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Interview: Teacher Bikes 5,000+ Miles for Phys. Ed.

On Feb. 1, phys. ed. "instructional coach" Cate Dill began a 5,000-plus-mile, cross-country journey from Santa Barbara, Calif., on her bicycle. For the next four months, Dill visited roughly 80 schools in 18 states to promote the importance of physical education programs and physical fitness in schools, in a campaign she calls Let's Get Moving, America. Along the way, she even managed to squeeze in a meeting with the President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Dill's been a phys. ed. teacher at Ephraim Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, Mass., for the past 14 years.
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Before she wraps up her cross-country ride at Boston Harbor on June 18, Schooled in Sports had a chance to speak with Coach Cate over the phone to discuss her journey, the importance of physical education in schools, and how schools can incorporate physical-fitness programs into their day-to-day activities during an era of budget cuts. Below is an edited version of the Q&A with Coach Cate.

Q: How did you decide on the bike ride as your way to promote physical education in schools?

A: Well, two of my passions are: one is teaching about healthy living, and another ... well, actually, three ... second one is moving, because I love to move, I have since I was a little kid. And I love to travel, so I just put all of them together.

Q: What makes phys. ed. in schools so important?

A: Well, we as physical education teachers teach a lot of different things. I mean, we do teach about how important it is for people to move their bodies, and then to eat healthy also. But there's a lot of social things that we teach, like cooperation, and teamwork, and being great citizens. I think it's a combination of all of those. I tell my students that physical education is just as important as any other classes they have during the day.

Q: Why do you feel so passionately about this issue and physical education in general?

A: Actually, I reflect on that a lot. I tell my students, or even the students all across America, that I can just remember as a little kid, as early as I can remember, I loved to move. So, I knew right away that I wanted to be a physical education teacher and go into that field.

I think the passion now comes from me believing that this is my life's purpose. I know that some people might struggle with it, and I just try to come from the point of view that, again, from my passion, that I love to do it, I try to spread that to them. I try to figure out, well, what do you love to do to move? You know, we all love to do different things.

Q: You mentioned that exercise comes naturally for you. But for some people, they start exercising, then hit a roadblock right away. How do you help those students who do struggle getting into a routine?
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A: In our program, I can specifically talk to that. We expose our kids to so many different activities. Because unfortunately, in our culture, people just think ... that it's all about whatever they see on TV or in the paper. You have to play those sports that are popular. But it's not about that. We teach many different ones. We have team activities, we have individual; we have ones that are out there in the mainstream and ones that are not. So, it's really exposing your students to all of those activities and trying to get them to latch on to some of those that they really like to do. Because some people don't like to run, and if you don't like to run, then you probably shouldn't run. But there are other things you can do for cardiovascular fitness.

Another thing is: I've had students, especially high schoolers, say, "Well, I'm not an athlete." Well, it's not about that. It's about everybody choosing to move and to be fit, not just being an athlete. I think those are two major hurdles, besides screens and video games and all that other stuff, that we need to, as a culture, try to change people. I know myself and other physical education teachers are trying to do that. We teach lifetime fitness. And those choices might change throughout your life. You might love team sports when you're a little kid, but most people don't play team sports when they're older.

Q: What's your recommended daily amount of physical activity for students?

A: Well, the recommended amount that most of the councils have ... and with our first lady [Michelle Obama] with Let's Move, it's 60 minutes, which is fine. But what I try to teach and instill in everybody is that we have choices from the moment we get up to the moment that we go to sleep. And some of us have choices, whether it's going to work or school, whether we can walk or hop on our bike. So, it's not just about getting that half an hour or an hour of that workout in. It's thinking ... about movement all day long.

Q: Because of the current high-stakes-testing culture, some schools are cutting phys. ed. programs in favor of more academic classes. What would you say to those schools?

A: I think that they're doing their students a [disservice]. As I tell my students, you can have a really good job, you can have a lot of money, but if you don't have your health, you're not gonna be happy. So, like I told you before, physical education is just as important as any other subject ... in schools. It's important for people to be fit and healthy and happy. So, we should all be working together to figure this out, to be teammates in this and not cutting physical education.

Q: What about schools facing budget cuts? How can they incorporate low-cost physical-fitness programs into their day-to-day activities?
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A: I think we have a problem as a culture, because I think what we've created is a culture of people observing and not participating. And I'll relate this to professional sports. Growing up as an athlete, I loved watching top-level competition. But I think what we've created is this environment where we have all these channels on TV where people sit home and they watch sports all weekend long or at night, and they aren't out playing. I think it's a shame that people will pay for cable, they'll pay for a high-priced ticket for a football game or a baseball game, and they'll buy jerseys that are high-priced; then again, we're cutting programs, we're cutting teachers, we're cutting physical education programs. To me, that's a real travesty that's happening. We need to do a cultural shift on, "Hey, let's spend money on our kids!"

Q: What do you think needs to be the impetus for that cultural change? Does it need to come from the federal level? Is it just going to take a general public awareness?

A: You know, I've met physical education teachers all along the way that are trying to do their best even though budget cuts are happening. I think people, if you ask them, they want to do the right thing. People don't want our kids to be unhealthy. They don't want us to be way down on the list, as far as where we are as a healthy nation.

Well, I think some people don't get it. You know, riding across the country, I saw many people who were overweight and obviously not very fit. We definitely need more education, which I think could come from our government, but I think corporations can help us out too. I know that some of the professional sports programs are trying to help out, but... I feel that we need more respect for physical education teachers. And I said, no disrespect to some of these professional athletes, but we need to have physical education teachers on Wheaties boxes.

Q: What's been your favorite/most memorable part of your trip, thus far?
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A: That's very easy. Meeting the wonderful students and wonderful people that we have all across our country. People ask me, did anything bad happen? I said, no, everything was awesome. I met truly amazing people the whole way. They helped me out, whether that was if I had a flat tire, or if I needed directions, people would stop, people would offer me food, they offered me places to say. Wonderful. Some people say, what was the hardest thing? The hardest thing for me was when I made these strong connections with people—and it might have been 12 hours, or 24 hours—and then I was riding off.

Q: What's next for Coach Cate after you finish up the bike ride?

A: Lots of things. I'm on a leave of absence, so I'll be back teaching at my school ... in the fall. But I've also written a book on healthy living, so I'm going to get that published this summer. I've also written a book about my journey going across [the country]. I'm also on the board of the Massachusetts Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. My position that I was doing, you only do for a year. So my new position, which I'm very excited about, is to be the Massachusetts liaison to the President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. One of my goals going across [the country] was to be a national speaker, and I'll continue to do that. People are now asking me to speak all across the nation. My next goal is to be an international speaker. So, a lot of things.

Photos, top to bottom: Coach Cate with her trusty bicycle. (Cate Dill); Coach Cate addresses a group of students. (Aurora Public Schools); Coach Cate with fitness guru Richard Simmons. (Slimmons Studio, Beverly Hills); Students of Ephraim Curtis Middle School wish Coach Cate luck on her trip. (Anneke Bartelsman-Sudbury Public Schools)

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