Interview- Zack Baker

Social media provides an entirely new platform for education. Some teachers shy away from it out of fear of the unknown. Others, however, tackle it head on. And very rarely, you find a teacher who makes it seem like the most fun and natural thing in the world. That is why we could not pass up the chance to interview Zachary Baker (@hpe_zackbaker) for his take on teaching.

Zachary Baker teaches 6th-8th grade at Poquoson Middle School in Poquoson, Virginia. Next year he will have the added challenge of working around school building renovations. This will require him to teach 8th grade in the district's high school building.

Zack certainly stands out as a role model for PE teachers everywhere. By looking at his social media accounts it is easy to see the impact he has on his students. His enthusiasm and passion are contagious. This quality could be part of why his peers have nominated him for Teacher of the Year. Read our interview with Mr. Baker to learn his advice on teaching.

PE Coach: What made you want to be a PE teacher?

Zack Baker: Great question. I've been an athlete my whole life playing football, basketball, wrestling, and baseball so I grew up with athletics being a big deal in my life at a young age. Athletics helped shape who I am today. I learned the importance of being a team player, coachable, resilient, disciplined, hardworking, etc. all through playing sports. I understood that being physically active was very important as it was a way to stay healthy. I've been an asthmatic since I was born, suffering from intense asthma related issues my whole life. While wrestling in middle and high school I really began to understand how intense physical activity and exercise can help combat asthma and other health related issues by making my body, inside and out, stronger. Knowing this, I wanted to educate and motivate children to become, what we say know, physically literate. I want to help people become lifelong physical activity lovers.

PE Coach: Your Instagram posts stand out because they are fun and high energy. How do you manage to keep that up, especially during quarantine?

Zack Baker: I find that people, especially students, feed off of our energy when teaching. I know that to keep them engaged in an activity or a lesson I've got to keep their attention, so if I have to be silly or funny on occasion I have no reservations doing so. Being home all the time, with a wife who works long hard hours at home, I've got to keep myself entertained as well so if I do boring activities, I know that I may fall off and lose interest in making videos.

PE Coach: Our favorite are Bloopers due to Cooper. How many times does that happen?

Zack Baker: Oh Cooper! My wife calls Cooper her "little lamb" because he follows her everywhere around the house. He's the same way with me sometimes, as he needs to either be with one of us or in between both of us so he can keep an eye on what we're doing. When I'm jumping or running around the house he doesn't know why or what's going on so he thinks he needs to jump in and help me. There have been many times that I've set up the camera and I start exercising or talking and he just randomly walks in front of it or just stands there blocking me. Weird for a dog who doesn't like being photographed.

PE Coach: Do you have a favorite go-to lesson?

Zack Baker: Oh man, so many good ones to choose from. I don't think I can choose just one. I'm a big fan of large cooperative games/activities in which everyone in the class is participating at the same time. The first one is a game that I played back in middle/high school which is "Punchball." "Punchball" is similar to "Kickball" but there are four bases besides home plate, and the runners have to go around the bases two times in order to score. Students have to also use a fist, obviously, instead of their foot. Students loves this game as everyone in the field has a chance for the ball as the hitter can punch the ball in any direction. The next activity is called "Catapults." "Catapults" pairs students up together as a team and one person must try to avoid taggers and bring back a beanie baby from the "safe zone" and give in it to their partner who in turn has to launch the beanie baby using their feet only, over their head to land in a hula hoop. Lastly, "Guard the Pin" is a favorite of mine, especially at the middle school level. Every student is engaged, whether is rolling balls, guarding the bowling pins, or running laps to get back into the game. The cool thing about "Guard the Pin" is that there is never a winner or loser and there is no time limit. I'm also a big fan of dancing. You can't go wrong with a little dancing in physical education.

PE Coach: What has been the biggest challenge for you as a teacher?

Zack Baker: This is a very tough question to answer. I spent my first three years of teaching in Virginia at a juvenile residential behavioral facility so I've had my fair of issues in that settings (ie. fighting, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, etc.). Those were three very hard years in which I absolutely doubted being a teacher. I'm not the most creative teacher so I've always struggled coming up with new activities/games for my students. An easy fix to that challenge though is to reach out to fellow health and physical educators and to attend professional conferences.

PE Coach: What has been the biggest reward?

Zack Baker: When students express how much you mean to them and tell you that they really enjoy your class or that you've helped/motivate them to become more physically active in their daily life has to be the biggest reward. I had an incident this past year with a baseball player of mine (I coach JV baseball) who told me that he didn't care for me too much in middle school because he was always getting in trouble with me in class. I then explained that he now understands that I was holding him accountable for his actions and that he's come to know me as more than a P.E. teacher through baseball. He and I have a very strong teacher/coach to student/player relationship now. Last year I was also nominated for Teacher of the Year by my peers and that really meant a lot to me. It spoke volumes to me that my actions, relationships, teaching styles are all noticed and appreciated. I also need to address the feedback that I've received recently when making and posting videos on social media. The positive feedback that I've received from students, parents/guardians, administrators, community members, and fellow health and physical educators around the WORLD has been AMAZING! I never thought that I'd be interviewed by media outlets and fellow physical educators as yourselves. It's been an epic run and I hope that I can continue motivating and educating people to be and stay physically active.

PE Coach: How do you handle disgruntled parents?

Zack Baker: Documentation, documentation, documentation. I find that when communicating with parents/guardians as to issues that arise from my class the strongest defense is documentation. I try to document every action that occurs in my class, whether it be an injury, a behavioral issue, a lack of participation, etc. When a parent/guardian asks questions as to why their student's grade is low or was disciplined, I have documentation to help me explain why. I'm also a firm believer in emails and/or face to face conferences with a colleague present to protect myself as well. Emails provide documentation as to what has been communicated to the parent/guardian and/or student rather than hearsay.

PE Coach: What would you say is the best technology to incorporate in the classroom?

Zack Baker: Although I've received training with awesome technology such as heart rate monitors we haven't purchased any yet at this time. I try to keep it simple with music both in the gym and out on the football field during physical activity. I find that students will be much more engaged when you have a dope playlist going while their playing/participating. I use social media as another way to engage with students and parents/guardians. This way I can keep them updated with health and physical education related material and to demonstrate what we've been doing in class. I send out letters to all parents/guardians asking for permission to use their student's image in videos and pictures. When students see themselves in videos on social media it motivates them to continue to participate in class. At this time, while dealing with the coronavirus and virtual learning, I've just been playing around trying to create a virtual classroom on Google and have started using Google Classroom more frequently. I believe that these resources are going to be huge in the coming months as I predict that we will have to add virtual learning to our style of teaching.

PE Coach: As a PE teacher it can be difficult to assess all of our students in a timely fashion. Is there any tips or tricks that you’ve found work best?

Zack Baker: So my school requires us to assess our students at least three times throughout the year. We do this by participating in the Fitnessgram physical fitness assessments. I love these times of year because I love seeing students push themselves to try and beat their previous scores/times. I try to keep it quick and simple. I try to only complete one assessment per day and once they've completed the assessment they can either begin or rejoin a "Choice of Activity" that I've chosen for the day. As I work with two other teachers at the same time, we often combine classes for the assessments and can usually knock out two classes for one assessment per period.

PE Coach: How do you prevent burn out?

Zack Baker: I'm lucky to have time during the day that I can slow things down and prioritize what I need to get done. I use every second of my planning period to get as much done as possible, whether that is completing lesson plans, emailing parents/guardians, making copies, speaking to colleagues and/or administrators, etc. Also, as a coach I have time in between school and practice to get what I need to get done as well. All of this time allows me to not bring any work home with me. This may be completely different with this upcoming school year as I will be going to graduate school at the College of William and Mary to earn my M.S.Ed. in K-12 Leadership and Administration while also expecting our first child due in October. 

PE Coach:What is your biggest piece of advice to new teachers?

Zack Baker: BE YOU! Know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Play to your strengths and seek guidance and assistance from colleagues either at your school or in your subject area. Attend as many professional conferences as you can. I spoke with a Health & Physical Education Supervisor in a neighboring district years before I entered the public school sector. I was unofficially interviewing with him for a job and he asked if I had gone to the famous Health & Physical Activity Institute conference at James Madison University. He told me that he would not hire anyone who hasn't been there. Since then, I haven't missed one VAHPERD conference or professional conference in the state of Virginia. I've learned so much from so many great presenters/teachers from around the country and have been able to network with a lot of great teachers as well.

PE Coach: What is the funniest student quote you think you’ve heard?

Zack Baker:

Me: "________ are you changing out today?"

Student: "Mr. Baker, I ain't got no draws on."

Do yourself a favor and follow Zack on all his social media platforms for inspiration in your classroom.

Instagram: @hpe_zackbaker

Twitter: @hpe_zackbaker

Facebook: hpezackbaker -or- Mr. Baker's Health & Physical Education Page

TikTok: hpezackbaker

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