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Julia Valley

Beyond the Gym Floor—Julia Valley

This is Season 3, Episode 1 of Beyond the Gym Floor. In this episode, Jamie O'Connor, a teaching associate professor at the University of Illinois, speaks with Julia Valley of Northeastern Illinois University.

Click here to see the full transcript.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Welcome to Beyond the Gym Floor. This is our first episode of season 3, and we are joined today by a former local hero who has since left us for Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Also, I should mention that I have known today's guest since the '90s, when we were both hired to help-- and I see this very loosely-- renovate Newman Hall on campus. In fact, this guest kept a deck of cards stashed with her so that we could play euchre whenever our supervisor left the room. So I have to ask-- Dr. Julia Valley, do you still have the same work ethic as a college professor that you did when we were supposed to be scraping paint off walls in our early 20s?

JULIA VALLEY: Well, I am surrounded by better dedicated professionals now. Just kidding. You and your sister were a part of that.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Touche, touche, touche. In fact, I was trying to remember. Don't say his full name, but what was the first name of the supervisor who used to walk around with a tool belt?

JULIA VALLEY: You're asking the wrong person. My memory is so poor.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh my gosh, I mean--

JULIA VALLEY: But I do remember the white little cloth that would get thrown on the cards. You're not wrong. I feel like Lauren was maybe the leader in that--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes, shout-out to my younger sister, Lauren, who was 17 when we started this job.

JULIA VALLEY: It must have been her influence.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: It must have been, but yes, there was always a deck of cards underneath some sort of a rag in a corner. And whenever a supervisor would step out, we would play cards. So all right, so let's move--

JULIA VALLEY: Not always. We had our spurts of hard working.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I'm not going to address that. So tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up, and what led you to a career in physical education?

JULIA VALLEY: I grew up in Oswego, Illinois, which is south and west of Chicago. I always loved my PE classes, but I didn't enter into my undergraduate experience having that on my radar at all. It wasn't until a friend of mine chose kinesiology at the University of Illinois as a major that that started to kind of resonate with me, and I thought, wow, if I could do something that I would love and make a career out of it, that's what I want to do. I was undecided for probably a little longer than the average undergrad.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Well, and also, tell me a little bit, too, because I remember. This is making me think. Your brother-- was he an engineering major when he was at--

JULIA VALLEY: My brother was in biochemistry, had taken probably all the science classes that U of I has to offer and probably could teach them upon completing the class. He's a very smart guy. He was on bronze tablet at the University of Illinois.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: And he signed you up for your classes for your first year.

JULIA VALLEY: He did my first semester, and I was in chemistry, calculus, classic civilization, and Italian. I'm not going to reveal the grades that I got, but I was on academic probation after my first semester.

JULIA VALLEY: It wasn't really a lack of effort. It was probably a combination of I didn't belong in those weed-out courses, and I didn't really want to be at college yet. I really wanted to still be with my high school buddies, probably playing all the sports that we played together and having fun. So it was a little bit of a rough freshman transition for me, but I think I picked it up second semester.

Then I took a self-paced physiology class, and if anybody's taken that at U of I-- the fun little coloring book with it. And I did very well in that class. So I think I just wasn't heading in the right direction as I started, and I think there was a little bit of an incorrect assumption that if you do well graduating from my high school and got all A's that you could just go ahead and take all those really challenging classes. That wasn't the case.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So then when did you start your teacher training program at the University of Illinois? Was that your sophomore year?

JULIA VALLEY: No, it was my junior year because I took a little bit of a detour into leisure studies as it was titled then, much to the chagrin of my parents and not quite understanding what you're doing when you major in leisure studies. And what I learned through that was it was a lot of business management rather than let's go play in a national park. Another way to talk about leisure studies is when everyone else is having fun, you're working at a sporting event or anything, the hotel industry, and with someone like me who has a fear of missing out, it's like the least desirable possible choice.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Sounds like it.

JULIA VALLEY: So then I had a whole semester of classes that I really didn't transfer to much else, but I learned what I didn't want to do in an expensive way.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah, I'm sure your parents weren't too thrilled about that, but then you found your calling. And then locally, you're probably best known for teaching at Holy Cross School for several years. So talk about that. Talk about that position.

JULIA VALLEY: So when I took that position, I was a little bit warned away from it because of the fact that it was a private school, and you didn't quite reap the same retirement benefits as I would have if I had chosen a public school. But I did feel like it was a really good fit. Because I was raised Catholic-- it's a Catholic school-- that felt comfortable to me, almost kind of coming home to the faith and to being able to observe with the kids. But even more so, it was both of our advisors sort of encouraged me to consider that position and then continue my master's and my doctorate.

And I will say, it was like being welcomed into a family at that school. I really truly loved the people I worked with. I loved the families. I loved the children, and leaving there was pretty heartbreaking, even though I knew it was time and I needed to. I still connect with and miss a lot of that community that I had there.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So then you earned your master's and PhD from the University of Illinois and are now teaching college students. What do you miss most about teaching K-8 physical education?

JULIA VALLEY: Well, I love them both, and when people ask me, I say it's a little bit of apples and oranges. You don't quite get the same level of joy and enthusiasm from your college students as you do from the children. You obviously don't have that.

It's not as much of a community feeling, and part of that is because I didn't just teach PE to students for one year. You met them as kindergarteners, and you helped foster their growth within physical education for-- if they started in kindergarten and stayed, you knew them so well. You knew the families so well, and for the most part, those were all positive relationships.

And I am a very sensitive person, and to me, those were my children. And I miss them, and I still love them. And I still hope they're doing well.

And you don't have that sense from college students, but what I do love about college students is by and large, you also don't have behavioral issues that sort of become what is very frustrating in teaching. If you have students that make it hard for you to teach-- and that was less so at Holy Cross than other places, but we had our fair share still. When you really want to reach them and some children are just much more challenging and have a different agenda in your classes, that's frustrating.

So I think about when I teach my college students-- you love the content, and they absorb the content so quickly. They love it, too. It's what they're passionate about, and you don't have to worry about those managerial issues that you have with the kindergartners who are spinning in circles, God bless their little hearts, and the eighth graders who are too cool to want to engage. And they're more worried about their social standing and how they appear to each other. So that's a huge improvement in college.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah, I currently have a kindergartener, and he's at a K-8 school locally. And I think about the fact that his PE teacher and his music teacher and his art teacher, if they stay there, I mean, he's going to be with these people for possibly nine years of his life. That is such a unique experience that not a lot of teachers get. So then you can address this with regard to either your K-8 students or your college students, but what are typically the most joyful moments in your teaching day?

JULIA VALLEY: I became a teacher because I loved the content, but I think more importantly, I really do for the most part love people. Social media sort of makes that hard sometimes, but I like to connect at both levels. I love to connect with the children. I love to not just teach them skills but to hear about what's important to them, to talk to them about the things that are outside of PE, and just getting to know them and connecting. And it's the same thing with college students. It's just so much shorter. I get to go a little bit.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: You don't have in-person classes.

JULIA VALLEY: Well, they're with you for a shorter period of time, and then they're on to their lives. And it's also a little different at Northeastern than it is at other colleges because for the most part, a lot of my students are there for another degree. They've chosen this, and it's a little bit more business. It's, I'm here to learn what I can learn, apply that, and now get a job, and it's not as much. I mean, there still is a lot of connecting, but maybe not quite as much.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I feel you. Some of my favorite moments are when we are chit chatting before class about what shows and podcasts and things people are listening to or watching.

JULIA VALLEY: Yeah, I kind of force it on them. I ask that straight up.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I do, too.

JULIA VALLEY: I want to hear it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I do, too. Yeah.

JULIA VALLEY: I do that partly as icebreakers to get to know them, but I'm always trying to engage them in other ways. And they might sometimes think, let's get on with it. But also, especially the younger undergrads, when you see a change in their beliefs, that's also a pretty good highlight in my teaching day, when you know they come in thinking dodgeball is the most enjoyable thing in the world. And then you start to try to have them see that from the perspective of the lower-skilled students, and they kind of agree with you. And they start championing quality teaching and appropriate strategies.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So then what's the most important lesson your students have taught you over the years when you think about how this is a bidirectional influence? How have they influenced you?

JULIA VALLEY: I think it's funny you say "bidirectional" because I think it is how they influence me and how I influence them, is that you don't need to put on a front with me. Let's be genuine and authentic, and if you don't tell me what you really, truly believe, then I'm not going to impact a lot of your growth and development as a teacher. So I think I show them that I make mistakes. I'm not perfect, and I own those. I don't try to pretend it didn't happen or justify it or defend myself.

I say, oh yeah, that was a mistake. I'll fix that, and I'm learning, too. And we're always sort of in that continual process. So I think they need to see that, but I need to see it from them, too.

So I feel like it's important. I mean, this isn't our only gig. We all have a lot of things going on in our lives, so to be authentic and kind of open about that.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Well, given how long I've known you, I think you're the most authentic person I know, so I can imagine your students would feel that right away, like, oh, she's not pretending. This is the real Dr. Valley.

JULIA VALLEY: Yeah, I'm pretty consistent in how I am with whoever I am with my life.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So how do you reach your students, the ones especially who attempt to kind of push back on your efforts to connect?

JULIA VALLEY: Well, it kind of connects-- I guess it's a little bit of a theme in some of these responses, but I think I make more of an effort. I don't want to say that to suggest that my colleagues don't, but at the beginning-- and I think you and I actually gave a presentation on this, and I think it was important, that you don't just do team building or icebreakers at the beginning of a semester and then abandon it. And it's threaded throughout.

So I think that's how you reach students, is that you take it a little bit deeper, and they know you're not just doing this for your paycheck. They know you're not giving them a grade and moving on, that it's really more of this, like you said earlier, bidirectional or didactic experience where I care about you, so I need you to tell me what's going on. And then that connection forms. And it's not just, I care about you because it's my job to.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Right, right, a very human element that just permeates the entire semester or the entire academic year. So what advice would you share with the current, let's say, both the University of Illinois and Northeastern Illinois students? If they're thinking about a career in PE, what would you want them to know?

JULIA VALLEY: Well, even nationally for this podcast, all of the undergrads that we'll be reaching--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Thousands of listeners.

JULIA VALLEY: Right, right, everybody that is pursuing this career. I think what I would say is our subject matter is vitally important, and it's not always looked at that way. We're often marginalized.

But I think what's even more important than what we're teaching is how you teach it. I think that it can go south in a hurry if we-- and I was just having a conversation with my cousin that teachers who bully students, call them names, use some of the old strategies that should not be happening in an educational context anymore. So they might think they're doing a great job of teaching the subject, but if the way they're doing it is making children feel excluded, making them feel like this is an unsafe environment, then it doesn't matter how effective they believe they are at teaching the skills.

So that's what I think is important, is that there's a lot of power in what we're doing to help encourage students to love it or to hate it, and you are pretty critical element in that process, who you are and how you deliver it. They're not going to believe you if you're not being kind, if you're not doing it in a way that makes them feel safe, if you ignore the quietest students who don't seem as highly skilled. Then you're failing as a PE teacher. You're not doing your job.

So I just would say that. Think about how you do it, and don't assign intentions to children's actions or being a little bit more reserved. And this is something that-- I hope that I reach my students when we talk about this because I am most passionate about that, is that, yes I just had students complete a value orientation inventory, and yes, the skills are important. But so is how your students learn to treat each other. So is so many aspects of that classroom community.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Wonderful.

JULIA VALLEY: Sorry. That was long winded.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: No, no, no, it's excellent, and I like that there is a little bit of a theme to our conversation today. But to get silly for our final few minutes, as an educational hero, your students, my students, again, the thousands of listeners need to know a few extra things about you. One superpower for the day-- what would it be?

JULIA VALLEY: I think I'd like to be able to fly if it was just for one day.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Same, yeah.

JULIA VALLEY: Because I got a lot to get done. I got a lot of people I'd love to go see if I could fly super fast safely.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes, I like how you added "safely." Favorite book?

JULIA VALLEY: Well, I think a series that I loved was Harry Potter, but I know that's kind of many years ago. And somewhat more recently, I read a book called Where the Crawdads Sing, and I just really enjoyed it. It was just a nice little escape, and it's well done.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Celebrity crush if you have one?

JULIA VALLEY: I might have to say two that are kind of tied.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK, two. Go ahead.

JULIA VALLEY: Lauren Graham and Keri Russell.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK, all right.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Fair enough. Least competent sport or activity?

JULIA VALLEY: Anything that I have to do it with an implement on my feet. Skiing-- it's not good. Rollerblading-- it's not good.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I have been skiing with you.

JULIA VALLEY: If I get out the skateboard, I'm going to get hurt. I mean, I'll try it, but yeah.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Have you ever tried one of those hoverboards? Because I feel like I-- not a hoverboard per se, but they're kind of the-- I don't know-- equivalent of what you would imagine is a hoverboard. I think I'm going to kill myself on those.

JULIA VALLEY: Yeah, my--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I don't know what they're even called.

JULIA VALLEY: My cousin broke his arm the day he got it. It's one of those uniwheels or one wheel.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes, yeah. Yeah.

JULIA VALLEY: And Meg got on it, but he had to help balance her. And I said, no, mm-mm. It'll be a bad injury, too.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Right, you'll be at the hospital.

JULIA VALLEY: We don't have a good track record with that stuff.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK, fill in the blank-- my friend just asked me to spend the day doing what with him or her, and I immediately start thinking of excuses.

JULIA VALLEY: Oh, going shopping for dress clothes or--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh my gosh, OK. So yesterday, I had a conversation with Lauren, my sister. This is the second shout-out she's getting in this episode. And she spent the entire day helping her friend's daughter pick out a homecoming dress, and I actually felt like a physical reaction of nausea.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah, so I agree with you.

JULIA VALLEY: I would say Lauren-- if she was the one I was shopping with, she might be the one exception because she is entertaining.


JULIA VALLEY: But it would still be really short lived. I'd have to have a time cut-off because it would make me crazy. And I hated enough to do it for myself. I don't want to-- no, mm-mm.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Ugh, we are on the same page. Dr. Valley, thank you for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor. Have a wonderful day.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: If you would like to be a guest or simply have a comment or a question, you can reach me, Jamie O’Connor, at Encourage your friends to listen and subscribe to the show either through iTunes, iHeartRadio, or Spotify Thanks for listening, folks.

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