“Before competition comes, inclusion has to come first”
Jen van ’t Hof has taught Physical Education (PE) and Health at American School of The Hague (ASH) for over 12 years. In this interview, she shares her perspective and unique approach to the curriculum, highlighting some of the most important lessons students learn in her class: from confidence and celebrating individuality to questioning what success means to us and the significance of challenge.
What are the changes you see in the context of PE and Health class in the last couple of years?
I see that students need to understand what it means to have grit. It’s that drive and that motivation, understanding challenges, and how that challenge relates specifically to them as individuals. Also understanding that in order for them to progress and be the best version of themselves, they will have to fail, put themselves outside of their comfort zone and take risks. This is what I try to be a role model in my teachings. I also put myself out of comfortable situations and take risks in my teaching, so it becomes clear how we can improve.
What success means is different to different people, and this should be normalized. To be constantly talking about mental health is also a big change I've seen in the last years. Sometimes the teachings we teach at Health class are not directed at the student themselves, but it will make them a more informed individual to maybe be a better sibling, a better classmate or colleague. It’s all about that holistic teaching of how humans operate and how we can support each other as a community.
As a teacher how do you become part of fueling students’ drive and motivation?
I think every student has the right to feel empowered by movement. What that means to you might not mean what it means to me. Just because a student has had experiences where they feel they haven't been a “quintessential” athlete, does not mean they cannot feel empowered through movement. In High School we try to navigate what that looks like for each person; setting goals, understanding these goals and understanding that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Whether you are a Varsity team player or are someone who walks their dog on the weekends, I’m concerned about in what context does it make sense for you to move, and to feel the physical and mental benefits of being active. That drive comes from the expectations students have of themselves - it’s certainly not about lowering those expectations, but making them for themselves and holding them dear to their heart in order for them to grow up.
A big part of this is that we’re actually developing students - from Elementary School. to Middle School, to High School. One of my goals is to ask this question beyond the walls of the school: How are you going to move for your body and mind, and what does wellness mean to you? It doesn't have to be the same for every student. It shouldn't be.
What is it about movement that can teach so many lessons?
I hope to create learning spaces that are not hostile. We do a lot of different things. We call them activities rather than sports; someone may lose all drive and motivation simply because they think they’re “not good at this”, which can then have a real detrimental effect on how they feel. To set up teaching environments where the main focus is inclusion can have a really significant effect on how much someone is able to connect.
To describe it as movement - whether it’s fitness, or team sports, or an individual sport - it’s about leveling where competition sits in each person and being okay with that. Letting yourself be challenged in a way that makes sense to you is the goal.
In PE we try to do things that are really relatable, so we link them to real life. We do games and activities in a way in which students can see how they’re able to do them without needing to be an athlete. They will still be able to join into activities and games that happen in their daily life, like at the beach or at the park, and have fun - which also brings them to develop in a social domain and build confidence as well.
Ultimately, we try to teach students to be themselves, and that if their attitude and drive match up, they will be okay. This will really help with the pressure of what it means to be successful.
Where do you see the boundaries and potential of competition?
Before competition comes, inclusion has to come first. How every student sees competition, it has to be their own relationship to it. I have a lot of students who love competition and thrive on it, but how can I bring that out in someone who might lack confidence?
For example, in Grade 9, students always have a buddy in class. That way, even if students are playing a game against other students that are “better than them” (in their opinion), then they are always together. It’s comforting, and with that sense of togetherness, they are going to feel more motivated because they are not feeling alone. With competition, it often happens that one can feel alone. So we remove that barrier, and we move towards students feeling like “they can”, without the fear of judgment.
How do you manage the stereotypical image of success in class?
It’s very difficult. Part of that is because it’s generational. We tend to get our ideas from stories and experiences of people who were here before us - it’s very easy to think that one “is not sporty”. This is a shame because it holds people back. I think that having honest conversations and to be really clear about our philosophy is very important. It’s also about presenting opportunities for students to feel successful. Ultimately, we want our students to go home after school, sit at the dinner table and say that they had a good time today.
We do a lot of non-traditional sports. For example, we play kinball. No one has heard of kinball before, so you can’t say someone is good at it. It’s normal that in a class there will be students who say they are good at football or basketball, so already people have an expectation of themselves, because they are relating to how other people are viewed. But when you do sports that nobody knows about and the skill level is also low, it really helps to bond and to develop skills like to communicate, the ability to share our feedback, to give empathy…these are skills that are most important in my opinion, at High School, more than learning skills themselves.
Teaching about mental health also plays a role in this. A big part of mental health is vulnerability. It's something that students really struggle with and rightly so - being vulnerable puts you in a place outside your comfort zone. It’s important for young people to be vulnerable; it’s something that allows us to be more human.
How do you help students navigate a challenge?
Our grading is a good example. 40% of the grade is participation, and is broken down into challenge, focus, attitude…these are components based on a student’s ability to connect. If a student is participating and is trying to the best of their abilities, then they have been successful in my subject.
Trying your best is at the core of a challenge, and you can only judge that. But that concept of “what challenge means to every student individually” may take some time. We’re interested in what students’ own goals are, and if they challenged themselves to reach it. We are grateful for students’ efforts - and we say it. We say thank you.
We also see it in Health class. If there are students who are not vocal communicators, and they raise their hand one time in class to say something, I will say to them: “That was awesome. You pushed yourself to an uncomfortable scenario - you can go home and feel proud.”
One of the most important things for me is to get to know my students and celebrate the fact that they are not the same as everybody else. That's what we pride ourselves on at ASH. We’re not all the same, so why would I expect one student to jump as high as another? It’s not expected for everybody to have the same skillset, but it is expected that people understand themselves and understand what challenge means to them.
If a student goes home and knows they did their best, what else can we ask from our students?