Pupils running across Stephanie Ross’ gym floor have no idea they are about to practice multiplication tables or words on their spelling lists.
They tighten the laces on their sneakers, skip across the gym at Glenn Hills Elementary as Flo Rida’s Good Feeling plays from Ross’ iPod and respond like soldiers as she commands them to switch from jumping jacks to a power walk in their daily warm-up.
The kickball games and sprints are exercises of the mind and body.
“We don’t just go out there and roll the ball around,” Ross said. “We do games that incorporate the skills they are learning in the classroom, and the kids, they never realize, ‘You know what? We’re actually doing math the whole time.’ ”
Ross’ insistence on blending academics with physical education helped her earn the county’s highest honor as the 2013 Richmond County Teacher of the Year. Her students stay stimulated while also learning a foundation for health and fitness they will carry their entire lives, according to her colleagues.
“The face of PE changed when she walked through the door,” said Glenn Hills third-grade teacher Kim McDowell. “I’m always interested when I go to pick up my class what kind of crazy game they’ll be playing that day.”
Ross was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., to a military family but moved to Germany in third grade and lived there mostly until she finished high school. Growing up, Ross was drawn to sports. She played varsity basketball, track and volleyball at her American high school and was the only girl on her baseball and soccer teams.
When she moved to Hampton, Va., to attend college, she knew she wanted to build a career around teaching the love of movement. After graduating in 1991, Ross coached softball and taught physical education at a private high school in Newport News, Va. She moved on to a career at a middle school in the city, where she taught physical education and health and coached softball and basketball.
When she moved to Augusta in 2005, Ross thought she’d move into administration, but by the time she got back into the gym with her kids she knew she belonged running alongside first-graders in sweatpants and not behind a desk.
“They love to move and they love you and it’s like being a rock star,” Ross said. “Every day in the hall it’s like, ‘Coach, we got PE today; coach, I got my shoes today, I’m ready.’ At this level they need you. And I feel like I’m laying the foundation for a lifetime of movement.”
As soon as she arrived at Glenn Hills, Ross began to change the way the school looked at physical fitness. She implemented afternoon fitness classes for teachers and encouraged her colleagues to join Team Lean and The Biggest Loser competitions.
“She just has so much passion,” said Cheryl Eldridge, a second-grade teacher at Glenn Hills. “She doesn’t go into the stereotype of what a PE teacher is. She got this whole school into fitness.”
In her 20-year career, Ross said she has seen physical education evolve but has worked to keep the wellness of the child first.
In the 1990s, schools focused on team sports, emphasizing competition. Later, physical education progressed to more individual skills. The whole time, Ross said, she had to battle the stereotype of the lazy PE teacher who would blow the whistle and let the class run wild.
To prove them wrong, Ross consistently stayed involved in her school. In Virginia, she helped her school implement a wellness grant that put technology in gyms and served as her district’s employee wellness coordinator.
At Glenn Hills, Ross works on the leadership team and leads technology implementation at the school. The whole time, though, her focus is on the kids.
“Coaches are some of the best teachers there are,” Ross said. “I just love working with kids, and I love moving and seeing their faces in enjoyment.”