Teaching is at their core. But it’s how they teach that makes them great. Wise words from Tom Winiecki, Coach of the Year within GENYOUth’s “NFL FLAG-in-Schools” program.

Coach Tom Winiecki joins other trainers at the NFL FLAG-In-School training session in Washington D.C. with the Washington Football Team. (Photo Courtesy of Lauren Izzo)

For the last year and a half I’ve turned over my social media channels and other platforms to some of the best and brightest students in our programs, giving them a chance to share their views about our nation’s social-justice crisis and the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. It’s all a part of GENYOUth’s mission to “elevate the youth voice.”

But today, in the guest post below, I’m turning my column over to Tom Winiecki, adjunct professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland, and former Syracuse, New York-area elementary school P.E. teacher for 37 years.

As part of a new remarkable initiative to support high quality P.E. in schools nationwide, and to provide opportunities for students to be physically active before, during, and after school, GENYOUth’s NFL FLAG-In-Schools program is launching a search for the Coach of the Year. I am thrilled that Coach Winiecki is lending his voice to our effort. GENYOUth’s program has proved incredibly popular not only with boys and girls, but with resource-strapped P.E. educators. It’s incredibly important in an era when Physical Education has been all but eliminated from public school curriculum.

I salute Coach Winiecki, and the thousands of P.E. teachers just like him from across the country who are helping our students build a foundation for healthy, lifelong physical activity — the kind that NFL FLAG-In-Schools provides them. I encourage you to read his wise and inspiring words that follow!

By Guest Contributor Tom Winiecki

Whether it was a teacher or coach I had growing up, or one of the many I worked alongside during my 40-year career, the outstanding ones instilled in students the feeling of “Yes you can!” and “You’re important, I’ll help you!” Efforts were acknowledged and improvements celebrated, regardless of failures. Mistakes simply opened doors to more learning. The best Preachers asked us “why” questions, stimulating our thoughts. They constantly and positively pushed, challenged, and stuck with us until we “got it.”

I still remember being asked to help Mr. Hallnan, my P.E. teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Orchard Park, NY in the late ‘70’s. I used his hand-pump to inflate playground balls for the day’s classes. Years later at my first job, there was that same hand-pump in my storeroom. I immediately ordered an electric one — and yet I saved, and I still have, that old pump! It symbolizes how Mr. Hallnan made me feel important. As an adjunct at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland, I begin each semester by asking my P.E. teachers-in-training, “What’s your air pump? How will you make your future students and players feel important?”

I also regularly ask aspiring educators: “What’s your passion?” The answer I want is “Inspiring my kids.” Outstanding educators are passionate about helping their kids grow, wanting them to succeed everywhere, not just in P.E. class. Great teachers do things no one notices: check in with students in the cafeteria, ask about a spelling test, inquire about their family, perhaps watch part of a Little League game. Great teachers also understand that a smile can go a long way. A colleague once told me to “smile with your eyes.” A powerful thought, with or without COVID masks!

Growing up, I saw some teachers and coaches pay attention only to their best students, or their best players. Sometimes I was one of those lucky students, oftentimes I wasn’t. I saw how that affected other students. Many quit the team, or hid in the back of the room because of it. We felt as though we weren’t important.

Better educators did the opposite, going above and beyond to make us feel important. In class, if someone needed help, that P.E. teacher was there. At practice, even if we weren’t starters, the most effective coaches were present for us. They told us exactly what we needed to do to get on the field, then worked with us to get there. If we got it, we were in the game. If we didn’t yet — and they always said yet — we knew exactly where we stood and it motivated us to keep trying. They said there’s nothing wrong with having someone better than you. Our job was to become that better player next year. We didn’t want to let our coaches, teammates, or ourselves down.

When I coached younger students, I used a standard that many coaches, from varsity to youth level, shared with me. They measured their success by how many players came back. Wins were nice, but temporary. They challenged and pushed their kids hard, but in ways that made them feel encouraged and needed. They knew that if the kids came back next semester or next year, that was the real success. They didn’t squash anyone’s enthusiasm, they stoked it.

Many high school playoffs were cancelled for the 2020–21 school year due to COVID. Outstanding coaches handled this by asking: “Why are we playing? If it’s to win a title, we’re in it for the wrong reason.” They wanted players to enjoy working hard to be their best and to leave no doubt on game night they were the best team around. Kids shouldn’t need playoffs to know that. After each practice they learn to ask, “Did we get better today?”, then adjust for the next practice. Doing the simple things well — that’s what lets outstanding things happen, COVID or not.

Outstanding PE teachers have had to reinvent what they did during lockdowns. Emphasizing where to be active outside school simply became more important. Using social media to publicize these places and letting students post videos of them at these locations proved successful. Teachers let students’ imaginations soar by challenging them to design fun and crazy activities like tricycle drag races, or wacky obstacle courses, then posting videos of their efforts. Video tutorials led students through skills using equipment at home, instead of from the school’s storeroom, so everyone could easily participate.

In short, outstanding educators used what COVID dealt them and still found ways to motivate kids. Nothing stopped these professionals from letting their passion show, always making the kids feel important and part of a group.

Kids can tell if you’re passionate and if you care about their progress and success. They want you to value, inspire, and challenge them to greatness. When you accomplish that, as they grow and move on they’ll race back to see you again to tell you how they’re doing. By the same token, outstanding educators want their kids so excited to be in their class, or practice, that they can’t wait to get home to tell their parents what they learned that day. Great teachers want to be the topic of conversation at dinner every night! I’ve always made that my goal each day on the job. Make it yours, too.

Now, go out and be outstanding!

About the Contributor: Tom Winiecki, adjunct professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland, and former Syracuse, New York-area elementary school P.E. teacher for 37 years.