News & Features

Beyond the gym floor podcast logo

Beyond the Gym Floor Episode 3: Jim McCune of Leal Elementary School

Jamie O'Connor, a Teaching Associate Professor in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, speaks with Jim McCune of Leal Elementary School and discusses McCune's physical education journey and how he has become a better listener through his years of teaching.

Click here to see the full transcript.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So before we dive into our conversation today, I've been thinking about the fact that we, educators, periodically attend state and national conferences, not only to stay on top of current trends, but to reinvigorate ourselves about why we got into this profession. So perhaps, these brief conversations with area teachers will serve as a motivational boost for us. Maybe we don't need to solely rely upon our conferences to get recharged. No pressure, Jim, it's just that there are dozens of local physical educators counting on you for inspiration.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: With that said, he's laughing. With that said, Jim McCune of Urbana, thank you so much for being here. And welcome to Be on the Gym Floor.

JIM MCCUNE: No problem, thank you.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So tell me a little bit about your role at Leal Elementary.

JIM MCCUNE: Well, I'm one of two PE teachers at Leal. I teach kindergarten through fifth grade. And we teach to half-hour sessions a week throughout the year.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Very nice. When did you know that you first wanted to be a physical educator?

JIM MCCUNE: Oh, wow, I always dreamed of being a PE teacher when I was even going through physical education myself as I grew up. And then I had the opportunity, so I took it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Where did you do your undergraduate training?

JIM MCCUNE: Right here at the University of Illinois.



JAMIE O’CONNOR: Very nice, who did you work with?

JIM MCCUNE: Oh, Gary Crowell, Kim Graber, I think?


JIM MCCUNE: A bunch of those people.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, very nice.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Kim and Gary, both, were my instructors when I was here at Illinois.

JIM MCCUNE: Oh, cool.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's quite exciting.

JIM MCCUNE: Yeah, it is.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So when you were a student in the K12 setting, which physical educators really mattered to you?

JIM MCCUNE: Here at the school? Here at the University of Illinois?

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Either at the U of I, or when you were a child.

JIM MCCUNE: Oh, probably my fifth grade physical education teacher. I went to private school all the way up to fifth grade. And when I went to fifth grade, I went to a public school. And the teacher actually took me in and helped me with about everything that I am today, at basketball, everything.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: What appealed to you most about her teaching style?

JIM MCCUNE: His teaching style.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, his teaching style-- excuse me.

JIM MCCUNE: That's OK. Oh, just that he was concerned. It felt like he cared about me and what I was going to do in the future. And everything that he did just was like student-centered, basically.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So in other words, it felt more-- it wasn't just about physical education.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: He actually cared about you as a person.

JIM MCCUNE: Yeah, yeah.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So what would you change about our discipline if you could. So in other words, what challenges do you feel like you still face as a PE teacher?

JIM MCCUNE: Oh, after 20 some years, there's not a whole lot. Like, when I first started as a PE teacher, I think I had everything I needed, but not the details. It's just the little things, the experience. When I came out, I had some experience. But I feel like if we could give these kids more experience in teaching, getting into the classroom. When I first started-- now, I feel I feel like I'm well-rounded with going to conferences and, like you said, collaborating with other PE teachers. I think that helps a lot.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Mm-hmm. So in other words, you felt like one of your biggest challenges was earlier on in your career just not having the experience of teaching kids. And I'm hoping too that we are able to build more experiences for our undergraduates today, so that it doesn't feel so alarming when they student teach or get their first job.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: So what's the most important lesson your students have taught you over the years?

JIM MCCUNE: When I first thought I thought I was listening really well to what the kids wanted. But I think over the years, I've learned to listen in a different way. It was pretty much, hey, I'm the boss, not like, I'm the boss, but I'm the one who's trying to tell you. And you don't know what I know.

But actually, the kids will teach you a lot about themselves, it would be personal, more personal things. It's just not as kind of retrospect, what my teacher taught me a long time ago, trying to pass it on to the kids that I have now. It's not just about PE. They want to tell you about what they did outside of school. So listening, being a better listener to them.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's wonderful.

JIM MCCUNE: And learning more about them.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's wonderful. And I can see that, too. I feel like undergrads, when they practice teaching, you can see that they're using a more direct style of instruction because it feels more comfortable to be that sage on the stage, the person who's in charge. And that probably takes years of experience before you're able to let go of those reins and really start to listen and tap into something more than just PE.

JIM MCCUNE: Yeah, I mean, I have kids now that, from talking to them, they come up with their own games that we play. And they hand it to me. And then we talk about some of things that might have to be different. And then we create our own game.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's so cool. Do you feel like you've become more flexible as a teacher?

JIM MCCUNE: Oh, yeah, I mean, the sky's the limit. I'll try anything as long as it's safe and everyone can be successful.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: And I bet the students have more buy-in to your class, given that they have some ownership of it.

JIM MCCUNE: Oh, yeah, it's amazing. I mean, comparing when I first started teaching to where I'm teaching now, it's so much different. It's so much more enjoyable, everything. It's just amazing.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So how do you motivate-- and this might not pertain to you as much as it would to a high school PE teacher. Because if I remember correctly, the elementary PE teacher is typically the hero of the school. And if that's still the case, then you might not relate to this as much. But how do you try to motivate students who are a little bit disinterested in physical education?

JIM MCCUNE: Well, from the time they walk in the classroom, my voice is excited. Everything is exciting. I mean, we talk about the most important things is doing your best to be successful. So when I do have kids that kind of hang off to the side, usually it's just because something's happened before. Or something is going on, something in their life.

So just, like I said, listening. Listening to what they had to say. And tell them, say, that was a rough time, but this is PE. It's a whole new place. You can get rid of all that frustration or whatever they have.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great. Do you feel like your students open up to you?

JIM MCCUNE: At times. I mean, some kids-- oh, I've been a foster parent for like 20 years. So I know that some kids are not going to just open up to you right away. And that's where the listening comes in. Over time, I think I've learned, or I've been able to get that trust to do that. But sometimes it takes a while. It's not something you're going to get the first time you talk to them.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, no. Not at all. And I think, sometimes, I've talked to my undergrads, who, even when they're thrown into little micro-teaching experiences in some of our local schools, I think sometimes they feel frustrated because they don't have the time to spend to actually build that rapport and that connection that you need.

JIM MCCUNE: The relationship is huge. I mean, you can't get that just walking and teaching one class.


JIM MCCUNE: So I try to do my best when I do have those students come in to let them know, hey, this is a teacher. And you respect them just like you respect me. And I think that kind of gives a little transfer of saying like, I trust this person. Let them do the same thing that I do every day.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great. So do you have some advice that you would share with an undergraduate student who is considering a career in PE?

JIM MCCUNE: Well, like I said earlier, listen to your students. I know when you first start out, your main focus is just to survive. But it's not as hard as it looks. I mean, as you go on, you learn that the students are just waiting on every word that you have to say. And even when you mess up, they don't even notice it. They just want to hear what you have to say and what we're doing today. So I guess it's just listen to the students and don't give up. I mean, don't show that side of you that's frustrated because you just keep pushing through it, and you'll be fine.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great. Do you have a particular highlight from your career, like a memory of something where, either like a really strong connection that you had with a student or just a moment?

JIM MCCUNE: Oh, this is easy. I was student teaching over at Robeson School in Champaign. And I just started. It was probably about three weeks in. And we were playing soccer outside. And I was teaching the kindergartners how to kick a soccer goal. And it was a couple of days later, I was walking through the-- I think it was a Monday morning. I was walking through the school, and I heard some lady walking down the hallway saying, where's Mr. McCue? Where's Mr. McCue? I thought, I said, oh my gosh, what did I do wrong? And I said, I'm Mr. McCue. And he goes, oh my gosh, my son has been playing soccer for four years and never scored a goal. He scored a goal this weekend in soccer. And he goes, Mr. McCue taught me how to shoot a goal! And so I thought I was in trouble at first. And then, that started my career out. I was like, oh my gosh, so I'm definitely where I need to be.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, this is so beautiful.

JIM MCCUNE: So that was awesome.

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

JIM MCCUNE: As old as I am, I listen to country music pretty much everywhere I go.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, yeah? Who are some of your faves?

JIM MCCUNE: Oh, I don't know. Jack from Johnny Cash, all the way up to Keith Urban and any age, all the way back to the Patsy Cline. I listen to everything.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Do you like Dolly Parton?

JIM MCCUNE: Yep, yeah.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, yeah? Ah, nice! I love Dolly Parton. She's one that I would listen to regularly. My son, my oldest son, loves Dolly Parton. What's your favorite snack?

JIM MCCUNE: Favorite snack? I don't think I have a favorite snack. [CHUCKLES]



JAMIE O’CONNOR: --you have to have a favorite snack. What is something that you go to in the pantry?

JIM MCCUNE: Maybe just some crackers and peanut butter, maybe.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Ooh, that's good, crackers and peanut butter. What about your favorite toy as a kid?

JIM MCCUNE: Probably, just my bicycle. I spent tons of the time when I was growing up on a bicycle. Sometimes, I think that I put my miles on my bicycle than I'll ever put on a car, because I just rode all over. I was always on my bicycle.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I would agree with that. I loved the freedom of being, for me, a kid in the 80s and not having a care in the world. And just that bike meant freedom in a lot of ways. What was your first concert?

JIM MCCUNE: I think it was Reba McEntire.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Reba McEntire! How was it?

JIM MCCUNE: It was awesome. It was really good.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I never seen Reba in concert. That might have to be a life goal of mine. Well, Jim, thank you for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor.

If you would like to be a guest or simply have a comment or a question, you can reach me at Encourage your pals to listen and subscribe to the show, either through iTunes, iHeart Radio, or Spotify. Thanks for listening, folks.

back to news