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Pacific Trails’ Austin Olson is County Middle School PE Teacher of the Year

PE Teacher of the Year Austin Olson with Bailee Holt-Sandsmark, CAPHERD president and Canyon Crest Academy athletic director.
PE Teacher of the Year Austin Olson with Bailee Holt-Sandsmark, CAPHERD president and Canyon Crest Academy athletic director.

(Courtesy)

Pacific Trails Middle School teacher Austin Olson has been named San Diego County’s Middle School PE Teacher of the Year. The honor was awarded by the San Diego County chapter of the California Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (CAHPERD).

Olson received his award at a CAHPERD reception in Marina Village on May 26.

“We have a very unique PE program at Pacific Trails Middle School (PTMS) that was built on his inspiration and vision,” said fellow PE teacher Tiffany Gilson of Olson. “It includes weekly social and emotional learning topics and a cutting-edge approach to providing wellness opportunities for our students.”

Principal Mary Anne Nuskin said she was so proud of Olson for earning this recognition and for what he brings to the school.

“He is innovative, engaging, and has the ability to get students to engage in fitness through play. He is always looking for new activities and games to keep his PE fresh and fun. He does a great job challenging those students who are very athletic, and supporting/encouraging those who are on the journey to becoming the best version of themselves,” Nuskin said. “He is a wonderful colleague to his fellow staff members and a mentor to aspiring teachers who work with him. The PTMS community is lucky to have Austin Olson as a member of our Wolfpack.”

Olson has been in education for 19 years. He worked at a private school for 12 years and a Title 1 school in El Cajon before landing at Pacific Trails when it opened in 2016. He is a father of 11- and 8-year-old girls Briella and Liliana (“I wish I could teach them.”) and his wife Sarah is a first grade teacher in El Cajon.

Movement has always been a big part of his life—he is a runner and continues to play in an adult basketball league—but he didn’t set out to be a PE teacher. Olson’s initial plans were to go into sports broadcasting but while in college at San Diego State University he worked at SeaWorld in the education department and found he really enjoyed working with kids.

“My wife hated middle school PE, it was her least favorite class,” Olson said. “I thought I could make PE fun, that’s what motivated me to get into the teaching field.”

Per California Education Code, all students in grades 7-12 must receive a minimum of 400 minutes of physical education instruction every 10 school days—Olson sees all seventh and eighth graders at Pacific Trails three days a week.

His main philosophy is to make movement fun and engaging so that students will want to come back and, more importantly, realize all the positive benefits of an active lifestyle.

“I try to let them have a little flexibility so it’s more student centered,” he said of his classes.

He gets creative with the way students are moving—Instead of just sending kids out to run the mile, he works in HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and speed work.

He never shies away from being the first to pilot something new and brings in what might be considered non-traditional sports. This year he had the San Diego Cricket Club come in for a unit on cricket, which many of his students were familiar with. He said it was cool to see students who knew the game well helping out others who were completely new to willows and wickets.

Students learn self-defense, create their own PE games, play flag football, and take on a gymnastics and tumbling unit where they are learning stunts. There is also the old PE standby of square dancing, done in a unique Pacific Trails way.

“At first I was so scared to teach square dancing, now it’s one of my favorite units,” Olson said. “I give them the keys and say ‘Create your own routine’…They run with it. They love being with their friends and being creative.”

Pacific Trails is also unique in that they have a flexible changing policy. If students are dressed in athletic gear for the school day, they do not have to change into PE clothes in the locker room. For Olson, it goes back to having a student-centered program.

Beyond the minutes of PE class, during lunch Olson runs sports tournaments—games like kickball, dodgeball, volleyball and even a home run derby.

“The team that wins the tournament gets their picture added to the PTMS Wall of Fame,” Olson said. “I really enjoy doing it because I know it is the best part of the day for some of the kids.”

It was also important for Olson to bring in the wellness component with social-emotional learning, to help develop the whole person, taking lessons from the Second Step curriculum.

Students learn social skills, how to make good decisions, about managing relationships and how to navigate all those middle school emotions. They learn to aspire for excellence by setting goals but also to be ok with making mistakes. With the social-emotional component of PE, students are making connections with each other and their teachers, “I think building relationships is awesome and we do that in a lot of different ways,” he said.

The San Dieguito Union High School District offers independent study PE (ISPE) so students can opt out of taking PE in school. Olson’s goal is to make that decision harder, for students to realize they are missing out if they are not taking PE at PTMS.

And he thinks he’s created a program that even his wife would’ve loved. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” he said.


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