There’s an outdated stereotype of physical education classes that Judy LoBianco has spent her 25-year career fighting against.
It’s one where the most athletic students flaunt their skills while their less capable peers struggle to keep up.
It’s one where learning stops after students leave the gym and where P.E. teachers don’t have a seat at the table with their colleagues who teach core subjects, like math and English.
As the supervisor of health, physical education, and nursing services for the South Orange-Maplewood district in New Jersey, LoBianco has tirelessly and enthusiastically worked to paint a very different picture.
“Physical education is no longer just for athletes,” she said.
In her district’s gymnasiums, technology helps to personalize learning for students of all athletic abilities.
Classes include a focus on social-emotional skills, such as cooperation, that can help students succeed in their academic classes. And P.E. and health teachers are rigorously evaluated, trained, and supported.
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LoBianco, 48, is driven by the urgency of indicators like high childhood-obesity rates that have convinced her that students need the skills to seek out physical activity they enjoy and to stay engaged in it long after they leave high school.
“If you ask a physical educator, they would say the work they do in schools is literally a matter of life and death,” LoBianco said. “Kids don’t really talk about their health because they have health. It’s only us old people when we have a backache or are taking a prescription.”
She played a key role in helping the 7,000-student South Orange-Maplewood district become a rare double recipient of federal physical education grant funding totaling $2.7 million for technology, equipment, and professional development.
Early Passion for Health
Growing up in Point Pleasant, N.J., LoBianco says she knew she wanted a career working with children, but she wasn’t sure what form that career would take.
As a track athlete and basketball player, she was interested in how the human body works. She remembers sitting in French class in 9th grade, watching a cut on her hand day by day as it healed and disappeared.
“Isn’t that like magic how the body heals itself?” she thought.
So she became a health and physical education teacher—a job she still misses—to help inspire that same awe in her students.
She completed a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education and, later, a master’s in education, at Montclair State University.
Over time, she became known as an advocate for the physical education field and stepped into a supervisory role.
And that advocacy has spread beyond her district, said Carly Wright, the senior manager of advocacy for the Society of Health and Physical Educators, for which LoBianco is the president-elect.
“Not only has she been able to really inspire her own district, now she’s able to take that to a national-level platform,” Wright said. “She gets people excited about something, and she has the skills and tools to back that up.”
LoBianco is a popular speaker at physical education conferences, where she often opens her high-energy remarks by singing the national anthem.
Those remarks often focus on one of her guiding principles: moral courage.
It’s a concept she defines as putting students’ learning first, even if it leads to more work—or some tough conversations—for adults.
Her peers describe what that looks like in action: challenging principals not to schedule physical education classes last when they slot students in classes at the beginning of the year, questioning a decision to allow participation in a team sport count as a physical education credit, and pushing her teachers to hold themselves to high standards.
Mara Rubin, who previously worked alongside LoBianco as a supervisor of visual and performing arts, said that, like P.E. and health, her subjects are often seen as “extra” in schools.
But LoBianco insisted they weren’t.
Whether students are playing in a musical ensemble or participating in a group game, they are learning skills like cooperation, problem-solving, and social awareness that researchers have linked to academic success across the curriculum, Rubin said.
“These are important skills for students,” she said. “We are trying to teach them these core competencies we need to have as human beings.”
Moral courage came into play when LoBianco challenged her physical education teachers not to grade students on compliance with rules, like whether they dressed out in uniforms for class everyday, said Irene Cucina, the program coordinator for health and physical education teacher preparation at Plymouth State University.
“Kids could fail P.E. because they’re not dressing out,” she said. “But there are some kids who can’t change in front of other kids, and there are some kids who are living in their car, and this is the cleanest outfit they have.”
Redefining P.E. Class
Using federal grant funding, Cucina worked with LoBianco to help design professional standards for P.E. teachers and to meaningfully assess students’ progress without merely tracking their compliance or comparing their physical-skill levels.
“It can happen in physical education that, if 80 percent of the class appears to be physically active, there’s no complaints, but they’re learning zero,” Cucina said.
So South Orange-Maplewood teachers assess students on such objectives as their ability to write a fitness plan, evaluate their own performance, and read a nutrition label.
And LoBianco worked to integrate technology into fitness activities, which could help personalize learning for students of all skill levels.
If you ask a physical educator, they would say the work they do in schools is literally a matter of life or death.
In the high school weight room, students may use programs on iPads to photograph and evaluate each other’s form and track performance over time. With some practice, students learn what good form feels like, so they can safely exercise on their own in the future, Cucina said.
In modern P.E. classes, teachers should also try to update an activity that has been long-dreaded for many students: running the mile.
In the outdated model, the most athletic students sprinted to the front with their peers falling far behind.
And, because they had different levels of physical fitness, they weren’t being consistently challenged, LoBianco said.
In the new model, students wear heart-rate monitors. Rather than trying to finish the run first, they strive to stay in their target heart rate the whole time. That means students may be running at all different speeds, but they are all feeling challenged.
“It puts every child on the same playing field,” LoBianco said. “Effort isn’t comparing yourself to others. Effort is are you moving toward your own individual goals?”
Ria Favia, who has taught elementary P.E. in the district for eight years, used a similar personalization technique by calculating how many child-sized strides are in a mile. Rather than asking her students to run around a track, she gives them options to get in the equivalent number of steps, like marching in place and throwing in a few jumping jacks for fun.
It’s a skill Favia developed after hours of observation and feedback from LoBianco, whose enthusiasm has influenced her teaching style and approach to education as a whole.
“Every child’s teacher is important,” Favia said. “The profession is important. The effects of her being so effective are far reaching, and people are going to feel the effects for a long time.”
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2018 edition of Education Week