Phys Ed and Health Teacher’s Message for Her Students: You Don’t Have To Like It, But You Do Have To Try It

Interview with Mary Glickman, East Rock School

Meet Mary Glickman, Physical Education and Health Education teacher at East Rock Community and Cultural Studies Magnet School. She has been working there now for 13 years, and as of today, trained more than a thousand New Haven kids. Mary says she always loved the idea of teaching, and if not for physical education (PE), she would be teaching reading or languages. In September, her school was among the four CT schools named America’s Healthiest Schools by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, receiving national recognition for their commitment to students’ health and well-being. In the interview below we talk about her role in this success, about her teaching methods, her challenges and achievements.

Mary, for how long have you been teaching health education and what are your impressions?

We adopted the Michigan Model for Health curriculum 6 years ago. I teach 7th and 8th grade health (younger students are taught by their classroom teachers). Overall, the curriculum provides a solid basis for health education. But it is scripted and is not 100% suitable for our population. When I teach my students, I have to adapt the curriculum to the local situation. I find that many problems are sort of glossed over, and I need to be more detailed explaining them to our kids. Our kids have definitely been exposed to these problems already, and, as a teacher, I need to find a different approach.

Can you customize the curriculum?

Yes, that’s what I do. For example, for my most recent class in the worksheets that I give to the children I moved “I statements”* from a unit that comes later into one of my earlier units. I did it because I think that it is very important to teach the students to speak assertively. They need to learn refusal skills and decision-making early on. And I give them an opportunity to be trained on that. I also create PowerPoint presentations based on the class topic and use those during my lessons.

Can you elaborate on teaching how to use “I statements”?

Here is an example: during the tobacco prevention classes I teach the students to use “I statements”. I ask kids: “How can you respond respectfully, without making fun or yelling when someone offers you a cigarette?” Instead of saying “ew, no” or “leave me alone”, “that’s stupid”, etc., I teach them to say something like this: “I don’t want to sound rude but tobacco is really harmful, and I don’t want to be part of it”. I tell my students that they need to practice with me now, so that when in real life someone offers them a cigarette, they are prepared to respond assertively and respectfully.

It sounds like you are very passionate about your work.

I love my work. It is very rewarding to see that my efforts and the efforts of my coworker, Chad, pay off. We encourage staff members to model healthy behaviors, and we have such a wonderful staff who do such a good job of that. The differences I see are small, but they really make an impact.  For example, each year I see more and more teachers carrying around these huge bottles of water and setting aside the sodas. Every little bit helps!

Truly commendable! Mary, what else are you doing as a wellness facilitator?

I assess the health and wellness needs of our school, and then plan various activities. We work within the Healthy Schools program It provides assessment tools that help us understand what our strengths and weaknesses are in terms of meeting national standards. We run various campaigns. Our first one was an anti-bullying campaign. Our teachers conducted lessons about bullying. We had a poster contest among the students. At the end, we put the posters up on the walls, judged them, and selected winners who got prizes.

Every year we come up with a new idea/initiative/theme. This year’s focus is global super-foods**. We learn about a different food each month. I have worksheets designed by grade level. For example, this month’s super-food is kefir, and the kindergarteners receive worksheets where they trace the word “kefir” [see the worksheet here – LG]. We also distribute recipes based on these foods. [We publish one of Mary’s recipes in this newsletter and on our website. Check it out – LG]. We send newsletters informing parents of our health education initiatives. I also publish all the materials on the school website. We are planning to have a PTO meeting this year where the parents will bring in dishes made using our healthy recipes. We had one last year, and it was a great success.

Are there any activities for staff members?

I surveyed the East Rock staff a couple of years ago asking them to identify health and wellness services they would like to have for themselves. Almost all of them wanted a chair massage and the free yearly nutrition counseling and blood pressure screenings. Initially there was great interest in yoga, and we had quite a number of participants the first year, but then this number dwindled.


My impression is that people get so tired that all they want at the end of the day is to get home and to relax. Some of them also have second jobs.

People are either too tired or too busy?


It sounds like health is not a priority on people’s “to do lists”…

I think people would want to make it a priority, but that life’s challenges and responsibilities change their plans and wishes.

Health programs could be incentivized, as it is done at one of the major manufacturing companies in CT, for example. This company has a gym on the premises, the attendees can log their time, and for the certain amount of time spent in the gym they get credit – their health insurance deductible decreases.

To meet the needs of the staff, at East Rock, I offer free after-hours workouts for the staff and their families on Wednesdays. Our gym’s open windows from all sides show passers-by what is going on inside. Sometimes teachers or staff seeing us exercise would join, too, at least for walking. However, I am not the only one who is doing something for the staff. One of our teachers provided a lesson on mindfulness during a staff meeting once.

Among other health initiatives, I can mention “the biggest loser” challenge that we had a couple of years ago. First time we did it, it was 8 weeks long and turned out to be too long. Some people didn’t lose weight after the first few weeks. By the way, that’s how my free Wednesday workouts started – I offered them at that time just for the weight loss program participants, but other people got interested and asked if they could also participate, and we’ve been working out on Wednesdays ever since.

East Rock school is also part of a district healthy snacks program. The children get fresh fruit or vegetables apart from breakfast and lunch times. On a related note, in the cafeteria on my lunch duty [staff members are required to take turns watching the students in the cafeteria – LG], I challenge kids when they get their apples to see who can take the biggest bite. I got tired of watching how fresh apples are being tossed into the trash and came up with the “apple bite” challenge.  It is fun, they laugh, they bite, and many of them end up eating that apple rather than throwing it into the garbage.

It’s is not easy to teach children to eat healthy, to eat fresh vegetables and fruit instead of chips or cupcakes. On my lunch duty, sometimes I take the food that’s being offered that day and I walk around eating it – showing them that it’s tasty and good. They watch me, and someone always says: “I want to try it too!”, so they try it and sometimes they end up eating their entire serving. I remember our students’ first reaction to falafel: “Ew, what’s that?” I said: “Will you try it with me and see?”. And I got a few kids to taste it with me and we got to react to it together.  Sometimes kids need an example to follow.

There is a book – “French Kids Eat Everything”, written by Karen Le Billon, a parent who moved to France with her family and had to adapt to French traditions. In that book, she cites French eating rules for kids [see a separate flyer in this newsletter – LG]. There is a point in these rules that talks exactly of the same: “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to try it”.

I am familiar with these rules – no snacking, wait for meal time, etc.

By the way, in the gym we apply the same rule when the kids are reluctant to participate in the game. We tell them: you might not like it now, but you should try it. You might like it afterwards.

What do you perceive as your biggest challenge at work?

Dealing with kids who misbehave: I don’t support the idea of removing them from the gym or sitting them in timeout during PE. Just a recent example: a couple of weeks ago I had a student who was very disruptive – he was ridiculing me, jumping over his classmates, running around, yelling… I had to call the main office for help. When the Principal came to collect him and she had him sort of calmed down, I took some time to talk to him in private. I said: “If I can get a good apology for your behavior today, I really want you to stay and to continue playing with the other kids. I think you need to be with us, you need to have this play time, but you need to show me you can play nicely to stay”. He was able to listen to me and I gave him a bit of time to digest what I said. After he was able to look me in the eye and say “I am sorry”, I let him back to the gym. He was fine for the rest of the class. He needed to learn how to express himself appropriately and he needed physical activities. I hope he trusts me a little more now and next time he will curb his negative behaviors sooner.  It takes time and patience with kids to build the trust. Physical education is very important, and we want to teach our students that they can use physical activity – safely – to their advantage.

Among other things, physical exercise relieves stress…

Sometimes children come to the gym stressed, not willing to participate. In this case, I tell them: “I promise that you can go back to your worrying after the class, if that’s what you want to do. But now, try to give yourself a break from it”. This approach works, they start playing, they have fun… I am not telling them “don’t think that way”, instead I say “try this”.

I wish my PE teachers had the same approach when I grew up. All I remember is constant testing and shaming for being an underachiever.

My approach is quite the opposite. My coworker and I both cater to our student needs. The ultimate goal is to teach the kids to find opportunities to work out, to find what they love. We want them to have good, warm memories of their school gym classes. Maybe they will not learn all the rules of the games, but it does not matter. What matters is how they will remember the experience they had in the gym. They should remember it as fun and enjoyable.

We do fitness testing too. It’s incentivized; for example, we have a “hall of fame”. We try to get the students’ “buy in” without shaming for not meeting the scores. We make sure that the kids who are shy have the opportunity to test privately, not in front of other kids. We test them separately trying to wean them off their shyness and anxiety, and encourage them to join the others and enjoy exercising and playing together. We do have games when half of the class is watching, but we keep the rounds short, so that everybody gets to play a decent amount. All that is a part of team building. The message we are trying to convey is “we don’t care how well you dribble, but we want to see you try and do your best and possibly help others”. My coworker and I have been here for a while (6 and 13 years respectively), we’ve worked hard to build trust, and we can see the results now. Very few students sit out during our classes.

You make the kids feel comfortable at your classes.

We don’t punish mistakes, we admit that everyone makes them, and it’s ok to make mistakes and to learn from them. I recall a student who transferred to East Rock from another school in the 5th grade. He was very shy, introverted, and did not want to participate in the gym activities. He would sit on the bench alone with his hood over his head all the time. It was clear that he had a rough time transitioning and adapting to the new environment. Chad and I worked with him little by little and by 7th grade he was a completely different student; he was on our school’s track team and had developed several close friendships. He was also rocking it academically at school, and one day his mom came to talk to us. She said that ever since he got into track he started blossoming, he made so many friends, that he was making plans about his future in sports, and expressed excitement about going into high school. She said: “Whatever you did for him was great! Thank you”.

How did you accomplish that?

My co-teacher and I tried to figure out what activities this child could excel at in the hopes that we could use something like that to help break him out of his shell, and, slowly, in the 6th grade, we started to see he was a natural during the track and field unit. My co-teacher started taking him into the gym outside of PE class and working with him, and other students – whom the student started to bond with.  And the student was getting better and better every day until he blossomed into the young man his mother came in to talk to us about.

If you had an opportunity to say something important to your colleagues in the district, what would you say?

The message about health is important, but the way we frame it is important too. There are many ways to teach, and there is no one way to speak to everybody. Don’t tell them what to do, but help them come to the point when they understand it themselves. Keep trying different strategies and don’t get run down.


Interview by Liliya Garipova,

administrative analyst


*I-statements are a dispute resolution conversation opener that can be used to state how one sees things and how one would like things to be, without using inflaming language (Wikipedia).

**Superfood is a marketing term for food with supposed health benefits as a result of some part of its nutritional analysis or its overall nutrient density (Wikipedia).