Physical Education Teacher Career

Physical education (PE) teachers instruct students in kin­dergarten through grade 12 about physical fitness and health. They may organize physical education programs for an entire school or just a few classes. PE teachers make up only a small percentage of the approximately 3.8 mil­lion teachers employed in the United States.

Physical Education Teacher Career History

In the United States, organized physical education is less than 200 years old. In 1823, George Bancroft, a histo­rian and statesman, opened the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1825, Bancroft hired Charles Beck to teach Latin and physical education. Beck, a follower of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, a German known as the “Father of Gymnastics,” is often considered to be the first physical education teacher in the United States. Amherst College (Massachusetts) opened the first depart­ment of physical education in the United States in 1860. One year later, the physician Dioclesian Lewis founded the Normal Institute of Physical Education in Boston, Massachusetts. It was the first school to prepare teachers of physical education. Following the Civil War, physical education became part of many educational programs.

Physical Education TeacherIn the early 20th century, physical education programs expanded and improved rapidly. Between 1901 and 1925, 32 states passed physical education legislation requiring some sort of physical training in schools.

By the early 1950s, fitness tests revealed that Ameri­can children were lagging behind their European coun­terparts. In response, President Eisenhower formed the Council on Youth Fitness, which eventually became the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Phys­ical fitness programs grew in popularity in schools. They focused largely on activities that developed athletic skills, such as calisthenics and competitive sports.

During the past two decades, physical education classes have been under attack by school systems interested in saving money and improving academic performance in traditional academic disciplines. The introduction of classes such as computer science, art, foreign language, and music into school curriculums has also reduced the time allotted for physical education classes.

According to the National Association for Sports and Physical Education, only about half of K-12 students and only 29 percent of high school students have physi­cal education classes daily. In 2001, only 25 percent of all students attended a PE class, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—down from 42 percent of students in 1991. The CDC further noted that in 2005, the percentage remained unchanged from 2001. Illinois is the only state in the nation that requires daily PE, but, since 1995, Illinois schools have been allowed to seek waivers to exempt them from compliance.

These reductions in physical education programs have contributed to an increasing epidemic of overweight and obese children. Today, 9 million children and teens ages six to 19 are overweight—a 300 percent increase since 1980, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC reports that the number of obese children has nearly tripled in the past 20 years to one in three. Health problems for overweight and obese children include heart disease, high cho­lesterol, high blood pressure, and the development of type 2 diabe­tes (a disease previously limited to adults).

Ironically, studies have shown clear links between athletic fit­ness and academic success. A 2001 study by the California Department of Education found a strong relationship between academic achievement and the physical fitness of students in its public schools. Reading and mathematics scores were matched with the fitness scores of nearly one million fifth-, sev­enth-, and ninth-grade students. The fittest students had higher academic achievement levels, especially in mathematics.

Physical education classes today focus on the development of fitness skills, nonathletic competition, individual exercise goals, and aerobic training. This new approach to physical edu­cation is often referred to as “the new PE.” Madison Junior High School in Naperville, Illinois, is an excellent model of how the new PE is changing the lives of young people. While kids at Madison still participate in team sports during gym class, PE instructors also teach them how to use exercise bikes, weights, inline skates, and treadmills. The school even has a rock-climbing wall that students can use. According to an article on the Web site CNNStudentNews, Madison students are graded on how well they stay within heart-rate zones rather than who runs the fastest. Students also receive a computer printout that records their heart rate, body fat, and cholesterol levels. Students are tracked through the 12th grade. Approximately 30 percent of schools in Illinois have changed to this new physical education model.

Public officials are beginning to see the value of physi­cal education in the schools. Congress passed The Phys­ical Education for Progress Act in 2000. It authorizes the Secretary of Education to award grants to school districts to start, expand, and improve K-12 physical education programs. Grants may be used to purchase athletic equipment, develop curriculum, and hire and train physical education staff.

As a result of this legislation and continuing lobbying efforts by physical education advocacy organizations, PE teachers can expect an optimistic employment outlook for their field.

Physical Education Teacher Job Description

Physical education teachers, through participation in individual and team sports, lectures, and other activities, educate students about fitness, nutrition, and general health. They use their knowledge of sports techniques and human physiology to develop exercise plans for stu­dents at the kindergarten through high school levels. Physical education programs not only develop the physi­cal abilities of students but also help them to develop per­sonal attributes such as self-discipline, sportsmanship, judgment, communication skills, teamwork, self-confi­dence, self-esteem, and the ability to set and meet goals. PE teachers may work alone or with one or more PE teachers and may be employed at more than one school.

According to the Council of Physical Education for Children, physical education teachers use different meth­ods of instruction based on the age of their students. Elementary school physical education teachers use educa­tional games, basic dance, gymnastics, and other activi­ties to help their students develop important motor skills such as throwing, jumping, skipping, hopping, kicking, and catching. Instructors at this level usually teach eight to 10, 30-minute classes daily.

Middle school students require a more systematic and structured approach to physical education. Middle school physical education teachers use traditional sports (such as volleyball and basketball), adventure activities (such as rock climbing, rope climbing, and skiing), and leisure activities (such as inline skating and biking) to help stu­dents stay fit. They set performance goals and assess the fitness levels of their students. Middle school PE instruc­tors teach three to six classes daily. These classes last from 60 to 90 minutes.

High school students are much more physically, emo­tionally, and intellectually developed than elementary and middle school students. They are more likely to choose sports activities based on their own interests, and they take more responsibility for health and fitness choices. While continuing to educate students about traditional, adven­ture, and leisure activities, high school physical education teachers focus on helping students establish positive habits and attitudes about exercise and fitness. They help stu­dents explore and develop their specific sports and fitness interests with the hope that they will continue to remain fitness- and health-conscious during the rest of their lives. High school PE instructors teach three to six classes daily. These classes last from 60 to 90 minutes.

After each class, physical education teachers store equipment that was used during class. They order sup­plies and new equipment. They might also write up notes on how students performed during the class.

Outside of the gym or fitness center, physical educa­tion teachers prepare lesson plans and activities. They evaluate student work and calculate grades. In the pro­cess of planning their classes, PE teachers read fitness and health-related magazines, books, and Web sites to learn more about their field. They practice exercises or fitness activities in order to be able to better demonstrate them to students. They also continue to study alternative and traditional teaching methods to hone their skills. PE teachers attend educational conferences to learn more about their field. They attend faculty meetings, par­ent-teacher conferences, and state and national teacher conferences. Many PE teachers have the opportunity for extracurricular work as athletic coaches. They also moni­tor students during lunch, break times, and study halls. They may accompany student groups on field trips and to competitions and events. High school PE teachers may be required to teach health classes as part of their duties.

Some physical education teachers are trained to teach those with disabilities. Special physical education is a fed­erally mandated part of special education services. Adapted physical education teachers modify, adapt, and/or change a physical activity so that it can be done by students who have disabilities. Disabilities include mental retardation, orthopedic impairment, speech or language impairment, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, behav­ioral disorders, cerebral palsy, visual impairments, hearing impairments, and learning disabilities.

Physical Education Teacher Career Requirements

High School

In addition to taking physical education and participat­ing in as many sports as possible, take college preparatory classes, including mathematics, science, and psychol­ogy. You should also take speech and English courses to develop your communication skills.

Postsecondary Training

You will need to earn a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education to work as a physical education teacher. Typical classes for this major include exercise physiology, kinesiology, health and wellness, first aid/cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), sports psy­chology, teaching physical education/health, and activity courses that teach the fundamentals of specific sports such as golf, aerobics, basketball, tennis, and track.

An advanced degree is usually required to teach physical education at the college level. Visit for a list of schools that offer graduate programs in sports and physical education.

There are more than 500 accredited teacher education programs in the United States. Most of these programs are designed to meet the certificate requirements for the state in which they are located. Some states may require that you pass a test before being admitted to an educa­tional program. You may choose to major in your subject area while taking required education courses, or you may major in secondary education with a concentration in your subject area. You will probably have advisors (both in education and in your chosen specialty) to help you select courses.

In addition to a degree, a training period of student teaching in an actual physical education environment is usually required. Students are placed in schools to work with full-time teachers. During this period, undergradu­ate students observe the ways in which lessons are pre­sented and the gym or fitness center is managed. Students also learn how to keep records of such details as atten­dance and grades and get actual experience in handling the class, both under supervision and alone.

Certification or Licensing

Voluntary teacher certification in physical education is available from the National Board for Professional Teach­ing Standards (NBPTS). Applicants must have a bache­lor’s degree and three years of classroom experience in a public or private school. They must prepare a portfolio of their teaching experience and complete exercises at an NBPTS assessment center to demonstrate their knowl­edge of their teaching specialty. After they complete these requirements and pay an application fee, they can use the designation, national board certified teacher (NBCT). Certifications are available in early and middle childhood and early adolescence through young adulthood. Certi­fication is valid for 10 years and is renewable. As of 2005, there were approximately 32,000 NBCTs employed in schools across the United States. For more information, visit The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence also offers voluntary certification. Prospective teachers can earn the passport to teaching certification and experienced teachers can earn the master teacher certifica­tion. Visit for more information.

The National Consortium for Physical Education and Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities offers a vol­untary certification program for adapted physical educa­tion instructors. Instructors who pass an exam and meet other professional requirements may use the professional designation, certified adapted physical educator (CAPE).

Public school teachers must be licensed under regula­tions established by the department of education of the state in which they teach. Not all states require licensure for teachers in private or parochial schools. When you have received your teaching degree, you may request that a transcript of your college record be sent to the licensure section of your state department of education. If you have met licensure requirements, you will receive a certificate and thus be eligible to teach in the public schools of your state. In some states, you may have to take additional tests. If you move to another state, you will have to resubmit college transcripts, as well as comply with any other regu­lations in the new state, to be able to teach there.

Other requirements

To be a successful PE teacher, you must be in good physi­cal shape. You must have knowledge of human physiol­ogy and the psychological factors involved in physical education. You must also be willing to continue to learn about physical education and fitness and like helping chil­dren learn fitness techniques and maintain good overall health. You need strong interpersonal and instructional skills to be able to communicate well with students. You should also be well organized, as you will have to keep track of the work and progress of many students.

Adolescence can be a troubling time for children, and these troubles often affect behavior and performance. This will require you to be very patient because children learn at different levels. You must also have good moti­vation skills to be able to properly motivate students who do not want to participate in class or perform up to appropriate levels. Because you will be working with students who are at very impressionable ages, you should serve as a good role model.

Exploring Physical Education Teacher Career

Consider ordering a student subscription to periodicals such as Teaching Elementary Physical Education and the Journal of Teaching in Physical Education. These publica­tions, popular with PE teachers, will give you a useful overview of the field. Both of these publications can be ordered at the Human Kinetics Web site,

Becoming a student member of the Society of Health and Physical Educators will allow you to access information on health and physical education as well as receive the periodicals. For more information, visit

By attending gym class, you’ve already gained a good sense of the daily work of a physical education teacher. But the requirements of a teacher go far beyond the gym or fitness center, so ask your PE teachers if you can talk with them after school. Interview your teachers about the amount of work that goes into preparing a class and directing activities. Look into coaching an athletic team, counseling at a summer camp, or working part time at a fitness center. This will give you experience coaching and interacting with young people.


Physical education instructors are employed at public and private schools. They work in elementary schools, middle schools, junior high schools, high schools, junior colleges, and four-year universities. They are also employed by boys/girls clubs, camps, health spas and resorts, correctional facilities, martial arts studios, dance studios, resorts, community centers, child care facilities, fitness centers, health clubs, and gyms.

Starting Out

After completing your student teaching and becoming cer­tified, you will work with your college’s placement office to find a full-time position. The departments of education of some states maintain listings of job openings. Many schools advertise teaching positions in the classified sec­tions of major newspapers. You may also directly contact the principals and superintendents of the schools in which you would like to work. While looking for full-time work, you can work as a substitute teacher. In urban areas with many schools, you may be able to substitute full time. PE Central, an organization for health and physical educators, also offers job listings for physical education teachers at its Web site, Once you get called for an interview, it is important that you make a good impression on the interviewer. Visit PE Central’s Web site for a list of interview tips and sample interview questions for prospective PE teachers.


Most physical education teachers advance simply by becom­ing more of an expert in the field. They usually receive an increase in salary as they acquire experience. Additional training or study can also bring an increase in salary.

A few PE teachers who have management ability and an interest in administrative work may advance to the position of principal. Others may advance into super­visory positions or teach aspiring physical educators at colleges and universities. For most of these advanced positions, additional education is required. Some PE teachers also make lateral moves into other education-related positions such as guidance counselor.

Physical education instructors may choose to advance by working outside of the physical education field. With further education and experience, PE instructors can become exercise physiologists, sports trainers, sports nutritionists, fitness industry workers, coaches, and kinesiologists.


The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that the average starting offer for new grad­uates with a bachelor’s degree in education, which includes physical education teaching/coaching was $31,015 in 2005.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the median annual salary for elementary school teachers was $44,040 in 2005. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $29,360; the highest paid 10 percent earned $70,000 or more. Middle school teachers earned salaries that ranged from less than $30,360 to $70,910 or more in 2005. Sec­ondary school teachers had median earnings of $46,060 in 2005. Ten percent earned less than $30,530, and 10 percent earned $73,330 or more annually. Recreation and fitness studies teachers at the postsecondary level earned median salaries of $45,890 in 2005. In general, teachers who obtain certification receive higher salaries than teachers who are not certified.

Most teachers are contracted to work nine months out of the year, though some contracts are made for 10 months or a full year. In most cases, teachers have the option of prorating their salary up to 52 weeks. Teach­ers can also supplement their earnings through teaching summer classes, coaching sports, sponsoring a club, or other extracurricular work.

On behalf of teachers, unions bargain with schools over contract conditions such as wages, hours, and ben­efits. A majority of teachers join the American Federa­tion of Teachers or the National Education Association. Depending on the state, teachers usually receive a retire­ment plan, sick leave, and health and life insurance. Some systems grant teachers sabbatical leave.

Work Environment

Physical education teachers work in generally pleasant conditions. Some older schools may have poor heating and cooling systems. Instructors teach some classes outdoors in hot, cold, rainy, and other challenging weather condi­tions. School hours are generally 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., but all teachers work more than 40 hours a week teach­ing, preparing for classes, assessing grades, and directing extracurricular activities. As a coach or faculty adviser for an extracurricular activity, physical education instructors may have to work some evenings and weekends.

This job can be occasionally tiring and trying. Physical education instructors are on their feet for many hours each day explaining and demonstrating fitness activities. They must also handle disciplinary problems, which take them away from teaching students. Physical education instruc­tors teach classes that are as small as 20 or fewer students or as large as 100 to 200 students. Some PE teachers may have to teach excessively large classes due to budget cuts and understaffing. This can lead to stress and burnout.

Students, parents, and school administrators may approach physical education with skepticism and a lack of respect. They may feel that PE is not as important an academic discipline as geometry, chemistry, or foreign lan­guage. PE teachers must be willing to educate these people regarding the benefits of proper fitness for children and discuss how modern physical education programs build life skills and reduce serious health problems in children.

Some physical education teachers who are employed at more than one school may have to travel back and forth between schools during their workdays.

Physical Education Teacher Career Outlook

Physical fitness is growing in popularity in the United States. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports continues to encourage children and adults to be fit. A majority of adults and teens surveyed in 2003 by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education feel that physical education should be mandatory in schools. Although physical education programs continue to be cut, there is hope that this renewed interest in exercise and fit­ness will reverse this trend. The U.S. Department of Edu­cation predicts average growth for preschool, elementary, middle, and secondary school teachers through 2014.

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