Why Words Matter: My Negative Experience with a PE Teacher



I moved to Indiana when I was in sixth grade. I moved to a school where 6th grade was the highest grade, and the kids were cliquey and already knew each other. I didn’t love going to school, but I eventually met a good friend and did okay. There was still one hour a week that I hated, all because of a negative experience with my PE teacher.

Although I wouldn’t consider myself sedentary – I did dance class and played outside – I wasn’t super athletic either. Team sports were not my thing, and it showed during PE. My teacher liked to point this out to me regularly.

On one particular day, when we were doing activities that were part of the presidential fitness test (sit n’ reach, anyone?), I, a newly 11-year-old girl who was awkwardly growing into my body, could not do a single pull-up. As I stood in line with the other kids doing their pull-ups, my teacher said it. “Wimp.”

I never loved my gym teacher. It’s not like I looked up to her, and in fact, I was a little bit afraid of her. But I never expected her to call me a name, especially in front of other kids. It felt like a slap across the face.

I was not bold enough and definitely did not have enough life experience to say anything in return, so I just stood there in front of the pull-up bar, feeling stupid.

When I relive that situation in my head, my 34-year-old self wants to cry for the 11-year-old girl in PE. Not only did my teacher not have the right to call me a name (I also remember her calling other kids and me “lazy,” so this wasn’t an isolated incident), I also shouldn’t have been made to feel bad about myself because I couldn’t do a pull-up.

Whether it’s the words coming out of my mouth as a parent, or the words coming out of a teacher’s mouth, words matter. We have no idea what will stick with our kids for the rest of their lives. I’m sure that teacher didn’t realize that she would impact my thoughts for decades to come, but sometimes her voice is in the back of my head when I know I am not the fastest or strongest person in an exercise class. “Wimp.”

I now have the perspective to know that my teacher probably had some things going on in her personal life that she was taking out on us, but I wish she could’ve used her words more wisely. I am only human too, when speaking to my kids, but I try to keep this in mind when I am—words matter.