Originally published Oct. 18, 2019 in RiverTowns.net.

By Matthew Lambert

When talking of gym class, many think back to running the mile or playing dodgeball.

Tom Horner doesn’t let that idea bother him. But he also wants to set the record straight: physical education, especially at Lake City, is much more than that.

Horner was recently named high school physical education teacher of the year by the Minnesota Society of Health and Physical Educators.

As the P.E. teacher for middle and high school students, Horner works diligently to make sure his students aren’t stuck doing the basics.

So what does he think when people make comments like, “What do you do all day, just throw a ball around?”

“I don’t get offended because I don’t let anything bother me, for the most part,” Horner said. “I just shake it off and say I really know what’s happening in our physical education program and it’s a lot more than just rolling out a ball and letting kids play basketball. Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of people in the community think. That’s why in the past 10, 15, 20 years, physical education has been the first thing being cut because they think that they can just throw a basketball around or a dodgeball around. That’s not what we do.”

Horner said in his seven years in Lake City he’s tried to give his students emotional and social learning techniques as well, not just physical.

There’s a dance unit, mindfulness and yoga, or just a walk-and-talk warmup to get students interacting. Face-to-face conversations are important to Horner.

“I think genuine conversations have been slowly eliminated from these kids’ lives because we’re texting our girlfriends, friends and parents,” Horner said. “We’re constantly on our iPad watching Netflix and watching our social media, famous people post about their wonderful lives. It’s like no, this is reality. We need to focus on genuine and honest conversations.”

It’s about empowerment. It’s about giving his students a chance to take physical education into their own hands. That’s why his favorite class is the sophomore group.

Horner said at that point they’ve had him for three years and he turns the decision making over to them. It’s almost a self-run class, Horner said, and he hopes some of their choices sophomore year carry over to life after high school.

Relating it to a book assignment in reading class, Horner said if you’re handed a book and told to read it for class and homework is coming, you’ll zone out and just complete the assignment. There may be little retention or passion behind it. However, if you select the book based on your own interests, it’ll be a more pleasurable experience. That’s how Horner treats his physical education classes: Give his students something they’re proud of and happy to do.

So does the award, which he’s been in the running for the past year-and-a-half, give him any validation in his teaching? Sure. But Horner doesn’t teach to win awards or prove to people that gym class is more than playing basketball every day.

As a student at Winona State, Horner didn’t enter college to become a teacher. Initially choosing a communications major, Horner thought hard about what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life.

“I always kind of laughed and was like, ‘I’m never going to become a teacher,’” Horner said.

Thanks to teachers throughout his early education, Horner said he was nudged in the direction of teaching.

Becoming a health and physical education teacher was a natural fit for Horner once he changed his major. While most of the world is asleep at 4:30, 5 a.m. every morning, Horner is working out and training. He’s done this for most of his life.

That’s also a family affair. Horner has run the Twin Cities Marathon and Wisconsin Ironman with family members. Horner grew up watching his mother run marathons and getting the chance to actually run with her was a special moment for Horner.

“It was just a ride,” Horner said. “It’s fun to have that support group when you’re training two hours a day for seven days straight for a full year to finish a race.”

Horner coaches junior varsity volleyball at Lake City and spent some time coaching middle school baseball as well.

The best advice he can give to a budding physical education teacher is to seek out as much experience as possible — interviewing a former physical education teacher, attending a class, making yourself a marketable teacher by differentiating your education.

Horner said his worst day as a teacher still doesn’t compare to his worst job ever: as a delivery driver in the Twin Cities working 15 hours a day. Horner said he uses that difficult time to remind himself that it was all worth it, something he tells his students all the time.

“When things get tough, this is where you grow and build,” Horner said. “That’s where you build that cognitive resistance of ‘I want to quit.’ No, hold on to it.”

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