By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
DEWITT — With a group of elementary school students sitting cross-legged on the gym floor in front of him, physical education instructor Tom Meade spoke about focus and mindfulness.
He described a scene in which a basketball player is at the free-throw line with a chance to make the game-winning shot. Meanwhile, fans and opponents are waving colorful props and making a lot of noise. In order to relax and make the shot, “You need to learn to block them out.”
It’s a lesson he taught to athletes and students throughout his 40-plus years teaching in public schools. But, as a PE teacher in a Catholic school, he has been able to take this lesson a little further.
“You’re more likely to hear the Holy Spirit when you don’t have a bunch of thoughts running around in your head,” he told the students during a class in mid-December. The mindfulness exercises that can help athletes focus can also be used to help people focus on God.
Meade began working part-time for St. Joseph Catholic School in DeWitt about six years ago after retiring from Central DeWitt Community School District, where he served as a full-time teacher and coach. He will officially complete his teaching career at the end of this school year.
Principal Sharon Roling said Meade is an example of how a PE teacher can be a catechist. “At our diocesan in-service this year, I remember listening to the speaker talk about how a PE teacher is a catechist through his or her words and actions. PE skills came second. Tom was across the table from me and I remember looking at him saying, ‘this is so you!’”
Meade is a member of the DeWitt parish and regularly participates in Bible studies. He believes that teaching is a spiritual experience, and he finds himself leaning on God in prayer when a student or class presents challenges.
Incorporating faith and fitness is something he’s learned to do over time. Most of the time Meade’s PE classes focus on physical exercise, overall health and teamwork. He said PE isn’t just about giving kids the chance to run around; he wants to teach skills that they will be able to use throughout their lives. Because he has the opportunity to do so, he includes periodic lessons that tie in faith with sporting concepts. “I do it any day I think it’ll fit in well,” he said.
When The Catholic Messenger visited his class in December, he taught the students how to practice mindfulness during daily activities and, therefore, be more open to hearing God’s voice. “We’re told to listen to God, but how do you do it?” He encouraged the students to try practicing mindfulness outside of class by focusing on their breathing and what’s going on around them. A quiet mind will hear God’s voice more clearly than a distracted one, he said, just as a focused basketball player will be more likely to make that game-winning shot.
Roling said, “I have never met a PE teacher like Tom who looks at whole-child development, researching how to help students relax, deal with stress and have overall fitness.”
Meade said that when it comes to sharing his faith and helping students enhance their relationship with God, “You can’t help but do that here.”