NAUGATUCK — At the beginning of every school year, Tony Loomis shows Naugatuck High School students a picture of a rain cloud.
Inside every raindrop is the name of an ailment: diabetes, stroke, hypertension.
The next photo shows an umbrella with spokes made of phrases like “lifestyle activities,” “how to strength train properly,” “taking your heart rate” — each represents a unit of the course.
“I think of it as there is this big rain storm out there, and I’m trying to give students something to protect against it,” he said.
Loomis, a physical education teacher whose unique and energetic classroom consists of constant movement, music and discussion about healthy lifestyles, has caught the attention of his peers nationwide. The 31-year-old Waterbury resident has been named national high school physical education teacher of the year. He is just the second Connecticut PE teacher to win the national award, which is given by SHAPE America — SHAPE is short for Society of Heath and Physical Educators.
The organization, formerly the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, has presented the award for 25 years to the best in three categories: elementary, middle and high school. Loomis was the winner for the Northeast Region and beat out six other regional winners recently at a ceremony in St. Louis.
The awards are given in recognition of outstanding teaching performance and the ability to motivate today’s youth to participate in a lifetime of physical activity, according to SHAPE America’s website.
That has been Loomis’s goal since he started at Naugatuck High School 10 years ago after graduating from Springfield College in Massachusetts. The Middletown native thought he would be here for a year or two before moving on, but said he fell in love with the people in Naugatuck: the faculty, staff and especially the students.
“They challenge me every day, just like I challenge them,” he said. “I want to be the best teacher I can for them. I tell them that I never want them to feel like I’m wasting their time.”
In his first year, Loomis said he was told he would teach basketball for two weeks, softball for two weeks, etc. What he found, he said, is that a majority of students did not want to participate.
“They didn’t understand why this was meaningful in their lives,” he said. “I vowed to always have a valid answer to the question of why are we doing this.”
He tells students that for most of them, he is the last health professional, besides a doctor, who will give them guidance on their physical well-being.
Loomis, who is also the tennis coach at NHS, is passionate about his job, speaking to anyone who will listen about the importance of physical fitness, exercise and how it helps students focus and learn. His energy is contagious, and students seem willing to follow his lead. Many have joined a local gym where he works part-time as a trainer, and others told a reporter they enjoy physical education now, for the first time.
While he tries to maintain a level of humor in class — using quotes like, “When the bum is numb, the brain is the same” — there is no doubt Loomis takes his role seriously.
“We are teaching them how to take care of their bodies for the rest of their lives; that’s a tall order,” he said.
His award comes with some responsibility, but it’s one that Loomis relishes. He is now under contract with SHAPE America to speak at events throughout the country about the importance of physical education in schools. It’s a soapbox Loomis is proud to stand upon.
“PE is very often put on the back burner, but the latest brain research is showing more and more how much our kids need physical activity and that they learn better if they are moving,” he said. “I’ve been preaching for years that PE is different than it used to be, and now someone has given me a ladder with a microphone.”