LESSONS FOR LIFE IN PHYS ED Old Mill teacher called 'the best'


Many people's memories of high school gym classes involve sweaty gym socks left too long in a locker, ugly uniforms and hilarious tales of how they talked their way out of taking showers.

But James R. Dillon has devoted 33 years of his life to seeing that his students leave his gym classes prepared for life with knowledge, decision-making skills and healthy habits -- not just locker-room stories to be retold at class reunions.

The Old Mill High School teacher's efforts were recognized this year when he was chosen Maryland's Physical Education Teacher of the Year for secondary schools.

"He's the best gym teacher I've ever had," 15-year-old Seth Young, a 10th-grader at Old Mill, said as he sat on the bench rubbing his shin after a round of floor hockey. "He's nice and he explains stuff, and when we ask to play basketball, he lets us. He lets us pick what we want to do."

That's because Mr. Dillon believes physical education should be fun.

He also believes physical education is more than just skill in sports.

"We like to think of sports as advanced placement classes," said Mr. Dillon. "After high school, very few people go on to play college sports, and most of them stop playing after that. Only a very few go on to professional sports. Physical education gives you a broad background in fitness and establishes habits that you can use forever."

As the school's athletic director and chair of the physical education department, Mr. Dillon keeps his hand in teaching by handling two classes: team sports and personal fitness.

He tries to teach students about decision-making and setting goals, along with cooperation, good sportsmanship and how to be a good spectator.

"When you're playing a team sport, sometimes you have a split second to make a decision about what to do, and sometimes you have time to think about it," he said. "Sometimes we'll say to kids, 'That move was a bad decision.' "

Part of the reason most people equate sports with physical education is that too often in the past, phys ed teachers emphasized technical skills in sports, Mr. Dillon said.

"What you learn on the football field, other than how to take and receive a blow, I don't see how that applies to life," he said.

Another reason physical education is not taken seriously by some, he said, is attitude.

"It bothers us a lot that mom and dad are out jogging, and the kids are sitting in front of the TV," said Mr. Dillon. "We're at a crisis point in a sense. We read about the kind of shape we're in, but no one wants to do much about it. Physical education can be a contribution to a healthy lifestyle. And we try to make it fun. We also try to create a more relaxed atmosphere than in the other classes."

Mr. Dillon does that by trying to vary activities and "be as upbeat as possible."

"Sometimes we say Mr. Rogers kind of things, like 'It's a great day to be alive.' The kids probably think we're all nuts," he said.

But stay with him long enough, and one is ready to start that long-delayed physical training program. His enthusiasm is that catching.

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