On the Record with Kelly Zerby

DeKALB – Kelly Zerby is 44, and she has spent half of her life teaching physical education in the DeKalb School District.

She was recently named the 2021 Elementary P.E. Teacher of the Year by the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

“I love it, I wouldn’t want to do any other job,” said Zerby, who teaches at Jefferson Elementary School. “I love the kids, and I love teaching P.E.”

Zerby has worked for the DeKalb district for 22 years: three years at Jefferson and she previously taught at Founders and Littlejohn elementary schools.

She has a bachelor’s degree in physical education, a master’s in administration, an ESL endorsement, a master’s in literacy and an adapted P.E. certification, all from Northern Illinois University.

Zerby spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about teaching P.E. during the pandemic, being named Elementary P.E. Teacher of the Year and how children can stay active, even while at home.

Milton: What was P.E. usually like in DeKalb elementary schools before the pandemic?

Zerby: Usually, physical education is held every day in the DeKalb School District. We work on Illinois state and national learning standards, as well as fitness, movement skills, recreation, team building and socio-emotional skills.

Milton: What was teaching P.E. like this school year?

Zerby: We didn’t have in-person P.E. until February, when we saw each other every other day for 30 minutes. When classes were held remotely, P.E. was held online via a Google Meet. I had to be very flexible with my lessons because we weren’t all together in a gymnasium: some students were in their bedrooms, outside, in an office, even out on trampolines.

Milton: How was online P.E. different from in-person P.E.?

Zerby: I know they love playing with basketballs, but they might not have basketballs at home, and they can’t dribble indoors. So I taught them how to make balls from paper or socks. It was a totally different learning dynamic. Now that they’re back at school, we’re doing some of the activities and sports they love and couldn’t do at home: hockey, basketball and soccer. Today, we had a scooter activity. They always love scooters. We also play tag games and do cardio. During a normal year, kids love to move. They’ve gone a full year without a P.E. program and need the activity.

Milton: Did kids have a lot of physical activity during remote learning?

Zerby: They are wildly out of shape. Some might have taken walks and gone on bike rides with their families, but for the most part, they were at home indoors. That’s why I’m definitely going to focus more on fitness in the fall.

Milton: How does P.E. help all aspects of a child’s life?

Zerby: Physical activity helps with wellness overall because it encompasses health and movement. The CDC recommends 60 minutes of physical movement for children outside of school. Some ways children can do that is by participating in scavenger hunts, playing The Floor is Lava, walking their dog, riding their bike or doing household chores. They can also play games or dance to music. As long as they’re moving and being active, that’s great.

Milton: Why is lifelong physical activity important?

Zerby: I’ve always taught students that movement is important. You have to move and be active, because sitting around all day is not healthy. I tell my students that when they’re a grownup, they have to take care of themselves as an adult. I encourage them to find ways to move and stay active, even when they’re at home. … I always tell my students to keep moving, stay safe and be well.

Milton: Tell me about the Teacher of the Year award.

Zerby: A couple of people nominated me this year, and I’ve been nominated before. After being nominated, I had to write five essays about myself, about topics like why my teaching style is different and what makes me a good teacher. I also sent in letters of recommendation. In December, during the state convention at the Tinley Park Convention Center, I will receive a plaque and be recognized. After becoming Illinois Elementary P.E. Teacher of the Year, I can go for the Midwest and National title.

Milton: What is your reaction to receiving the award?

Zerby: Receiving the award helps people recognize the importance of P.E. in the community. Four schools in DeKalb County, including Jefferson Elementary School, received the Blue Ribbon Award from the same association that I received my award from. To receive the Blue Ribbon Award, a school must have daily P.E. and an excellent program. I think the awards are important because P.E. often gets a bad rep. It’s good to see P.E. in a positive light, because it is important and it needs to be in schools.

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.