If there is one lesson I’ve learned as an Adapted Physical Education (APE) teacher, it is that Physical Education (P.E.) is one of the most powerful and essential tools for ALL kids to connect, belong and be brave.
When I first started my career as an APE teacher, I, along with my colleagues who teach special education, recognized that students with disabilities not only get bullied 2-3x more often than other students, but both populations of students with and without disabilities struggle to connect to each other unless they find common ground. If students in general education (partners) never go out of their way to purposefully seek out a relationship with students receiving special education, specifically with students with intellectual disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or other impairments (Teammates), they will never understand their stories. There is a gaping space between our circles of community that separate teammates and partners and vice versa. A chasm I call “The Space Between” impedes the progress of inclusion. How do we help students and schools move towards a more inclusive school culture? For my students, colleagues, and I, the answer is Unified P.E. (a class of 50% partners and 50% teammates) and being part of the Champion Unified Schools program with the Special Olympics.
When I teach students about “The Space Between,” we help each other recognize all our Circles of Community and areas of support with activities we are involved in. Maybe we have one or more friends or adults in those communities that feel safe to us. Recognizing that teammates may or may not have as many Circles of Community as partners because the privilege of being born without a disability allows us to have more rights and activities available to participate in. “The Space Between” is the unique place between understanding and misunderstanding, empathy and apathy, and, dare I say, between social justice and social injustice. Students notice how their circles of community generally never collide with people with visible disabilities (Figure 1), so how will we ever care about social justice and help our teammates find a voice if we don’t find purposeful relationships with people who are different? Unified P.E. is the place where we can create a safe environment (Figure 2) in “the space between” for all students in their least restrictive environment to form a meaningful lifelong connection to physical activity and to others. I did not realize initially that creating an environment that fosters courage can go deep to the soul level.
When students attend classes such as math and science, they have to show up and perform. But with their teammates and an environment in “the space between,” they can take off the “performance-mode” mask and be themselves. Partners learn a level of empathy and compassion from their teammates in their most authentic selves that they take into the real world. Some want to be inclusive doctors, teachers, lawyers for people with disabilities, or just being inclusive in their future business hiring practice. Teammates learn from partners what genuine connection is in relationships, grow in social skills in the midst of physical activity. They feel more confident saying hello to people in the hallway and cafeteria, which leads to prom, dances, and friend hangouts that haven’t happened before. I have had parents cry when their phone rings, and it is a partner asking a teammate to hang out. Kids have a voice to shut down the R-word and other slurs because their worlds have been impacted by each other (Figure 3). Barriers fall. There is more inclusive space and less space between us all. We enter each other’s world. When we step into being brave, we notice how everyone’s world gets bigger, and everyone becomes a better human being.
There is a quote that I wrote myself five years ago after having my second kid, living on four hours of sleep, and battling postpartum anxiety and depression that through every hard time (especially through the pandemic) and every class I teach, I keep coming back to.
Press into the awkward, weird, different, chaotic, unique space between what you know and what you don’t. This is how we will change the world.
Pressing into awkwardness makes you a better human. Teaching students to press in will help them find their voice for advocacy and social justice. If I want my students to be brave, I need to be brave first. The world has been a bit different and chaotic in the last couple of years, but pressing into courage closes the gap and increases our understanding of the world.
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