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The Principal Factor: A Literature Review Juxtaposing the Roles of Elementary School Physical Education Teachers and Principals

March 4, 2019
man standing wearing a blue shirt on a basketball court holding a clip board

Previously published in Volume 84, Issue 4

The ongoing dialogue concerning the teaching of elementary school physical education (PE) by specialist versus generalist teachers is rich in history. This purpose of this article is threefold: (1) to discuss the importance of quality PE for elementary school students, (2) to consider the merits of STs versus GTs, and (3) to reflect on the role of the school principal as a gatekeeper for effective PE programming. While the literature contends that STs have superior knowledge and a more positive impact in PE learning environments when compared to GTs, it is what Trained Teachers (TTs) are willing to do to reach a parallel benchmark of ‘ST teaching’ that is encouraging. And, because school principals have such a large impact on their schools, their knowledge level, prioritization of PE, and administrative decisions play a critical role in determining the quality of their schools’ PE program.


The ongoing dialogue concerning the teaching of elementary school physical education (PE) by specialist versus generalist teachers has had a rich history (Constantinides, 2007; Constantinides, Montalvo, & Silverman, 2013; Highman, 2013; Morgan & Bourke, 2008; Park 2018; Telford, Olive, Cochrane, Davey, & Telford, 2016, Veall, 2015). Although there are many benefits to having students being taught by PE specialist teachers (STs) in elementary schools (Constantinides et al., 2013; Mandigo et al., 2004; Telford et al., 2016; Veall, 2015), including managing safety and risk management (Park, 2018), higher levels of in-class physical activity (Telford et al., 2016), teacher knowledge and confidence (Highman, 2013), and overall program effectiveness (Graber, Locke, Lambdin, & Solmon, 2008; Wright, 2004), the number of STs has historically been fewer compared to the secondary school level (Hardman & Marshall, 2000; Martens, 1990, Mandigo et al., 2004). It is, therefore, an excellent time to (re)visit the issue concerning PE being taught by STs as opposed to generalist teachers (GTs).

The purpose of this article is threefold: (1) to discuss the importance of quality PE for elementary school students, (2) to consider the merits of STs versus GTs, and (3) to reflect on the role of the school principal as a gatekeeper for effective PE programming. Essentially, our focus is on potential ways for PE programming to become as effective as it can be regardless of whether it is taught by STs or GTs. With this in mind, an essential ingredient for quality PE programming is what we refer to as The Principal Factor. The Principal Factor, recognizing the critical position of the school principal, emphasizes the required teacher-principal partnership for quality PE – for students to be consistently exposed to PE programming that supports their physical literacy journeys (PHE Canada, 2018; Sport for Life, 2018), and provides joyful and meaningful learning experiences (Beni, Fletcher, & Ní Chróinín, 2017; Gleddie, Hickson, & Bradford, 2018).

Elementary School PE

The elementary school years is a sensitive period of time for student learning in PE (Fishburne, 2005). The need for PE during these years is more evident than ever before as it affords a unique and valuable contribution toward student development (Pickup, 2012; Griggs, 2007). Participation in PE provides a range of learning opportunities and benefits that are vital for growth and development, including: the acquisition of fundamental movement skills and advancement along physical literacy journeys (PHE Canada, 2018; Sport for Life, 2018); social and emotional learning (Iannotti, Kogan, Janssen, & Boyce, 2009: ParticipACTION, 2018); and the joy of movement (Beni, Fletcher, & Ní Chróinín, 2017; Almond & Whitehead, 2012). And, according to Rovegno and Bandhauer (2013), “PE is the only subject area in the school devoted to teaching children the skills they need for meaningful participation” (p. 10). That said, while a school that promotes PE is perceived to value the importance of ‘whole child’ development (PHE Canada, 2018), other such benefits of PE include:

Academic achievement

  • Regularly scheduled PE programming has been found to maintain, if not enhance, academic achievement (Ahamed et al., 2007; Chomitz et al., 2009; Pangrazi & Beighle, 2016; Trudeau & Shephard, 2008)


  • A relationship exists between increased PE instructional time and reduced obesity rates in elementary school children (Cawley, Frisvold, & Meyerhoefer, 2013)

Joy of human movement

  • Children who pursue physical literacy goals experience, “…a love of being active, born out of the pleasure and satisfaction individuals experience in participation.” (Almond & Whitehead, 2012, p. 69)

Motor ability

  • Children not afforded quality daily PE were more likely found to have motor deficits (Ericsson & Karlsson, 2014)

Social and emotional learning

  • Physical activity is associated with a stronger self-image, quality of life, and quality of peer and family relationships for children and youth (Iannotti et al., 2009)

Evidently, PE has a positive effect on children’s lives. That said, teaching PE is a “complex endeavor” (Blankenship, 2008, p. 2). And, according to Rink and Hall (2008), when compared to classroom teaching, “…the teaching area is larger, the students are moving the majority of the time, a variety of large and small equipment is in use, the teacher-to-student ratio is often higher… And physical safety is always a concern” (p. 211). Hence, the importance of effective PE teaching.

Learning Must Occur. Teachers are perceived to be effective when they successfully perform expected tasks in the learning environment (Yilmaz 2011), and when they establish learning environments where students achieve intended learning outcomes (Rink & Hall, 2008; Yilmaz, 2011). According to Metzler (2011), “effective teaching skills are those teacher decisions and actions that correlate with higher levels of student learning” (104).

Conversely, ineffective PE teaching either focuses solely on specialized sport skills rather than the whole child or teaches no skills at all (e.g., low-organizational and “fun” activities that do not teach) (Rink & Hall, 2008), and may even lead to mis-educative experiences (Gleddie & Schaefer, 2014). According to Gleddie and Schaefer (2014), “…mis-educative experiences in physical education seem to resonate with individuals for a lifetime” (p. 2). Students lose confidence in their ability to learn and perform and may choose to disengage from the task when inappropriate learning activities or inadequate opportunities to practice movement skills occur (Gleddie et al., 2018; Gleddie & Schaefer, 2014; Rink & Hall, 2008).

As we seek to help improve the quality of PE, we now turn our attention to the different types of teachers responsible for elementary school PE programming.

Categories, Training and Experience

PE teacher must have an in-depth understanding of many activities and movements, as well as organization and management skills. (Blankenship, 2008. p. 2) 

The three basic categories generally accepted as options for teaching PE include specialist teachers (STs), generalist teachers (GTs), and trained teachers (TTs). Due to the differences in formal training, educational knowledge, and background experiences, the confidence levels between the three categories of teachers varies across a wide continuum from no PE teaching experience (low confidence) to a wealth of PE background knowledge, experience, and formal teacher training (high confidence).

Specialist Teachers

The role of the ST has been examined for several years (Anderson, 1962; Martens, 1982; Highman, 2013; Park, 2018; Telford et al., 2016). STs have either majored or minored in PE before completing their Bachelor of Education (BEd) degrees often taking 3-5 years with a combined degree or have received specialized education in their pre-service teacher education programs (Mandigo et al., 2004). Although PE teacher education (PETE) programs have a major responsibility for preparing preservice PE teachers with the necessary content knowledge to implement PE programs that prepare children for a lifetime of PA (Santiago, Morales, Disch, & Morrow Jr., 2016), when compared to GTs, STs have been found to have more confidence, deeper levels of knowledge, higher levels of enthusiasm and commitment to developing resources and dealing with safety, promote an active school culture, and involve more school community members (Highman, 2013; Fox & Harris, 2003; Mandigo et al. 2004; Park, 2018;  Telford et al., 2016). According to Constantinides et al. (2013), STs exhibit higher levels of effective teaching behaviors, are content specific, and employ ample time to explain and promote maximum participation.

Generalist Teachers

The amount of PE pedagogy classes that GTs are required to take as part of a BEd or combined degree varies widely. As well, their practicum experiences may include an array of opportunities to teach PE – or not. Therefore, GTs could enter the teaching profession with a low level of understanding of PE and its overall rationale, aims, and learning outcomes. According to Constantinides et al. (2013), GT’s curricular choices and inability to develop conducive learning environments have been found to negatively impact student participation levels. Additionally, a teacher’s previous PE experiences – and physical literacy journeys – have been found to factor into PE teaching confidence and lesson delivery quality (Veall, 2015). Furthermore, if teachers have had negative PE experiences and memories as students themselves, it may equate to an inability to teach PE (Morgan & Burke, 2008) and vice versa (Gleddie & Schaeffer, 2014). This anxiousness may have come from a lack of knowledge and preparation, as previously stated. However, other researchers posit that personal experiences play an essential role in teacher attitudes, beliefs, and teaching practices (Gleddie & Schaefer, 2014; Placek et al., 1995; Keating, Silverman, & Kulinna, 2002; Veall, 2015).

Trained Teachers

TTs, who begin their careers as GTs, may have taken additional in-services, courses, or been in a lead PE teacher position (e.g., school- or district-level) that contributes to their teacher development. TTs may also have several years of teaching experience to draw upon, and/or a wealth of experiences sharing their knowledge with others in professional development settings. When fusing experience, passion, and a willingness to develop as a teacher – enhance one’s professional capital (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012) – through attending and participating in quality professional development activities (e.g., drive-in workshops, conferences), reading, reflecting upon, and discussing recent publications (e.g., PHE Canada Journal, HPEC’s Runner Journal, SPEA’s On the Move Journal), and collaborating with like-minded educators, TTs seem to willingly put themselves in a position to understand, accept, and act upon what the literature is saying about quality PE. And, when considering varying stages of teacher development, Rovegno and Bandhauer (2013) asserted, “if teachers continue to work on their professional development, they can move to the expert stage” (p. 848). For instance, through quality-led professional development experiences, TTs can gain a deeper awareness of effective instructional frameworks such as Teaching Game for Understanding (Butler & Griffin, 2010), Game Sense (Pill, 2018), and/or the Spectrum of Teaching Styles (Moston & Ashworth, 2008), as well as for the need of joyful and meaningful learning experiences (Beni, Fletcher & Ní Chróinín, 2017).

Posing the Problem

A number of studies have examined the prevalence of inadequate PE teacher education (PETE) programming. These deficient programs have been perceived to be a major obstacle in the delivery of quality PE (Hardman, 2008; McKenzie & Lounsbury, 2009; Prusak et al., 2011). As far back as 1962, research has stated that as many as 47% of surveyed GTs were less than well-prepared to teach all subject areas (Anderson, 1962), and a strong relationship has been found to exist between teachers’ PE knowledge and confidence (Highman, 2013; Morgan & Burke, 2008). With this understanding, we wish to share some ideas to helping GTs – the most common teachers of elementary school PE – plan, deliver, and assess quality PE programs. And, what is essential for this to occur will be the close attention by school principals – or, the Principal Factor.

The principal factor

The strength of a learning community is related to the strength displayed by the school leadership personnel, and the responsibilities concerning curricular implementation fall under the direct responsibility of school principals (Leidl, 2008). Administrative decisions such as timetabling and facilities (Mandigo et al., 2004; Wighton, 2011; Lounsbery, McKenzie, Trost, & Smith, 2011) or equipment and support (Mandigo et al., 2004; Sherman, Tran, & Alves, 2010) have been identified as key areas that school principals are responsible for. And, in Alberta, for instance, according to the new Leadership Quality Standard (LQS), in terms of ‘embodying visionary leadership,’ a school administrator is asked to collaborate “with the school community to create and implement a shared vision for student success, engagement, learning, and well-being” (Alberta Education, 2018, p. 5). Hence, school principals play a vital role in ensuring students are provided with quality learning experiences that have positive effects on academic, physical, and social development. Since school principals have ultimate control of funds, facilities, staffing and other resources, it can be inferred that they are, in fact, paramount to the development of quality PE programs, as PE is mandatory at the elementary school level.

In general, school principals’ lack of knowledge of PE, and, more specifically, what is going on in PE in their own school has been found to be a concern (Lounsbery et al., 2011). Part of the issue is that many school leaders are far removed and are unfamiliar with their PE programs (Lounsbery, et al., 2011) – although we are not placing blame here. And, more principals were found to be highly satisfied with their current programs as opposed to their teachers which is clear evidence of a disconnect (Lounsbery, et al., 2011).

What Can Be Done

Although PE is often marginalized in our school systems (Lounsbery et al., 2011), principals can contribute to quality PE by placing a high value on PE and supporting their GTs and TTs. According to Zeng and Wang (2015), “the principals are the most influential figures to make decisions on how PE and PA will be carried out and implemented in their schools” (p. 39). Although GTs and TTs have much potential for the teaching of PE, without principal support, this potential can go unreached which, in turn, does not promote quality learning opportunities for children. Hence, according to Hickson, Berg, and Bradford (2015), considerations for principals are to be involved with PE programs, develop knowledgeable staff, support curriculum time, and ensure comprehensive programming.

With increased levels of principal knowledge, the prioritizing of PE has been found to increase (Rainer, Cropley, Jarvis, & Griffiths, 2012). However, PE remains at the bottom of a long list of what is deemed important in elementary schools. Terms such as ‘marginalization’ and ‘devalued’ have been continually used to describe PE (Henninger & Carlson, 2011; Dwyer et al., 2003; Puhse & Gerber, 2005). This cycle of devalued curriculum, and lack of importance for PE is highlighted by Henninger and Carlson (2011). When content is devalued, it becomes even more difficult to provide quality educational experiences for learners.

Moving forward – recommendations for future research
The fact is, throughout Canada, elementary school PE is commonly taught by GTs or TTs. As a result, researchers should examine further how principals can support their teachers to improve student learning and well-being. We need to know how to support principals in their roles as gatekeepers so they feel confident in their teachers and PE programs. Future research focus areas may include the following:

  • How can principals effectively support GTs and TTs in PE programming?
  • How can PETE programs help prepare GTs most effectively to deliver quality PE?
  • What would be considered effective PE professional development opportunities for GTs and TTs?
  • How can professional development or leadership programs for principals include the importance of PE programs and TTs?

Additionally, future research could also attempt to shed light on reasons why certain principals choose to hire STs while others have not (perhaps choosing a music specialist instead). 


The review of related literature identified that STs have been found to have superior knowledge and a positive impact on health, improve the quality of PE, increase students’ skill acquisition, and manage learning environments more effectively when compared to GTs. Although, it is what TTs are willing to do to reach a parallel benchmark of teaching as STs that is encouraging (e.g., engaging in organizations such as HPEC, SPEA, PHE Canada). Furthermore, because school principals have such a large impact on their schools, their knowledge level, prioritization of PE, and administrative decisions play a critical role in determining the quality of their schools’ PE program.



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