Originally published Oct. 11, 2020 by the Albuquerque Journal.

By Shelby Perea

Matthew Hickman tried out computer science, but it wasn’t for him – too much time staring at a screen.

He wanted to do something more hands-on and active. So he set his sights on becoming a physical education teacher. After all, he’d always loved working with kids.

PE teacher Matthew Hickman demonstrates for his students while they tune in for an online class. Hickman shows them movements they can do at home. (/Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Little did he know that he’d start his first school year just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic would strike in New Mexico, forcing school online.

Hickman was in the classroom as a full-fledged teacher for about two months at Wherry Elementary School before schools shut down in March, ultimately for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

“I was barely getting used to the kids,” he said.

Albuquerque Public Schools will continue remote learning through the first semester this school year, too.

“Oh, man. It is definitely tough,” he said.

Like other teachers across the district and state, Hickman is faced with getting kids engaged through a computer, which is a double learning curve on top of being a newer teacher.

These days PE class looks less like kids jogging in the gym and more like dancing in the living room and running in place.

“College did not prepare me for this,” he said.

It’s been a creative challenge to think of lessons and activities that kids can do at home sans the equipment they’d get at school.

“Right now, we’re doing an underhand tossing unit where all they need is a pair of socks,” he said.

The hardest part about remote learning has been building relationships with students, some of whom he hasn’t met in person.

“When you build a relationship with a student, they’re more inclined to want to learn,” he said.

Still, with kids learning at home, Hickman believes physical education is more important now than before, both to break up the day and for the exercise.

“Kids need to be getting up and moving,” he said.

Dealing with technological glitches and transforming lessons for remote classes may be the biggest challenge he’s faced professionally, he said, but the kids make it worth it.

Part of the reason Hickman became a PE teacher was that he had inspirational educators when he was growing up who made those connections with him, including Ann Paulls-Neal, who has been a PE teacher since 1998.

Paulls-Neal, now a health and PE teacher at Highland High School, has known Hickman since he was in kindergarten at John Baker Elementary School. She was Hickman’s PE teacher for all six years of elementary school, describing him as a kid who loved to move.

Hickman replaced Paulls-Neal at Wherry Elementary when she went to Highland.

Furthermore, Paulls-Neal’s third grader is in Hickman’s class this year.

“It was pretty crazy,” Paulls-Neal said.

Crazy but not surprising.

Paulls-Neal had a sense that Hickman could leverage his athletic abilities as a PE teacher.

“It’s so neat to see kids from APS going through and staying in APS,” she said.

Acknowledging that she’s biased, she said she’s been very impressed with her former student, saying he makes it a point to interact with each of the students.

Paulls-Neal knows firsthand that teaching to a screen isn’t easy, but she has seen the benefits PE has had for her own students and for her daughter.

“This is actually why we teach, because our students grow up and are ready to do what they do and can replace us and do great things with the next generation,” she said.

And Paulls-Neal wasn’t the only one who knew Hickman was bound to be a teacher even before he did.

“My mom would run into his mom every so often at Smith’s, and his mom would say, ‘Gosh, ya know, he’s starting in computer programming, but I wish he would just become a teacher, because I know he’d be great at it,’ ” Paulls-Neal said.

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