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Kelly Zerby

Beyond The Gym Floor—Kelly Zerby

Jamie O'Connor of the University of Illinois speaks with Kelly Zerby, who teaches at Jefferson Elementary School in DeKalb, Ill.

Click here to see the full transcript.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Welcome to Beyond the Gym Floor. We are joined today by Kelly Zerby, a physical educator at Jefferson Elementary School in DeKalb, Illinois, who was named the Illinois Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year in 2021. So Kelly, thank you for being here.

KELLY ZERBY: Yes, it's an honor to be here. Thanks for having me.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So tell us a little bit about you, like where you grew up and what led you to physical education.

KELLY ZERBY: Well, I grew up in Chicago, near Midway Airport, up until about fifth grade. Then we moved to Oak Lawn. Graduated from Oak Lawn High School, ended up at Northern Illinois University. I kind of always had a place in my heart to help kids as some sort of teacher I thought I would always be. For a while, I thought I'd be a pediatrician, and then I just decided to go into teaching. I did some sports camps and things along the way. I was a three-sport athlete in high school, so I thought why not go into PE, since I understand how the body works and how to do things like that.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: What were your three sports in high school?

KELLY ZERBY: I did cross-country, basketball and track.



JAMIE O’CONNOR: Very good. So then as an elementary physical educator, what are typically like the happiest moments in your day, like the most joyful moments of your day?

KELLY ZERBY: I see my kids every day, so it's just a special connection. So I really love to see their faces when something clicks that they haven't been able to do and they're finally like I got it, you know, like kids just learning to jump rope or just strike something with a paddle. And it's so hard in the beginning, and when they have that little moment and they look at you and you're like [GASPS]. And if you can celebrate at the same time, it's just so special. It's such a wonderful click.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: People at this point have stopped listening after the point when you said you see your kids every day. All of the teachers have now tuned out because they're so enraged with you and jealous. So yeah, that's ridiculous. You're so lucky.

KELLY ZERBY: I am. I am.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Have you had a teaching highlight yet this year? And I know that those little special moments that happen each day, perhaps it's even difficult to pinpoint a specific moment, but have you had like a highlight yet this year?

KELLY ZERBY: There's been so many special moments. I have kind of a goofy highlight, where when I wear my hair differently or if I'm wearing like jeans instead of swishy pants, the kids say the darndest things. But I had a girl come up to me a couple weeks ago. We were outside, so our masks were off. We were all seeing each other. And she came up to me, super genuine, and said, Mrs. Zerby, I really like your forehead.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I was not expecting that.

KELLY ZERBY: Uh-huh. And I was waiting for like a sarcastic, like because it's old and it's got wrinkles or something, but no, she was like, it's a really good forehead. A second grader. I'm like, well, thank you.


KELLY ZERBY: I can’t respond to that.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I was going to say, I don't think I would know how to respond. I mean, and for the record, I mean, I know that our listeners can't see your forehead, I mean, it is a great forehead.

KELLY ZERBY: Thank you.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: But it's such a strange compliment.

KELLY ZERBY: It was a weird one. And then some other kids picked up on it, and they're like, oh, they're giving compliments. So then this other girl comes over and goes, I really like your knees. I'm like, OK, now.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK, yeah now we need to stop. Yeah.

KELLY ZERBY: Let's back it off.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Back it up on the body compliments. That is hysterical. So yeah, elementary kids, and I know because I have one in my home, they really do say the most hysterical things, where you don't really even know what kind of reply is--

KELLY ZERBY: You never know.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: --warranted. So then-- and perhaps this isn't even something that you face, but you never know, maybe with some of your upper elementary students, but how do you reach the ones who try to push back against your efforts?

KELLY ZERBY: I think it's really about building relationships with the kids. And even though it is hard because I have 315 kids a day, I know each kid pretty well, I think. And if one kid's really not having it, or maybe it's a bad day for them sometimes, but if it's a battle every day, then that's when you pull them over to the side while the other kids are playing, and you say something like, what do we got to do to get this going? Because you're coming here every day, and I want you to learn. And I want you to move, most importantly. And that has worked for me pretty much 99% of the time. That one person--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Just asking them actually like what do we need to do, kind of involving them in the process.

KELLY ZERBY: Yes. It's got to be a respect, give respect thing. I always say that, because when somebody is mean to you, reflexively you're mean back, and then you can't even control it. So I'm like, OK, so I'm trying to be friendly. Let's all be friendly. And usually, it's just like a bad day or something for kids. So with me, the expectation is we need to move a lot. And they come in and move. And if they don't, we have that talk, and they're up and going. So.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great. So it's typically resolved pretty quickly.

KELLY ZERBY: Right. I think it's important that kids know that you're like a human being, too, and you're not a robot. So I often tell stories about how I don't like something, I never liked this, but then I got used to it and I figured it out, and it was so cool to figure out. And if you tell them stories like that, they understand that other people are also feeling the same things. We're all human.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes. And I've found, since I don't work anymore with elementary students, just having, again, my son who I'm raising, I find that those types of stories, even when I admit my mistakes or admit anything related to humanity in some capacity, it really helps him to take a breath and see that, oh, adults are just people, too, and they're not perfect.

KELLY ZERBY: 100%. All the time.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So beyond that, because that's excellent advice, but what additional advice would you give to the cohort of Illinois undergrads, and even those who are at Northern Illinois, your alma mater, who are thinking about a career in PE? What would be kind of some take-home advice for them?

KELLY ZERBY: I think a lot of people always tell you to take your time, and take the time you need. You kind of have to really think about that because kids learn differently now than they ever did before. And now, with the pandemic going through, it's even a struggle for some of us veteran teachers that are like, OK, that always works, now that didn't work. You have to give yourself a little grace and time to build those relationships, to make sure you're connecting with the kids.

And then the content and the assessment is important, yes, but not as important as kids' safety and making sure that they're being involved in your class. So just take the time. If it's not working, take a little bit more time, or ask the kids for help on how to do things. I do that all the time, like what could we-- I get this weird equipment sometimes, like what could we do with this? Then they come up with all kinds of stuff. So.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I think that's great advice, too, even just with the recognition that there are going to be generational differences throughout their career. Like when they step into their first position in the next few years, there's going to be some sort of trend that perhaps impacts the way students learn, perhaps the way they are engaged or not engaged, and that you have to roll with the time and make sure that you're staying on top of best practices.

KELLY ZERBY: Right. 100%. That's what happened to us last year with technology. I never thought I'd have to teach through a Google Meet, and I had to do that for half a year where I was talking to the screen. And I'm like, oh, this is so weird.


KELLY ZERBY: So I had to learn a lot.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, absolutely. So then as an educational hero, people need to know a few extra things about you. So if you could have one superpower for the day, what would it be, Kelly?

KELLY ZERBY: Well, I would love to read minds.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Ooh. Oh my gosh, I would not like that at all.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I would think that would-- ugh.

KELLY ZERBY: I don't want to read everybody's minds, but if I came up and I like either tapped you or looked you in the eye, that would be-- I wouldn't want to hear it all the time.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK. So in other words, you would have the control--


JAMIE O’CONNOR: --to-- oh, I see. I was going to say, because that would be too--

KELLY ZERBY: Selective.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: --overwhelming.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Selective mind reading.

KELLY ZERBY: Yes, I like it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh my gosh. But I feel like it would crush me within one day to have someone smiling at me, but then when I found out what they were really thinking, like that they hated my guts or--

KELLY ZERBY: Right, but wouldn't it be nice--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: --that I didn't have--

KELLY ZERBY: --to know that?

JAMIE O’CONNOR: --a beautiful forehead--


JAMIE O’CONNOR: --then it's just how would I cope beyond that?

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So that's interesting. You're the first person to say that one, so I have to give you credit.

KELLY ZERBY: There's a couple people I've been trying to figure out, so.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Wow. OK, do you have a favorite book? And it doesn't have to be like your favorite book of all time, just one that you've really enjoyed lately?

KELLY ZERBY: I love to read, so I can't even name for you one book. Like, I read a book a week, and I keep track on Goodreads, and I already set my goal for the year. Forever, I said my favorite book of all time was Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews. You know, like I read that in high school, and I read all of those books. And I think that really got me into reading just for enjoyment, and not just educational literature and things like that.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: What was the last book that you read for your Goodreads?

KELLY ZERBY: I'm reading-- oh, I can't think of the title of it. I read so many books that I'm just so not even good at the content of reading. I read a really creepy thriller. Just finished it, and I put that one down going, whew.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So since you're a book addict, I'll recommend the one I'm reading right now, which is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: It's excellent, so write that one down.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: And yeah, you can always shoot me an email for book recommendations because I also am obsessed with reading.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: So do you have either a celebrity crush or a celebrity you admire?

KELLY ZERBY: I'm a big fan of Ryan Reynolds.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, he's adorable.

KELLY ZERBY: Not only is he adorable, he's strong and he's super funny. So I will take a funny guy over whatever he would look like. It does help that he's beautiful, but--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes, incredibly beautiful.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh yeah, he's great. What's your least competent sport or activity, one that you kind of have to farm out to other people or you feel a little silly when you demonstrate?

KELLY ZERBY: Well, in PE, we teach everything. So hockey's been my least favorite to teach, floor hockey, because one, the sticks are never long enough for me, I don't feel like. I'm six feet tall, so I'm always like in a huge hunch over and uncomfortable. And two, I get hit with sticks all day long. So it's just a constant fear of being hit in the eye, you know?

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Right, right.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: --and also those microscopic sticks. Yeah.

KELLY ZERBY: No for me.

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

KELLY ZERBY: Oh, 100% cooking. Like--


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Just spending the day cooking sounds like a nightmare to you.

KELLY ZERBY: Yeah. Even just this weekend, I was like, oh, I was going to make chili for the crockpot, which was like a five-minute prep. And I was like, [GROANS]. Like, I hate it. I hate cooking. I don't mind baking for Christmas. That's about it. But other than that, I will go buy my food.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I love hearing what annoys people, like the activities. It just really, really, really tickles me. Well, Kelly, thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor. And again, congratulations on being named the 2021 Elementary Teacher of the Year.

KELLY ZERBY: Thank you so much.

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, iHeart Radio or Spotify. Thanks for listening, folks.

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