Volume 17, Number 52 | May 20 - 26, 2005

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Andrew Steele

A fresh spin on gym class

By Ellen Keohane

When P.S 234 gym teacher Andrew Steele told one first grader in his Monday morning class that she couldn’t participate without sneakers, she sat down, put her head in her lap and started sobbing. Many adults with less-than-positive memories of grammar school gym classes may have trouble relating to this first grader’s anguish at missing gym. However, they haven’t had Steele as a gym teacher.

Steele, 46, has been teaching gym at P.S. 234 in Tribeca for seven years. He is the only gym teacher in a school of 700 students. He often teaches five classes a day. Because he is the only teacher in the school’s physical education department, each student in grades K-5 can only have gym once a week. But during that one day, the kids get quite a workout.

Tall and fit with short brown hair, Steele stood heads above the 26 first graders in his morning class. That day, the first graders were practicing relay races in preparation for this year’s “Field Day” which will take place on May 27. Lining the walls of the school gym were blue mats, which many of the students liked slamming into at the end of their leg of the relay race.

Steele blew his whistle and then said, “Freeze.” All movement in the room stopped as the children looked at Steele and waited for further instructions. “Backwards two-foot hop,” he said. Spinning around, the kids started bounding across the wooden gym floor backwards.

Two minutes later, the whistle blew again. “The first person in line, get a soccer ball,” Steele said. He then handed out orange cones to one child in each group of five. “Hold the ball in the cone like an ice cream cone and run to the wall,” he said demonstrating the exercise. “If the ball falls, you have to stand on one foot, touch your head, and say ‘banana, banana, banana.’”

“I think it’s funny ‘cause Andrew’s silly,” said 6-year-old Francesca Schwartz whose favorite game is tag.

Like a choreographed dance, Steele kept the children moving for most of the 45-minute class. Instructions were brief and most activities lasted only a few minutes, allowing little time for his students to lose interest. By the end of the class, the kids were sweating and breathing deeply.

Steele tries to frequently alternate games and activities so “everyone has their moment of glory,” he said. After all, some children are good at basketball, while others shine at juggling or shuffle ball, Steele said. His biggest concern is that everyone’s involved—as long as they’re wearing sneakers—and having fun.

“All the kids love him. They just adore him. I love him,” said Sandy Bridges, the school’s principal. He gives the students positive reinforcement and encourages them to work together, get along, and just have fun, she said.

Steele’s job doesn’t end with just teaching gym classes. For students who want to spend more time in the gym, Steele runs “lunch leagues” twice a week for 4th and 5th graders with the help of lunch aide Lamont Williams. There, students can opt to spend their post-lunch recess in the gym improving their volleyball, basketball or jump rope skills, depending on the season.

Steele is also the director of P.S. 234’s after-school program, which is run by Manhattan Youth, where students can participate in athletic, academic and artistic clubs—from knitting to ceramics to swimming. Two hundred and fifty children are enrolled in the after-school program and Steele is in charge of the 30 staff members who help him run it.

Then, when the school year ends on June 28, Steele will start work as the athletic director of Manhattan Youth’s Downtown Day Camp. “He’s one of the nicest people you’d ever meet,” said Bob Townley, the executive director of Manhattan Youth. “Kids love him.”

Although Steele’s mother worked as an elementary school teacher and his father was a pastor at a private grammar school, Steele didn’t know he wanted to be a teacher until the summer after college graduation when he worked as a volleyball counselor at a traveling summer camp in the Midwest, he said. He later went on to get his teaching credentials at California State University, Los Angeles, before following his girlfriend (who is now his wife) Bonnie to New York City, where she had moved to pursue a career in modern dance. After teaching gym in Harlem for 13 years, he got a job at P.S. 234 seven years ago and has been there ever since.

In addition to his many responsibilities at P.S. 234 and Manhattan Youth, Steele is also a father. Therefore, his day’s highest priority, he said, is getting on the 6:15 p.m. ferry to Staten Island so he can get home by 7 p.m. to read a bedtime story to his 8-year-old son Lane.

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