted to put that out there. Good times in the sports fitness program back in the day.


JAMIE O'CONNOR: So thank you so much for being here. Tell me a little bit about your role at Centennial High School.

JUSTIN BARNHART: So I'm the Centenary chair for PE, health, and driver education. That's one of my hats. I'm also the assistant athletic director and the associate head football coach. So those extra hats have all evolved over time. My start way back in the early 2000s. You know, I began as a PE teacher, and just took opportunities to kind of broaden my horizons, and, I'm in those roles now and really, really enjoy doing what I'm doing.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Very good. When did you know that you wanted to be a physical educator?

JUSTIN BARNHART: Mm-hmm. So, I was a-- during my undergrad, I was a business major for two years. Like a lot of naive high school kids, thought it'd be cool to walk to work with an Armani suit on and The Wall Street Journal underneath my arm, and a briefcase, and thought that that was what being a business person was all about, just no idea. And after two years of microeconomics, macroeconomics, finance, realized that I truly wasn't passionate about that. I really-- I'd been an athlete pretty much my whole life, and was truly starting to dive into fitness. And I was trying to figure out, how can I take a love of health and fitness, wellness, and bridge that into a profession?

And teaching wasn't necessarily my first thought. I thought maybe athletic training, maybe corporate fitness, corporate wellness. But the more I got into it and I kind of looked back to the people who were influential to me in my life, they were coaches and teachers. And as I talked with them about what some possible career opportunities down the road might be, I started to think maybe teaching and coaching may be the path that I want to take.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: That's interesting. Did your parents-- were they supportive of your switch from an Armani suit to a track suit? Because that is an enormous shift.

JUSTIN BARNHART: Yeah. There was really no pressure from my parents in that regard. Neither one of my parents were college-educated. So as long as I was doing something and that was going to involve getting a college degree, they really didn't push me to-- I was pretty self-motivated, so they were pretty hands-off in that regard. As long as I was happy, and I was moving forward, they didn't want me back on their couch at 30, so as long as I was moving forward.

And I was fortunate that I came across some really good people along my path not only here at the university, but in my professional career that really helped mold and model my thinking, and I'm very happy with where I've ended up.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: So you mentioned that you spoke with some teachers. Is there one in particular, a PE teacher who stands out to you from your childhood, or from your early adolescence as really mattering to you?

JUSTIN BARNHART: Yeah. I had my offensive line coach. Believe it or not, I was an offensive lineman in high school, and I played a year of college football. And my high school offensive line coach was a former Marine. He was my driver education teacher-- John Grammer, who passed away just a few years ago-- He and I never talked about education, but just-- his person, his character, who he was really motivated me. And he was from the old school. The way that he taught me was not the way that I could teach today, the things that he would say to motivate me, I would get fired for. But I truly appreciated his intensity for life, and that was-- I'll never forget him.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: You know, my dad. I have conversations with him. He attended Champaign Central, so both of my parents did back in the late '60s, graduating in 1970. And he talks about physical education at that time and how if there were an argument between-- especially two male students-- that every once in a while, they'd just hand them a set of boxing gloves.

JUSTIN BARNHART: That's how they handled it.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: And told them to work it out. I mean, I cannot believe how much our discipline has evolved over the years. And for the positive, I would say.


JAMIE O'CONNOR: Oh, my goodness. Well, what did you-- what would you say? You know, we talk about how physical education is changing. So what challenges do you feel like you're still facing? What would you-- what would you change about our discipline if you could?

JUSTIN BARNHART: I think just trying to teach adolescents that to think beyond. It's hard. Part of it-- when they're-- because I deal with high school kids-- trying to have them look 20 years down the road is hard. So for me, one of the ways that I try to teach students the importance of physical activity and taking care of themselves is through the cognition side. That's one of things that I really took away from my experience here at Illinois was-- and there are tons of researchers here now who are doing these things that I'm able to draw from-- how being active can help you in the classroom, how 20 minutes of physical activity can help you in your math and your science and your English, those tough classes that you have.

There's a researcher out-- John Ratey-- who does some does some work about how exercise is Miracle Grow for the brain, and how activity does all these hormonal things and physiological things that can help students learn. So I try I try to bring those things to the forefront and say, hey, we're not just doing this to keep-- this is not just glorified recess. We're not here just to make you run around. Though that's important, I want to teach you things so that when you leave the walls of this institution, you're going to stay healthy and active for the rest your life.

One of my side kind of hustles, when I was a student at university, I was a certified personal trainer with the division of campus rec. And to this day, I say, hey, I've got people that pay me $50 an hour to put personal training programs together for them. What I'm teaching you as a physical educator, people are paying me to do. So when I give you these things, when we give them a personal fitness class, or strength and conditioning class at the high school level, the reason we're doing what we're doing is so that you don't have to.

I'm giving you the building blocks so that when you leave here you can stay active. You don't have to spend money to stay active. These are the principles that we're teaching. It's not just keeping you busy for 50 minutes, it's trying to instill those things.

So I think trying to-- in terms of challenges, that's one of the hard things is trying to get a 14, 15, 16, 17, 18-year-old student to see down the road, and that's hard. Because I didn't. In high school, I didn't. I wasn't thinking those things. But trying to make those connections with kids is really, I think, the hardest part of what we do.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Oh, absolutely. So then, how do you reach those students who may have had negative experiences in PE previously? Like, how do you reach those who are disconnected?

JUSTIN BARNHART: Right. I think what's funny, when my students see me, they think, you've probably always been fit. You've always-- just always-- No. I was an overweight kid who-- I was a kid who was picked last. I was the kid who was-- but I got past that, and I want them to see that, hey, PE's not like that today. Like, it's not. We're a lot more accepting in PE, but across the board. I feel like as a society, we're a lot more accepting of differences than we ever have been. I know sometimes it doesn't always feel like that, but as an educator, I see that. We're a lot less critical today.

And I try to say, hey, you know, we've all been there. You know, get past the lack of confidence that you have and just keep moving forward. And try to have those-- build relationships with kids. I think that's probably-- if I had advice for any new teacher-- that would be where to start. Build relationships with kids and let them know that you care about 'em. Because until they know that you care about them, they really don't-- they're not going to listen to what-- you have you have to build that relationship first. And then you can impart information and wisdom and knowledge to them.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: So you just mentioned that that would be your advice for novice physical educators, or those who are considering it. Have you had a moment in your career where it was a missed opportunity, or just a moment that still sits with you, like a moment of growth where you had to move through something? Like, just a moment where something didn't go as you had planned?

JUSTIN BARNHART: Oh, sure. And I think back to early in my teaching career, for sure, where know your lessons don't go as you had planned. You know, you spend-- I think back to Dr. Graber who I had here at the university and how we'd have four-page lesson plans for a lesson and how she'd really encourage us to think through everything that could possibly happen. At the time, I thought this is a total waste, but it made me a better teacher. Because that's what you have to do. You have to think through everything, and know you can't plan for every little thing that might happen. Because students are dynamic. Things change. You've got to be able to adjust and be flexible.

Sure, I mean, I had a lot of-- you know, every day. I'll be honest with you. If there's another thing that I think about with new teachers, you've got to be reflective. You've got to be willing to think that you don't have the world by the tail. You're going to make mistakes and learn from them. And don't do the same thing over. If last time you did this lesson it didn't work, don't go out there and do the same lesson again. It's not going to work again. I mean, there's-- you've got to be able to be reflective and grow.

But, yeah. Failure is-- I mean, I think in our society today, I feel like we've lost sight of how positive failure can be. We want everything to be perfect all the time. The only way we learn is by failure, and learning from it.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Yeah. One of our grad students recently presented on the idea of a fixed versus a growth mindset. And I have a three-year-old, and we are trying to instill that idea of, it's OK if you're trying to stack those LEGOs and things don't go your way. Let's persist.


JAMIE O'CONNOR: Let's keep at it. We're trying to facilitate a growth mindset in him, because it's so easy nowadays for people to just throw up their hands and give up.

JUSTIN BARNHART: Yeah, we're so caught up in the product, we lose sight of the process that gets us there. And my athletes and my students, we talk about that all the time, just about the process. There's going to be ups and downs, know that in the end, as long as you stay the course, it'll work out.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: That's great. Do you have a moment-- a particular moment-- that stands out to you as a teaching highlight? A moment or two, just where-- a win.

JUSTIN BARNHART: Yeah. And those are what keep you in it. I teach an adaptive PE course at Centennial, and it's one of those classes that people say, man, that's a tough class. And it is a tough class, but it's one of my most rewarding. Watching students with special needs who just appreciate-- I've never had a day where I don't have students walk into that class and think, oh, do we have to do this today? It's never that way. They just love life, and those are the moments I live for, is where you have a kid who-- I don't necessarily have those always in my adaptive class. I have those in my gen ed classes too. But that's what keeps you going. Just little moments like that.

And I can sit here and rattle off certain situations, but just when you have kids that are already struggling with just life, just little things we take for granted. And to watch them still have a zeal and a zest for what they're doing, that's what makes this job rewarding.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: That's great. I'm going to end with some silly questions for you, Justin. So, what do you listen to in the car, typically?

JUSTIN BARNHART: That's funny that you bring that up. My kids make fun of me, of course, because my music is not their music.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: What's your music, Justin?

JUSTIN BARNHART: Yeah, it's mine. I would say probably '90s. I'm not into playlists. Tune into, like, 92.5, the local station has just got kind of throwback '80s, '90s. I don't have a playlist on my phone. I do like-- I would say my music interest is probably pretty eclectic. I'll listen to pretty much anything.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: But you still like the '90s music?


JAMIE O'CONNOR: I'm going to give you two thumbs up for that. We grew up in the same era, so I'll give you two thumbs up for that.

JUSTIN BARNHART: Yeah, I appreciate that. My kids definitely don't. Can we change this? Sure, when you're in this seat, you can change it.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: I love it. What's your favorite snack?

JUSTIN BARNHART: So, I have I have a high school senior and an eighth grader at my house. So whatever is in the pantry when I get there is usually what I'll eat, because neither one of them have a fear of food. So they just dominate the pantry all the time.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: So you're getting scraps.

JUSTIN BARNHART: Whatever's leftover. Yeah, I'm happy. It's usually carb-laced, things that I shouldn't be eating.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: I love it. Favorite toy as a kid?

JUSTIN BARNHART: Ooo, favorite toy as a kid. That's a tough one. I had a slingshot when I was probably in sixth grade that my mother wanted no part of. And, of course, there were lots of broken windows and things. Yeah, that one sticks out to me.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: A slingshot. I love that. That is very old-school. Your first concert?

JUSTIN BARNHART: Ooo, first concert. I think I saw Metallica here--

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Oh, that's awesome.

JUSTIN BARNHART: --in the '90s. Couldn't hear for probably a good solid two weeks after that.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: You know, my first was MC Hammer at the assembly hall.

JUSTIN BARNHART: Oh, good one. Yeah.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: That's so embarrassing. I can't believe I just said that.

JUSTIN BARNHART: No, that's good. That's good. I didn't make that one, but I wish I would have.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Oh, no, you didn't miss anything. But thank you, Justin, so much for being here and for talking through just some of the things that you're doing to help make a difference-- a positive difference-- in the lives of students. I really appreciate it.

JUSTIN BARNHART: Yeah, appreciate you asking me.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Absolutely. And for those of you who would like to sit down and chat with me, or who have wonderful recommendations for people who would make good guests, you can reach me at Thank you so much for listening, folks.

back to news