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Nicole Malloy

Beyond The Gym Floor—Nicole Malloy

Jamie O'Connor, a teaching associate professor at the University of Illinois, speaks with Nicole Malloy of Urbana Middle School.

Click here to see the full transcript.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Welcome to Beyond the Gym Floor. We are joined today by one of my former all-star students who is now teaching locally at Urbana Middle School. In fact, I used to regularly ask this person if I could use her quality work as examples for other students. Nicole Malloy, thank you for being on the show.

NICOLE MALLOY: I really appreciate it. I'm really excited to be featured on your show.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, you mean because of its just rampant popularity on a national level? That's why?

NICOLE MALLOY: Yeah, of course.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah, sure. Let's go with that. So tell us a little bit about yourself. Like where did you grow up and how did you end up seeking physical education as a career?

NICOLE MALLOY: I love telling this story. Well, I grew up in Chicago, grew up in Chicago Public Schools, K through 8th, and then 9th through 12th. And then I came to U of I for my undergrad, and did my master's here. So I majored in kinesiology during my undergrad, thinking that I was going to go into pediatric occupational therapy, did all the prerequisites for it, did the shadowing, all the observations, took the GRE, all of that.

And I thought I was set up to get into at least one of those schools that I applied to. And at the time, I was working with Dr. Sosnoff in the Motor Control Lab here at the university, and he asked me what my backup plan was. I was like, I don't really have one. I'm going to go to an occupational therapy school. He's like, well, you want to have a backup plan just in case.

And so I was like, OK. What do you suggest? He said, why don't you apply to the grad program just for kinesiology? I'm like, OK. I'll think about it.

So I went ahead and applied for the university as well. Turns out I did not get accepted into any occupational therapy schools. No reason why. I got wait listed for a couple, but I did get into the university for kinesiology. And I'm like wow, I'm glad Dr. Sosnoff said something to me.

And so at that point, though, I was at a loss of what I wanted to do with my degree, and I started talking to a couple grad students in the department. And they said, well, outside of occupational therapy, what do you like to do? I said, well, I like kids. I kind of had an educational background.

My mom was a teacher. I used to go to work with her sometimes on my days off because she taught high school, so I was exposed to a lot of that. And I'm like, I like teaching. I like kids. I like being active. And one of them was like, have you thought about PE? I'm like, PE? I never really thought about that because I had to roll out the ball PE teachers in Chicago Public Schools, and they just weren't perfect representations for me to want to be a PE teacher. And they were telling me like, well, it's so much more to PE now than there was when we were growing up. And I'm like, OK.

So I went to talk to Dr. Carlson, and I said, I have a potential interest in PE. I just want to see if I like it, and if not, I'll switch out of the program. But my first couple of classes in the program, I absolutely loved it. I said, oh my goodness, there is so much more to PE than I ever thought there was, I ever thought there could be. And I started absolutely loving the program, always had fun in my classes, even the theory classes.

I don't know. They just said something to me, and here I am with a job now in PE. So it was a long road, and I'm glad that I am where I am now.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's interesting. We just had this conversation in one of my classes last week about this idea of people who accidentally stumble into this profession. And I mean, there was a little bit of a negative slant to the conversation, but I don't know if I feel that way. I think sometimes people don't know that this is their calling until they're kind of smacked in the head--


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah, and so this is interesting. It's like, it wasn't necessarily on your radar before, but now that you're in it, you found a passion.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's cool. So now you're in your very first year of teaching.


JAMIE O’CONNOR: So what is one thing-- like what are your typical moments during the day that where you find joy as a teacher? Like what's something that like, these are the joyful moments of my day?

NICOLE MALLOY: Well, one of my joyful moments that I have almost every day-- so I teach sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. So I have my sixth graders at the end of the day, and there is one student, no matter how the lesson goes, whether we had a really good day or a challenging day-- I don't like to call bad days, bad days. I like to say that they're challenging. So if we had a challenging day, he still comes up to me at the end of the day, and is like, thank you, Miss Malloy. I had so much fun today.

And it always just warms my heart. And me in the back of my head knowing like, this lesson could have went so much better than it did. But he's always thanking me, and I really appreciate him. And I tell him that I appreciate it every day. He definitely brings me joy.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: It's the small things.

NICOLE MALLOY: Yes I've had a couple of students come up to me and say, you're my favorite teacher. And it's awesome when they say that. I've obviously had other students say I'm not their favorite, but--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: The yin and the yang. You're going to have people who love you, and then some who don't, and that's OK.

NICOLE MALLOY: Definitely. And I feel accomplished when my students, at the end of a lesson, are like, that was really fun. I want to do that again. Or we did something weeks ago. And they keep asking me, Miss Malloy, can we do that activity again? I'm like, we're kind of in a different unit right now, so we can circle back to that, but not right now. So those moments definitely bring me joy throughout.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK. We'll circle back to it. I like that because it's not putting it out of the question completely, but we'll get around to it again. So given that you're a first year teacher, is there anything that has surprised you? Because I know that teacher preparation, we can't prepare you for everything. Has there been anything that has been, just, wow, I didn't expect that?

NICOLE MALLOY: Yes, there has been. So I was prepared to have to differentiate instruction based off of ability level and grade level and experience, but I've been finding myself having to differentiate based off of interest level. And what I mean by that is that I can plan a lesson for, say, all my eighth graders. And they're supposed to be doing the exact same thing, but one class will absolutely love the activities that I planned for while the next eighth grade class absolutely despises it.

And so I have to kind of look at the dynamic of the class and say, OK, this is going to work for this class, but this activity is not going to work because for whatever reason, they absolutely despise these kind of activities. So I'll give you an example. We're in a cooperative games unit right now, and we were doing a variation of the traditional kickball. I don't really like traditional kickball because it doesn't maximize movement, and I tell my students that.

So we played a variation called Danish kickball, and it keeps students moving almost constantly. And so two out of the three of my eighth grade classes absolutely loved it, and then one of my eighth grade classes, they absolutely despise it. And they said that they wanted to do original kickball, and I told them my reasoning behind why I did not like it.

But they're like, I don't care. I like the original way. And so we had to come up with a compromise. So one day we did it my way, and then the next we did it the way that they preferred. But definitely, I have to differentiate instruction based off of interest level.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's interesting, too. So knowing that, even based on a class dynamic, you might have to change up your curriculum simply because they don't necessarily like a certain style of game. That's interesting. And I like that you met them in the middle with this, too. Like you found a way to compromise--

NICOLE MALLOY: I always try to compromise with them.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's cool. That's really cool. And I bet that's why you have a lot of students who have already told you you're their favorite because you're listening to their perspective, which is more than what a lot of teachers do, so that's neat. So how do you reach your students, especially the ones who are pushing back on your efforts to connect with them?

NICOLE MALLOY: OK, so I have a guilty pleasure, which is TikTok. And I kind of started watching TikToks when the pandemic started, and I have not stopped since. So TikTok of gives me a way to reach them culturally because I don't understand this generation right now. Like I don't really understand what they like, but TikTok definitely exposes me to the music that they like, the dances, the types of jokes. And so every now and then, I'll try to throw in an appropriate TikTok reference, and they're like, oh, she knows that, OK.

And then there's some days where I might not teach the entire time. There might be days where I'm like, hey, is there anything you all want to know about me that I didn't talk about week one, week two when we were trying to build relationships? And they like getting opportunity to ask me deeper questions as opposed to, oh, how old are you?

Or where are you from? So they definitely enjoy asking me more personal questions, obviously keeping it appropriate, but they definitely love asking questions about me. Even students that barely speak to me out outside of me asking if they want to ask me something, they take that opportunity to ask me something.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I love that. I mean, it doesn't sound like you're a first year teacher because there are definitely tricks of the trade. Just in terms of building those connections and those relationships, it sounds like you're doing it right, so keep it up. So what advice would you give to our current cohort of Illinois undergrads who are contemplating a career in PE?

NICOLE MALLOY: I'd say a couple of things. First thing, don't get discouraged. Right now, teaching is very challenging across the board, whatever subject that you teach, but don't get discouraged. I would say PE that is one of the fields where you have more leeway to express your personality as a teacher, and if you find yourself in a school that doesn't allow you to do that, maybe that's not the school for you. I'm definitely in a situation where I'm allowed to be the type of teacher that I want to be, and I'm grateful for that. So definitely don't give up. Seek out schools that promote autonomy within your department.

And another thing that I would say would be whether you're in your field experience, you're doing some observation, you're student teaching, never be afraid to ask questions. You might think it's the dumbest question ever that maybe you should know this as a PE major, but no. There were tons of questions that would just pop up in my head as I was student teaching that I'm like, I don't know this, but I'm going to ask my cooperating teacher this because the more knowledge that you have, the better teacher that it's going to make you. So never be afraid to ask questions, whether it's something really big or small.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Love it. Two excellent pieces of advice. Thank you, and I really do think that they could benefit from your wisdom because both of your cooperating teachers last year wanted desperately to hire you because of how much of an impression you made. As an educational hero, Nicole, people need to know a few extra things about you. So if you could have a superpower for the day, what would it be?

NICOLE MALLOY: Oh, I would say teleportation so I don't have to do the basic means of transportation. I would probably try to travel all over the US if I only had 24 hours as opposed to trying to get on a plane or train or drive somewhere. I don't like driving. I don't really like flying on planes, so I could just imagine in my head where I want to go and then teleport there. That would be perfect.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I really like that one. I feel like every time I interview someone now, I'm going to want the superpower that everyone says because last week I agreed with our guest with regard to being able to fly, but now I want teleportation. So thank you for planting that seed. Do you have a favorite book?

NICOLE MALLOY: OK, so I don't have a favorite book, but I have a favorite book series. Harry Potter.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, that was our last guest, the Harry Potter as well.

NICOLE MALLOY: Yeah, I can't just choose one, so all of them are amazing. I absolutely love Harry Potter. I got into Harry Potter actually pretty late. It was boring to me as a kid, but now, I'm like, oh my goodness. Why didn't my mom pushed for me to watch this more or read it? Because it's amazing.

I had all the Harry Potter books growing up, but I didn't really read them because they were too long. But now they really keep my interest, and I feel like I'm behind on the bandwagon. But I'm a true fan now.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: No, I love it. My little boys have the Hogwarts Express for their Christmas train, so it goes around our Christmas tree.

NICOLE MALLOY: That's so cute.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes, it is. I'm waiting for my eldest to be old enough to be able to handle the content. He's five now, but I cannot wait to get into reading Harry Potter with him.

NICOLE MALLOY: Oh, he's going to love it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, yes. He is. So do you have like a celebrity crush or like a celebrity that you just absolutely love?

NICOLE MALLOY: Well, celebrity crush has always been Zac Efron. I was a High School Musical fan girl as soon as it came out, and every movie that he's been in since, I'm like, yes. Like I just have to watch it because Zac Efron is in it.

And then a celebrity that I really admire would be Zendaya. I feel like she just radiates positive energy, and she kind of reminds me of myself. So I feel like if I was a celebrity, I would kind of be like on the Zendaya wave.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So if you needed someone to play you in a movie, you would choose her.

NICOLE MALLOY: Yes. Definitely.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Fair enough. Maybe that would be the question that I need to ask people is what celebrity would you want to play yourself in a movie?


JAMIE O’CONNOR: Your least competent sport or activity.

NICOLE MALLOY: I have a couple. Being a PE teacher, that's ironic. But my least competent one would be soccer. And I just don't have very good foot eye coordination, and I actually realized that during the PE program. Like when we were playing soccer, I'm like, oh my goodness. I'm kind of terrible at this, but it's OK though. When me and my students get to our soccer unit, I'll be completely honest, like, hey, I'm not the best at this. But we're still going to have fun. And there are a lot of kids in my classes that absolutely enjoy soccer, and so they can demonstrate.

And I can explain. Me and soccer, we don't get along that well even though it's really fun. But I'm just not good at it, and I've accepted it.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: There you go. Acceptance is the key. So fill in the blank. My friend just asked me to spend the day doing with him or her, and I immediately start thinking of excuses.

NICOLE MALLOY: I would say watching documentaries.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, OK. You can't do it.

NICOLE MALLOY: No. Like the topic can be really interesting, but I'm very fidgety. Like I can't sit and like listen to monotonous words and the tone, its just so boring to me.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: True crime? Even if it's about murder?

NICOLE MALLOY: No. I can't get into it. Like I've tried, and I always end up like going on my phone or falling asleep. So that's something that I would definitely make an excuse for. I don't want to watch documentaries all day.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Well, that was a great answer. I'm teaching a grad class this semester, and I feel like several of the students mentioned that they watch documentaries regularly. And I don't understand it because the TV that I tend to appreciate is absolute garbage. I don't necessarily want to learn while I'm watching TV. I want to just go somewhere else. I don't want to deal in reality.

NICOLE MALLOY: I definitely agree with that.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes. Nicole, thank you so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor.

NICOLE MALLOY: I really appreciate it.

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, iheartradio, or Spotify. Thanks for listening, folks.

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