How to Become a Physical Education Teacher


For centuries, educators have recognized the value of physical education. In Plato’s Republic, readers are given detailed instructions on what a physical education should entail, and why it is important. While it may be difficult to imagine Plato as a physical education teacher, there is no question that physical education, alongside philosophy, is one of the world’s oldest disciplines.

Over time, the physical education curriculum has changed, but its central mandate has remained surprisingly steady. Physical education (or PE) aims to promote students’ health and well-being, and this is seen as a vital component to a student’s academic performance. According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), elementary schools should provide 150 minutes of instructional physical education on a weekly basis, whereas middle and high schools are recommended to provide 225 minutes per week.

The educational requirements and state-issued mandates for those with an interest in teaching physical education vary according to the grade level and learning institution involved. For example, physical education teachers applying for a position within the public school system are expected to have completed at least a bachelor’s degree program.

What is the educational pathway of a physical education teacher?

Prospective physical education teachers must obtain the appropriate information, preparation and experience in order to lead a K-12 standards-based program designed to help students develop motor skills; improve their level of physical fitness; learn sportsmanship; and increase their knowledge and behaviors which promote leading a healthy, active life. The steps that an individual takes to become a physical education teacher generally include the following:

  1. Enter a Degree Program: Prospective physical education teachers typically earn a degree in Health and Physical Education at a four-year college or university; or earn a bachelor’s degree in Education with an endorsement in health/physical education from an accredited teacher preparation program. Coursework typically teaches students how to enhance the growth and development of children of all ages through physical movement, which also has an impact on their cognitive and social skills.

The curriculum for a future physical education teacher blends education-related topics (such as the principles of education and behavior management in the classroom) with physical education-related coursework that touches upon human biology, anatomy, physiology, and the prevention and care of athletic injuries. The education of a physical education teacher also includes taking classes regarding some of the following subjects, themes and concepts below:

  • An Introduction to Teaching Physical Education: Exploring the philosophical approach to physical fitness; possessing scientific and theoretical knowledge; and covering the current trends regarding the definition of health and wellness plays an important part in the role of today’s physical education teacher.
  • Growth and Development and Motor Learning: In order to devise age-appropriate activity planning, physical education teachers must be aware of the normal growth, levels of development, and expected motor function of the students they’ll encounter. Coursework involves learning about the age-related capabilities of K-12 students, in regards to balance, agility, coordination and strength. Theoretical concepts covered in this type of course may include an exploration of strategies for class activities; how to evaluate a child’s fitness level; and safety issues related to sports-related activities.
  • Planning and Implementation of Physical Activities: Just as an English teacher plans lessons according to age-appropriate reading materials, physical education teachers are expected to create learning experiences that accommodate the motor skills and level of physical movement of their students – from cardio health for elementary school students to basketball theory and learning styles for high school students.
  • Designing Sports Programs with Special Needs in Mind: Physical education teachers are trained to provide effective strategies that address the special needs of children who are physically or developmentally challenged. 
  1. Gain Knowledge and Experience: In order to lead class activities, prospective teachers are introduced to a range of physical activities that equip them with the knowledge and experience necessary to teach, explain and demonstrate activities to students. In addition to methodology classes, physical education majors take courses in exercise physiology, kinesiology, health and wellness, and specific activity courses that include tennis, golf, fitness, running, yoga, basketball, and aerobics.

As part of the learning experience, physical education majors may undertake a class project (or practicum experience), where they use course theories to develop class activities or an organized sports program for children and adolescents. The objective is to demonstrate their understanding of age-appropriate muscle coordination, physical ability and motor skills. Most majors apply their designed program to an actual gym class, and the hands-on experience with students is often evaluated by seasoned physical education teachers and professors.

Student-teaching internships often mark the end of a teacher education program for prospective physical education teachers. During this time, PE teachers-in-training gain valuable experience interacting with children, observing school dynamics, and eventually running classes under the supervision of a licensed instructor, who play a role in rating their performance. At the end of an internship, student teachers are given assessments which highlight their strengths and weaknesses related to aspects involving classroom management and professionalism.

Universities may also give credit to students who coach or assist a team at the youth sport level, as well as volunteer their time at a Boys/Girls Clubs or YMCA.

  1. Pass the Appropriate Examinations: The Praxis Series examinations administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) are widely used to measure the aptitude of a prospective teacher. Physical education teachers often take the Praxis II subject examinations in one or more of the following areas: Physical Education: Movement Forms – Analysis and Design; Health and Physical Education: Content Knowledge; Physical Education: Content and Design; and Physical Education: Content Knowledge. Some physical education teachers must pass exams designed to meet state-specific expectations, such as the Texas Examinations of Educator Standards (TExES) examinations or the Florida Teacher Certification Examinations (FTCE).
  1. Obtain a License: In order to teach physical education within the U.S. public school system, all teachers must obtain a license by completing requirements set by their state of residence. The licensure process may include submitting school transcripts, completing a certain number of student teaching internship hours, and passing applicable examinations.
  1. Fulfill School District Requirements: In addition to meeting state-specific guidelines, physical education teachers must also satisfy requirements set by a particular school district or school, such as clearing a child abuse check, FBI fingerprinting, and criminal background check. 
  1. Earn an Advanced Degree: Teachers with a master’s degree in physical education not only improve their credentials, increase their salary potential, and face enhanced career opportunities; they also have a better chance being hired for a position at an elite private school. A master’s degree also qualifies a job candidate to coach a specialized sports program instead of teaching general physical education classes. They may also find employment as a developer of the physical education curriculum within their school district.

A doctoral degree qualifies a teacher to lead physical education courses on the college or university level, or pursue a career within athletic administration.

Once a physical education teacher is hired at a school, he or she is expected to follow a specific curriculum with varying units and lessons, which differs according to school districts and schools. The physical education curriculum provides a clear, written explanation of the standards and education outcomes for grades K-12 of a particular school system. The curriculum is laid out in a sequential and comprehensive manner, and is ultimately based on national and/or state standards and grade-level outcomes for physical education.

How can I become an elementary physical education teacher?

Elementary school physical education teachers introduce students to a range of sports, like volleyball and basketball, lead students in physical tests (such as endurance and skill tests), and in some cases, teach units on health and nutrition.

To become a physical education teacher at the elementary level, one must complete a bachelor’s degree in physical education or a bachelor’s degree in education, with a focus on physical education. In some districts, candidates with a bachelor’s degree in another subject who have completed the required number of courses to declare a physical education specialization (usually at least 30 credit hours or five full-year courses), may also qualify.Gym teacher helping student climb gymnasium climbing equipment

Over the course of their degree program, aspiring physical education teachers can expect to complete courses in teaching methods, as well as kinesiology, exercise physiology, health, and nutrition. In addition to completing a relevant bachelor’s degree and teacher-training program, physical education teachers must be certified to teach in their state.

Multiple studies and reports point to physical health as an essential component in the overall education of a child. The University of Illinois revealed in a study that physically fit and active elementary school students scored higher on math and science examinations than those who were less active. Researchers declared that the more physically fit a child is, the more white matter in the brain, which translates to faster, more efficient nerve activity. Because of this, there are increasing movements to increase nationwide physical education, including the government initiative called Let’s Move. 

At the elementary level, PE programs introduce students to a range physical activity – from soccer to yoga. Many physical education teachers for grades K-5 oversee 8 to 10 half-hour classes with very few breaks in between. Teachers tend to place an emphasis on teamwork, improving coordination, and developing an appreciation for sports. Some PE teachers are tasked with additional duties outside of the gymnasium, such as serving as a school monitor for lunch, the hallway, or making sure students safely board their school bus home. Many physical education teachers also coach a sports team that may or may not belong to the same school.

According to PE Central, it is not uncommon for physical education teachers on the elementary school level to work at more than one school.

How can I become a middle school physical education teacher?

Like their counterparts at the elementary level, middle school physical education teachers introduce students to a range of sports, lead students in physical tests, and teach units on health and nutrition. Depending on the school district, they may also be responsible for delivering a state-mandated sex education curriculum. Coaching extra-curricular sports teams (from soccer to football), is a role that a middle school physical education teacher often undertakes.

To become a physical education teacher at the middle school level, an individual must complete a bachelor’s degree in physical education, or a bachelor’s degree in education with a focus on physical education. In some states, a bachelor’s degree in another subject may suffice if the candidate has completed enough relevant courses to declare a physical education specialization (usually at least 30 credit hours or five full-year courses).

Either way, aspiring middle school physical education teachers wind up completing a variety of courses including how to deliver activity-based instruction for a range of recreational pursuits, as well as cover subjects such as kinesiology, exercise physiology, health and nutrition.

How can I become a high school physical education teacher?

High school gym classes are more specialized and in-depth. Health and physical education teachers on the high school level (grades 6-12) typically teach five to six classes during the day. Depending on the school, the classes typically last for 1 hour to 1 ½ hours. Whereas elementary school children may engage in kickball and T-ball, high schoolers can spend weeks learning aerobics, rock climbing or break into teams to play soccer on an outdoor field. Teaching physical education courses at the high school level may include both required and optional courses, and in some cases, coaching a wide range of extra-curricular team sports.

High school physical education teachers who teach a health curriculum touch upon current topics relating to their students, such as alcohol, tobacco and other drug prevention. They also teach lessons on nutrition, making healthy lifestyle choices, first aid, CPR, community health topics, and in some cases, survival skills. Depending on the school district, a physical education teacher may touch upon sex education and human development classes.

High school physical education teachers require similar certification as teachers at the elementary and middle school levels. They must hold a degree from a four-year school, and in some cases, earn a master’s degree to increase job opportunities. During their studies, prospective PE teachers take advanced courses in kinesiology, exercise physiology, health, and nutrition.

The job outlook for high school physical education teachers varies by state and school district.

According to PHIT America, an estimated 48 percent of all high schools have no PE classes, and those that do, are working with an average school physical education budget of $764 per year. Therefore, depending on school district need, finding employment at this grade level can be a competitive endeavor. Job opportunities are greater in states and school districts with mandatory physical education policies. For example, some school districts, such as those under the California Department of Education, must follow legal requirements regarding physical education. For example, all California students in grades 7-12 must receive a minimum of 400 minutes of physical education instruction every 10 school days.

How can I become a college physical education professor?

Many colleges are home to a physical education department or program. Students pursuing college physical education degrees may be interested in teaching physical education at the elementary, middle or high school level, but may also go on to pursue careers in coaching, public health, rehabilitation, recreation, or fitness.

To teach physical education at the college level, one must typically hold a master’s degree in physical education, and, in many cases, a PhD. Students generally complete graduate level coursework in an area such as exercise physiology, health psychology or kinesiology, and learn how to work with students that are gearing up for careers in related fields.

Graduate-level courses generally touch upon topics such as an “Analysis of Curriculum and Teaching;” advanced studies in human growth and motor development, as well as an exploration of advanced teaching methods related to physical education. A master’s degree program may also cover holistic health, cultural awareness, aspects of leadership in physical education and athletics, controversial topics in health education, performance enhancement issues, and legal aspects pertaining to sport and physical education. By the end of his or her studies, the eventual graduate also completes an internship or graduate practicum.

Are there university physical education professors? 

Some, but not all universities have a physical education department or program. In other cases, physical education is housed within a faculty of education. Physical education departments and programs may or may not be divided into subdivisions.

Physical education professors in a university setting typically have a PhD in Physical Education or have been educated in a related field, such as nutrition or kinesiology. Professors are expected to carry out research, develop and teach courses at the undergraduate and/or graduate levels, as well as recruit, train, and supervise graduate students.

Common degree specializations that physical education teachers often pursue at the doctoral level include sports administration, exercise science, pedagogy and athletic training. The requirements needed to earn an advanced degree vary according to each specialization. In addition to conducting physical education research and completing a dissertation, PhD-prepared physical education majors also complete additional coursework, from analyzing motor skill development to exploring the sociology of physical education.

Physical education professors are often hired to teach university undergraduate and graduate students who are pursuing their bachelor’s and master’s degree in physical education.

How much does a physical education teacher make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary that physical education teachers were paid in 2014 (according to grade level) was as follows:

  • Elementary school physical education teachers – $54,120
  • Middle school physical education teachers – $54,940
  • High school physical education teachers – $56,310

In an effort to boost annual earnings, some physical education teachers increase their yearly income by coaching a sport (either at the school in which they teach or another). Coaching experience is an attribute that some schools initially look for in a job candidate, which may lead to an increased overall starting salary for some physical education teachers.

Teachers who find employment in a state or school district demonstrating the greatest need may also receive bonuses and salary incentives. For example, the U.S. Department of Education identified Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming as states experiencing a shortage of Physical Education teachers for the 2015/2016 school year.

With years of experience and advanced degrees, a physical education teacher may also qualify for higher-paying teaching or administrative positions at a school, such as athletic director, physical education director, or vice-principal. Becoming a member of a professional association can also assist a physical education teacher in developing their career.

For example, SHAPE America, also known as the Society of Health and Physical Educators, grants members access to a range of programs, products, and services devoted to health educators within an elementary, middle school and high school environment. Other benefits include workshops, webinars, research grants, and Category I CEUs for Certified Health Education Specialists, which assist educators in keeping their teaching licenses current.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) serves as one of the largest of five professional organizations associated with SHAPE America. Members can attend informational conferences; apply for grants and awards; and take advantage of valued resources.

In conclusion, significant studies associate physical education with providing the type of physical activity and exercise that give a much-needed, beneficial boost to the mental, physical and social aspects of a child’s development. Physical education teachers have a unique role, as they typically teach classes inside of a gymnasium or outside when the weather accommodates; instead of within a traditional classroom.

Although there is a growing movement towards increasing physical activity in schools across the nation, some PE graduates may find fewer job opportunities at high schools. Physical education teachers are hired to teach at all grade levels, and with an advanced degree, qualify for a position at colleges and universities.

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