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what i do

What I do: Dinah McCann, adaptive physical education teacher

New York Teacher
Dinah McCam
Jonathan Fickies

Dinah McCann teaches physical education to students with disabilities in two elementary schools in Flushing, Queens.

What makes an adaptive physical education teacher different from a regular physical education teacher?

Adaptive physical education teachers help improve students’ locomotor skills, object control skills, perceptual motor function and physical fitness in a setting that focuses on differentiating instruction so it is developmentally and socially appropriate. And adaptive phys ed must be on a student’s IEP. I have about 35 students that I work with in two different schools, and I see my students three to five days a week — anywhere from one student to a group of seven or eight. At this time I work with students who have learning disabilities and visual impairments. I follow the state curriculum for physical education, but my planning is a little bit more flexible. If they pick up on a skill quickly, we’ll go fast; if they’re struggling, we can spend more time on it. We won’t move on until children are successful. My goal is for the students to learn the skills, but I also want them to feel good about what they’re doing.

And how is adaptive physical education different from physical therapy?

Physical therapy is basically about working on skills that children need to be able to ambulate through the building safely — can they get up and down the stairs, etc. Although some of our activities may overlap, adaptive physical education teachers also add gross motor skills and fine motor skills in terms of working with equipment. A physical therapist might have a child hold a bat to work on strength. In adaptive phys ed, we’ll work on that skill and add the components of stepping and hitting the ball, running the bases.

How do you modify the curriculum to serve students who are visually impaired?

I have to be extremely specific in terms of instruction. Everything is auditory or kinesthetic. When I introduce a new piece of equipment, I describe it and students have to be able to touch it, feel it, squeeze it — they need that tactile information to understand how it’s going to work. Right now, my younger visually impaired students are working on a dance to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” from “The Lion King” where they’ll be dressed up in lion costumes. The paraprofessionals, classroom teacher and I help the students do the actual move the first few times until they can feel it and learn how to do it appropriately and independently. And I use a set of bells as signals throughout the song, so students who can’t see me can hear specific signals for them to stand up or sit or turn.

What are some other ways that you adapt the curriculum for your students’ needs?

In terms of learning skills, I try to break everything down to its simplest form, to the point where someone else might look at what we’re doing and say, “Oh, that’s so simple.” Every student processes information differently. Giving them enough time to learn the skill is also important. I might say, “Take a step with your right foot. Now bend your knee,” and wait three seconds, and then I see the the joy on their faces when they get it.

Your students must love coming to see you.

All children love physical activity. The best thing about physical education is that, not only are they improving their physical bodies, but there’s also the mind-brain connection. Kids are more attentive after they come back from gym class. And for some kids, my class might be the only place during the day where they feel successful. Being able to socialize and share equipment in an appropriate way, learning about social cues you might not get out on the playground, doing things we take for granted every day — that self-esteem is so important.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

What I like is watching kids learn how to do new things. The milestones are tiny. I’ve been an adaptive phys ed teacher for 30 years, and it’s when students come back years later that you really understand the impact you had as a teacher. They’ll come back and tell you one little thing you did for them that was their turning point, their shining moment, and that’s a hard feeling to describe. One former student recently told me, “Mrs. McCann, I came back to see you because I knew you’d be so proud of me.”

— As told to reporter Rachel Nobel