Breaking the Boys Club is a series of profiles and Q&As with local women and girls involved in sports at all levels, from athletes to administrators. Each story in the series is written and photographed by women in the Missourian newsroom.
Jen Caine starts and stops her physical education class with music, not a whistle. When pop tunes blare from overhead speakers, her students begin to circle the court in Oakland Middle School’s gym. Caine takes attendance as students come up and greet her with wide grins. The music stops and they gather in a circle, sitting cross-legged in front of Caine and her co-teacher, John Wagner.
The two run through odds and ends that need tying up before the semester ends, then they breeze over the class agenda. The music resumes and the seventh-grade students flock to different stations, spiking volleyballs, dribbling basketballs and jumping rope.
Caine has spent the past eight years as a PE instructor, overseeing the female sixth- through eighth-grade students. She’s the school’s health teacher and athletic director and coaches eighth-grade girls basketball. Caine also coaches JV volleyball at Battle High School.
But teaching and coaching weren’t always at the forefront of Caine’s life. Before stepping into the realm of education, she worked as a registered nurse on a surgery floor at St. Mary’s Hospital in Jefferson City, where she assisted with open heart surgery. Caine left nursing to care for her middle daughter and later went back to school to get her master’s in education.
For Caine, PE is more than just a “glorified recess.” She strives to reach all of her students through support and the message that life-long physical wellness is integral to maintaining a healthy future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Is there a reason you chose to teach at the middle school level?
“I kind of fell into education, if you will, by teaching freshman health. So then, the easiest way to get certified in education was to get certified in science. The first teaching position that I took was seventh-grade science back in my hometown of Eldon. I absolutely loved that group of kids. ... You know with the middle school age you get a little bit of elementary, where they still are sweet and cute and adorable, and then they really start to kind of learn more about life. You can kind of guide them through the changes that are taking place in their world.”
Oakland’s PE program seems different, more structured and immersive. Has Oakland always had this expectation?
“The bar of expectation was set when I came to Oakland. I was extremely impressed by the fact that PE here was a real class. It was not a glorified recess. It was physical education. And we buy into that — it is an academic arena. We are teaching, they are learning through physical experiences. It is very different. You come to PE, and you’re in a classroom. ... PE does look different, even from when I was in school. We rolled out basketballs, which was great for athletic kids, but for your other kids that weren’t, those kids got lost on those particular days. Now we have units, we take notes, we do reading activities, we take tests. These students are expected to learn the rules and objectives of games to try and put them in place. ... We try to glorify the strengths and abilities of everyone in the classroom. Sometimes you have this kid who is very shy and very able but lacks confidence, so on a particular day you find a job for that student to do that glorifies his or her strengths. Then you openly praise that student for doing well and that illuminates them in front of everybody. So even your athletic kids are like, ‘Hey man, nice job.’ For a kid this age to get praise and acceptance from their peers, is huge. It’s when acceptance means more in your world than anything. Even if it’s just for a short moment, it can cause some kids to ride on a cloud for days.”
Are there any life experiences you’ve had that have changed how you teach?
“My middle daughter, Kodi, was born three months early and had cerebral palsy. Her entire life she spent in a wheelchair. We just lost her in October of last year. Kodi was an amazing young lady and it was the very simple things in life that brought her joy. There were a lot of things that Kodi couldn’t do. She couldn’t walk, she couldn’t see, she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t talk, and yet found joy in anything. Most days she would laugh just to hear her name called. That life experience taught me that everybody has a backstory. ... I learned very quickly in my teaching career to not take things personally. A lot of times the students who are difficult to deal with are difficult because of their backstories, not because of me or anything I do. I allow those students patience and grace while keeping them as highly accountable as they can be. But I’ve also shared my backstory with kids to let them know why it is hard for me to deal with kids who can do and don’t. ... I pride myself on being able to build relationships with kids. It takes time and I do think some kids have come through Oakland that were really difficult kids that I felt like I did have a great relationship with.”
As a female who is a PE instructor, coach and head of the athletic department, do you think you’re held to different standards than a male in your positions?
“As a teacher in Columbia Public Schools, I have never felt held to a different expectation because I’m a female. And because every building has a male PE teacher and a female PE teacher, it’s very equal across the board. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt in my teaching career that it was more difficult. ... Coaching, yes. I definitely do believe, not just as a coach but as an athletic director, there is a different level of respect given to a female coach than there is a male coach. I do feel that I have to rise up to that challenge. If you walk out to a game and you’re challenging a female coach, I think it’s automatically assumed we’re on the same plane. If you’re opposing a male coach, I think he gets a little comfortable immediately when he sees a female walking out of the locker room.”
Do issues of gender inequality ever get discussed in class?
“We address it in PE a lot. Sometimes our boys have this mentality that the girls can’t. So we address that gender equality is definitely important, that you should respect the abilities of the person standing in front of you or behind you regardless of what gender they are, and they have every opportunity to be equally as involved and participate in the class as you do. ... The boys have to learn to adjust that we are an equal opportunity classroom. And the girls do, too, because the girls like to sometimes stand in the background and let the boys do it all. And we have to work to conquer those stereotypes here.”
Why do you believe physical education is an integral part of a kid’s education?
“I think physical education is where the kids learn the importance of being active. Our society is a quick-fix society. We are a highly obese society and our emphasis lies on having this ideal body image and meeting those expectations. Our kids are tossed so many messages from media about what you’re supposed to look like and how you’re supposed to go about looking like that, and they get lost in what’s really true and what’s really best for them. PE is an arena where we can have those open, honest discussions about our bodies and what’s taking place in our bodies, how to best take care of our bodies. ... We don’t have to just exercise three times a week for 30 minutes. If you just get out with your friends and play a pick-up game of basketball or kickball or tag, where you have no equipment except the space in your backyard — if you can do those things on a daily basis — you’re forging relationships, having a good time and getting away from the stress in your life. ... We know that exercise releases endorphins that make us feel better and help us deal with stress and anxiety. As a society, we’re seeing more and more kids that have anxiety issues and everybody’s life is stressful somehow. We want them to be able to manage their stress.”
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
“Dealing with and finding ways to encourage and support reluctant participators, because I want so badly for every student to enjoy PE. It doesn’t have to be their favorite class, but I at least want them to come and enjoy it enough that they lose track of time when they’re here. They can smile, they can laugh, they can socialize with their friends, which is very important. ... Ultimately, I want every girl and boy that comes through Oakland Middle School to grow and develop and learn to love themselves physically while they’re here. When I have those students who come through and fight everyday, that is by far the most challenging part of my job.”
Can you tell me the most fulfilling memory you have working with your kids?
“Overall, the most fulfilling part of my job is just working with the kids, because I would say nine and a half out of 10 days, the kids are amazing. The half-day that you can’t get through to a kid or break down that wall that day, those other nine and a half give you hope and patience that you can come back and try again when you start that next 10-day count. I thoroughly enjoy teaching PE. It falls right in line with coaching, which is by far my greatest passion. I get to coach my kids in PE. I get to coach and pick them up, just like I would do in basketball. Start where they’re at, build them up, praise them for their successes no matter how small. Coach them through their failures or heartbreaks, and guide them to grow as individuals. ... Probably some of the most fulfillment is when I see them at Battle, and they still yell my name when they come down the hallway. It’s probably one of the best feelings in the world. They come up and give hugs and show true appreciation. Our kids here at Oakland are just amazing kids. ... I’m not going to lie, there are some hard days, some heartbreaking days. But there’s no place else I’d rather be.”