Teaching: An Olympic Sport

This blog was first published in TES FE, June 2021

If you have managed to lift your head above the parapet of teacher assessed grades over the last couple of weeks, you will have likely noticed a mounting enthusiasm for sport; specifically football.  Predominantly this is because nothing else is yet allowed to happen, but also the Euros have arrived.

If, like me, you have little interest in football, or, also like me, you are Scottish, it is unlikely you’ll have had reason to pay heed to this particular sporting event before. But this year has hit a little differently, hasn’t it? Lockdown has forced us into a reclusive existence, and suddenly the brightly lit stadiums, the aggressive advertising strategies and unforgivable amounts of private wealth seem a little less ‘peak capitalism’ and a little more ‘opportunity for welcome distraction’. 

By the time I made my peace with this and poured myself a half time dram, Scotland were out, so I did what all loyal fans do; I declared the remainder of the tournament dead to me and looked elsewhere; in this case to the Olympics. Immediately I noticed a wealth of lesson plans splashed across Twinkl, teaching blogs and Pinterest. From slide templates, to maths activities, to history of the Olympic games, if you wish to merge your teaching practice with the heightening buzz of the games, there are resources ready and waiting to help you bring this herculean contest to your classroom.

I would like to propose an alternative integration though. I propose that, instead of embedding the Olympics into our lessons, we take our lessons to the Olympics.

I am not suggesting a national field trip here, not least because the risk assessment amidst Covid would be eye-watering. I am proposing we compete.

Now start limbering up whilst I outline my reasons:

The Opening Ceremony:

We have a lot to offer here, straight out the gate. I have seen our colleagues in the primary sector line up 21 cohorts of snack-break sugar-high children in 10 seconds flat using nothing but a whistle. I have navigated a fire alarm during a GCSE maths exam, and used nothing but the coveted Teacher Death Stare to maintain conditions necessary to validate their papers. These are just two examples of the organisational precision that international, public-facing ceremonies could only dream of. 

The Sport:

Sociologist Professor Karen Farquharson (2011) posed that in order for an activity to be considered a sport (a crucial component for Olympic inclusion, of course) it must satisfy the following criteria:

It must have clear rules:

This one’s easy. There will be no mobile phones allowed on the pitch, water will be the only permissible drink and must be consumed from clear bottles, teamwork is encouraged but talking over other players is prohibited, all participants will be expected to demonstrate mutual respect for their teammates and opponents, and running will not be permitted in the tunnels.

It must involve skillful use of the body:

Also easy. Since the onset of the pandemic, teachers have adapted to deliver lessons in both the virtual realm and 50m² spaces holding 30 students plus teaching and support staff whilst maintaining social distancing, offering a personalised learning experience and trying not to block the whiteboard. We have rapidly evolved to defy the laws of physics; a trait we recognise in our fellow Olympic athletes. 

It must be competitive:

This was the trickiest element to uncover in our particular sport. I’m seeing a long-overdue shift from competition to collaboration in my sector, and that’s not a journey that I wish to derail. On further reflection though, it didn’t take me long to find a fiercely competitive activity that punctuates our every day; one easily transferable to the arena. I refer to the moment a distinctive, jarringly, polyphonic melody drifts across the classroom, causing a brief, haunting moment of still realisation before the cacophony of war-cries erupt. Oh yes, Olympians. We present our most merciless assessment tool. A ferocious endeavour where time is fleeting, temporary alliances forged and long standing friendships forgotten. We present; Kahoot. 

Of course, there are other areas we may not naturally fit into so neatly. I know, for example, that Tokyo have outlined a very specific set of criteria for new sporting hopefuls wishing to enter the contest this year. These include ‘youth appeal’ (I would recommend collecting this data outwith assessment windows), ‘gender equality’ (woefully imbalanced in both directions depending how far up the management scale you wish to venture) and ‘minimal impact on operational costs’ (we’re well practised in adapting to declining investment). But if the past academic year has taught us anything, it’s that we’re far more versatile than we ever dared dream, so we’re very much open to discussion around the needs of the games.

Whilst the above musings have been full of silliness, the achievements of our sector do deserve equal celebration and recognition. The constant reflection, determination and deliberate development seen in our teaching staff crafts super-athletes in their own fields. And as we near the end of an academic year like no other, for the unfaltering dedication to their learners, I believe each and every one of them deserve a medal.