Photography by Danny Fulgencio

Teaching physical education during the coronavirus pandemic was a whole new ball game for Robert Hill Middle School coach Shelly Thibodaux.

When Dallas ISD mandated remote learning, traditional teaching methods, such as group games, shared equipment and hands- on instruction, were rendered impossible. She was forced to devise activities that students could perform at home.

Instead of badminton or dodgeball, physical activity looked a lot like household chores during the pandemic. Students who couldn’t complete the workout videos Thibodaux posted on Google Classroom were asked to get at least 20 minutes of activity a day, whether it was vacuuming, raking leaves or walking up and down the stairs to their apartment.

“I had some parents who emailed me saying, ‘Can he jump on the trampoline?’ Absolutely,” Thibodaux says. “Just get off the computer.”

No matter what format school takes this fall, Thibodaux won’t be caught unprepared again. This summer, she participated in a district-wide program to produce 30-minute workout videos for elementary, middle and high school students. Forty videos for each age group will be posted on YouTube, and a library of lessons will be ready when school resumes. The videos are geared toward at-home learning, but they can also be used in the classroom if there is a substitute teacher.

“Data proves that learning is enhanced by physical activity,” Thibodaux says. “It makes kids function better if they can get stress out. Activity gets [them] up and feeling fresh. It’s not going to kill them. It’s fun.”

Having fun in P.E. could be a challenge when students return to in-person learning, Thibodaux says. District officials have instructed coaches to take the kids outside, but if equipment is prohibited, physical activity will be limited to stretching, walking and running. That’s not only boring, but a health hazard if temperatures reach triple digits, Thibodaux says.

The alternative is to stay in the gym, where it’s more difficult to distance. If equipment is allowed, it will be fumigated once a week, but there are other challenges in keeping locker rooms free of disease. “All of us are concerned about our health, but if you want a job, you have to go do your job,” Thibodaux says. “If you want to do online learning, that’s fine, but it won’t work for me. I applaud the decision-makers for giving us a couple choices and giving parents and students a couple choices.”

Thibodaux started teaching nearly 40 years ago and has dedicated her career to helping students succeed. Her own teachers set the example. Thibodaux will never forget the time she lost her shoes, and her teachers bought her a new pair so she could perform in the school play.

“It’s not just about teaching. It’s about making connections,” Thibodaux says. “I believe in giving back. I’m just the hub. The spokes are my kids who have left Hill and gone to Bryan Adams or Woodrow or Talented and Gifted.”

Thibodaux has secured 1,500 boxes of school supplies, 1,800 backpacks and 145 iPads for Dallas ISD students through Nancy Lieberman Charities. Students who receive an iPad not only get to serve as hosts and hostesses at Lieberman’s Dream Ball Gala, the iPads are presented at her celebrity golf classic.

In 2018, Thibodaux also partnered with former Dallas Cowboy Kavon Frazier to provide Thanksgiving meals to students. A few weeks later, the safety took students from Hill and Bryan Adams on a Christmas shopping spree at Under Armour.

Her extensive community outreach comes on top of her day-to-day duties at Hill, where Thibodaux wears many hats. As a P.E. teacher, she introduced the Partner P.E. program for students with disabilities. As athletic coordinator, she organized a district-wide futsal tournament with the winner competing at the World Cup in Disney World. And as coach, Thibodaux led the boys’ and girls’ cross country teams to their best finishes at the 2019 district meet, all through endurance workouts in the gym to avoid the summer heat.

“I’m really proud that I’ve lasted 39 years,” Thibodaux says. “Students have figured out that I’ve got their backs. I’m not the strict P.E. teacher in a class of 45. I really do care about them as individuals.”

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