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Beyond The Gym Floor

Beyond The Gym Floor—Jamie Ward

Jamie O'Connor, a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois, speaks with Jamie Ward of Tri-Valley High School in Downs, Ill.

Click here to see the full transcript.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Welcome back to Beyond the Gym Floor. Today, we are joined by Jamie Ward of Tri-Valley High School in Downs, Illinois. Jamie is going to be mentoring one of our teacher candidates in the fall, so I'm very happy to meet you, even if it's through Zoom. So thank you for making the time.

JAMIE WARD: No problem. Thank you for the invite today.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Jamie, where did you grow up?

JAMIE WARD: So I grew up at Lake Bloomington and I lived there until I was in sixth grade, and then we moved to Leroy. So I actually graduated from Leroy High School right down the road here from Tri-valley. And my junior and senior year, we actually co-oped with Tri-valley in our basketball and softball program. So I played basketball and softball for Tri-valley and I thought it'd always be cool to come back and teach at Tri-valley, and here I am, 26 years later. So I've always been in this area, close to this area.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great. What led you to PE?

JAMIE WARD: So initially I thought maybe I wanted to be an elementary education teacher. And I kind of always knew I wanted to be in teaching. I'm not the type of person to sit at a desk. I need to be up and active and I love being around young people. And I thought about the elementary ed route, and I decided that bulletin boards and crafts and things like that weren't really for me.

I've always been an athlete and physically active. You know, and back in the day when I first started, there weren't a lot of organized sports out of season. You just kind of played in season. But I was always active shooting baskets at home, playing catch with my brother, whether it was football, baseball, or whatever. So I just always loved being active and I thought, well, that's the natural route. Why didn't I think of that from the start?

JAMIE O’CONNOR: It's hilarious when you mentioned the thought of crafts-- I am exactly the same way, which is tough because I have a five-year-old and a two-year-old who are deeply into crafts, and it's a little bit torturous for me, I'm not going to lie. I didn't even like it when I was a kid. There's no way I want to make that happen for children all day long. No.

JAMIE WARD: I was blessed with a wonderful babysitter who did all the messy dirty crafts with my kids and let them jump in mud puddles. And so she was amazing. She took care of that aspect and so I could play catch with my kids at home or whatever they wanted to do.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, exactly. I get so thrilled when my son-- even if it's only for two minutes-- wants to throw a ball back and forth. I'm like, OK, now I can do this. I can relate. So where did you do your teacher training?

JAMIE WARD: I went to Eureka College-- a small Division III college right outside of Peoria. It was an amazing experience. I was able to be a student athlete there and I'm still great friends with three of my coaches that I was blessed to have there. And they're the most influential people in my life in this profession, and I still chat with them on a regular basis from time to time. So it was an amazing experience. And then I student taught at Eureka Middle School, so right there in the area.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: What did you play?

JAMIE WARD: I played volleyball, basketball, and softball.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Wow, so you stayed-- so you had a lot of free time, maybe.

JAMIE WARD: Yeah, a lot of free time. My coaches made me take like one day off in between seasons usually.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Wow. So you mentioned-- have you been at Tri-valley for 26 years? Is that what you said?


JAMIE O’CONNOR: And what's currently your role? Like what are all the hats that you have to wear at Tri-valley?

JAMIE WARD: So right now, I am our Viking Fit teacher, which is-- we have a strength and conditioning class that's offered almost every hour, and then Viking Fit, which is more traditional PE, but it's a balance of sport and fitness based activities that we do. I just recently retired from coaching volleyball.

I think overall I've coached like, 16 years of volleyball, multiple seasons-- and then I was the varsity girls basketball coach for five years in between the two volleyball stints. So I also do our freshman mentoring program called SHIFT-- students helping in freshman transition. So I'm involved in that, and I'm on our leadership team at the high school.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah, that's really cool. That sounds like you, again, stay busy. Was it hard to let go of coaching? Was it hard to hang that up?

JAMIE WARD: Yes and no. Coaching is very, very rewarding. The relationships that you build when you're coaching are so much more than you can get just from your teaching.

Teaching is kind of that baseline, and, you know, of course you're going to connect with different groups of students over the years, but coaching is really where you form those relationships. And not only with the players that you have, but with the people that you're blessed to coach with and coach against, and the officials, and it was an easy decision for me.

I lost my dad in a very tragic accident. He was ice fishing with my son in December of '19, and my dad passed and my son-- we almost lost my son in that situation. And so it was an easy decision at that point where I just needed to step away and be able to be there for my mom and for my son. He's a junior this year at SIU Carbondale.

And I wasn't sure what the future would bring with that. And so it was an easy decision to step away with that, and you know, I've been able to attend all my daughter's-- she's a freshman in high school-- and I've been able to attend all of her ball games. She plays basketball, softball, and she's a football cheerleader. So it just got to that point where I didn't want to miss anything anymore with my family and my kids.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I'm sorry to hear about that tragedy, and it's interesting how sometimes something tragic can open your eyes to what you need to do in terms of your family. I'm so sorry you had to go through that.

JAMIE WARD: Thank you. But this year, I've been able to-- I kept the book at my daughter's basketball games. My husband coaches basketball, and then I'm doing the clock and the book of the volleyball game, so it's still nice to be involved, but also have that flexibility be available for family.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So in normal circumstances, Jamie, what would you change about PE?

JAMIE WARD: Man, if I could change anything, I would want all kids to just be comfortable in class and be confident. When I got my masters, I did a research project on social physique anxiety in a PE setting. And I chose some kids to interview for that project that were always very active in PE, but they weren't necessarily athletes, involved in sports at high school level.

And to see that they still experienced anxiety even though I couldn't tell that, I thought, wow. What does the kid who is not very coordinated-- what are they experiencing in my class? And so I would love for all kids to just be confident and comfortable and to not have anxiety about being physically active in front of their peers and whatever activity it is.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: We talked so much about this with the undergrads and I think it's sometimes difficult for them to relate, because they're pursuing this career track, so they felt comfortable. So it's difficult to step into someone else's shoes and know what that feels like, to have that type of anxiety about physical performance. When you are wearing a physical education uniform, when you're sweating, when you're changing in front of others at all, it kinds of bundles up into this ball of stress for teens.

JAMIE WARD: Absolutely.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So, then, what's the most important lesson your students have taught you in your 26 years at Tri-valley?


JAMIE WARD: I would say, just generally that every day is a new day. There are so many different variables that you can't take anything for granted or to guess what's going to happen. And I think it's huge to be able to laugh at yourself, because in teaching, it's by trial and error. You get that education and you go through those pre-teaching experiences, but when it's your classroom, you know, it's really-- you got to find what works for you.

And I think all teachers have to be able to mold and adapt and change. And I'm a much different teacher than I was my first and second year or tenth year or 15th year. Or even last year, I mean, who would have ever guessed we'd be teaching in this format? I certainly didn't.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I love that, that every day is different, and you just kind of accumulate the experience and the wisdom, but every day you just have to take it take it in stride and recognize that new challenges are going to pop up. So then how do you try to reach-- you mentioned being able to connect with your athletes really easily. How do you try to reach your students, the ones who are not also working with you then obviously in the past, as an athlete?

JAMIE WARD: Sure. I think just taking the time to try and get to know them, to take an interest in what they're doing. In a small school like ours, there are so many different opportunities to get involved. You know, there's so much more than athletics.

With the extracurriculars through the fine arts, we've got several clubs and programs where kids can get involved that they don't have to try out for. They can just be a part of it, and to kind of recognize and pay attention to that and a little comment like, you know, hey, I saw you did a great job in the play. And that can go a long way with a kid, and just to show that you care about them more than what's outside the classroom or to recognize that they're having a bad day and they're not typically themselves and just ask if they're OK. I think that's huge.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Any additional advice you would give to our current cohort of Illinois undergrads who are contemplating a career in PE?

JAMIE WARD: Sure. I would say just get involved. You know, just like our freshmen through our mentoring program, we tell them to get involved. As a teacher, the best teachers aren't the ones that clock in at 8:00 and clock out at 3:00. To really, truly, be involved in your students' lives.

For my husband and I, we're both here at Tri-valley, and Tri-valley is our life. And it's one that we share together. We've been blessed to be able to raise our kids in this community, and we love this community. And the teachers that I work with are some of my best friends that I've ever had.

We're very unique at the high school, well, except for this year, for probably the last 13 or 14 years, there's been a group of 15 or so of us, and it changes every year, that go away for a weekend and just hang out, our female teachers. And it's such a great situation to have that support and that family atmosphere at school.

I know not every school is like that, but that would be my advice is just get involved and build relationships with your kids, with your coworkers, and just make the best of it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I think that's a really good piece of advice to maybe be that person who spurs a connection among the faculty. Because especially for physical education, where we can feel so isolated. Often we're in a different area of school. It's very easy to feel like you're on the outskirts. So maybe be the one to start to instigate something where it's weekends away or it's happy hour, something where you can start to get to know people on a more intimate level. I love that.

JAMIE WARD: I'm leaving in a few hours to go make freezer meals with three of the other ladies that I teach with, so.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: It's great.

JAMIE WARD: We're very blessed.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: As an educational hero, Jamie, people need to know a few extra things about you. So if you weren't a teacher, what would you be doing?

JAMIE WARD: Oh, man. I don't even know. I can't imagine not being around some form of athletics. I don't even know.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Wow. Wow, you're the first one to be stumped. Like there's nothing else, like you just hang up your hat.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great. So are you an early bird or a night owl typically?

JAMIE WARD: Oh, man. I used to be a night owl and now I would say I'm much more of an early bird. Not real, real early, but--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I feel you. So what's your typical go-to breakfast if you have one?

JAMIE WARD: Oh, yeah, it's protein bars.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Protein bars? PB?

JAMIE WARD: Crunchy, peanut butter KIND protein bars is the new obsession. It used to be the MOJO peanut butter pretzel bar, but they don't make that anymore. And then my Verve, drink my Verve everyday.

It's a Vemma product, insanely healthy energy drink that I drink. That's my morning coffee. It's got juice in it. Yeah. That's my go-to.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's your go-to. So, then, if you're on a road trip, what's your guilty pleasure fast food if you want to pull over?

JAMIE WARD: Unfortunately, it's probably McDonald's.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: McDonald's! You're the first one to say that. That's old school. Go back to our fast food roots here. Favorite TV show right now?

JAMIE WARD: Oh, I'd say right now I don't watch a lot of TV, but I'd say it's probably American Idol.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: American Idol! All right. I was in on some of the first seasons of American Idol, but then I got distracted and I never I never turned back. To be honest with you I didn't even realize American Idol was still on the air.

JAMIE WARD: Like I enjoy the back stories more so than anything. And my daughter loves to sing, and so that's something that over the years we've done together is to be able to watch.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Well Jamie, thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor. Have a great day.

JAMIE WARD: Thank you. You too.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: If you would like to be a guest or simply have a comment or a question, you can reach me,

JAMIE O’CONNOR, at Encourage your friends to listen and subscribe to the show either through iTunes, iHeart Radio, or Spotify. Thanks for listening, folks.

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