Mr. Williams vs. that other guy

Scene: Carleton Elementary school, Milwaukee,  Mr. Williams’ gym class:. We did stuff that I hated, we had to dance to Frankie Valli’s “You’re just to good to be true”. Oh I hated that. But at other times we did things I liked; basketball, football, racket skills, games, and as you could imagine, I loved tumbling and gymnastics. Mr Williams was cool. He played with us as he showed us how to play. He was probably one of my favorite teachers, ever. I was not a great athlete, in fact I was usually the last kid picked for teams for playground ball. I was timid and shy (really) and not too outgoing. Mr. Williams asked me if I would be willing to demonstrate tumbling for the class in the upcoming unit because I was good at it. In doing so he made me believe that I was, in fact, good at it. I was so proud of myself, I felt like someone I admired just told me I was cool. I remember that day now and it still makes me feel good.

Scene: John Burroughs Junior High school, gym class with….can’t remember the teacher’s name. I do however, remember that we did more sports and less games. I remember him having me demonstrate tumbling too, but more than that, I remember him having a padded rubber wand that he would smack against things. Most often it was used to bang a locker to get our attention, but I remember seeing a boy get it across the back of his legs when he was getting lippy with the teacher. I don’t remember the teacher’s name, but I remember that wand and the noise it made as it hit a locker.

I don’t think that my middle school gym teacher really got it. He wasn’t memorable for being motivating, or even for being a good teacher. He is remembered for being hard-core and scary. There was a rumor that he made a kid swallow a penny once. I think that guy was responsible for more kids giving up on “gym” then kids getting into sports. So when he asked me to help with the demonstration I agreed but I didn’t feel much. I just did it.

Teachers and role models need to inspire children not scare them into compliance.  I was in grade school 35 years ago and I still can be motivated when I think of Mr. Williams classes. That guy made me want to be a gymnast, made me want to be a coach and a teacher. That is inspiration. He knew that I was not an adept ball player or even a notable in playing games. But I picture him sitting in his equipment cage of an office and devising a way to make this adequately  athletic kid blossom.  It worked because 35 years later it’s still working. That is inspiration.

When it comes to activity and exercise the incentive should be to feel good about what you are doing. When we are happy we repeat what we did to feel that way. Our motivation in anything can only come from within. Jeff Metzger, a business mentor and friend has an adage that says that you cannot ever motivate a person, but you can create a setting where motivation develops. I think in getting our children to embrace activity and good health practice we need to create a climate or setting where motivation can happen. We need to provide rewards for achievement but we need to equally reward perseverance and we need to compliment effort.  We need to help kids make decisions about what they do. We need to explain possible outcomes and potentials and then create a scene where the kids are validated. It’s easy to yell and bang a locker to get kids to listen but that is not a real motivational setting. The thinking gym teacher in his office/cage is a motivating setting. When we see children as people, and present them with opportunities for success and happiness we will inspire them, and we all have it in us to be inspiring.


Side note, when I graduated college one of my degrees was in physical education. I was an All American NCAA gymnast and had assistant coached the National Champion NCGA women’s gymnastics team to a title. I called Carleton Elementary and got in touch with the soon retiring Mr. Williams. I volunteered to come in and co-teach a class in gymnastics with him. Unfortunately they had just finished the unit and I missed the boat. But I got to speak with Mr. Williams (he asked me to call him Craig) and he recalled, without prompting, how I hated that Frankie Valli Dance unit. I remember thinking that either he had an incredible memory or I must have made a real impression 15 years earlier with my dislike of Frankie Valli.  Mr. Williams retired that next year and I don’t know where he is today or what he is doing. But talking with him made me feel so grown up and made me feel like I had made good choices and followed the right dreams. We talked for quite a while and at the end of our phone time he told me he was proud of me. That same feeling of being asked to show tumbling in his class returned. That is inspiration. 



  1. Mark Folger on February 27, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Great post! Your PE teacher, Mr. Williams, understood that motivation has very little to do with rah-rah and pep talks, that it is mostly about creating opportunities for success, which he did for you. I’m guessing he did the same for his other students, the talented basketball player, Frisbee thrower, rope climber or rope jumper. And, maybe there was even a student who excelled at dancing to Frankie Valli music.

    “When we see children as people, and present them with opportunities for success and happiness we will inspire them, and we all have it in us to be inspiring.”

    This is such a true statement and the foundation for motivating kids. What do we get when our kids are successful and happy? Progress which leads to more success, more happiness and more progress. It’s pretty simple actually.

    • J Orkowski on February 27, 2013 at 12:53 pm

      Well said Mark, thanks for the comment and thanks for reading the post. Coming from you, it is high praise. I appreciate it.

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