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Beyond The Gym Floor—Nicole Winkler

Jamie O'Connor, a Teaching Associate Professor in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, speaks with Nicole Winkler, a physical education teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Champaign, Ill.

Click here to see the full transcript.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Nicole Winkler of Jefferson Middle School in Champaign, thank you for joining me on Beyond the Gym Floor. Fun fact-- and I think our listeners will be intrigued to know this, but you were my student when I was a lowly teaching assistant at the University of Illinois. Nicole, do you remember that? Or was I such a boring teacher that you've literally erased me from your mind?

NICOLE WINKLER: No. I remember you. I could not tell you what class that was. But I definitely remember you.


NICOLE WINKLER: It was a decade ago. We talked about that.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Tread lightly here because we would not want to disappoint the Beyond the Gym Floor fan base. So tell me a little bit about your role at Jefferson Middle School.

NICOLE WINKLER: So currently, I am a six through eighth grade PE teacher. We also all teach one quarter of health, which is something we've done just recently the last two years. Which has been kind of awesome because you get to keep your group, see them through the year, and really get to know the kids you're working with. So you see them all through all three quarters of PE and then one quarter of health, which is a totally different animal in itself.



JAMIE O'CONNOR: Did you feel prepared for teaching health? Because I feel like when I went through, I didn't take any health ed preparation courses. And so I remember when I had to teach it for the first time it was very eye-opening.

NICOLE WINKLER: Yeah. Not so much the content. I just think the classroom-management, obviously, when you're not having the free range of being in the gym versus in the classroom. That's a whole different ballgame. So for me, that was kind of eye-opening.

But the content, obviously, is things we all know. It's pretty general-topic, and we have a little bit of free range of really what we want to do with it and what we want to get to the kids. And they have guest speakers that come in that we've had for the last few years that have just been awesome. And they really get a lot of good information to the kids that maybe they think they know, but it really hits it harder for them to actually understand it.

So I really enjoy it, actually. It's a good mix-up. And I have it the last quarter, which is always really interesting after three quarters of PE.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Well, and that's kind of nice, too, because you've had the first three quarters to build a sense of rapport with your students, where maybe they will trust you to have difficult conversations in health ed.

NICOLE WINKLER: Yeah, I think that's helpful. We've just gone my last name. And with having Winkler as my last name, I just had it fourth quarter the last two years. But I definitely like starting in the gym. I think it would be a little bit easier of a transition to the portable where we're at for our classroom for health versus the other way around.

Because like I said, it's just different management styles. And I think we do get to have that more outgoing relationship-building, where I get to know the kids and they get to know me. And then translate to the classroom when we finally get there fourth quarter.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: So Nicole, when did you know that you first wanted to be a physical educator?

NICOLE WINKLER: In high school, we were actually offered a program starting as a junior. It was a junior leader program and then a senior leadership program. And junior year, you basically learned every single activity that our school offered when it came to PE. And then senior year, if you stuck with it, you got to participate as a student leader in a classroom.

So we basically from second quarter on, assisted a teacher. And it was like a lower-level class. So, like a freshman group. But basically, we'd lead warm-ups. We would learn some of the skills they were learning.

And by the end of the year, we were pretty much teaching lessons and stuff. And I think from there on-- I mean, I always knew I want to be doing something with sports and just always had a good connection with helping other people learn things. And it just kind of made sense.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: It just fell into place.


JAMIE O'CONNOR: I wonder if any of the local high schools are doing a program like that? Because I know it would be tough for the middle-school level to give them that level of responsibility, but I wonder if some of the high schools are doing that? I'll have to bring some the teachers in from--

NICOLE WINKLER: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, we have a pretty good connection with the high schools. I don't think they do. But I grew up in Tinley Park, so up South suburbs of Chicago and things like that.

But it was a pretty decent program. It was super-fun junior year because everyone in that leadership program wanted to be in PE and wanted to do all the activities. So it was just such a competitive class with a bunch of my friends. And then we went to senior year, and getting to lead some of those things was just a pretty cool opportunity.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: So you mentioned that you were at Tinley Park. Did you have any physical educator who really mattered to you specifically when you were there?

NICOLE WINKLER: I think just starting, I still remember my elementary school PE teacher's name-- Mr. [? Uhas. ?] He was just such a quirky dude.

I had two brothers, so I've always loved sports. But he just made everything really interesting. And I still remember he used to wear Mickey Mouse t-shirts every single day. That was what we did.

And he would set up obstacle courses and things. And he made some of the fitness things-- looking back on it now, I'm like, that's how you trick kids into doing fitness. It's like, oh, you do this tag game. And I'm like, oh, yeah. You're running the entire 30 minutes you're in there. So I think he just made it really fun.

And then even moving on to middle school, we had another teacher there. And his name I'm drawing a blank on. But we had to go-- I think it was every third day.

We had a stationary bike room that also had exercise equipment in it. And you had to hit a certain mileage. He would allow you to use some of the other equipment and show you. Again, you got rewarded with doing more activity, but you were interested in it because it was like, oh, I don't have to do the bikes. I get to do some lifting today.

And I think they just did a really good job of really making the program something where you wanted to be there. But I'm a little biased because I've always liked being active. So for me, maybe it was fun. For maybe some other kids, it was not. I can still remember their faces. I can still remember some of the things we did, so I feel like that still means something to me, if I can still remember it after all this time.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: No doubt. So what would you change about PE if you could?

NICOLE WINKLER: I think right now our biggest struggle is just trying to keep up with how things are changing just in the world outside. I mean, cell phones is rough to try and keep out of the classroom. And just I wish we were able to use more of the technology things, but I think sometimes the more we get away from the skills and the fitness side of things-- the further we get away from that, the further the kids kind of get away from being actually involved in it.

So I think for me I would just-- I mean, I would love to be able to give them more opportunities that we could do some of those fitness trends like the CrossFits. And we've started implementing circuit training-- just very minimal things that kids can do at home. I think one of our big pushes the last few years is trying to integrate things that we can teach them that they can bring outside the classroom and make it feel useful because a lot of kids question that. Oh, why do I need to learn this? And why do I need to do this?

And I think our program of Jefferson, we revamp it almost every year just trying to figure out how can we connect to the kids. And how can we find ways for them to find meaning in what we do? And I think just finding ways that they can bring activities outside the classroom is just something that we keep pushing and trying to get them to be on board with.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: That sounds great. Now, middle school is that critical period of time in which girls especially start to lose interest in activity. How do you reach students who already seem checked out?

NICOLE WINKLER: Yeah, it is tough. And middle school in itself is just a whole different beast. But I think just trying to reach any of those kids that are kind of withdrawn, we use music in almost everything we do. So we'll allow them to choose playlists. And obviously, we'll clean some of them up.

But we use that. It's a lot of, like, hey, I'll do this activity. I'll get the music started if you guys get going. And just having a song that they like.

And they might be a little off-task every once in a while. But most the time, that keeps them motivated. I mean, you think about people who go to the gym and work out, they're always listening to music. So giving them a little bit of that freedom is super helpful for us.

We've also started trying to reward our classes that do really good with participation with a bonus choice day. Like, oh, you did really great during this fitness day. So we're going to reward you with this choice option.

And it's three different activities that they get to choose. And they get to have that, oh, we get to go into this. And I get to be there with my friends. And they're not thinking about how they're active. They're just thinking, oh, I get to choose and be with my friends.

So I think having that, allowing those options, we really try to draw on as many kids as we can. And we'll see on those days that we probably do get the most participation just because they feel like they had the right to choose it. And they feel like they get to be with their friends.

And that's just one of those things. Middle schoolers are just seeking all the freedom. And just giving them those little tidbits of things just really helps them stay active and kind of get into it. So that's how we can really try and reach everybody. It's not for everybody. And we know that. But it helps, at least.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Yeah. I mean, I feel like it takes a special kind of person to teach middle school. That is a really challenging grade level.

NICOLE WINKLER: It's funny because when I actually did my student teaching, I did elementary, and I did high school. And I was like, no, never do middle school. And then when I graduated, I actually didn't go straight into teaching. I did a before and after school program for like four years and then got out of that and made my way back down here.

And a middle school position opened up. And I was like, you know what? I might as well try it because I never really did much of it when I was doing my practicum. But yeah, it's different. I can say every day is different.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: They throw new curve balls at you--

NICOLE WINKLER: Every single day. You never know. And the kids that can be a problem one day will want to be your best friend the next day. And you just have to wrap your mind around it as an adult and just being like, yeah, they don't know what's going on. They don't know what's up from down half the time.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: It sounds like educational whiplash.

NICOLE WINKLER: A little bit. A little bit.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: So any advice you would share with the current cohort of Illinois undergrads who are thinking about a career in PE?

NICOLE WINKLER: I mean, a lot of what we do-- I can speak from a middle-school perspective-- it's making connections with the kids. Again, they might not be learning all the skills the best that they can. But they're learning a lot of social skills that they don't get inside their regular classrooms. And I think even a lot of the gen ed teachers probably don't understand how much they're actually learning in our class that's maybe not related to what we're teaching them, but just like life skills.

So I think one of the things I would give as a piece of advice is just it's really about those connections and what you can do to just make that kid a better kid outside of your classroom. And we deal with a lot of sportsmanship and just dealing with confrontation and conflict. Like, hey, yeah, you lost, but it's not the end of the world.

I always tell my kids, hey, you're not going to see these clips on ESPN later tonight. So it's OK if you lost. And you'll get to come back tomorrow, and we get to do it all over again. And maybe you'll win tomorrow.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: And I bet they love that sort of cheeky sense of humor that you have, too.

NICOLE WINKLER: Yeah. Some of them get it. Some of them, it goes right over their heads. Yeah, I just think it's more about making the connections and understanding. I get it, me teaching them.

Like right now, I'm doing ping-pong. It might not be super-detrimental to their life if they understand it or they don't. But I actually had a girl who came up to me during a lesson and was like, I've had a ping-pong table at this house we've gone to every summer. And I never knew how to play.

And she was like, I can't wait to go back this summer and actually play. And I'm like, perfect. That's great because now you're taking a skill I learned here. And you might not even go play it right. But you're at least going to try now.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: I love that.

NICOLE WINKLER: And it's just like we'll have little moments like that. And it's like, OK, if I can get even a handful of students who are buying into that, then it's totally worth it.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Absolutely.


JAMIE O'CONNOR: And you just mentioned that example. Do you have another that comes to mind of just a teaching highlight? Something where something clicked with a student?

NICOLE WINKLER: Actually in class this year, my second hour, I wish every class could be like them most days. They just do. They just get things done.

I can go through the lesson. They're the right amount of competitive, which is nice because we'll have a lot of kids-- I get that. I was the most competitive. And I get that some kids aren't. But they can have fun with it. And they're inclusive of kids who maybe aren't the best at skills. And they'll try and get them to come and play on their teams.

They're at the point where I can get them going, and they can pretty much run their class. And then I can really problem-solve. And kids who are really struggling kind of hone in on them a little bit more.

But I think just with that group earlier, one moment that sticks out with them is we were in a hockey unit. And one of the girls was like, is this your favorite class? Because you always seem to really enjoy it in here.

And I'm like, I do. I really like that you guys can buy in. I don't have to worry about things getting too out of hand. You guys just really want to be here and do stuff. And it may not always be your favorite, but everyone tries it. And eventually, they just get it and get into it and it's fun.

And she's like, yeah. She's like, you know what? We should just have a classroom dinner. And I'm like, we'll talk about that. I don't know if I can make dinner for 30-plus kids. But we'll work on that at some point. It was just kind of a random off-point moment. But just things like that.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: I love it. So Nicole, since you're changing lives every day as a local Champaigne-Urbana Hero, the public needs to know. What do you listen to in the car?

NICOLE WINKLER: Oh, man. I have such an eclectic taste in music. But every time I'm driving, it's like a little concert, I like to think. I don't know. I mean, I'll go from anything like Adele to Lizzo.

Even the kids get me into some of the rap that they're listening to. I mean, it's really anything. Some old-school like emo music, some Eminem. I mean, I'm all over the place.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: I love it.

NICOLE WINKLER: I was just telling somebody the other day, if they had taught things through songs, I would probably be one of the smartest persons because I just can memorize songs. And it's just like, I love it. I wish I had done more with music.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: You could be like a PE slash music teacher.


JAMIE O'CONNOR: You could go back, do four more years of undergrad.



NICOLE WINKLER: That's what I need to do.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Yes. Favorite snack?

NICOLE WINKLER: It's not really a snack. Pizza comes to mind, even though it's not a snack. But that's my favorite--

JAMIE O'CONNOR: You can make it a snack.

NICOLE WINKLER: Yeah. I'm just a Chicago girl through and through. And that's one of the reasons I can never leave Illinois. I've gone elsewhere, and I'm like, you just can't beat Chicago pizza from here.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: No doubt. First concert?

NICOLE WINKLER: The Spice Girls. I was--

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Oh, that's so great.

NICOLE WINKLER: --nine. And me and my mom and my best friend and her mom went. And yeah, it was awesome. I'm standing on the chairs, singing every song. I got lost for like three hours trying to find our car afterwards. But yeah, one of the coolest things ever.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Spice Girls.

NICOLE WINKLER: Yeah. It's a throwback. It's a throwback.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: That is really great. So finally, when you're not inspiring the next generation of active movers, what TV show do you look forward to watching maybe in the evenings? I know you're busy with coaching volleyball, but is there something that you've been looking forward to lately?

NICOLE WINKLER: I mean, when Game of Thrones was on, that was our thing. Me and my fiance go through just a slew of shows. As a joke we started watching The Bachelorette. And now we're kind of both like really drawn into how terrible TV it is. So that's just something that we do now on Mondays. And it's like, this is awful. But it's like, you can't stop watching it because it is so awful.


NICOLE WINKLER: But we'll watch reality TV shows like America's Got Talent and Big Brother and things like that-- Survivor.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Reality TV shows make me feel like my soul is dying.

NICOLE WINKLER: A little bit. A little bit.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: You're like, a little bit, and I love it.

NICOLE WINKLER: Yeah. But those competitive ones, I'm like I could do that. I think I could be on that show. Maybe not Survivor, just cause I hate sand. But most of them, I could beat them. I could probably do that. This is competitive.

JAMIE O'CONNOR: Oh, yeah. Well, Nicole, 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, Jamie O'Connor, at Encouraged your friends to listen and subscribe to the show either through iTunes, iHeart Radio, or Spotify. Thanks for listening, folks.

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