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Physical education teachers honored by SHAPE Maryland

Waldorf, MD - December 11, 2019, Three Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) physical education (PE) teachers were recently honored by SHAPE Maryland, an organization that promotes and supports health and wellness.

The state chapter of the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) named Michelle Ignaszewski of the F.B. Gwynn Educational Center as Maryland’s Adapted Physical Education Teacher of the Year. Brittany Aley of Benjamin Stoddert Middle School and Diana Gyuras of Billingsley Elementary School each received the Simon McNeely Award given to those for outstanding teaching and service in health, physical education, recreation or dance.

SHAPE Maryland recently held a convention in Ocean City that allows PE educators an opportunity to network and share ideas.

Teaching lifelong lessons

Ignaszewski went into teaching because she wanted to help other people. Choosing physical education ensures she is giving students skills that they will carry throughout their lives. “I found the field of physical education and health to be the most valuable,” she said. “Everything that you are taught in those two areas you can use for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter what I do in life, I’m going to have to be healthy and active to live a long life.”

Adapted PE is instruction that has been modified to allow for a person with a disability to participate in a physical activity that is as suitable for them as it is for their peers who don’t have a disability.

Some of the modifications include different equipment, a shorter distance or lower targets. “Every student I work with is different, each one presents their own challenges. I love the idea of being able to come up with things that work for them,” Ignaszewski said. “It’s not the same thing for every child, but it’s meeting what their needs are.”

“Michelle makes Adapted Physical Education look easy,” Ivy Hodges, CCPS content specialist for health and physical education, said. “She is a leader, an innovator and an all-around ‘go-getter’ when it comes to education.”

Ignaszewski teaches students at Gwynn on Wednesdays and travels around to half the schools in CCPS during the week — her colleague, Seth Rak, goes to the other half. They work with students in prekindergarten through 12th grade.

Ignaszewski, who is a National Board Certified Teacher, doesn’t only teach children in the school system. She is working with students in the Adult Living Skills programs at La Plata and St. Charles high schools. The students are 18 to 21 years old and may not have the skills to be in the adult independence program. “I’ve been working with them to utilize community resources,” Ignaszewski said. Among the activities are using the fitness course around Lake Tilghman or the Field of Dreams at Laurel Springs Park.

During a recent basketball lesson at Gwynn, middle school students in the STAY program each grabbed a ball and worked on their dribbling and shooting skills. Because they were a small group, the students couldn’t play a traditional game instead opting for something called Sharks and Minnows, a dribbling drill.

“Our Adapted program would not be where it is today without Michelle’s genuine concern for students and physical education as a whole,” Hodges said.

“PE is a great area for students who may learn differently. Students come in and just think they’re having fun and don’t realize they’re learning at the same time,” Ignaszewski — known as Ms. Iggy to students and staff members — said. “I’m a big advocate for having kids be active as much as possible and learning through movement.”

Setting the foundation for a healthy life

Gyuras was studying to be a PE teacher, then her father saw her class schedule that read more like a list of games and sports. He was footing the bill for school, so Gyuras switched to elementary education, spending 16 years as a first-grade teacher.

It was a blessing in disguise, really. “He gave me a great gift,” Gyuras said, who is now dually certified to teach in a classroom and a gym. She has been a PE teacher for nine years spending eight at J.C. Parks Elementary School before moving to Billingsley Elementary School which opened its doors to students on Sept. 3.

“It’s an exceptional place to be,” Gyuras said of becoming a Bobcat. “Our principal is building a tremendous community at Billingsley. There is so much excitement coming from everyone. It has reignited my love for being a teacher.”

Teaching PE to the school system’s youngest learners means starting at the beginning. Students learn the fundamentals of throwing and catching. They are taught the importance of exercise and minding their fitness. Sportsmanship and losing gracefully are engrained in almost every activity.

Gyuras stays up to date on subject matter, networking with other teachers and going online to see what students are learning and liking. Gyuras brought back Speed Stacks from the SHAPE conference to use with students. Speed Stacks are used for sport stacking — quickly stacking cups in various patterns. The exercise could look like kids goofing off, but it is developing eye-hand coordination and dexterity, skills that translate to other sports and activities. Gyuras would like to start a sport stacking club at Billingsley, eventually competing against teams from other schools.

She points to research that shows a connection between brain development and physical activity. “The more active a student is, the better they will do in class,” Gyuras said. “Exercise boosts their mood and their ability to focus.”

Guiding students toward healthy choices

As a student at the University of Maryland, Aley was set on becoming a physical therapist. She always had an interest in anatomy and exercise psychology. One of her professors, Dr. Elizabeth Brown, helped Aley find her niche which led to her becoming a teacher. 

Aley knew she liked working with kids and what she was studying in school flowed nicely into physical education and health. After earning a bachelor’s degree in kinesiological sciences and a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Maryland, Aley became an elementary school PE teacher for Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

She started at Benjamin Stoddert Middle School two years ago. The shift from elementary to middle school was a big one. Having learned athletic fundamentals and skills in elementary school, students in middle school start thinking more about strategy and tactics used in different sports while better developing their abilities.

There is also the health component in PE. Aley talks with students about the importance of fitness and making good choices. She talks to them about exercise and how it can benefit them in other areas of their lives — physically and emotionally. In middle school, subjects broached could vary from alcohol and substance abuse, to the dangers of smoking and vaping, to puberty and reproduction. 

“I love middle school,” Aley said. “Being able to connect with students and having them buy into what I’m saying to them.” She talks to them about being “informed consumers” who make choices for themselves.

Aley writes curriculum for CCPS, is a member of the school system’s professional development team and teaches at the College of Southern Maryland. “She is great instructionally and is always willing to share resources and information across the county when she presents at CCPS in-service activities,” Hodges said.

Four other PE teachers with CCPS were awarded scholarships to attend the SHAPE MD conference including Alison Cheney and Rebekah Colatruglio, both of North Point High School, Matt Golonka of Theodore G. Davis Middle School and Kelsey Mills of St. Charles High School.

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