Have you ever heard someone else say that you’re JUST a teacher? Maybe you’ve even caught yourself saying something similar. If so, this week’s episode with veteran educator Ryan Pelkey is for you! Ali, JoDee, and Ryan sit down to talk about breaking free from the word “just,” debunking certain narratives about teachers, and ways in which schools and districts can put teachers first.
Connect with Ryan:
Connect with Ali and JoDee:
Ali’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alisimon/
JoDee’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jodeescissors/
For episode transcriptions visit: https://thegreatteacherresignation.buzzsprout.com
All teachers are natural innovators, entertainers and problem solvers. They dream of growing old into the profession, teaching their kids kids. But sometimes career goals shift or change, and that makes opportunities outside of the classroom seem intangible questioning who am I, if I'm not a teacher? I'm your host, Alexandra Simon.
And I'm your co host, JoDee Scissors.
This is The Great Teacher Resignation.
Today, we're joined by Ryan Pelkey. Ryan is starting year 25 in education. And this gym teacher is so much more: a published best selling author, coach, athletic director, teacher, administrator and speaker. He is constantly trying to break the word "just." Ryan is also a mental health warrior and supporter of professionalism and education. Welcome to the show, Ryan.
Nice to be here. Thank you,
Ryan, thanks for joining us today and connecting with us on our socials. We've had a few conversations through Facebook, through email, you sending us your bio, and I'm gonna be honest, your bio really resonated with me a lot. When you said break the word" just," that really hit me hard because I was a student athlete growing up. My coaches were my biggest influences. And I'm also the daughter of a college baseball coach. And so coaches in my life and being part of a team have really been a huge part of how I have developed as a young person and into an adult. And also, exercise in general, is the biggest part of my daily life. It was the biggest part of my life during the pandemic, because it was how I sustained the best possible mental health state that I could possibly sustain in such an uncertain environment. And so I just want to say to you right now that you are working towards trying to break the word "just" about teachers is very important, especially for athletic directors, coaches, PE teachers, because they have such an influence on my life. And I know that continue to influence others. So tell us a little bit about how you work to break the word "just?"
So pre-pandemic, for maybe the first 15 or 16 years of my teaching career, I always felt that was pigeon holed. When there was things going on in school, there was my wheelhouse that I could handle different things. And they were excited about the fact that I can handle 150 students at once. Or if there was discipline issues and fights, they called me to go down there and handle it. But then when it came to a lot of the academic issues, I was told no. No, you're just a PE teacher. You're just a gym teacher, what are you doing, trying to teach math and your class? What are you doing, trying to be an academic leader and be an instructional leader? Think about restorative practices. And it wasn't a fault of my administration as much as it was, that's the image that a lot of people still have of health and PE teachers. And as I've grown in my educational career, I want to get into administration. I want to get into risk management. And I feel like I can stretch my umbrella much further. And during the pandemic, I have the pleasure of joining the social app Clubhouse, which is you create audio rooms. And I got introduced to people that gave me a voice. I got introduced to people that said, you are more than that. You want to write a book, write a book, you're a teacher, you have so many stories, write a book. And I would have never thought in a million years that I'd be a published author. But I appreciated the people that encouraged me. And then I brought that to a larger scale where it led into public speaking. It led into doing multiple podcasts. And just trying to help others find their voice, which I think is so important.
For those that don't know what Clubhouse is, I've just looked it up. It's a social audio app. It's a network essentially, that is based on voice where people around the world come together, listen and learn from one another in real time.
Correct. My club has, it's called the Educators Closet. Currently, we're about 1700 educators from all over the world. So there was times that I talked to people from Australia, and China, and Japan, in the same room. And it led into speaking engagements in Malaysia and other countries as well.
So you're taking your topics of discussion, not just with your immediate community or your immediate PLC, but you're taking it internationally?
Yes, because I felt like in schools, I wasn't valued. I wasn't valued as much as they looked at me as a PE teacher, What do you know about this? When you're on an app like that, or you're doing other speaking, you're viewed as an educator. And it filled me. It filled my cup to the point where I felt comfortable enough to start sharing on a bigger scale. And knowing that I do have value and what I bring to the table is important.
Tell us a little bit about who you are beyond like the, I guess the accolades of author, educator, like who are you as a person that connects deeply with students and why someone would consider you as a potential hire based on your connection with others and your area of expertise?
Well, as I've fallen into the 25th year of education, I've been told more times than I can count, that it was the right person at the right place at the right time. And developing relationships with my students was super important to me over the first 15 years, I was teaching and coaching them and running summer camps, and I was around them at that middle school level. And I've done all my time in middle school. And people are gonna say, bless your heart. You know, that's a lot in middle school, but I'm okay with it. Everyone has their niche, and we can kind of, you know, scratch it from there. But to be that right person, for some of my students, to be someone important in their lives, and then realizing it, 15, 20 years down the road, I still connect with them within social media. And when they become teachers, they've asked me for help. The fact that a lot of my games and activities and things have been shared all over the world by other teachers, it helps me find value and it helps them you know, so I can share it with more people. I can make an impact. I'm very loyal, very caring. I'm the first one in the building, last one to leave. One of my former principals told me that I'm an essential employee, not because of the core, the health and PE part, but because you make everyone better. And the year that I wasm an administrator at my school, the biggest compliment I ever had was, you will allow me to teach. You created safe spaces, that safe psychological environment, to allow me to teach the kids to learn. That is what I carry with me, and that's what I push for.
So Ryan, I was also an elective teacher, I taught Spanish at the high school level. And yes, I'm very impressed that you've always been at middle school. But I think what I'm more impressed about, and I just think the undervaluing that you've been sharing with us, like, from my experience, the PE teachers that I've worked with, they're some of the hardest working educators. They get the largest classes. They take on loads of extras, from coaching, to volunteering to doing so many other things around the school. And then they work every day, to instill values that I think JoDee touched upon, like teamwork, dedication, hard work overall. Like in athletics, you don't just get better if you do it once in a while, you have to actually practice. So learning how to build routines, and how to get good at your craft or your sport. And so I just want to let you know, I personally don't see you any less than myself or other specialists. But I think we're treated a little bit differently in general in the school house, because we're not a core area, right? So you know, the pressure is really on the people who teach English and math and depending on what your standardized testing is at your school district, and then, you know, our classes get really full, and they give us a lot of kids. Whatever the maximum number of students you can have, like they put them in your class, I am sure.
Society forms a narrative about teachers, but also in the building of education, narratives are formed about certain positions. And so it is up to us as educators to debunk those with the greater society and within the building.
I totally agree. And I do a lot of integrated activities, where I'll take in math, science, social studies and the arts and say, what are you working on in class? How can I bring that into the gymnasium? How can I bring that into the my health classrooms? So we'll do activities where the kids and...that's the focus on my second book is getting the importance of math and sports. And I want to kind of push that to younger students to realize they can be good at math, they don't have to be super athletic to be an important contributor in sports through stats, and now all these sabermetrics with baseball and things like that. So you can bring important things to the table at an early age, and get that niche and get that feeling that they're being part of a team as well. But to be able to call the science teacher and say, hey, what are you working on? Let me help you. It took a while to build those relationships. So build that trust and realize that I'm actually helping them. And I can go into any classroom. I'm lucky enough that when I went through college and way back in the 90s, I felt lucky enough, I can teach anything in any classroom at anytime. You know, to being able to teach all different subjects. I feel it is a master of classroom management, but it's also that relationship building. And if I was asked to go in and teach science right now, I could jump in and have no problem teaching. It's not the ego thing. It's the fact that I'm a teacher first and foremost. And I really feel like as schools we need to break it down as we're all teachers, we're all educators, and then we have some areas that were specialize in.
And your field of work is actually really deeply connected to what is one of the most popular education topics right now, which is social and emotional learning. And if you look at the CASEL framework, relationship skills, responsible decision making, self management, all of those things are deeply connected to sports, to being a part of a community of others that are like working towards a similar goal. And so just everything that you're saying, to me sounds so grounded in social and emotional learning, which is the catalyst to high cognitive ability to perform academically. When you are okay, when you know how to work through those hard things, your cognitive abilities open up, and then you can go to your math or your history or whatever course it is, and be open to learning and be okay to learn.
Correct. And I feel it's important to be able to work as a team. Some of the activities that we do down here in the gym, you know, is see how high we can stack plastic cups. And you'd be surprised that the shortest person's like, I can't reach all the way the top until they figure out, okay, we're going to give you a boost, and you're going to be the person that puts it on the top. Or we have an activity we call MacGyver based on an old TV show, where I just throw a mishmash of equipment in the middle of the floor. And it's kind of pattern off the floors, lava, but they have to draft their equipment. And then they have to get from point A to point B. In that, you find your leaders, you find that people that might have a different niche within their groups. So the dichotomy of the groups always develop, when you throw them into the fire like that and say, okay, you have 30 minutes to get this done. Let's get it done. They liked that more than the traditional, okay, we're gonna play soccer today, or we're gonna play football today. That stuff it still there. But our kids thrive on the activities like minutes to win it. And we do a lot of relays, even for middle schoolers. They love it. They still love scooters. They're little kids at heart, you know, that's never gonna change.
I agree. That sounds like such a fun activity. I would actually love to do that like to get a bunch of adults together and do that. One of the things you talked about with us in some of our chatting back and forth before this episode, was the concept that schools and school districts should put teachers first. What are the benefits of doing that? How do you think they could do that?
Schools are created for teaching students, but if you have no one to teach them, they're not going to have any sort of learning. When I first started teaching, I had the opportunity to work for a principal that said, your maintenance staff, your computer staff, your front office staff, you treat everyone like gold, no matter what. You put them first. And you put your staff members first, because they're the ones that are going to have your back when you need. And it's not a matter of need for me now is I really feel like, and I've read a lot from Dr. Brad Johnson, who was a big proponent of this, if you treat your teachers well, they'll want to stay. They'll want to stay. They'll want to make a difference. They'll want to participate. They'll want to stay after school. They'll want to help with programs. If you create that environment, that loving, caring environment, it's hard. You know, we live in a society where everyone's moving, there's a lot of different moving parts. But if you put teachers mental health first. If you ask them, how this is relevant, and first of all, how are you? You know what's going on last year, I got in trouble at a professional development because I raised my hand, I said, this is great, this restorative practices are great. But we have 30 teachers in this room, that are probably going to quit in the next 20 minutes if we don't start taking care of their needs. Because they're hurting at home. They're dealing with COVID deaths. They're dealing with, not sure what's going on, or this one was through the roof crazy last year. We need to take care of our teachers. It's no different than any other profession. They go out of their way to take care of, you know, other people, why not take care of our teachers? We need to take care of our bus drivers. There's a huge bus driver shortage in our area right now. We need to pay them more and give them more services when they're hurting. If my cup isn't full, you know, I can try to fill it before I can fill other people. But if there's no one wanting to help me, I'm not going to stick around. I'm going to find somewhere else to go. But after 25 years, I know this is the place I need to be it's just I want to help other people so they stay too. Because it's so rewarding, and I've gotten so much out of it.
This has really been a topic that's been heavy on my mind. How are we going to address the issues that aren't keeping teachers around, such as wellness, flexibility, decent workloads, you know? So that's been heavy on my mind, because if this is a huge topic around, it would show me that administrators are listening. That district leaders are listening to the issues and going into PD and saying, hey, we have to talk about these really difficult issues that are affecting our profession.
It's really taboo to talk about it in school, in school itself. Talking about here. Talk about it out in the public. You see it all over the news. But for us to sit down as teachers and administrators, and higher ups, district leaders, it's hard. I think it's a hard conversation to have. What do we do? because the pressures from the states have, and you must do this, and you must do this. And you must teach this. And these scores must be here, or we're going to lose, you know, some of your funding, or you're going to lose some of this. There's so many moving parts with budgets and things like that, no one can take a step back, or I'd say go higher in the balcony and see the bigger picture. You know, see all those moving pieces. They're not moving right now. No one... none of these pieces are moving. We're all stagnant. Today is the last day of our pre week and we go back to school on Monday. We had a chance on Monday to have the speaker come in and talk about teacher burnout. And that was beneficial that started the ball rolling. And what I think is really cool is my principal said, okay, it's just not now she's coming back. And she's going to come back and check on us. And we're going to touch other things. We need that we need some continuity. We need people that are going to come back, just not leave us hanging. I've encouraged people to talk outside. We've had teacher support groups here. And a lot of people we talked in the halls, but I said we need to have sit down and talk with people that can help us, can give us a direction. Our counseling department, they focus on the students. And our kids come broken, I know. But we can't be there for them if we're just broken.
I love that your school brought in that speaker and that it wasn't just a one time thing, that they're going to continue to come back at least for a second time. And then hopefully, based on that you all can create these support groups. I mean, teachers are really good at coming together and working with each other to benefit students. So hopefully, you all can do that to help each other and support each other. I think being in community is so important. I know, as a teacher, I really leaned on my colleagues when I was able to. As hard as the last few years have been for you all, as teachers, it's nice to see that there's finally some recognition that the burnout is real, that the field is losing educators. I think there's more that we can do for sure. But this sounds like a really good start. And you bring a lot of enthusiasm to education as a veteran as someone who's been teaching for 25 years. And I can tell that if I was at your school, I'd love to work alongside of you.
I wanted to just say one, thanks for championing for teachers. As you said, like everybody's kind of stagnant, but it only takes one to lead the voice. And others will follow. And so when we can champion for the voices that are a little bit timid, to say something or the fear of being ostracized from their immediate employees, or administration. So honestly, what I like to see is that, you know, if you continue to pursue your career in the educational landscape, that people elevate your voice, rely on you and count on you for being a voice for others who don't want to speak up. But your qualities also are valuable in any profession. Everyone needs someone that is enthusiastic, that can address the hard problems. Because when you can have someone that can resolve issues in a positive way, that goes a really long way. And it seems like you have the skills and qualities to do that. So wherever your career takes you, you have a really incredible foundation.
Thank you. Again, I think that talk is one thing and actions are another. And we started the actions on Monday by addressing at least talking about it with someone else outside of the schools. And I hope that that can grow. I hope other people will take a pause and say, wow, this is happening in my school. And it's not a bad thing, per se, but it's a culmination. And we've really kind of hit the head on it. When there's 300 job openings in our school district still and we started school on Monday. That's a problem. We need to address it. We need to work better. I want to work with colleges and help these college prep programs and get kids into education. You know, and do it the right way. I feel like when I did it, I did it the right way. And I wanted to be a teacher since I was fifth grade. So not everyone's gonna be like that. But I think we can make it a profession again, that people want to be a part of.
Well, thank you so much for joining us today. Ryan. I want to let our listeners know that if they'd like to connect with Ryan, they can find him on Twitter, Instagram and Clubhouse at Mr. underscore Pelkey. And I'm going to spell that out for you. That's M R underscore P E L K E Y. And you can also find Ryan on LinkedIn as Ryan D Pelkey.
If you liked The Great Teacher Resignation, give us a five star rating and follow us on Instagram, Facebook Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon, Music and Audible. Today's episode was written and recorded by me Alexandra Simon, and my co host JoDee Scissors. Executive produced by Teacher Brain. Produced and edited by Emily Porter. Original Music: Emoji by Tubebackr. Special thanks to our sponsor Paper Planes Ed.