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Beyond The Gym Floor

Beyond The Gym Floor—Jennifer Werner

Jamie O'Connor, a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois, speaks with Jennifer Werner of Wentzville Middle School in Missouri.

Click here to see the full transcript.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Welcome back to Beyond the Gym Floor. This is our final episode of season two and we have a very special guest with us. Today, we are joined by Jennier Werner of Wentzville, Missouri. Jennifer, you've had a busy and probably overwhelming week given that you were just named the Shape America middle school teacher of the year. Congratulations and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

JENNIFER WERNER: Absolutely, I'm really honored and I'm glad to be here. And I'm looking forward to talking to and I guess just educating future professionals and just sharing what I have found successful and my passion for kids and just making sure that they all feel safe and loved. And I'm looking forward to this.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Well, thank you so much. So where did you grow up?

JENNIFER WERNER: I have grown up all over Missouri. It's always an interesting question because my parents were both in education and they both coached, and we moved about every two to four years of our life. So I would just say all over Missouri.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Was that hard, moving a lot?

JENNIFER WERNER: It was hard. Socially, it was hard for my sister and I. But we have a very strong family, and we had a good strong support system. So that made it easier, just knowing that we felt safe and loved. So it worked out.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: It worked out, and also there's probably something where you build a little bit of resilience when you have to move so often. And it toughens you up a little bit, I bet.

JENNIFER WERNER: Absolutely. It also just makes you adaptable and yeah, it works. It also-- I think it helps now in our future while we're teaching and coaching and just being able to adapt to changes and handle it appropriately.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah. So what led you on this journey all over the state of Missouri? What led you to think about PE?

JENNIFER WERNER: Everywhere I went, I loved playing sports. And I loved-- I looked forward to going to PE or health class every day. I absolutely love-- I love kids and I love sports, and I also love-- when I say the words love, making kids and other people around me feel loved and safe, like I truly mean it. Like, I love focusing on character and the life skills to be successful in our world and in our society. In the terms, like-- in our world right now, we're focusing on EDI and social justi-- social justice. And the equity and inclusion and diversity, that is so important. Just to remember that we're all from different backgrounds and life experiences. And I try my best to make that impact and hopefully, you guys do too.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, sometimes, we talk about how even the PE content itself is secondary to just making sure that, like you mention, that kids feel safe and connected and able to express themselves physically in a safe way. So that's cool, that's what you're doing to make those things happen in your school. So where did you do your teacher training?

JENNIFER WERNER: I attended Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, and I did my undergrad and my graduate coursework there. And my bachelor's degree was in education, PE, and health, and then my master's degree was in character education.


JENNIFER WERNER: And yeah, I just completed my plus 30 for technology just to try to increase my knowledge of that stuff.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Very cool. So what would you change about our discipline if you could?

JENNIFER WERNER: In the PE world, I think every kid needs PE daily. And I think they need health education yearly or for an entire semester. I struggle, sometimes, when we're focusing on overall fitness and wellness, focusing on the whole picture, not just the physical activity part. I think we need to have an opportunity to teach these kids the topics that they might not be learning at home.

And also one other thing I would really like to change about PE, if it was like the perfect world, was to try to reduce some of the class sizes because it's really hard to build those strong relationships and make those connections with kids when you have 80 to 120 kids in a gym. But other than that, I think every PE teacher wants to have unlimited and available equipment. And the resources, they could just be not quite so expensive. That's all of our dream, right? But I still think everyone does a great job with what we have. Just in that ideal world, there are some changes I would make.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah. And I like that idea, too, of elevating health Ed. I feel like, at least, and I can't speak for Missouri, but sometimes in Illinois it seems like it's almost like an add-on. Like, we're not really that concerned about it. We barely care if you're certified. It doesn't seem like it's an integral part of the overall curriculum. And I feel like the two should go hand-in-hand and we should actually care about training teachers to know what they're saying given the fact that the content area is so sensitive but meaningful.

JENNIFER WERNER: Absolutely. A dream that I couldn't agree with you more. And I think it's something all over the nation that needs to be elevated and put as a priority. Because if people can't understand the concept of wellness and health education, everything else starts falling apart.



JAMIE O’CONNOR: So what's the most important lesson your students have taught you over the years?

JENNIFER WERNER: My students have taught me that everybody is different, and that with everybody having different experiences and things that they learn at home, we talk about being adaptable or being flexible. That our relationships with these kids are so imperative and important. And they've taught me more than I can even put into words, I think, just because it's really changed me as a person and as a human just with how I interact even with adults on a daily basis and understanding that if adult is rude out in public, to understand what are they going through? Like, there's a reason they're behaving that way. It's not-- they don't wake up and they go, I'm not going to be kind today.

It's something that these people are going through that make them feel, or say the things they do. And a lot of behaviors are learned behaviors, and it's our job as educators, especially in our field because this is usually a fun place for most kids, just to model. Modeling is so huge, model what we expect of them and go from there.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great. Yeah, talking last-- a couple of weeks ago to one of my former undergrads from the University of Wisconsin, O'Claire, who made a good point about kids, and actually just adults too, will tell you that they need love in the most unloving ways. And I thought that was such an astute point to make, that we have to recognize that people are coming from-- we don't know where they're coming from. And if we don't know, then we shouldn't necessarily have negative reactions when they push our buttons. Just recognizing that kids, we don't know what's happening at home or in their lives.

JENNIFER WERNER: Right. And if teaching these young adults who are getting educated and possibly going into teaching. Teaching them, don't take things so personally. I think, your first few years in education, you take it personally. Like, what did I do wrong and why are they being mean to me? Once you can understand and grasp the concept, if you're truly doing the best you can, you're loving these kids the best you can, we just have to eliminate that--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes, that's great.

JENNIFER WERNER: --that feeling of failure.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great advice about not taking things personally. I wish I had had that advice in my first few years of teaching. Because I definitely, I could have had an amazing day and one little moment with a kid, a bad interaction and my day was just shot. So--


JAMIE O’CONNOR: So how-- you mentioned big class sizes and how it's difficult to connect. How do you try to reach your students even when you're faced with difficult circumstances?

JENNIFER WERNER: I'm very clear with my expectations and I revisit them often. I also create lessons that are differentiated to where every kid has a role. There's not that opportunity for kids to act up or the stereotypical form of the kids that misbehave and what those behaviors look like. I try to make it to where that's not even an option for them. Giving them something to do, a task of some sort. I also just try to create an atmosphere that's nonjudgmental. So if there's a kid-- I always laugh at this. If you've seen Jurassic Park, or I'm sorry, if you have seen-- what is the movie? Edit that out, nevermind.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: No. Give me more information, maybe I'll know which one you're talking about.

JENNIFER WERNER: It's the movie where-- oh, Jumanji.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Jumanji, yeah, yeah, yeah.

JENNIFER WERNER: OK, so at the beginning of Jumanji there's a girl in the PE thing. And she's just like, ugh, why would somebody base their life on being a PE teacher? And I--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I forgot about that gem of a quote.

JENNIFER WERNER: Yes. And I'm like, oh my gosh. But there's sometimes in my class where I'll have students who I think feel the same way as her. And they're like, oh, they just don't enjoy physical activity or they have a different gift other than-- and I try my best to get activities that can catch them. So maybe incorporating stuff that's related to textbooks or video games or something where they can make that connection and think, OK, it's not just doing certain things. And just making the lessons fun, not-- I think a lot of PE teachers, too, also old-fashioned.

I don't want to say this and offend anyone, but I think a lot of times we have the stereotype like back in the day where coaches wouldn't truly lead and engage kids. And trying to create lessons that are so fun for these kids with movement and even just social interactions that they don't want to leave. Like, they don't want to opt out or sit out. It's fun where they're excited to be there. I think that's really important and I just I try really hard to make an individual connection with each kid and find something positive, even if they are the worst behaved kid in the school. Making the--


JENNIFER WERNER: Yeah girl, making those positive phone calls home. Even those parents are shocked. Like, if you just call and said, hey, you did a great job at PE, I just want to let you know. I love talking--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Just going above and beyond. And that's why you're the Shape America middle school teacher of the year, because you're the one that's making those phone calls after school instead of racing home. That's some awesome advice for this next generation of physical educators. You have to-- if you want to have that meaningful positive class atmosphere, you have to go the extra mile. And I think it's evident that you clearly do. So do you have any other advice? Like you're already giving them so many little pearls of wisdom. Any other advice for people--

JENNIFER WERNER: For these future educators, I challenge you guys. Before you even get into a classroom, I challenge you today, tomorrow, even out in public, not in the educational world, to try that. Even if it might feel weird to you, let's say you're at the grocery store or you're somewhere. Somebody just doesn't look happy, just say something like, hey, I like your shirt, or it's good to see you, I hope you have a good day. Just something random--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh my gosh.

JENNIFER WERNER: --and you're going to-- yeah, like these random acts of kindness. It's awkward for adults sometimes, but it's so powerful.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah, yeah. Now I love that, and I know that our undergrads stepping out of their comfort zone like that could be a good exercise for them. Maybe I'll have that as an assignment. Maybe next term, I'll see if I can kind of push them outside of their comfort zone a little bit. Just to see if they can try to make even a small positive difference in the life of a stranger to see, oh my gosh, that was just a stranger. Imagine making those connections with the kids that you're going to be working with for several years in a row.

JENNIFER WERNER: Yeah. One other thing that they could do is somebody that's in their life, writing them a thank you letter. Like, an old-fashioned, dear so-and-so, three paragraphs, maybe a couple of writing prompts here and there and having them personally hand it to someone that they care about or that they're thankful for.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I love that.

JENNIFER WERNER: It's powerful.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh my god. You've got all of the little nuggets here, Jennifer. I'm so glad I had you on today.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK, so as an educational hero, people need to know if you-- extra things about you. So if you were-- I know you come from a teaching background, your parents are both educators, you knew you wanted to do this right away. But if you could not teach, what would you do?

JENNIFER WERNER: I know that I would do some type of a caregiving. I don't know if I would be a nurse, I would try to be a doctor, I don't know exactly. If it wouldn't be for humans, I think I would take care of animals in some capacity. But I really like being around people and having that interaction. So I had a hard time thinking about that concept, but that I would be as a caregiver of some type.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I like it. So are you naturally an early bird or a night owl?

JENNIFER WERNER: I am not a night owl.


JENNIFER WERNER: I'm a good morning person, but when I have two young kids at home too and once they're in bed, I am ready to go to bed.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes, oh yeah. I could pass out on the couch probably by 8 or 9 o'clock if I could I have to try hard to stay awake. What's your typical go-to breakfast if you have one?


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Coffee. Just coffee? What do you-- how do you doctor your coffee up?

JENNIFER WERNER: Anyway, I can drink it black, I could drink it-- if I use a creamer, usually a sugar-free creamer. Sometimes I'll do iced coffee mixed with a protein shake, a carmo protein shake, and I enjoy smoothies a lot too. I love smoothies.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So what's you're-- you're on a road trip, you have to stop for fast food. What are you picking up?

JENNIFER WERNER: Oh this is so embarrassing, but it's the most terrible thing ever. McDonald's french fries.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: No, that's not embarra-- no, that is not embarrassing. That is a blunt answer. What's your favorite--

JENNIFER WERNER: Only if they're hot, only if they're hot.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh yes, I agree. What's your favorite TV show right now? What are you watching?

JENNIFER WERNER: Well, like I said, I have a seven and a three-year-old at home so I don't get much TV. But a guilty pleasure that I have when they're in bed is we record The Black List. It's kind of like a crime, I don't know, it's very--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Very creepy.

JENNIFER WERNER: Yes. It is creepy, but it keeps my interest, I guess. And I like any chick flick. Any type of a chick flick, more movies, we're big with Netflix.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: All right, yeah. What's the last good chick flick you watched? If you can remember.

JENNIFER WERNER: Probably the notebook.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's, oh my gosh, that's been a lot of years ago. That's the last time that you watched a movie?

JENNIFER WERNER: Well, it was a couple weeks ago--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Or at least a rewatch on Netflix.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh my gosh, you like the sappy romantic movies.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Hey, there's no problem with that. Jennifer, thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor. And thank you, and enjoy the rest of the Shape America convention.

JENNIFER WERNER: Thank you Jamie. And it was a good one, it was good-- I enjoyed it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor. And if you would like to be a guest or simply have a comment or a question, you can reach me at Encourage your friends to listen and subscribe to the show, either through iTunes, iHeart Radio, or Spotify. Thanks for listening folks.

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