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It’s not ‘gym class’: Philadelphia PE instructor is serious about wellness

Alicia Mannino is the newest physical education instructor at Girls High School.

Alicia Mannino is the newest physical education instructor at Girls High School in the Olney section of Philadelphia. “I have a curriculum, not just sports,” she says.

Photo courtesy / Alicia Mannino

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Philadelphia High School for Girls’ physical education teacher Alicia Mannino knows that people think that her students get to play all day.

Sure, her class is a lot of fun — there’s music, there’s dancing — but it’s also so much more. “I have a curriculum, not just sports,” Mannino told Chalkbeat. “I teach movement skills, health, and wellness, not just games. And it’s Physical Education, not ‘gym class.’” 

Mannino, who has taught for 13 years, believes physical education is the foundation of a healthy lifestyle — the birthplace of wellness and the best part of a student’s day. (A recent SHAPE America study showed that most high school students have a positive view of health and PE classes.)

This is Mannino’s first year at Girls High, in the Olney section of Philadelphia, but the Bucks County native taught previously at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences and, before that, at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School, a bilingual K-8 school in Huntington Park.

Growing up, Mannino was a triple-sport athlete by the time she was a senior in high school, winning first team All-Catholic in both soccer and lacrosse. She also played on nationally ranked travel soccer and baseball teams. Mannino, who went on to get her degree at Rowan University, said she “lived and breathed competition.” 

“Going from athlete to teacher, I get to utilize my best physical abilities and play all day,” she said. “Yes, there is an abundance of information and knowledge gained from a great PE program, and at times, I’m totally exhausted, but I cannot reiterate this enough, I get to be a big kid all day.”

In addition to teaching PE, Mannino runs Girls High’s Gay Straight Alliance club, or GSA. The organization provides students in the LGBTQ+ community a safe space that centers positive relationships, equality, and peer acceptance. 

“Identifying as lesbian myself, the students feel more secure because I can relate my past experiences to things they may be going through,” she said. “Homophobia exists everywhere, unfortunately. Many of my students are scared to come out/identify as what they want because it’s still not culturally accepted.”

From the first day at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, Mannino demonstrated how much she genuinely cares about each student, said John Piniat, the principal there. 

Added another former colleague, teacher Blair Downie: “She cares deeply about inclusion of students with disabilities and has developed school-level programs to increase opportunities for students in self-contained special education classes to spend more time with their peers.” 

Mannino spoke recently with Chalkbeat. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why is engagement so important for the classroom, and what are some ways you keep students engaged?

This is going to sound real old school, but I try to keep technology out of the gymnasium as much as possible. Now, keep with me here because I know you’re probably rolling your eyes. Social media is everywhere! Most students have access to a cell phone, which leads to YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, etc. As a physical educator, there are many goals, but if I had to narrow it down, the goal is to get up and move. Put the phones down, let’s get some face-to-face social interaction.

Many of the games [we play] are based on seasonal sports such as football in the fall, basketball in the winter, but there are also so many aspects to a complete PE program. We play cooperative games that incorporate teamwork, positive communication, problem-solving skills, and much more. These are vital to learn and grow into a positive member of the community. There’s also a sense of being a big kid at heart. I play, dance, get the “tea” every day, and it allows for positive relationships to grow. When I show them that I am interested in the games and that I give it my all, they follow my lead. When you practice what you preach every day, it’s contagious for the students not to latch on and get excited to walk into my gym every day.

How have you used your personal experiences to support the students in your classroom and/or school community?

This question has two sides that I need to address. One, my personal experiences and upbringing are of the middle class — a more privileged outlook than what our students literally see on a day-to-day basis. So, I try to listen to what is happening to them rather than sharing my privileged upbringing. There are always going to be lessons in life that we have experienced that we relay to our students because it’s just natural for educators to share parts of themselves. The second side is that I share my experiences in a positive way. I make sure my students know that I am not perfect and that my experiences in life are only told to them to give them information to make decisions in their everyday life. I’m here for them — gimme the “tea,” tell me what’s going on. When you keep a classroom where the students call it a “vibe” you know you’re doing something right.

What has been your biggest hurdle in returning to in-person learning?

To be honest, I am so glad that we are back to in-person learning. While virtual learning was necessary due to the pandemic, being able to play games and have social interaction beyond breakout rooms is where I want to be and stay.

What are some of the things you learned from teaching students with special needs that other teachers can take into the classroom?

One of the things that I am most proud of is called gym buddies. Each year, we would pick one group of students, usually an eighth grade class, and we invite them to join our adapted class to utilize socialization between both [typical learners] and special ed students. The main reason Gym Buddies started was to create a positive setting where students can get to [know] one another. A group of selected eighth graders would leave their lunch period once a week to interact with students of different disabilities. We believe that this socialization really helped out our school community because now our students are exchanging social media accounts, gamer names, high-fiving in the hallway, and disrupting negative behaviors from other students towards the students with disabilities. I also emphasize the district’s no-bullying policy. I let it be known in the beginning of the school year that everybody is equal, and nobody here is better than anybody else, no matter how gifted you are in athletics.

What’s the best advice that you can give to new teachers?

We think our “work” is the job we go to or the place we get a check from. No. Your work is the very special thing that you add to this world. Your vision, your light, your love, what you share, what you create, how you make people feel, etc. That, my friends, is truly our work.

Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at jcalhoun@chalkbeat.org.

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