For some, physical education classes in K-12 schools have a reputation for lacking the same intellectual rigor and relevance as other classes.
Laureen Wheeler wants to change that mindset.
Wheeler teaches physical education for grades 9-12 at Thomas Edison High School in Minneapolis Public Schools. She is also a student in the Doctor of Education program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.
Wheeler’s goal is to teach her students lifelong healthy behaviors. Therefore, while she still offers fun games for her students to play, she emphasizes lessons on nutrition, human physiology, and fitness exercises.
“I always tell my students: ‘My class is not gym. A gym is a place, not a class,’” says Wheeler. “A lot of my students are shocked that I make it an academic class.”
Wheeler is a finalist for the 2021 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award—selected from a field of more than 80,000 teachers statewide. She is vying for the state’s top honor against nine other finalists and is the only physical education teacher up for the award. The winner will be announced on August 12, 2021.
During the pandemic, Wheeler generated national attention for a virtual bootcamp program she created for her students and their families.
She teamed up with the Minnesota National Guard to offer CrossFit Wednesdays. Featuring instruction from military service members, the live-streamed sessions had circuit training with pushups, jumping jacks, situps, and a variety of other calinthesic workouts.
“I had students who never liked phys ed who showed up. It was phenomenal. Even some parents showed up,” says Wheeler.
Wheeler strives to be a positive role model for her students. The majority of her students are Black or Latinx and their communities have higher rates of obesity and diabetes.
“Many of my students tell me, ‘You are my first Black teacher.’ And they see that I’m fit, so they want to be fit,” says Wheeler.
In the Pitt Education EdD program, Wheeler is completing the Health and Physical Activity Area of Concentration.
With Assistant Professor Sharon Ross, who is her faculty advisor, Wheeler has co-authored several practitioner-focused publications.
She also collaborated with Ross and the Strategic Health Initiative for Health Equity committee in the American College of Sports Medicine to co-author a blog that explored different back-to-school approaches for physical activity classes during COVID-19. She was the lone teacher among a group of medical doctors, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control, and university faculty.
Because she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Wheeler has flown into Pittsburgh when her Pitt Education EdD classes are offered in-person. (Before the pandemic, in-person classes were held once a month). The hybrid-online program has fit well into her schedule, she says.
“I have such a great family connection at the University of Pittsburgh,” says Wheeler. “I have never had this connection anywhere else with all my schooling.”
With her experiences from Pitt Education, Wheeler is further developing her ability to lead how physical education courses are taught at the high school level.
So while other teachers may continue to offer a lineup of dodgeball, scooter hockey, crab soccer, and little else, Wheeler won’t. Her students will learn relevant behaviors for health and wellness they can use for the rest of their lives — while also getting a good workout in.
“I want to change the mindset of how physical education is looked at,” says Wheeler.
Explore the EdD program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. Applications are now being accepted.
Watch a video about what EdD students enjoy about the program.
Watch a video from KARE-TV 11 in Minneapolis, Minnesota where Wheeler explains the “happy accidents” that led her to becoming a teacher.