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Beyond The Gym Floor—Shannon Pennington

Jamie O'Connor, a Teaching Associate Professor in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, speaks with Shannon Pennington, a doctoral student in pedagogical kinesiology at Illinois and a physical education teacher in the U-46 school district in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.

Click here to see the full transcript.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Shannon Pennington, one of our highly-respected graduate students here at the University of Illinois. Thank you for joining me on Beyond the Gym Floor.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Glad to be here.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Shannon, 15 minutes probably isn't going to be enough for us, but we're going to do our best. So first of all, tell our listeners about your journey to grad school and how you're balancing your life right now.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: So I'm not sure that I'm balancing my life right now, but the journey to grad school was after 20 years of teaching experience. And I had left the classroom to work with teachers in our district's mentor program.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: What's your district?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: School District U46, and Elgin in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. And I decided that physical education was really my passion, and I wanted to go back to the classroom, and thought, I'm going to do elementary. And so a 20-year teaching veteran, but first-year teacher, really, at the elementary level.

And I saw so many things that surprised me-- the marginality of PE, art and music teachers. I saw five-year-olds that were being hospitalized for mental issues and behaviors, and it was really shocking. And so I had known that I always thought I was going to pursue my doctorate, but after that year, I thought, this is my chance to try to figure out how to solve some of these problems. I thought that maybe more education might-- I'm not quite sure what I thought it would do, but I felt like there was very little I could do as a practitioner in that setting.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So do you feel like, through your graduate courses thus far, that you're getting a grip on the problems that you want to solve?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Yes. So when I think about my dissertation topic, which is trauma and how students who've experienced trauma impact the physical education classroom, understanding some of theory-- like, health behavior theory-- is helping me understand what might be happening with kids, and then also understanding the profession from several different angles besides just my own personal experience-- the role of higher ed and teacher preparation. There are so many different layers that I think can affect what's happening in the classroom and our need to begin to shift what we're doing in the classroom, because our kids need us to do something different.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: And you mentioned a particular interest in students who have experienced trauma. What drew you to that initially?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: My Five-year-Olds who were being hospitalized in behavioral hospitals. And interestingly, I did not have the problems in the PE classes. Their issues were happening elsewhere. And so what we know about kids having an opportunity to move, and how that plays on their brain and their emotions and their ability to regulate themselves-- PE is a really critical time of their day. And in my school district, elementary PE was one day a week, and that was just not going to be enough.

And so if we thought of PE as a regulation strategy for kids, then we might be able to affect policy. If we're not, as administrators, thinking that they don't value physical education, well, do you value helping kids who have been emotionally traumatized to regulate themselves so that they can get to learning at school, instead of being removed?

I mean, we've had small children leave the school in the back of a squad car, and it's just-- it's so unbelievable that we, as a school system, have to do better. And so for me, as a physical educator, what is my role in that? And that's really what drove me to grad school, and also to look at this topic specifically.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So are you going to design your study-- and excuse my laryngitis here-- based specifically on students at the elementary level, or are you looking more broadly?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: I'm looking more broadly, because high school kids, too-- when I think back about my secondary experience, I look back now through a different lens, different situations that have happened with students that I'm like, oh, what? They probably had some stuff going on, and this doesn't have anything to do with me.

And so high school students, too, I feel like, are at the end of their opportunity for school systems to serve them. And so that's where theory is coming in too, because I'm thinking, what about self-determination theory? What if we give kids choices? Especially those kids who are on the fringe and feel like school isn't for them, because we've told them their whole lives you must do x, y, z, and they haven't really had a lot of latitude to figure out who they are and what they want to do? And so I'm interested to see what we might be able to do in terms of programming for high school kids, to see if that makes a difference.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's interesting. I think your work is going to be so important to our field, so I applaud you for that, and I'm fascinated to see what you find out. When you were growing up, did you have any physical educators who mattered to you?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: So that's an interesting question, because I did, but they were my track coaches. And so looking at how they would have influenced me, I entered the profession with a coaching orientation.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: As did I.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Yeah, and I thought, well, I'll major in PE, because I want to be a track coach. And so I learned quickly that that's not exactly what PE is supposed to be. And so they were influential, but when I think about my physical education experience with them as my teachers, that had, I think, zero impact on my entering the profession.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: It was just their disposition, and how they connected with you as coaches that appealed to you?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Yeah. So from middle school all the way through high school, they were all female, and they did a good job connecting with the students. And I went to a small school, and so I think that that's part of it. You try to connect with all the students, I think. And so they made it enjoyable to come to school, and to be a part of that. But it was really about the track team.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: And I don't think it's necessarily wrong to enter the profession with a coaching orientation, because I feel like you come in with this vision of what you think you're going to do professionally, and a lot of times it shifts. I mean, I shifted. You shifted. And then you start to realize the importance that you could have in the classroom, in addition to your time after school.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Yeah, I agree. And so yeah, so let me be clear. I still possessed a coaching orientation after I taught, because I did coach track, and I did love coaching track. But it was the balance, the fact that I entered the profession not even realizing that coaching and teaching are not the same thing. They are connected, and they are related, but they aren't the same. And so I still possess some coaching orientation, but understand that it's really important that there is that balance, and that when you're in the classroom, you're the teacher.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: You got it. What would you change about physical education if you could?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: You know, I'm still sort of married to some of the traditions of what we think about traditional curriculum, but I think that the sport model has sort of been perverted and misrepresented in so many classrooms. I cling to the ideal of what that should look like, but I also really loved the idea of doing things that are completely outside the box, introducing students to things that they might encounter in real life.

Like just the way different fitness facilities will offer classes for certain things, and giving them a wide variety of things that they can experience. And then also giving them choices-- a lot of really good, varied choices-- so that they can latch on to hopefully something that they like. But I'm not really sure what the resistance is to branching out from what we keep calling the sport model. I don't know how to change that, but I would like to see us, as a profession, do something different, because it just doesn't appeal to so many kids.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Agreed. What is the most important lesson your students have taught you?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: It's not about me.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: It's not about you.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: I'm not sure that I've fully learned that lesson, because it's so easy, in a classroom, to take behaviors personally. But the more I'm learning about the root of those behaviors, the easier it is to understand that I am really just a conduit, or sort of a facilitator in their learning. And that when they have a bad day and take it out on me, it isn't me. I'm just that safe person who is in the way.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's a great way to phrase it. What advice would you share, or do you share with the current cohort of Illinois undergrads who are thinking about a career in PE?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: What do I share with them?

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah, just a piece of advice, a little nugget of wisdom that you wish you had had when you were 22.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: So one of the roles of a physical educator is to also be advocate for physical education. And unfortunately, that's a role that we have to take on that other teachers in other content areas don't. And I do feel like those people who want to go into physical education need to be prepared with advocacy strategies, or else you're going to set yourself up to be really disappointed.

I'm a teacher. Why am I not being respected? Well, you can just walk into the profession knowing that that's going to happen. And then hopefully having possessed some skills that'll help get you through that, and then also elevate the way you're viewed in your school.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Very good. A teaching highlight that comes to mind-- and I know you probably have several. But is there a specific moment?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: I had a freshman class-- I remember the first day of school, I had a couple of students-- girls-- who were just tiny, skinny. They were in the Math/Science Academy, so they were high academic achieving. You have to apply to get into this Academy-- just sort of the stereotype of who you think is probably not going to enjoy PE.

And I worked very hard at creating opportunities that included everybody, made sure that these students were-- we had senior leaders who were sort of class mentors, and I spent a lot of time with them as well talking about how we spend time interacting with the freshmen, and how we interact with them, and make sure-- keep your eyes out for anybody who looks like they're falling back. We want everybody to feel a part of it. And just worked very hard at making sure that they had opportunities to engage, without needing to have a high level of skill. And at the end of the year, the principal called me up to her office. And I was like, what did I do?

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I was just going to say, that's not scary.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Yeah, during finals season. Like, what? And she says, you have a fruit basket here.

And I open the card, and it was one of the girl's moms, who had said that PE was her absolute favorite class. Of all the classes that she was taking-- this really bright, academically successful kid-- PE was her favorite class. And so her mom sent me a fruit basket. I cried.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, my gosh! I was going to say, I would put that in the win column. Absolutely. That's awesome. So Shannon, Illinois citizens, both upstate and downstate-- and actually, a shout-out to our listeners in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Yes, we do care about you, too. But everyone needs to know, what do you listen to in the car?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: I don't want to tell you, because I think you're going to make fun of me.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I will. I mean, I will, but go ahead.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: CNN.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Next question. So no-- OK, CNN. I'm going to try not to judge. So favorite snack?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: I do like potato chips.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Potato chips. See, there's an honest answer. Potato chips, I love it. Favorite toy as a kid?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Barbie. Like, so easy. I played with--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: This answer's actually worse than CNN.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So Barbie.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: But you know what? There is a really great Barbie commercial out there where this little girl is-- she's a professor, and she's a doctor, and she's doing all these things, and then it cuts to her actually playing with her Barbies. And I do feel like when my sister and I played, Barbie was anybody. Barbie was anybody we wanted her to be. And--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK, you're putting a positive spin on it.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: It is, but I really do feel like that, because Barbie wasn't what you sort of stereotype Barbie to be. I mean, the way they designed her was probably not the best, but I never thought of it that way.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK, I'm going to let it pass. I'm going to go from an F to an A on that. First concert?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: It was Barenaked Ladies, and The Proclaimers opened for them. And I had won tickets on the radio-- you know, be the 10th caller kind of thing-- and the reason I called in was because I liked The Proclaimers. I was not necessarily a Barenaked Ladies fan. But I won two tickets, and I couldn't-- nobody else was able to go with me, so I ended up taking my mom.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh. How was it?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: It was good. She enjoyed it. I just told her, I don't want to go by myself. And she had later said that it really meant a lot that I had invited her, because I was in my early 20s at that time. And up until that point, it was kind of like, get away from me, mom. And so the fact that-- I think it was, like, a turning point where she realized, maybe, I wasn't embarrassed by her any more?

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I love it. Oh, if my sons ever invite me to a concert, I will cry-- secretly. Favorite holiday? That's just a question for you, because I know the answer. Favorite holiday?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: OK, so Halloween.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes! Because you and your family-- you are obsessed.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: We do family-themed costumes every year. And it's cool, because my son is now a freshman in high school, and we started when he was 4, 3 maybe? And my kids are both still very willing participants. And they love the gift cards. We usually win contests, and we win prizes, and they--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: What was your favorite year, your favorite group costume?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Oh, probably the first one, when we did Star Wars. And Olivia was just a baby, and my mom had made a little yellow cap with Yoda years out of fleece that we put on her. And I got to be Princess Leia, and--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: It was the first.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: It was the first one.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: The first and the favorite. So finally, when you're not inspiring everyone around you, what TV show do you look forward to watching? And please don't say The Walking Dead.

So last week-- or, a few weeks ago-- Jeremy Richards mentioned that show, and it hit me on the car ride home why those types of shows bother me so much, and it's because I don't have any actual skills to survive an apocalypse. So what am I going to do, teach the zombies how to shoot a basketball with proper form? Like, I'm dead within, like, a minute of the show. So what show do you look forward to?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: I watch The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. And so there's another sort of-- I've got a politics problem, I guess. But I like the way he frames all of the yuck that's going on. And it's funny, and he always has a new musical guest. Sometimes the guests are obscure, and so I think it's kind of cool that he highlights--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: What time is that on, Shannon?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Well, so I don't watch it live, because it's way past my bedtime.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I was just going to say, I'm in bed by 9:00.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Yeah. I usually watch-- and of course, I haven't had time, because I'm a grad student. But I usually watch, like, the next evening, when it's earlier.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: At about 7:00 PM?

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Yeah.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah. You're like, maybe-- maybe five, maybe, six. So, well, Shannon, thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor. I really enjoyed our talk.

SHANNON PENNINGTON: Yeah, it was great, thanks.

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 beyondthegymfloor@gmail.com. Encourage your friends to listen and subscribe to the show either through iTunes, iHeartRadio, or Spotify. Thanks for listening, folks.

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