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Beyond The Gym Floor

Beyond The Gym Floor—Aimee Davis

Jamie O'Connor, a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois, speaks with Aimee Davis, a PE teacher and coach at Unity High School in Tolono, Ill.

Click here to see the full transcript.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Welcome back to Beyond the Gym Floor. Today we are joined by Aimee Davis of Unity High School. So full disclosure Aimee, I did not know until this morning that you were the news Gazette softball coach of the year in 2019. So are you bombarded by paparazzi everywhere you go?

AIMEE DAVIS: Everywhere.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Everywhere. Like it's a problem?

AIMEE DAVIS: Even out of state. Even out of state. Yeah. It's big news.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: When it's not COVID, you get swarmed at restaurants.

AIMEE DAVIS: It's a big deal around here for sure.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Where did you grow up?

AIMEE DAVIS: I'm actually from Urbana. Born and raised. My parents were born and raised.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So I'm then technically not really supposed to you very much because the whole central Urbana rivalry, but I'm going to let that slide. So did you attend Urbana High School?

AIMEE DAVIS: I did attend Urbana high school. I'm a graduating class of 2005.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh my gosh. Now that makes me feel very old. I'm not going to disclose. You know what, I've already disclosed it before. '95, Champaign Central. I shouldn't be ashamed of my age, Aimee stop trying to make me feel that way you.

AIMEE DAVIS: You probably had Scott Davis as a teacher.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I did. In fact, Scott Davis my senior year, I had him for history and he was done with me because I was done with school. And so one day he told me, if you're going to continue to talk during class then can you just you and your pal just roam the hallways and talk? Because other people here are trying to learn. I said, you got it, Mr. Davis. I'll check in maybe at the end of class and we'll see how that's going. So yes, Scott Davis was done with me senior year. But loved him.

AIMEE DAVIS: He is my husband's uncle.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh really? Well, if you ever communicate with him, you could tell them how fond of him. I think he was great. He tolerated a lot of shenanigans from 17-year-old Jamie. So what led you to PE? What led you to this career?

AIMEE DAVIS: Well, when I was growing up I wanted to be a pediatrician. And then I did the research in like seventh grade and I realized I did not want to continue on to school for like eight more years after high school or whatever the craziness is. So I knew I always wanted to work with kids. I had really good PE teachers in junior high, which is middle school when I was there.

And then in high school, I really connected with my high school PE teacher. And I knew that I wanted to stay in sport wellness and that I knew ultimately that I wanted to coach. So I felt like the two went hand in hand. A lot of the teachers at Urban High School at the time were coaches. And honestly I really thought that that's just what I should do to be a coach. Obviously that's not the case. But back then that was and I never changed my major once I got to college.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Where did you go to college?

AIMEE DAVIS: Well, that's an interesting question. So I got recruited out of high school to play softball at Parkland College. I played there for two years, went to school there for two years. And then I got recruited and went to Missouri Baptist University for I guess what would be called my junior year. And then I decided it was time to hang up the cleats and I came back to Eastern. And so I finished my undergrad at Eastern. And then I ironically, just finished my master's degree from Eastern in December. This of 2020. So yeah.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Congrats. Is your master's in physical education?

AIMEE DAVIS: No. I went the educational leadership route. I don't know. When I first started teaching, I thought physical education master's degree was what would help me. And then I started talking more and more and I don't know if it's accurate information, but one piece of information that I got was that you can always continue to learn physical education and becoming a master in physical education may not open as many doors as educational leadership would. Now I think just having a master's degree says a lot anyway. But that was just a piece of advice I was given so I just want the educational leadership route.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah. And that makes sense possibly if you wanted to head into administration someday, you have maybe some more direct pathways. So at Unity, so you teach high school physical education and you coach. You're the head coach for softball. Do you have any other role at Unity?

AIMEE DAVIS: Yeah. So I have been a class sponsor. And this is the first year I have not been a class sponsor actually, which is pretty cool because you get to meet other people that you maybe wouldn't interact with especially like you're non athletes. I'm the JV girls basketball coach. And then I do junior high softball as well. So I coach in three different seasons, but two different sports.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So you're never home, essentially.

AIMEE DAVIS: No and the funny thing is I have a one-year-old. So COVID completely sucks, but it has been great for our family as far as me being home for the last year.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I agree. I have a four-year-old soon to be five-year-old and a two-year-old. And teaching from home, even though I have to hole myself up in this little closet space, still just hearing them downstairs and being able to go down and check in with them throughout the day has been an absolute family game changer. So what would you change about our profession if you could during normal non COVID circumstances?

AIMEE DAVIS: I think and this may just be like a small school type thing, kind of the overall, oh, you're just a teacher. Or I get the question of do you have the same degree as such and such teacher? And it's like, yeah, I actually took really tough classes in college and I had to pass them with good marks because if not then I wasn't going to do a good job with you guys. And so I think it's just kind of like I'm not going to say that colleges are not raising the bar, but I feel like the natural stigma around PE is still very old school, oh you're just a coach, oh you're just a PE teacher.

And so I think this might be relative to other questions, but I think with COVID it's been really cool because we don't have a lot of ability here to space out so we haven't been doing a lot of activities honestly. And so it's been really cool to just tell the kids hey, I can help you with that math assignment. I can help you with that English assignment. So it's kind of giving me a little street cred, I got to be honest. But just that stigma from even other teachers, I wish that could be the biggest change.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh absolutely. I mean, it's a tale as old as time. And you would think that we're now here in 2021 that the tides would turn in our favor for valuing movement. And yet, we still have it on the lower rung. So what's the most important lesson your students have taught you over the years? Or maybe your athletes. What do you feel like they've taught you?

AIMEE DAVIS: Yeah. So I teach what's called regular PE or just physical education here. I teach health too, but I'm capable of I'm the only female here so I tend to be in the locker room for supervision so a lot of PE classes. In all honesty, it's all about relationships.

So because I teach regular PE class instead of fitness PE, I get a lot of the non athletes. And I try so hard to work on my relationships with them because PE's probably the last place they want to be because they don't want to feel like a failure because they're not athletic or they can't do certain exercise or they can't swing the bat and hit the ball or they can't do whatever. And so I think it's just more of they have to trust me and I have to work really hard to build that relationship.

And honestly, I've been here at this school for seven years maybe. I was two years at Centennial prior to this. And it's just been the last two or three years where I think students have understood that I'm consistent and there's that trust factor that they can fail in my class and still be OK. They can fail and they'll still get a good grade. Or they can fail and because they tried hard, we're still going to talk about it, we're still going to make those improvements. So I think it all just boils down to relationships with kids.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: How do you foster that?

AIMEE DAVIS: What's that?

JAMIE O’CONNOR: How do you foster that with your students? Because you mentioned those students who don't necessarily feel very athletic or maybe they've been disheartened by their experiences in the past, how do you try to connect with them through relationships?

AIMEE DAVIS: Yeah. A couple of things. In the beginning of the school year, I have a sheet of paper, it's more or less a syllabus, but we don't really have those students at the high school level. And it basically just lays it out there like, yes, I want you to dress. Yes I want you to participate. But most of all, I want you to have fun.

And I think just that underlying having fun is just so relieving for some kids to hear. And honestly, it's not a great piece of advice but I'm goofy. And I'm not saying that that's going to work for everybody and it probably wouldn't have worked my first years, but now that I'm in and people know me more and because of those past relationships and students talk about how cool teachers are or whatever. And I don't want to be the cool teacher, but I think just naturally with those relationships and that beginning of the school year type things where you can just get into the kids, that's really helped me.

But also, I feel like I do a really good job. And I'm not trying to brag or anything, but I feel like I do a really good job of just understanding where kids are at and talking to them, making conversation, and making them talk to me. They're not really used to that. They're just used to staying behind the screen right now. And I think just having those individual conversations or two students to me as a teacher conversations. And just building up. And then asking them the next day, hey, how'd that go? How about test go? Just making those connections and keeping with those connections I think has really helped me.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: It's funny at the beginning of this conversation you mentioned Scott Davis. And even though I totally tanked my progress in his class, I remember him as the type of teacher who fostered conversations with kids. And it doesn't matter what content area you teach, teenagers pay attention when an adult is actually trying to communicate with them and actually value what they have to say. And I think that sets those teachers apart from the rest of the pack. So that's cool.

So we have a group of Illinois undergrads who are all seriously contemplating heading down this path toward a career in PE. What would you tell them beyond fostering relationships with kids? Because I think that is so important. Is there any other piece of advice you would pass along?

AIMEE DAVIS: Yeah. I think this pandemic has honestly taught us, all teachers but teachers especially, because right now we're just in limbo about what we can and can't do. But I think the biggest thing is having an open mind and just being able to be flexible. Flexibility is something where you learn very quickly because everybody needs gym space. And when they need it, they need it now. So if an assembly pops up, we don't have gym class anymore. Or we need extra space for cafeteria, we can't do gym. So I think that's just fostered in the realm anyway or in PE anyway.

But the open mind is right now I'm struggling a little bit as a teacher internally because we play badminton for like four or five weeks and that's not typical in my classes to do something for that long. And so I'm just like, what can we possibly do? Because we can't dress. It's not administration's fault, but just the guidelines that we have to follow and we're in such a small school anyway. So having that open mind.

But it's also allowed for me to have the students come up with things, which again is uncommon in PE a little bit. Because it's so like OK, we're going to play softball and then we're going to do a fitness activity. And so it's already drawn out for us. But the ability for me to pull ideas from students allows for there to be a little bit more buy in in a time where it's very uncertain and nobody knows what's going on. So it's a cool opportunity for our students.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I love that. And it actually again, circles back to being student focused in a way. Because not only you're advising to be flexible, but you're also advising incorporating student voice into the structure of your class. They have something to say too and they might actually surprise you with good ideas.

AIMEE DAVIS: Absolutely. In fact, we went remote the beginning of November, and I had the kids reach out to me and said, if you don't like my workout, tell me what you did and I can give you credit for it. You don't have to do the 10 push ups, go for a 5 minute walk, cool down. You don't have to do all that if you don't want to. If you have a better idea or you have a Peloton bike at home or you have a treadmill and you do something with your mom, who cares. If you're doing it, let me know.

So that's probably the biggest thing is, especially through all this is just to continue to have an open mind and understanding that the kids are struggling too. And I mean, there's a part where we can still work together and still get some goals accomplished.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I know you said you're not trying to be the cool teacher, Aimee, but I think you might be the cool teacher. I hate to tell you. And as a hometown hero and I'm going to let it pass that you're from Urbana, your students and athletes need to know a few extra things about you. So if you weren't a teacher, what would you be doing? Do you think you would have gone down the road of becoming a pediatrician? Or something else?

AIMEE DAVIS: Probably something in the medical field. I always think about nursing. And I don't enjoy the fact that my grandparents are gone, but I really enjoyed the fact of taking care of them and making sure they were well. So I still feel like I would probably be doing something like biology, anatomy, something like that.

However, if it was a perfect world and I could just go be whatever I wanted to be and I was more closer to water, I would totally be a marine biologist or something. I think fish and dolphins and all that, I'm sure there's way more to it than that, but that's awesome. I would totally do that.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Are you an early bird or a night owl when you don't have a one-year-old demanding that you're both perhaps?

AIMEE DAVIS: I would say I'm more of a night owl than an early bird. If I could sleep in until about 8:30 or 9:00 as opposed to 6:30 or 7:00, I'm going to be a night owl.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: What's your typical go to breakfast on a given day?

AIMEE DAVIS: It is totally not healthy, but I love a good biscuits and gravy.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Biscuits and gravy, all right. Your favorite guilty pleasure fast food when you're on the road? Like you have to stop for some fast food, what's it going to be?

AIMEE DAVIS: Oh man. I'm going to go with Jimmy Johns.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah. I agree.

AIMEE DAVIS: There's probably other options I'd go to sometime, but their salt and vinegar chips get me every time.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I know. I know. And my son, both of them, are already Jimmy Johns salt and vinegar chips addicts. That's probably saying something about my parenting that I let them consume that, but there you have it. Favorite TV show right now?


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, very cool. Yeah. I love series. I have not actually gotten into Chicago PD, Chicago Fire, but I want to. That's on the horizon for me.

AIMEE DAVIS: So I could say Paw Patrol because that's pretty legit and that's pretty much on the TV a lot too.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah. But see Paw Patrol, that theme song haunts me.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: I dream. And we're currently really bingeing The Mandalorian, but maybe we'll hit up the Chicago PD next. But Aimee, thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor.

AIMEE DAVIS: No problem, thank you.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor. And 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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