Paula McGovern: Living Life on Life’s Terms


Paula McGovern: Living Life on Life’s Terms

Meet Paula McGovern (Economopoulos) , a physical education teacher at New Haven Academy. She has been with the district for over 30 years! She is the mom of three - two boys and one girl. Her daughter is a high school student. Her sons graduated from college and are now successfully employed. 

She founded the Special Olympics Unified sports program for the City of New Haven, and has been running it for a number of years. Paula is currently enrolled in nursing school and plans to work in a health setting when she retires from NHPS. She doesn't mind working as a waitress in the summer. She is also coaching at Hamden Hall school. And she is teaming up with her younger co-worker/teacher to play basketball with the kids in the gym class! If you need an example of an active and involved life, then there it is! I met with her in her NHS office and sat in the gym watching her teach and play with the students. Here are some glimpses of my conversation with her that you might find interesting.

paula mcgovern

L. G. Paula, why do you need a nursing degree? It's not an easy occupation for a retired teacher.

P. M. I am still taking courses working towards my nursing degree, and I don’t know exactly how I am going to be employed as a nurse, but I feel that with that degree I can do anything: I can work in schools, hospices, anywhere. I love to help people. And I still need to get my daughter through college.

L. G. How did you become a PE teacher?

P. M. In college, back in the 80s, I first wanted to go into business, since my father had a business. I was discouraged from teaching because at the time teachers salaries were very low. I tried accounting, then maths, computers… And I had played sports all my life. When I got to my junior year, I could not see myself out of the gym. I realized I was a gym rat. That’s how I ended up choosing physical education.

L. G. It is so rare now that people stay at one job for so many years.

P. M. I started in 1986. Throughout my career I've been in many schools. I was an itinerant and used to travel. I've taught pre-k through high school. I coached for many, many years.

I've had all the kids. The time went by so fast. 

L. G. Can you tell me about the Special Olympics program?

P. M. Before my involvement with the Special Olympics program there was a period of time when I traveled from school to school being the Adaptive PE teacher. Eventually, I took over the position of a field coordinator in the Special Olympics Unified sports program for the City of New Haven, and I've been running this program since 2000. It is a part of the Connecticut Special Olympics program. The participants from all over the city - students with disabilities - would pair up with non-disabled students (we call them unified partners) for the whole year. We would do sports competitions with other schools: soccer, volleyball, basketball and track. The program was canceled because of Covid, but now we're trying to bring it back. And it’s hard, it's hard to find teachers to volunteer in this after school program. Nonetheless, I hope by March we will get back into this program.

L G. Is it a grant funded program?

P. M. We get some grant money for purchasing equipment and uniforms. The coaches are paid a stipend. NHPS’s interest in this program and support in providing transportation has been outstanding. But we are in it not because of the money. 

L. G. How do you do that? How do you teach physical education to kids with special needs?

P. M. Oh, I loved it. I would do everything that I would do with my own children at home when they were young: I would sing and play with them. For example, I would hang balls from the ceiling and ask the students to get them with a bat. We would go bowling too. I sang to them (I love to sing!). We would even have dance parties. These kids couldn't communicate very well, but every time they saw me, they would get so excited. The songs, the music were a great way to connect with them and to get them to move, to exercise. 

L. G. How many students would be in that class? 

P. M. Between eight and fifteen. The paraprofessionals would help me, of course. 

Those were the best years.  The work was so rewarding despite the lack of verbal connection.

But I was definitely connected to my students - by gestures, by movement. To be connected - that's always been my philosophy and my goal as a PE teacher, not just to teach the curriculum. When you can’t connect with your students, you can’t get much from them. But the minute you connect, you can get them to do something to step outside their comfort zone, to try new stuff. We don't grow in our comfortable places. 

I may be the most unconventional PE teacher around because I just feel that my main purpose is not just to teach the skills, to make them a better thrower or to catch a ball. I have always felt as if my role was to teach them life lessons through physical activity, through movement. As the saying goes: move a muscle, change a thought.

It starts with small things like coming prepared to my class: being dressed properly, for example. I always have these conversations with my students about “small things” and how they affect their habits and self-discipline. I try to understand why they would not have proper clothes or shoes; I help them to figure out how they could be prepared for the class next time. When I am connected to them, these things eventually sink in.

I am very involved with my students, and they know that I will never ask them to do anything that I won't do myself.

paula gym class

L. G. How did Covid affect your teaching?

P. M. Ironically, Covid allowed me to exercise more often. I was conducting classes online with the emphasis on yoga and mindfulness.  I tell my students that being physically fit is not just appearance. It involves mental fitness as well. Where the mind goes, the body follows. During Covid I had conversations with my students about mental fitness: how to overcome fears, and to foster gratitude. We did breathing exercises too.

L. G. Paula, over so many years you have been working with so many generations. How are things changing? What is your perception?

P. M. In physical education, in my mind, we are moving towards educating the students for life time activities. How has it changed? I see a lot more kids these days working out, running and doing things that I never saw before. More kids are really interested in their physical shape and appearance. Why? Obviously, Tick Tock, social media has to do with that. They see stuff on there. I hear them say  “I got this workout from Tick Tock”. This is the positive stuff about social media. And then there's also the other trend where they're on it all the time. I think that is really creating a lot of stress and anxiety in our kids. I try to get them off of their phones when they're in my gym. But I don't know how we can stop it. That's a problem that we never had before. 

L. G. I saw it with my own eyes: I happened to be present at one of the gym classes in the district last year, and I saw kids walking and exercising in the gym with cell phones in their hands. 

P. M. The rule does not allow students to be on their phones during classes. I do talk to my students about cell phone usage. I ask them: are you a rule follower or a rule breaker? Because if you continue to break the rule, blatantly in front of teachers, while they are trying to teach a class, that's going to become a habit. And once that becomes a habit, you'll do it in front of anybody, even your boss. Once it becomes a habit, it becomes part of your character, and your character is going to determine your destiny. So what kind of a person do you want to be? Do you want to be a person of integrity who does the right thing whether someone's watching or not? We all fall prey to it. Me too. We all make mistakes. That's why pencils have erasers. What’s important is what you do next. Do you choose to do the right thing? 

I never force kids to behave in a certain way, I try to convince them. If they don’t want to play basketball, I get them to walk and to exercise. I give them a choice, and I ask them to be active. I teach by example. I started jogging recently, then a couple of students joined me, then we invited more kids into our group. If you're going to be sitting out watching them, they're obviously not going to have any motivation to get up and move. 

L. G. Paula, what's your biggest achievement as a PE teacher? 

P. M. I see my achievements when I see my students from the past and where they're at, and when they are saying to me how much of an impact I made on their life. Throughout my career, I have taught so many kids. They're all my children. I treat them like my own children. Back in the 90s, I took in two boys in need of a home. They stayed with me for about a year and a half until they graduated. Nowadays, if you did that, you would probably get into some sort of trouble, but back then they needed a place to stay, and they just became part of my family. I still keep in touch with them. They call me mom, and they have their own children now.

When I think about my personal achievements, I ask myself: did you become a better person? A wiser person? I think I have grown with my students. One of my greatest achievements is the fact that I actually learned how to communicate better. At the beginning of my teaching career, I knew exactly what I was doing, and I wanted it done in a certain way only. If it didn't work out my way, I would feel out of sorts. With years and experience I learned how to relax and to be more flexible, to be able to roll with the changes. 

I learned to talk to my students, to connect with them and to react properly. As a young teacher I was highly excitable (I am Italian!). We can react to situations very emotionally. Later in my career I realized that when you react emotionally to a student's behavior, you're just fueling it, and it becomes a confrontation. Some students want the confrontation because sometimes they just want the attention. I learned how not to react emotionally, how to pause and respond to the situation. It helped me to become better at getting to know my students.

I never look at a student as being bad. I never listen to anyone else who says, oh, you have “that student” in your class. I think the word “bad” just describes behavior and choices. It does not describe a student as a person. All my students are good people, that’s how I view them.

If someone is confrontational, perhaps that’s because he/she is not in the light, perhaps something is happening in their lives that forces them to misbehave. Maybe this is how they are trying to say something. In other words, their needs are not being met in some form or fashion. All my previous confrontations with students were caused by reacting to situations without listening. 

L. G. I think young teachers could learn a lot from your experience. What advice would you give them in the following situation: there is a new student in the school who is definitely provoking them? What would be your course of action? 

P. M. That would definitely be a challenge for me, and I love challenges!  First of all, I would look at it as an attempt to communicate. The student probably needs something, and it probably has nothing to do with me. So the first thing to do is not to take it personally because it's not about you. In a situation like this, when I have the time during a class, I would pull a student over to the side and start my conversation: hey, what’s going on? You are new, how are you adjusting? Where did you come from? What school? What was it like for you before? How do you like it here? I want you to know I'm in the school not only as your teacher. But if you ever need anything or you're struggling, or something's going on, you can always come and talk to me. I'm here to help. Think of me as being your parent outside your home. I will advocate for you. But more than that: I will teach you how to advocate for yourself. So what is it that you need? What are you feeling?

I would try to connect with this student on the emotional level first. The worst thing you can do is to feed into the problem by being right because he/she is not following the rules, by calling someone to remove this kid from your class. They will remove the kid from your class. But the kid will come back and will come at you again. As a teacher, you have to figure out why they are coming at you. You need to get them to feel safe in your space, you need to get them to be able to trust you.  A lot of these confrontational students don't feel safe, don't trust anybody. Maybe they are just not getting the attention they need. So they seek negative attention because negative attention is better than no attention at all. 

You have to treat them like your own children. When my own kids are confrontational, angry, I listen patiently to what they say because they need to feel safe to say all those things to me, and then I tell them: I still love you. If I start punishing them, I disconnect, and they are going to do something to someone else, outside of me. 

L. G. Here is how I understand it: sometimes as a parent you need to let kids express themselves. Without judgment. That’s the secret. You provide that space where they can express themselves. 

P. M. Sometimes, when talking to the parents of a disrespectful student, I hear from them: my kid is not disrespectful to me. And it is clear why: because there's fear of punishment or fear of rejection, abandonment, so their kids have to behave in a certain way. I'm not making a judgment on how parents raise their kids. I've raised my kids by allowing them to speak. They can say: I hate you. You can get that one from a teenager. That's all right. You can hate me. I'm not your friend. I'm your mother, and this is what you need to do. 

In my opinion, kids have to be able to be comfortable to let loose on someone. When you have a kid who is letting loose on you, that’s not a bad thing: they're doing it because they think that maybe you can help or guide them. 

I could see where a teacher could get frustrated because they think: I have to cover so much material, and this one kid is making it impossible for me to teach my lesson. 

The idea is to put out that fire right away and to strive to understand the problem with the confrontational kid.

It’s funny that many of such students end up in my gym. They peek in: oh, Ms. McGovern, I just wanted to say hi. I respond: no, you did not, you're supposed to be in your class. But I do not drive them away, instead I say: come on, let's talk. You need to be genuinely interested in them so they could come to talk to you. Even when it is not very convenient for you.  

As I mentioned, I am not here just to teach the curriculum. My purpose of being in the school system is so much greater. I'm not going to change the world, but if I can help one person, that would make me happy. I'm a giver and I'm a servant. 


L. G. You must have a lot of love and energy to do that.

P. M. I don't know. I am trying to be in tune with my kids and my students. My daughter is 16, my sons are out of college, but I am in tune with them and their friends. Teaching has actually kept me young, mentally. I don't know if it kept me young physically because when I look in the mirror, I am horrified by all these wrinkles. I got wrinkles. Oh, my God.

I'm grateful that I have this job and I'm able to provide for my kids but being a single parent for many is tolling. But I'm not afraid to work. 

L. G. Can you think of some episodes in your teaching that were very impactful for you?

P. M. In the 90s, I coached a group of girls. I am still in touch with them, and I am amazed how successful they are. They were not the best athletes or academically gifted individuals though. I recall one student, who went off to college and kept calling me and complaining how homesick she was. I tried to calm her saying: just wait until Thanksgiving, nothing remains constant, this will come to pass, you are supposed to be there. She stayed, she persevered. Now, after all these years, she lives across the street from my house!

That group of girls was extraordinary to me. They made me a head basketball coach. So I'm really big on teaching skills and fundamentals. That's where my strength is, not so much on winning strategies. Winning didn't matter to me. What mattered to me was teaching useful skills to my students, such as dedication, persistence, determination, perseverance… With that group we learned the skills, we practiced, we worked together. And the first year, we didn't win any games. By the time they were seniors, we went to the states in basketball. What an accomplishment! And how rewarding it is now, 24 years later, to see their growth. 

Another example: my soccer team. I have coached soccer for five years in New Haven. I didn't win one game. We didn't know how to play. We were just out there fielding a team. We're doing the best we can, but we had the best time, we became a family. We just encouraged and supported each other. We were brothers, keepers…

One more example: it is the time when I taught at Hyde Leadership high school. It was a school modeled after a program in Bath, Maine. And what they taught in that school was “character first”, that’s why it is called “character-based school''.

I had never witnessed so much transformation in difficult students who came in there, followed the program and its five principles (destiny, humility, conscience, truth, brother's keeper). The teachers in that school encouraged students to get up and speak. Students’ character was the main focus. Even the most troubled students turned around. The principal reminded me of Joe Clark and the “Lean On Me” movie. He was really good. 

Working in that school changed me. It was so different. It wasn't data-driven. It was driven by addressing the whole person and by teaching humility. Humility was a big thing there. I try to teach humility to my kids too. Humble means to be teachable. I did not have a clear understanding of humility myself until I got to work in the Hyde school.

L. G. What you just said is just perfect! Humble, humility - that's where learning starts.

P. M. To be humble means to be teachable. To be humble means to be willing to learn, and to learn means to listen with your ears open and your mouth closed. To be humble means to be quiet. No, you don't know it all. Somebody else is bigger, better, greater or has done more than you. You just have to be willing to learn. I learned humility from my students. I always learn from them. And I'm still learning. When you are asking me about my achievements, I don’t feel accomplished yet. I am still a student myself. 

L. G. Paula, how are you doing with the assessments, tests and grades?

P. M. When it comes to assessments, I think it’s important to remember what students are going to get out of that. I can grade them on how far they throw the ball, but what's the purpose? If they liked volleyball and were good at it, by high school they would be involved in a team. If a student had a bad experience with his PE classes, it’s impossible to do meaningful grading when he is in high school. When I talk to such a student, I say: listen, don't judge me, this gym and this experience. But give me a chance and get to know me. I'm going to get to know you, and you're going to learn something from this class. Just be willing, be humble. 

L. G. What if a student is struggling in your class?

P. M. I tell them that I have been doing these exercises myself because I reap their benefits, and I want them to have these benefits as well. They may understand it later but at least they would know the routine. 

I exercise together with my students, and when I see that someone is not happy, I tell them: if you don't do it, I don't care as long as you fake it. I believe in a rule: you have to fake it until you make it. Can’t do pushups and situps perfectly? Do what you can. Act as if you are doing them perfectly, and keep exercising. In life, when you have challenges, sometimes you have to act “as if”. And when you act “as if”, you will eventually become, you will change. Sometimes you just have to change the way you look at things. Because when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. So don't evaluate this PE program constantly remembering the bad experience that you created in your mind from the past. Change that thought. Think about it as an adventure. Ask yourself: what am I going to learn today? What is new? If it doesn't sink in now I guarantee that ten years from now, if we meet, you're going to tell me what you learned.  Because everything I teach you you're going to be able to use out there in life. 

I see how teachers struggle with kids. And it's a battle for the teachers to win, to be right. Yeah, of course, the teacher is always right, and the kids are supposed to follow. But being right isn't always right. You don't always win by being right. Sometimes you win the booby prize being right. 

My gym classes may seem chaotic at times, especially when I cover for other classes when my colleagues are sick. But the kids love my gym. They come and ask me to play with them. And I do play with them as a team member. Sometimes I pair with my younger colleague Amil John. We usually beat the kids, too. It’s fun! I would have never lasted this long if I wasn't out there playing with kids. I am always out in the gym with kids. I can't help it. I have to stay busy and active. I apply the ideas and principles I shared here to myself. I try to change my own thoughts, my way of thinking, trying not to dwell on the past, not to overthink about tomorrow. It’s not always easy, and often I struggle with that. I struggle to be present in the present moment. 

I've learned that being in the past or being in the future is not being here and now. Past is gone, can't change it. The only thing you have is right here and now, how are you going to deal with it?  Life On Life's terms. It's called Life On Life's terms, you know…


Interview by Liliya Garipova.

PHOTO: Paula McGovern; Paula and her coworker Amil John playing basketball with kids; Paula and Amil.

In the video below we illustrated parts of this interview by recording some of her gym classes. Watch it on Youtube by clicking the link.