All across America, in elementary, middle, and high schools, teachers have a lot to deal with. The teachers of Physical Education (PE) bear an extra responsibility — the obesity epidemic. More than any other staff member, they are expected to do something about the fat kids. Hopefully this can be accomplished without shaming or bullying. At the very least, we wish them to take seriously the need for compassion, and to refrain from making the situation worse.
Researchers are interested in two kinds of bias: the explicit kind, which consists of the opinions and emotional reactions that a person is willing and able to admit to; and the implicit or covert variety, which is measured by word association tests.
In the words of Amy Corderoy, a 2015 Australian study “confirmed what we all knew in our hearts: our PE teacher probably did have it in for us.” The report goes on to say:
The study of nearly 240 PE trainees and non-PE trainees found both had anti-fat bias, but PE teachers scored 37 per cent higher on test measuring their implicit negative beliefs about obese children, and 24 per cent higher when it came to beliefs that obese children were not as clever as other children.
In other words, more than other teacher candidates, the would-be PE teachers stereotyped heavy kids by taking for granted that they are inferior, even in brainpower and social graces. Study author Marita Lynagh revealed that almost one-third of the subjects held the belief that obesity is one of the worst calamities a child could experience.
Dr. Lynagh wonders, in effect, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are aspiring young teacher candidates drawn to the PE field because of a special antipathy for obesity? Or do they enter the training curriculum with a neutral state of mind, and develop negative biases as part of their education? This question is a fertile field for additional research.
Often rude, always interesting
The discussion website Reddit published a letter titled, “I’m a pe teacher who needs advice about a morbidly obese student.” A survivor of childhood obesity suggested conveying to the boy, and to the other kids, the concept that actually, he was pretty darn strong.
Ask the others how they would like to run around a track or up a flight of stairs with another student on their back. That would be an equivalent feat, and quite an impressive one. The helpful correspondent also recommended positive self-talk. For instance, the boy should say to himself, “I AM STRONG because I’m carrying myself every day. I am carrying 400 lbs every day. I am STRONG.”
Many others replied with helpful ideas, and some people needed to vent about how much they hated gym class when young, and wished they had had teachers as thoughtful and considerate as the writer. The teacher wrote back:
Guys, your responses are bringing me to tears… I am truly grateful to have a community like /r/loseit I can turn to for advice. Sadly they don’t teach you what to do in this situation at “gym teacher school” haha… I can’t thank you all enough, you are all telling me thank you for being there for this student, well THANK YOU for being there for him too!
Wrong in so many ways
Starting at age 12, writer and comedian Laurie Kilmartin was a dedicated athlete, a year-round swimmer for the Amateur Athletic Union. The coach had a great reputation for helping the girls reach their full athletic potential. He also took liberties in situations like giving the team members rubdowns and so forth.
Eventually, it came out that some girls were actually raped, and the coach was sentenced to 40 years in prison. But at the time, none of this was known. Kilmartin progressed through high school and says:
I kind of look back at that time as sort of being in a cult in a way because I was completely devoted to him and I really, like, worshipped him.
The fact Kilmartin was not seriously harmed was accidental. When she was 18, back on a visit from college, the coach invited her to his house, offering advice on how to get into the Olympic trials. He jumped her bones; but his wife unexpectedly came home (having just been fired, so women were having a bad day all around.) Even though the incident stopped short of assault, the effect on Kilmartin was serious. First, to protect itself, her subconscious filed it under “this never happened.”
She had already been suffering from bulimia, but now, back at college, she stopped attending academic classes, and devoted all her time to workouts and the requirements of maintaining the bulimic condition. Within three months she dropped out of school, went home, and proceeded to build a wall of fat around herself, eventually reaching 200 pounds. (She eventually slimmed down, but food issues never went away.)
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “PE teachers biased against fat kids, study finds,” SMH.com, 08/04/15
Source: “I’m a pe teacher who needs advice about a morbidly obese student,” Reddit.com, 01/28/14
Source: “Laurie Kilmartin,” mentalpod.com, 2012
Photo credit: wsilver on Visualhunt/CC BY