Stories from the Field: Portraits of Gender Equity Champions
Across Canada, teachers are going above and beyond to ensure their classrooms are inclusive and inviting for all students. Read more about what they are doing below.
When the opportunity to teach overseas presented itself to Gordon Zubyck, he jumped. Currently he is teaching in the Netherlands, and has brought all of his inclusive teaching methods with him. With experience teaching all over Canada, Gordon has learned a thing or two about how best to create an inclusive environment.
Gordon’s first learning was to divide students according to interest and skill level, not by gender. In mixed-gendered classes, incorporating small sided games gives students the option to select their competition level and increases participation among all students.
Gordon’s next step to creating an inclusive environment was to switch from offering open gym at lunch time, that primarily attracted traditionally athletic male students, to more directed activities that required a variety of skills. By giving a bit more direction, more female students were able to come with more confidence that they would know what to do.
Gordon is cautious when selecting the language he uses within his classes, making sure to always use inclusive terms. He stresses that gender should never be the defining feature of any student - instead, teachers should always focus on their abilities and interests.
This year, Gordon has been able to make the most of his pandemic classroom, by introducing zone-based games. While keeping physical distance between students, clearly defined zones also allow students to have the time and space they need to think through their actions, process what they observe, and apply their knowledge - without the fear of failure. This has also allowed for all students to participate equally and created an engaging learning experience for all.
Lastly, Gordon has expanded his repertoire of activities to include more things like dance and gymnastics. By looking beyond traditional sports within his PE classes, less athletic students feel comfortable trying, and more athletic students are pushed outside of their comfort zone. He recommends this as a highly engaging way to expand students’ physical literacy.
School: Alberni District Secondary School
Province/Territory: British Columbia
Grade Level: 8-12
Karli Gibson firmly believes that inclusive schools create the best environment for learning. Students who feel safe, are more likely to enjoy school, are active participants in their learning, feel comfortable taking risks (e.g. trying new things or trying things that they aren't necessarily "good" at), build relationships, develop empathy, have a sense of belonging, and are more likely to experience success.
As a Physical and Health Education teacher, Karli works hard to ensure that female youth participate - and enjoy participating - in physical activity. She sees the important role that PHE classes have in establishing a lifetime interest in health and wellness. Karli sees that PHE classes improve relatedness in school, build confidence and self-esteem, improve academic achievement, reduce the chance of participating in high-risk activities (unprotected sex, drug use, etc.), as well as establish healthy lifestyle habits that students can use throughout their lives.
Seeing girls' activity levels decrease more than boys', especially between ages nine and eighteen, led Karli to focus on making her PE classes fun, relevant, and female-friendly. Karli also worked to create female-only and female-friendly courses which create safe spaces to try new activities in a comfortable and supportive environment. She has seen female students who previously disliked PE, excel in these classes.
Some techniques that Karli has used at her school to create more inclusive environments are:
Providing gender separation opportunities
Focusing on more individual pursuits, lifelong activities, and cooperative activities;
Offer student choice, field trips, and new and novel activities;
Highlight female achievement, build a community within the class, encourage senior female PE students to promote physical activity to younger students, promote female role models, invite female community members into the class as guest speakers and instructors; and
Schedule classes/sweaty activities at the end of the day and focus on less intense activities and wellness opportunities earlier in the day.
Karli recommends starting by checking out the Canadian Women and Sport website (womenandsport.ca) for learning opportunities, resources -specifically "Actively Engaging Women and Girls: Addressing the Psychosocial Factors, and grants. She also recommends reading work by Dr. Sandra Gibbons (the University of Victoria), and connecting with other PHE teachers who have already created successful programs. Then talk to your administration, PHE department, and female students to see how everyone can work together to create an inviting space.
School: South Collegiate Institute
Province: London, ON
Allison Gamble has been teaching Performing Arts and Physical Education for 22 years, and has been running the PAR (Physical Activity through Rhythmic Movement) PE class for the past three years. When her PE department head and her noticed that female participation in PE all but stopped in grades 11 and 12 they knew they had to do something about it.
After having discussions with student groups that were not taking PE courses, and learning that they didn’t feel comfortable or that they belonged in the gymnasium, PAR, or fake PE as students call it, was born. PAR is a student designed and driven course that emphasizes love of movement and introduces students to a variety of activities. One day each week is spent in the cardio/fitness room - to help increase students comfort and confidence in that space, one day is always outside - regardless of weather, and the other three are spent doing an activity unit. All activities are selected based on student interest, and have included tai chi, lacrosse, Zumba, ballroom dancing, Pilates, and a new game students created called “Cornbread”. Scores are never kept, rules are often not followed, but laughter and fun are always present.
In addition to developing a joy of movement, Allison focuses heavily on mindfulness, having students write journals and create links to their own mental health throughout the year. Evaluations are all co-created and their final exam is an interview that asks about their personal growth and how they now view physical activity in their lives.
Allison has seen participation of girls, transgender students, and other minority groups, increase so greatly that starting in 2021-2022 school year they have proposed to offer grade 10 courses as well. Success has been found by truly listening to students and making sure that they feel comfortable being active, regardless of what type of environment they find themselves in.
School: John English Jr. Middle School
Province/Territory: Ontario, Toronto District School Board
Grade Level: Grade 1 and 2
Nicki believes that all kids are competent and capable of amazing things. Throughout her career, she has developed an inclusive learning environment where students feel seen and heard - an environment that leads to success for all students. Nicki roots herself and her practice in a student centered approach, focusing on individual strengths, motivation and interests, which has led to high levels of engagement and success within her PHE classes.
When thinking about the girls that she works with, Nicki recognizes that physical education remains inequitable for female students, who often find themselves without strong role models of healthy active lifestyles. Societal stereotypes of what female bodies should look like and be capable of are ever present for young girls, and often reflect their self-confidence and interest in physical activity - starting as early as grade 4.
Nicki currently works in a mixed-gendered class and ensures that she pays key attention to each individual student’s needs - boys, girls, and non-binary. From day one, Nicki ensures that all students understand that her classroom is a safe space for all, and highlights the need for students to support each other - in and outside of their PE experience. All of Nicki’s students are encouraged to provide peer feedback throughout units - a great way to assess their knowledge and create a sense of community among classmates.
At the start of each year, Nicki ensures that all students are aware of what the learning goals are for the day, and how they can work to enhance their motor competence and confidence in a fun and social way.
Some key strategies that Nicki has employed at her school are:
Ensuring that change rooms are safe and comfortable places for all students by ensuring that locks are functional, sanitary products are available in a private space, and placing inspirational quotes cover the walls.
Making sure that students feel confident and comfortable in their PE uniforms - even if they aren’t the school required ones.
Giving students multiple levels of competition within each unit to choose from - by allowing students to self-select their level of competition, they don’t feel as though they are on display or set up to fail.
Nicki recommends that teachers start their own journey by uncovering their own biases and misconceptions. When people are willing to learn - and unlearn - they are able to best grow with their students. She concludes by saying that her inclusive and inviting environment was not created overnight. It took time, conscious effort, and constant adaptation. But in the end, all of her students - girls especially - are better for it.
School: Holy Heart High School
Province/Territory: Newfoundland and Labrador
Grade Level: 10-12
Recalling her own experiences in high school have shaped the way that Jacinta Bruce teaches her grades 10-12 classes at Holy Heart High School. She always loved physical education, but vividly remembers classmates who would hide in the changerooms. When she became a teacher she knew that she wanted to make sure none of her students ever felt they didn’t belong - firmly believing that physical education is so much more than being good at sports.
Jacinta knows that people will not participate in any activity if they don’t feel comfortable in the situation and is quick to ensure that the only comments shared among classmates are positive and encouraging ones. PE is a subject where students’ knowledge and skills are on display for all to see so she stresses the importance of each student defining personal goals and following their own journey.
In high school in Newfoundland and Labrador, a student needs a course in either PE or Healthy Living to graduate. Jacinta found that many of the girls in these courses had a negative attitude towards physical education based on their past experiences in elementary and Junior High. To overcome this challenge, Jacinta was inspired to create a healthy living yoga course that focuses on healthy life skills beyond the traditional physical education class.
Some key strategies that Jacinta has employed at her school are:
Developing a healthy living yoga course where students are able to get their required PE credits in a more inviting and less intimidating environment.
Bringing awareness to student's language choices that can create an environment of inequality. For example "He throws like a girl" or "You suck"
In her PE classes she focuses on students participation in non-traditional activities and sports in a way that helps level the playing field and give all students the chance to succeed.
Being proud and vocal about the impact that PE has on students' lives. This helps everyone - students and fellow teachers - to understand why everyone can benefit in the course.
For teachers who are hoping to create more inclusive environments, Jacinta highly recommends starting by creating a human connection and focusing on the social emotional learning skills. She notes that students will be more motivated when there is a positive connection with their teacher.
School: Paul Kane High School
Grade Level: 10-12
Lori Olson-Johns has always felt a strong sense of responsibility for all students to feel that they belong in her classes. As a physical education teacher in Alberta, she knows that if girls decide to continue to enroll after their mandatory grade 10 credit she must create a supportive and inclusive environment. She firmly believes that Physical Education is about creating a holistic approach to wellness that contributes to lifelong learning.
Lori starts every course by ensuring that students feel safe, loved and worthy. She wants students to enjoy being in class and hopes that they talk about their experiences when they leave school at the end of the day. In Physical Education classes it is hard to hide behind a textbook or desk, so she sees that students in high school often feel as though they are on display. She works hard to develop relationships with each student and create a no-risk environment where girls feel capable and comfortable to try new things.
Some specific strategies that Lori has used at her school are:
Focusing on small sided games to maximize participation time for all students
Pairing students with new partners often to encourage community within the class
Assessing skill competency, not athletic ability. It does not matter how many baskets a student scores, but rather how they contribute. She values leadership, peer relationships, effort, and attitude. Lori emphasizes showing up and contributing as good citizens.
Organizing sharing circles at the beginning of class where students are encouraged to share one thing from their head (knowledge), heart (feelings)or hands (tangible).
Lori has found great success in engaging young women within her classes by ensuring that choice and voice are always front of mind. Students are encouraged to challenge themselves, but at their own pace and in their own way. As long as Lori sees progress in some facet of their selves - physical, mental, emotional or spiritual - she sees them as successful.
If you are looking to make your classroom more inclusive, Lori suggests that you think outside the box when planning your units. She has found that students thrive in an Olympics unit where they are challenged to learn non-traditional skills and work within a group. She teaches, and lives, with a goal of raising the floor, not the ceiling. Also - never be shy in telling students that you believe in them.
School: Nelson McIntyre Collegiate
Grade Level: Grades 10-12
Knowing that it is every person’s right to a quality education is what keeps Arista Ryback working towards creating inclusive physical education classes for all students. Research has shown drastic decreases in female participation in physical education classes after grade 10, so she feels that it is imperative that girls are shown how to live fulfilled and healthy lives from an early age. Arista works to confront stereotypes of what women and girls are told they can and should be to ensure that they don’t decide that they don’t feel they belong within PE classes.
From day one, Arista stresses the importance of life skills, and participating to the best of their own abilities. The goal of every class is to develop healthy lifestyle habits and how to be active, not to learn how to throw a perfect basketball free-throw. She really emphasizes being comfortable making mistakes and learning to try new skills safely. In a social media driven world, she tries to increase girls’ self-confidence in and out of the classroom, stressing that each student is on an individual journey, not one that should be compared to anyone else.
Specific examples of how best to create an inclusive environment that Arista uses are:
Using proven pedagogical models such as the Circle of Courage for both assessment and classroom culture purposes
Take time when developing an inclusive environment. It doesn’t happen overnight and must be approached with empathy and understanding.
Tailoring assessment to each individual student through self-assessment- they are all on individual journeys and personal growth should be the goal and what is emphasized.
When starting this journey, Arista encourages teachers to be patient and find common ground with students, without trust and relationships, meaningful connections and transformational change won’t happen.
School: Harry Ainlay
Province/Territory and School Board: Alberta
Grade Level: 10, 11, 12
Elvisa Omerovic believes that humans are born to move and play - and that those instincts shouldn’t stop when school starts. Regardless of their background or ability, Elvisa ensures that her students have a fair chance to grow and succeed. She has read the research and experienced first hand that female’s levels of participation in physical activity decreases as they get older and is on a mission to ensure that her students are set up for a lifetime of physical activity success.
Elvisa still sees that many young women still believe that they can’t participate in the same types of activities as their male counterparts, or that they aren’t as naturally competitive. To combat these beliefs, she works hard to ensure that student choice and voice is prioritized within her classes so that everyone feels they belong - especially in co-ed classes.
Some specific strategies that Elvisa has used at her school are:
Talking to each student about non-school related things. Find out what they like, what stresses them out, how they deal with stress and about their lives outside of school.
When planning lessons, keep students' predispositions about school and sports in mind. Remember that everyone is on their own journey.
Engage students in the decision making to increase participation and learning opportunities.
She says that the best classes she has ever been part of were ones where a sense of community was prioritized and where all students felt comfortable, confident and heard.
School: Woodstock Collegiate Institute
Province/Territory and School Board: Ontario
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Martha Trepanier approaches every day with the goal of connecting with students who are disengaged with Physical Education and giving them a positive experience to increase their physical competence and confidence in hopes they will lead a healthy active lifestyle. She knows that as a teacher it is her job to know about the identities, abilities and lived experiences of all her students. Martha has seen time and time again that an inclusive classroom is created when it draws off the experiences of her students, and when instruction is designed to reflect them.
Martha starts the year by levelling the playing field for all students, recognizing that if a girl is not engaged and excited to be in PE class, they may have had bad experiences or been encouraged to sit out in the past. She ensures that every student is given multiple opportunities to succeed, regardless of whether they are an all-star athlete or have zero confidence in themselves.
Some key strategies that Martha uses in her classroom are:
Being aware of language choices and introducing herself with her pronouns - those who use them will recognize and pay attention.
Welcoming students at the door every morning and paying attention to what they are telling you.
Including pictures of students enjoying physical activities together and being active in both physical and virtual classrooms.
Research shows that "41% of girls aged 3-17 don't participate in sport and sport participation drops by 22% when girls hit their teen years." Martha has taken this to heart and strives every day to provide an amazing experience for the girls in her class, but recognizes that PE classes are not enough to fix these statistics. She works with colleagues and community partners to provide opportunities and resources outside of school to feel part of the sporting community.
As teachers, coaches, and caring adults Martha believes that we need to do better for female identified students - they are watching. She works collaboratively and surrounds herself with inspirational teachers and colleagues, which helps her to be her best version.
For more examples of initiatives that Martha has been part of, check out @growgirlsoxford and #betvdsb on Instagram.
Shelly Kirk Collins
School: A.Y. Jackson Secondary School
Province/Territory and School Board: Ontario (OCDSB)
Grade Level: 9-12
Shelly Kirk Collins tries to approach her Physical Education classes from a non-participant’s perspective - not from her own, growing up loving physical activity in all forms. She knows that creating an inclusive and inviting environment for all students means developing relationships, looking beyond the traditional games and activities, and focussing on mental health. Shelly also knows that creating this environment will ultimately lead to students being more active for life. If students feel comfortable and safe, they are more likely to be willing to try new activities and increase their self-esteem.
Although she recognizes that high school is a challenging time for all students, Shelly recognizes that growth spurts, body image issues and everything else that comes with puberty can make it very challenging for girls to try new activities and not want to participate. It is easier to just not take part instead of worrying about what you look like, how you feel, or how you may be compared to others.
She recommends starting by having conversations with all students to see what interests and motivates them to be active - this may mean playing more GLO’s instead of always sports, varying activities during a session, playing more cardio games rather than straight running, spending more time on certain sports/activities, or doing group fitness classes vs. individual circuits. All provide incredible learning opportunities and skills that will support students beyond their formal schooling.
Some strategies that Shelly has used successfully at her school are:
Make building self-esteem/confidence a priority. Self-esteem is a huge part of things. If we can improve this, we can improve participation.
Highlighting that there is more to physical activity than what students do not like (i.e running, volleyball, soccer, etc.), and encouraging them to try something new.
Encouraging students to communicate with each other to create community – have students partner up with different people each class and share 5 highlights during warm up.
Challenging students to make mistakes (i.e. dribble the ball as fast as you can until you cannot control it). By doing this, she teaches students that making mistakes is okay and is an expected part of everyone’s learning.
Be creative – trick them into getting their cardio through fun games.
Give them some choice when scheduling/flexibility allows for it.
Treat each student as an individual and don’t compare them to other’s fitness or skill levels.
In the end, Shelly makes sure to always give lots of positive feedback, reinforce that students are not being compared to each other, makes building self-confidence a priority, and incorporates mental health practices into her daily practice. Creating a safe and caring environment where everyone is included means students feel like they matter, feel lower risk of standing out by making mistakes, and feel more confident and open in trying new things.
Selena Davidson Eno
School: Bayview Community School
Province/Territory: Nova Scotia
Grade level: Primary-Grade 9
Selena Davidson Eno knows that every student needs to feel that they have the opportunity to participate in all school programs. She begins each year by engaging students in discussions about why they don’t feel that they can, or want to, participate to set the tone of an inclusive environment for all students.
Selena has seen female students face additional challenges within her PE classroom as a result of the strong influence social media has on their self-esteem and self- worth. Selena does her best to create a positive and encouraging learning environment so that all students are able to learn fundamental movement skills and feel competent to try new things. In the past, she feels that too much emphasis has been placed on the competitive side of physical activity, which has resulted in decreased participation levels from female students.
In Selena’s classroom, she instead gives students the opportunity to participate with their friends, and other students at the same skill level as them.
Some tactics that Selena has used at her school to create an inclusive environment are:
Grouping students together based on ability level of each activity.
Getting to know her students both mentally and physically to know how to set each up for success.
Let students select activities to participate in. When they are part of the selection process, they are much more likely to be motivated to participate.
School: École élémentaire publique Jeanne-Sauvé
Grade Level: Kindergarten - Grade 6
David Benay shifted his teaching style 5 years ago, after watching a school talent show. He was struck by the number of students who were dancers or gymnasts showing their love of movement, and the complete lack of soccer or hockey players showing off their talents. Seeing this divide made him rethink how he was approaching his PE classes, which was traditionally by playing the sports that he liked to play. At the same time, he was learning more about physical literacy and began to see the curriculum as so much more robust than he had in the past.
David’s first step to creating an inclusive environment was to put himself in the shoes of his gymnast students by signing up for parkour lessons. David started to incorporate choices for students by setting up stations for students to choose from - putting the power of activity selection into their hands. He noticed that as more options for activities were available, students became more willing to try new ones that were introduced.
David instills in his students the idea that you don’t come to PE to blow off steam, you come to PE to improve yourself.
Some strategies that David has used within his school to be more inclusive are:
Giving students leadership opportunities within classes and intramural programs;
Having free-play PE classes, where students have access to all materials and are able to do whatever they want - as long as it is active. Giving students the ability to choose how to be active sets them up for longer term success in life;
Instead of running single sport tournaments, setting up multi-sport days for increased choice and participation; and
Being creative with activities and adapting well known activities and board games to active options.
Regardless of whether he is in the classroom or running an intramural tournament, David emphasizes the tone and vibe of the class - always inclusive and supportive. The focus is never on skill, instead the goal is to be part of a positive and inviting environment.
School District: Kamloops School District
Province: British Columbia
Alexandra Inglis is currently working as the After School Program Coordinator for the Kamloops Thompson School District. The Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport in BC recognized that there was a need to better engage female students in grades 8-12 in physical activity opportunities in and out of school and has funded the program. Alexandra has worked to develop a program that engages or re-engages female students in physical activity with the goal of helping them to find joy in movement for life.
The program offers unique opportunities, many of which are suggested by the participants, and focuses on connecting participants with role models within their school and community who are passionate about movement. Diversity of activities and new experiences is essential, as exposing participants to new movement opportunities is key for each to discover what works for them.
Alexandra shared that the success of the program has been, in part, due to the emphasis that has been put on the social side of physical activity, really enhancing participants’ connections within their communities and having them experience the mental health benefits of being active first hand.
Alexandra recognizes that the list of reasons that female students stop being active is longer than the school year, but has seen that by giving more active options beyond the varsity sports teams, they are seeing positive change in the community.
Some key learnings that Alexandra shared are:
Listen to students, and never assume you know what they want or need.
Make sure that activities are fun - if they aren’t fun, students won’t want to participate.
Co-design and co-create rules and guidelines for the type of environment they want to create. This way, everyone agrees at the start of the program what the goals are, and how they can actively contribute to achieving them.
Check in with students throughout the year to ensure that everyone is still on track.
School: Osgoode Township High School
Grade Level: Secondary 9-12
Gary Theoret knows the importance of creating an inclusive school environment first hand, working in a community school where more than 90% of students are bussed in from significant distances. When speaking specifically about the young women he teaches, Gary has seen that creating a sense of inclusion leads to a willingness to try new things, to accept and learn from failure and thus promote self-confidence and resilience among students. He makes sure to emphasize that the power of doing your best and challenging yourself is always the goal.
Despite these efforts, Gary still notices that there is a reluctance among some young women to get sweaty at lunch time by participating in intramural programs. The OTHS PHE staff has worked to change this by introducing new options for activities and facilitating student-led programming. By making these small changes, young women have been more involved and inclined to participate, resulting in a more inclusive school environment overall.
Change has been possible within OTHS with the support of parents, coaches, and staff that are excellent role models. Gary feels very fortunate as colleagues Jenny Rodgers and Mike Martin are excellent teachers/coaches and all share the same departmental philosophy.
As a parent/coach of young women for more than 25 years, Gary knows the power and value of sport. Being a part of a team is vital to the overall physical development and well being of each young person, and a focus on mental health is a key component of keeping young women active and healthy.
School: Retired Educator, currently Ophea Raise the Bar Intramural Program Consultant
Grade range: K-12
Throughout his career as a Physical Education teacher, Steve recognised that most kids in all schools weren’t playing sports. School teams provide opportunities for less than 20% of student populations and, without other options, many students lose interest and become inactive. To fix this, more than 20 years ago Steve started Raising the Bar Intramurals, a program designed to create inclusive and sustainable intramural programs for all students. A few years ago, Steve worked with Ophea to develop the Raise the Bar Intramural Program to expand the reach of the program. His philosophy has always been that everyone needs to be involved in sport and physical activity, regardless of skill or gender and this is built into the program.
When delivering workshops and facilitating programs to help support the development of inclusive learning environments, Steve stresses the following key components:
Focus on activities beyond the typical and traditional sports, instead look to lifetime activities that are sustainable outside of a school setting;
Create links within your community to empower young women to gain a sense of belonging;
Give options and teach different things each year - don’t fall into the rut of teaching only what you know; and
Approach every student as an individual, with different needs and interests. Ask them what they are interested in and develop programming accordingly.
Steve suggests that having all staff on board is the most important key for success, and that this may take some time. When he chose to step away from coaching to focus on developing more inclusive activities his coworkers were skeptical, but after seeing the massive increase in participation from the 80% of students who were not involved in the varsity teams, they came around to his way of thinking. Steve always reminds teachers that the goal of PE isn’t to meet the demands of the Curriculum, but instead to create people who can, and want to, be active for life. For more information, including key learnings from Steve’s 20 years of experience on how to develop a quality and inclusive intramural program, visit Raisethebar.ophea.net.
School: Glenlawn Collegiate
Grade Level: Grades 9-12
Karen McInnes knows that Physical Activity and Physical Education leads students to have increased confidence, increased willingness to take risks, pushing themselves outside of their comfort zones. Karen runs the Female Fitness classes at her school, which were started by her former co-worker Lisa Hill, where the goal is to encourage students to develop active living habits for life. Female Fitness classes were started in response to female students asking for more options for them within the mandatory PE requirements of the province.
From the first class, Karen creates a safe, judgement free environment for students to feel comfortable trying new things. Giving female students the option for female-only classes has been very popular and led to an increase in enrollment and participation.
To ensure that students’ continue to be active beyond their time in high school, Karen helps to extend students’ confidence by taking them to fitness facilities within the community and introducing them to the different activities available there. She has seen that students who have been shown how to sign up for a membership, where to go within the changerooms, and how to use the different machines are more likely to be motivated to continue to be active for life.
Karen suggests the following strategies to create more inclusive environments:
Offer the option for single-gendered classes
Offer different types of Physical Education classes, such as Fitness, Outdoor Education, Independent Fitness, and Sport Specific classes
Listen to students’ concerns and develop activities and lessons to address them.
Karen continues to see effort levels, learning abilities and attitudes all increase and improve far more than in traditional mixed gender Physical Education classes, a feat definitely worth celebrating.