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Kay Wells

Beyond The Gym Floor—Kay Wells

Jamie O'Connor, a teaching associate professor at the University of Illinois, talks with Kay Wells, who teaches at Edison Middle School in Champaign.

Click here to see the full transcript.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Welcome to Beyond the Gym Floor. We are joined today by Kay Wells. She is a physical educator at Edison middle school in Champaign. In fact, she just asked if I could hear the basketballs bouncing in the background. And I cannot. But Kay thanks so much for being on the show.

KAY WELLS: Thank you for having me.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: No problem. And you just mentioned that this is your, did you say your 59th set of parent teacher conferences this week?

KAY WELLS: Yes, it is. So when you have two a year, and you're working on being 30 years, well 29 years. When you multiply that out, it does become that many. Which you don't think about at the time, until you look back. When you had me sign papers, sign up for something it said, log in if this is your first time doing this. And I laughed because my current student teacher will be, is the 76th University student I worked with.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh my gosh. That is phenomenal.

KAY WELLS: So, before your time. Gary would send student observers to me, or I've had student teachers. And then that's all U of I. Because I'm a U of I alum. But I do have, I have volunteered for those Eastern and ISU and a few other places as well. But 76 U of I students.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That is amazing. So you mentioned that you attended the University of Illinois, where did you grow up?

KAY WELLS: I grew up in Champaign.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, you did.

KAY WELLS: I grew up in Champaign and went to Bonfield elementary school. And I went to Edison, and then Central high school. And I knew I wanted to be a teacher from the time, well, my mom tells me from way back. I would line up all my stuffed animals and teach them. They were the smartest things you ever seen. But the funny thing she adds, is that I gave them a break for PE every day. And they would do, they would flip around and do gymnastics and do all sorts of stuff. And then they'd come back for math class.

And so she said, even then, you knew to get them up and have them exercise way back. And I remember the chalkboard in our basement. I remember doing that. And I remember having them do flips. You know, like oh, yowza! And I would do those kind of things. So way back. I was probably four or five doing that.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: And I believe that. That's the first story I've heard, because a lot of kids love to play teacher and play school. But you are the first person I've talked to who actually integrated physical education.

KAY WELLS: I did. Way back in the day they needed that. But I think it goes back to my elementary school physical education teacher. Her name was Dottie Pash. I believe her husband was a golf coach at Illinois at the time. But we had PE every day. And I looked forward to that every day.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Of course.

KAY WELLS: And just because of the way how it all transpired and how it worked. I would see that the kids needed that or my stuffed animals or whatever, needed that every day just like she taught ingrained in us. And I'm hoping that that's what we're doing to the kids that we teach now. I'll see someone run behind, I go look, and everybody looks and go what? And then when we're outside. And I go that person is running and nobody's making them. Like nobody's yelling at them. And I'm like someday you're going to do that. And they'll look at me like, I don't know. But I think they will. So we're hoping that that's what we're giving them. So when I started gymnastics when I was little. Probably four or five. Kept it going, had a first injury of mine when I was a freshman in high school. I went to physical therapy for that injury. And thought I like this, but I really like the sport aspect of it. Getting athletes back and on the field and doing that.

So that's when I decided to, early high school, decided I wanted to be an athletic trainer. And my parents said, at the time there was probably 26 schools you could become a certified trainer at, and University of Illinois was one of them. And my mom and dad said, we can make you feel as far away as you want us to, but there's no way you should turn down a University of Illinois education to go away from us.

You know, like move on campus, we can make you. And I didn't pretend I was far away. It was so nice being two miles from my home all the time. So I did my undergrad, I combined both things, athletic training and education. And then I did a master's at U of I as well in Kinesiology sports medicine with Dr. Jerry Bell. And graduated and then moved to Chicago for nine years. Eight, nine years. And taught at Libertyville, Illinois. And then in that time, got married, met my husband at U of I, that's a long story. But met him at U of I, he was my neighbor in Chicago.

We got married, had kids, he took the job back at the University of Illinois. So we moved back to Champaign, and that's when I started teaching at Edison. So it came back around. So I was gone for a little bit, but came back to the roots in Champaign.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's so neat that you're teaching at Edison where you went to school.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Very surreal.

KAY WELLS: Yeah, they'll bust out old yearbooks. I'm like yeah, that was me.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's so cute. So I know you work specifically with middle school students, which is obviously a very special population. Have you had a teaching highlight this year? Just a moment that clicked with you?

KAY WELLS: Well I like the ones, you have such big classes. Maybe not everybody does, but we have such big classes. That when you get that moment with one child where you can show them something, and then it works, and they're like aha. You see the light bulb go off that hey, that was an easier way to do this. And it was successful. Those moments. And I've had a couple of those already this year where the kid went, you're not as dumb as you look. You know. And middle school, that's a big highlight where you say, they look at you like, oh.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: You know what you're talking about.

KAY WELLS: You know what you're talking about. Surprise. So that was kind of, I've had a few of those. Those are always nice. The other nice one is just they're happy to be together. And we've had a year where they weren't. So happy to do things, play together and be together. And so that's been a highlight, too, where we can get stuff out and they can enjoy just doing something without just being by themselves.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, certainly. That last year was incredibly reflective for wow, we took this idea of being able to teach kids in person for granted. We did not see that coming.

KAY WELLS: No. No we didn't. And I really think back to when they said, Oh, you're going to have an extra week of spring break. I really, really thought, well we'll be back at the end of April. And as it went on, I'm like, what in the world? And it did change a lot of things that I did and how I did them and it was hard. I would never want to do it that way again. And some kids will have their masks shoved down and do you want to go back to the way that was? And they'll put it back on really fast because, oh my gosh. Even if they say, oh, I loved it. It was not there. You know.

Teaching PE online was hard. We used some apex stuff with definitely things we would just take for granted and tell them this is how things are and this is the target heart rate. Or this things we would just incorporate it in. All of a sudden, there was no incorporating.


KAY WELLS: We tried to stick with it. We've tried all my years to have move it Monday, workout Wednesday, fitness Friday, where we exercise. And then the other day is we can work in skill, work on things like that. And online they're like, how are we going to do workout Wednesday? I'm like, we are. So all of those things were so difficult. But it's so nice to have them back and clicking. I think that's the word for it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: How do you, so with the middle school in particular, I'm assuming you still have a few students who push back against what you're trying to do in your program.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: How do you try to forge connections with those students?

KAY WELLS: Well, I think mainly showing them you're not going away. You know, especially middle school. Like oh, because it's easy to back off and say, oh, I'm done with you. But that you keep trying. Keep trying. Keep trying. Or I have some that are really standoffish. And you hand them the ball or hand them something, and they look at you and then the next day you hand it to them. Every day. And then finally you get a smile. Like it might take three or four times of you specifically going to that a lot.

I have one girl in particular I think of right now, that finally, she smiled. I'm like oh, she gets it. Then she took a step for, like came into the action where if I don't usually hand her the first day she didn't take it, it had been easy to move on. Where this year is a little different. A lot of times we have pushed back with changing clothes or putting on gym shoes or whatever. And the funny thing about now, is I think when they, we're not changing because of COVID right now. Too close together and not, locker room not enough space. Masks, all those kind of things. So we're not doing that.

But I haven't had as many issues. It's weird, because I think they think, oh, the same thing we just thought about taking it for granted. I think, I mean I have a handful, maybe a few every day that might forget their shoes. But then they're like I forgot my shoes, sorry. Not the ones that chronically don't. It's been an interesting year in that respect. I think the same happy to be together and doing things as we do. And exercise is different for everybody. So we try to make a variety of different things.

So that they go oh, I like this one, or I didn't like that. Or they can find something that we try to lifetime things that somewhere along the way they'll go, oh, that wasn't bad. I might do that. So we throw a lot at them in middle school thinking that something might stick. You know.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah. That's the perfect time to do that.

KAY WELLS: Right. And hope something sticks and that they like it. Or we always say, you walk every day and that is great exercise. It really is. So if none of these things went, balls or bats or things or whatever, you still have on your body something that works every day.

We talk about push ups. Really, the whole purpose of them is you have to lift your body weight for your whole life. So we're starting now so that when you're old you still can lift your body weight because that's an important skill. And they go oh, that's why I'm doing this. And when you put it in the perspective like that to them, in middle school, you get a little more positive response from them sometimes than just we're going to do push ups. So we start some of the theory behind why they're doing some of the things.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I talked to my undergrads a lot about just there has to be some sort of a rationale. Like you have to, kids, you might be able to get away with it at the elementary level of not creating some sort of a hook or a reason for why you're doing what you're doing. Because they usually just enjoy PE, regardless. But at the middle school level, they're wising up. And it has to be a why behind the what. Like I've just asked to do something, why?


JAMIE O’CONNOR: And they need that.

KAY WELLS: And when you can come up with, well, you always have to push your body weight up. So we're going to do push ups so that if you ever fell down, you can get up. Oh, that makes sense. You know, and as long as you're making sense with them. Or routine, even though you think routine is important for little kids, it is so middle school important. As well as high school important, too, but routine. So they know what to expect when they're coming in, it's not a shock that they're exercising. It's not a shock that they're doing workout Wednesday with the stations.

It's not a shock that they're doing this, they get that routine pretty early. And then, you don't get as much pushback because they know when they walk through the doors what's going to happen. That every day starts out with movements and we're going to move because. And then, they're funny enough that they enjoy your sense of humor, too. So when they're like, we have to exercise? I'm like, what did you think physical education was?

Or when they go to math, I mean, do you think you weren't going to do math today? So they've got that sense of humor with a laugh at you and then get moving eventually. And we have a nice length, 44 minutes, 45 minute classes, which is nice. Because they can be sluggish for a couple of minutes and still get a good workout, which is great. Because when you got down to some classes that were, I know some people have 28, 30 minutes of PE. You have to have them moving all the time to get there 30 minutes in or they're 60 minutes in.

So they can come in and think they're going to be sluggish for a minute or two, and still get a 40 minute workout in every day, which is nice. I mean, we hope they're doing things other than with us. But some are busy kids, they might not be. So we hope to get them moving as much as they can when they're with us in class.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great. And I think this is all actually excellent advice for those Illinois undergrads who are thinking about PE. Number one, I liked your advice about look, I'm not going away. Like you can't push me away as a teacher. I'm going to be here for you. I'm going to keep trying to connect with you and relate to you. Number two, just this idea of having some sort of continuity and routine. I think that is incredibly paramount. And then the idea of the why behind the what. Just making sure that you are explaining that you're not being punitive with regard to activity, you want them to enjoy it, and this is the reason why. So I think that's all excellent advice for them.

KAY WELLS: Thank you. I think the other thing is they really need to know. Remember, as you teach, everybody who gets off the bus. You don't get to choose who comes to you. In a lot of classes, well ours are computer generated. So the computer spits you 30 kids in an hour or however many it is, and you get those children. And you can't, it's not like the MLB where you can draft them. I'll take that one. You don't get to get rid of anyone that way. So we've joked a little that'd be kind of funny. Like oh, let's have a draft.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes. That would be extraordinary. So Kay, as a local educational hero, people, and perhaps even your students, need to know a few extra things about you. So if you could have one superpower for the day, what would it be?

KAY WELLS: I thought of this. And I would like a lot, but it is Halloween time. And I think I would like to talk to people that have died. Like my grandparents, or people that are not with us anymore. Because you didn't, I don't know. The last conversation wasn't really a good one, I don't think. Like, you never know when that was.


KAY WELLS: And I also would be interesting just to know, I just don't. I mean it's Halloween coming, you think about it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, absolutely.

KAY WELLS: In Massachusetts. So Salem and all the, it was it's one of those things. I think it would just be interesting to see like if you're doing stuff right, they have better advice for me this time around.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I love that. That's the most unique answer I think I've gotten, so thank you.

KAY WELLS: I'd like to be invisible, too, but that would be fun for a while. But I really think the other one and thinking about it. I think that would be interesting.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Very. Do you have a favorite book of the past year or two that you've enjoyed?

KAY WELLS: Well, I thought of this, too. And it's usually whatever I'm in at the time. I'm like, oh, that's it. And then I'll pick something else and they'll be it. And it's just like a TV show. Like I don't have a favorite. I don't. I have some kids books that I thought were awesome when, I have four children. Well, we have four children. I guess my husband has something to do with that. And there was this book called The Treasure Tree.

And it talked about, there a lion and a beaver and an otter and it was all about personalities. And how these personalities, these little, it's probably my favorite book to read to them. Because it's showed that there were four distinct personalities. And we had four kids. And they were all different, yet they figured out how to work together and how their strengths helped the weaknesses of the other, but the other one had strength that helped. And I love that book. And I still to this day, like think, if I had a book to recommend to read, it's called The Treasure Tree.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's a great one.

KAY WELLS: I thought it was interesting. I mean, as a.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Parent and an educator.

KAY WELLS: Right. As a parent and an educator.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I love that.

KAY WELLS: So my kids, when they graduate, I have my oldest son went to the same schools I did. Edison [INAUDIBLE] so all four of them did. And then he went to Knox college, which is in Galesburg. And then he got a master's at the University of Illinois. And now he is a data engineer for the Boston Red Sox. So it's kind of fun with them in the ACL, the championship. So that's kind of fun. And then my son down, next son down played basketball at Western Illinois University. And got a master's playing. He had a grad transfer year, went to a school in Florida played. He's back, a realtor in town. And then I have two at Illinois State. One's a senior, one's a junior. And when they graduate, they'll be the fifth generation of our family to graduate from college. And so education runs deep and goes back. And so I hope to instill the same things in them that I do in my students. To love school, to love education, to love what you end up doing.

And I don't think, I think if I told u of I students things, I don't think I'd switch what I did. I don't think I'd go back and do something different, which is 29 years later I think something important. Like that I still would want to be. I think a PE, physical education teacher is the best teacher you can be. And I told the student the other day. They're like, why would you be this?

Oh, when Alexis came, can I say her name? When she came, students said, they're student teachers in PE? And I said, absolutely. How do you think you become a PE teacher? And they go right. And they thought about it a second, and I said, honestly, it's the best teaching job you can have. You can learn all those other subjects, but if you don't learn what we teach you how to be healthy, and how to grow strong, and all the things, you won't live long enough to use your math or science. And the girl laughed, she goes, that's kind of true. I said, I know. And so looking back, I don't think I would pick a different field. Which I think 29 years later is probably a good thing to say.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's phenomenal. You can't ask for anything more. That's awesome. So we'll go.

KAY WELLS: Back to my thing. Fill in my.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh yeah, fill in the blank. Your friend just ask you to spend the day doing what, and you're out.

KAY WELLS: If it's artsy. If I have to make pottery or paint the picture by number. Because I can do it, but it gives me a headache.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh yeah, no, I get it. I'm not a craft slash [INAUDIBLE] person either.

KAY WELLS: And there's all these like crafty fun things to do. Like go paint your picture with your friends. I was like oh, no. That would not.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah. I'm exactly the same, Kay.

KAY WELLS: And I think the sport would be swimming.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, yeah. I know. Aquatics, anything related to aquatics and gymnastics, I would agree with you there.

KAY WELLS: I think gymnasts all the way through. Because that is what my parents started me that really young. When I got hurt, interestingly enough, I got hurt and I had a cast on my ankle leg, and I grew eight inches in the time that I had. So when the cast came off, I was the most awkward gymnast ever. Because I used to be 5 feet tall, and when I was five eight. And I was like, the bar didn't hit the same way or the beam was like, I yeah, so I was not much of a gymnast after that. I could still do things. But it wasn't that competitive thing anymore.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: My size. Yeah, I was terrible at gymnastics, regardless of my size at the time. It did not matter.

KAY WELLS: I think swimming is so hard. First of all, I can swim. I can do all the strokes, my parents had us learn all of them. I took them at U of I, we had swimming in college. But I think it's terribly difficult. And I would rather like swim to the raft and sit on it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I am with you there.

KAY WELLS: And get my exercise that way. And my husband's like, you want to go swim? I could add that to my the things I try to avoid doing, too. I'm like, no, I don't want to do that. I'll go upstairs with all the other places. But swimming at the place. So I admire all the swimmers out there

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, absolutely. Well Kay, thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor.

KAY WELLS: I appreciate you having me.

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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