By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — Colleen Mickle knew since she was 12 that she wanted to teach kids to move and play sports and have fun doing it.
“Ever since sixth grade, I thought, ‘I like to play and I like kids. Why not do physical education?’” said Mickle, who has taught at Guilderland Elementary School for 26 years.
At age 57, she’s still at it and was recognized last month as the Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year by the New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Eight candidates vied for the honor this year, according to Lisa Corbet, administrative assistant to the 3,100-member organization.
Mickle was nominated by Sandy Morley, who has known her since 1983. A Guilderland teacher and coach herself, Morley went on to become an administrator at Bethlehem, and now supervises student teachers from the State University of New York College at Cortland.
Recently, Morley observed as Mickle worked with a student teacher, instructing fifth-graders about basketball.
“She told them how you can play basketball on any level. It doesn’t matter if you’re cut from a team. You can play in your backyard. You don’t have to be Michael Jordan. Success is in you. It’s not what other people see as success that maters.”
Morley concluded of Mickle, “She brings confidence to all levels, not just star athletes….Colleen recognizes you have a range of children…Her kids feel safe and challenged. Pros make up less than 1 percent of 1 percent. Colleen helps every kid find something they can do and want to do.”
Morley credited Mickle and her colleagues with developing a unique approach at Guilderland to teaching physical education at the elementary level. “It’s built around concepts rather than sports skills,” she said. “It’s much more authentic.”
“It was Bob Oates’s dream,” said Mickle of the conceptual approach. “We built on his original idea.” The approach is still used at Guilderland today. “It takes all the skills involved in sports and simplifies them into 10 concepts that can be applied to everyday activities,” said Mickle.
Morley listed balance, agility, flexibility, leverage, and hand-eye coordination among the concepts.
Mickle said, for example, that an everyday task where balance comes into play is “juggling food on a lunch tray.” She went on, “If there’s equal weight, the food will balance.”
By fifth grade, the last year of elementary school, the concepts are wrapped around sports. Kids in fifth grade have all different skill levels at sports. For instance, with basketball, Mickle said, some play on a club team while other students who have come from foreign countries have no experience at all with basketball.
Besides the eight hoops in the Guilderland gym, Mickle said, there are basketball hoops in yards and playgrounds and at apartment complexes all across town..
She’ll have kids play different games at the eight hoops in the gym. Some will play a typical team sport of three on three. Others will play a game of Horse. This involves each miss of a basket resulting in another letter to spell the word “horse”; when the word is complete, the game is over.
“It’s a fun game just to shoot hoops,” Mickle said.
“Colleen’s inventive and creative,” said Morley. “She always says, ‘What if?’ She makes connections for kids on why movement is important,” said Morley. “You can see her enthusiasm and passion when she teaches. It became more intense in a positive way as she became a mother.”
Morley went on, “Colleen and I are the same age…She could be retired, too. But she’s as passionate today as she was 30 years ago. She’s always looking for new ways….She’s 57 but she acts like a 20-year-old. She’s so connected with kids. She always has a bright word for the kids.”
Mickle’s enthusiasm sparks adults as well. “She’s a phenomenal mentor,” said Morley. “The staff goes to her. Guilderland Elementary will be lost when she leaves.”
Morley said she had to push Mickle to be considered for the award since “she does not like recognition.”
But, Morley went on, “I’ve seen teachers from all over the United States. I’d put her against anyone.”
Mickle grew up in Schenectady in an active family that skied or rode bikes, depending on the season. Her parents both worked at WRGB when television was still new.
“My father was one of the original TV cameramen and my mother had a ’50s home-cooking type show,” said Mickle. She had two older brothers to keep up with, and they lived in the sort of neighborhood where neighbors would look out for them. It was an era, Mickle has said, “when you left the house at eight on Saturday morning and were outside biking and playing all day until dinner time.”
She went to Linton High School before Title IX ushered in an era of women’s sports. Mickle was a cheerleader when that was one of the few activities open to girls.
After high school, she went to Hudson Valley Community College for two years, in the physical education program, before going to Cortland for her bachelor’s degree. She eventually earned a master’s degree in elementary education as well, from Russell Sage College.
Mickle thoroughly enjoyed her college years. “The professors were wonderful,” she said. “You realize there’s more than playing…You try every sport.”
Her favorite sport is skiing. “I love being outside all day, up in the mountains,” she said. “I love the beauty, tucking into the woods.”
Her first teaching jobs were at three different Catholic schools in Schenectady. Mickle’s own schooling in a Catholic elementary school without a gym forced her to be creative, making up games in the parking lot, a skill she came to appreciate.
“In the ’70s, like now, there weren’t a lot of teaching jobs,” she recalled. Mickle was working in a shoe store one summer when a customer mentioned a Guilderland teacher would be taking a maternity leave. Mickle got the half-time job and went on to other stints as a substitute — “People kept having babies,” she said — before landing a full-time job.
She has been there happily ever since. Mickle has coached cross-country, track and field, volleyball and soccer, and is the coordinator of the district-wide elementary ski club. She has also coordinated a running club for fourth- and fifth-graders and, for a decade, has organized a Jump Rope for Heart event.
Hooked on Health
Mickle helped create and is the head coordinator of Guilderland’s Hooked on Health wellness committee, and played a big part in creating the district’s wellness policy. Concerned about childhood obesity, Mickle in 2004 helped form the district-wide committee that includes school nurses, physical education teachers, health teachers, administrators, the school lunch director and parents.
“The be-all and end-all,” Mickle said at the time, “is helping them find things they can do and enjoy for life.”
The committee distributes facts paired with advice. Some of them, in years’ past, were published in The Enterprise. Some of them now are posted in adult bathroom stalls, said Mickle with a chuckle.
One fact, for example: Eating fast food more than twice a week and spending two-and-a-half hours in front of a television or computer triples the risk of obesity. The committee’s advice for elementary students: Take a 15-minute walk every day after dinner. And for middle-school students: Take a walk, shoot hoops, or go sledding for 15 minutes when you get off the school bus.
“I think movement is innate in children,” said Mickle this week. “We just have to provide the opportunity.”
Asked if the Hooked on Health Committee has made a difference, Mickle said, “I hope so…It’s like any education. When people are ready to receive that information, it clicks in.”
What most delights her, she said, is when a former student recognizes her and says, “I remember Reindeer Training Camp” or some other activity she invented. Her students are now in the midst of reindeer training, rotating among 15 stations set up in the gym with activities ranging from rope-climbing to indoor sleigh-riding. “It looks like chaos and they love it,” said Mickle.
She loves it, too. “If I didn’t, I’d be done,” she said. “I love seeing their faces when a skill clicks in and they get it. I love the joy and laughter when kids move.”
As for getting the NYS AHPERD award, and being named the best in the state, Mickle said, “It’s embarrassing because there are so many phenomenal teachers…I’ve worked with amazing, amazing physical education teachers and supervisors. It’s tough when one person gets the recognition, and I stole all their ideas.”
Mickle concluded of Guilderland, “We’re respected across the state. It’s a big tribute to the district; they give us the time to share. We’re a community.”