Don Hellison: Celebrating A Life Well Lived

Many people know Don Hellison a heck of a lot better than me. But over the years our paths did cross a few times. And so, when I recently heard that Don, now aged 79, had suffered a stroke with some serious complications it got me thinking about him and the way he changed how physical education is taught today.

If you’ve been in the profession a while and taken your teaching seriously, the ‘Hellison’ name is already familiar to you. If you’re relatively new and graduated from a decent professional preparation program, while you may not recognize Don’s name you were almost certainly introduced to the idea that physical education can be an effective way to teach kids social skills and personal responsibility.

Don brought this thinking to the physical education world not by way of isolated ivory-towered theorizing, but through some tough real-world personal experience. Early in his career Don sought out the hardest inner-city teaching situations and toughest kids: Places and people that most of us would run from, not to. He dove in and together with his student-majors and graduate students tried to figure out how to improve these kids’ lives.

As you can imagine it wasn’t easy. A lot of trial and error. A lot of failures and disappointments. But throughout, Don didn’t give up. He was determined to come up with physical education teaching strategies that worked. For many kids in these harsh settings he recognized that kicking or volleying a ball correctly just wasn’t that important. He understood that these kids needed to learn how to get along with one another before worrying about skills and fitness. And so evolved his ideas on teaching personal and social responsibility.

My first contact with Don was in the late 1980s when I worked for Human Kinetics and was assigned as developmental editor for his book, Goals and strategies for teaching physical education. I’d never met Don and until then wasn’t familiar with his work, but over several months we exchanged marked-up versions of his draft document. His ideas were refreshing and innovative. They contrasted significantly with the thinking that physical education teaching was all about learning motor skills, improving physical fitness, or as a way to improve reading, writing, and arithmetic.

It wasn’t so much that traditional thinking was wrong, but rather that before getting students to do any of these things you first had to get them to listen and cooperate. Absent a willingness to learn, everything else was irrelevant. Don’s book remains a great read for a professional library. It’s also one that I’ll treasure becauseI took all the photos, managing to slip in several of my own young kids!

Our paths crossed next when as a new university professor I started creating instructional video tapes. At an AAHPERD National Convention I scheduled interviews with many of the day’s leading professional figures. Don was clearly one of them. I had my camera ready in my hotel room and one-by-one sat these luminaries down to answer my questions about the status and future of physical education.

I remember meeting Don in the hotel lobby and learned that he just been chatting with former students at a local bar. He was in good spirits and ready to talk. The filmed interview contains some great insights (see below for excerpt) but the thing I remember most was when I asked Don about problems facing the future of the profession and what he saw as the purpose of physical education.

He said many things but in midsentence suddenly switched to a story. He told me he’d just been talking to one of his former students who was having a hard time working with a more experienced colleague. This new teacher told Don that his colleague insisted on all students taking showers and that monitoring showering was creating a huge amount of teacher-student conflict. Don looked intently at me and said that if teachers believe forcing students to take showers is their main purpose, “that’s why physical education has problems.”

I’ve never forgotten this thought and it repeatedly comes to mind when I see physical educators worrying about students wearing the correct uniforms or proper gym shoes. For Don, the well-being of kids has always been more important than rules and regulations. I’m guessing that’s how when faced with a particularly tough class of students, he at least once got away with insisting upon modifying the playing rules of a volleyball game to include strip poker and instantly saw a change in the attitude and effort of the players!

Years later, Don accepted my invitation to come to the university where I was teaching to lead a workshop for our teaching majors. As he usually did, he managed to connect with former colleagues along the way and persuade one of them to drive him over the mountains to spent a couple of days sharing his unique ideas. Watching him, what was remarkable was Don’s ability to connect personally with others. There were no airs or graces or any expectation to be recognized as someone special – which he certainly was. Despite his many books and publications and countless awards, Don had a special gift of making others feel important. He listened patiently to the questions of my novice teachers and challenged their thinking. I’m pretty sure that over the years all who’ve participated in one of Don’s presentations left feeling inspired to be better teachers.

Click image to listen to an excerpt from Don’s interview in the PE Today & Tomorrow series

I’m sorry that today Don’s health isn’t so good but glad to know that he is being well cared for by his wife Judy. If you aren’t already familiar with his ideas I strongly recommend you look up one or more of Don Hellison’s books. If you teach, you will at times face challenging situations and students. You will be tempted to give up on them. But that’s not Don’s way. He saw value in everyone and would want you to do the same. Not all of your students are destined to be highly skilled or physically fit, but all of them need to learn good social skills to become responsible citizens in society. If you do this I’m sure Don will be proud of you.

Thanks Don for all that you have contributed to our profession and congratulations on a career and life truly well lived.

Steve Jefferies

(If you have experiences with Don or his teaching you would like to share please write in the comment section below this essay. I’m sure he would love to hear from you. Thanks.)

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Read how your teaching colleagues are showing their commitment to increasing physical activity and bringing good health to their students! Remember - It begins with US (and that includes physical and health educators everywhere!)  

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23 Comments
  1. We teach the Hellison model in our classes at Abilene Middle School. I’ve never met Don but want to thank him for showing us the way to teach our students personal and social responsibility. If ever s time that our youth need to learn these things it is now. His teachings are timeless. Thanks Don for making the PE world a better place. God speed on your recovery.

  2. Don – you have been an inspiration for more than one generation of educators. You changed the way we looked at behaviors; especially incorporating your models in Project Adventure plus all curriculum. NYS AHPERD is proud to have had you join us numerous times and your name, your model, your concept is mentioned constantly from professionals in the field as well as pre-service educators working on their preparation for the classroom. I remember fondly our time together at numerous conferences. You continue to have an enormous effect on how we deliver curriculum and assessment to our students throughout the world. Thinking of you with our most positive thoughts! Love from NYS AHPERD!!!

  3. Don changed my teaching forever. I heard him speak at a conference in LaCrosse, WI in the mid ’90s and have been using his model for over 20 years, tweaking it to fit my elementary students. It is our culture, where students show respect, challenge themselves and think of others. I wonder how many student have been affected by Don’s work? He has made a big ripple in the PE community!

  4. I had the honor of meeting Don at our National Convention and spoke with him on promoting Life time activities to young students. His ideas have strongly impacted me. Now, over the last 20 plus years my company SkatingAmerica.com promotes Lifetime activity in schools, camps parks and military bases worldwide. I also own Crystal Diving, and we teach scuba from Open Water to Instructor Level. I have had the honor of placing our students in jobs in 42 countries in the world and we still am doing it stronger then ever today. I am a former Southwest teacher of the Year, and Don has truly touch my philosophy on how I run my companies, and how I taught in the pubic schools. Thank you for all you do, it’s so appreciated! With much respect :-)

  5. Don Hellison is, and has been, one of the giants in our field. His strong stand in favor of “kid orientation,” thinking of the student first, is something that we should all emphasize in everything we do. Don is our strongest advocate for humanistic physical education. He is also a critic of current programs and justifiably so. New and seasoned physical educators can benefit from reading his books and accepting the challenge to change the face of physical education by daring to make change even thought it is often hard to do.

  6. Professor Hellison has had more impact than any “impact factor” or “h-index” could ever capture! We owe Professor Hellison a lot for kepeing us honest, grounded in the realities of what happens with and to the increasing number of children and youth, who hail from in especially urban, economically disadvantaged settings.
    And, if you want to learn about how to be a scholar in our little community who spent time in the trenches with teachers and students follow in his footsteps!!
    We love you Don!!!

  7. Don has been very inspiration for myself, I continue to ask myself Don’s guiding questions of What’s worth doing? What’s possible? and Is it working? There is more to gym the playing games and Don has paved the way to quality health and physical education around the globe. I want to send my best wishes to Don and his wife Judy during this time.

  8. Don’s approach to developing relationships with youth not only influenced my doctoral studies, dissertation project, and first 7 years of my professional engagement as a scholar, it also gave me a new lens through with to see and understand people’s behavior. His gentle and compassionate approach to sport leadership and urban education has made a lasting impression on the field, and on me. For that, I thank him sincerely.

  9. Don was my mentor as a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the late 80s/early 90s. When I came out to visit him from England prior to applying to the program, I accompanied him on a humid August afternoon as he taught a volleyball class as part of his after school program in a community center on Chicago’s west side. After the class ended, as was often the case with Don, we adjourned to a local bar to debrief the session! During our conversation, he asked me whether I had changed any kids’ lives during my 6 years of teaching in the UK. I wasn’t expecting such a question but it has stuck with me ever since.
    As a doctoral student, I had a wonderful 5 years of experience with Don (and not just in bars!). He transformed my view of physical education teaching by always raising two questions: “What’s worth doing?” and “Is it working?” And, as we all know, for the past 40+ years, he has been a beacon for humanistic physical education (a title of one of his early books, I believe) around the world.

  10. I have told the longer version of this story countless times, as I believe it was a pivotal point in my life path.

    I transferred to the University of Illinois-Chicago in Fall 2002 as a senior, to complete my bachelor’s degree in Exercise Physiology, with end goal of graduating on to a physical therapy school. That first semester I took the Intro to Kinesiology Professions course and Don was one of our speakers. He included video footage of his program Urban Youth Leader in action, and I was immediately intrigued by the work he was leading with middle school students in socioeconomically depressed Chicago neighborhoods. (Even as I write that line it doesn’t come close to minimally describing the impact of that team’s efforts or Don’s collective work on students and schools.) I reached out to him to learn more and that developed into Don awarding me an assistantship following graduation, where I entered the master’s of education program focused on instructional leadership. For two years I worked in the Urban Youth Leader program.

    My path from there evolved from community center program management, to community school program management, to non-profit organization director. Those experiences immersed me in school environments and introduced me to advocates and allies for equality in quality public education. As I transitioned on to CPS as a hiring manager those experiences helped me identify best-fit talent for struggling schools.

    As we continue to consider the compound effect of those experiences, I then went on to co-found an education tech startup company centered on identifying the highest quality educators then enabling schools to put the best teachers in front of all students. Today I help design systems to manage a variety of school district process needs including recruitment, hiring, and professional development.

    I say all of this to let you, Don, truly understand the impact of you coming into that classroom to share your passion. Thank you. I appreciate you and am sending you positive energies.

    Love,
    Krystal

  11. Don has been a huge inspiration to me both professionally and personally. I worked with him in publishing his book “Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility through Physical Activity.” But, well beyond our work together, he is a friend. I learned so much from our long talks about giving students the opportunity to become accountable. That you didn’t make students accountable. You guided them. You provided them opportunities. You mentored them. Don is one of those rare folks who is both tough and compassionate. I am sending as many positive waves as I can to you, Don. Get better my friend! –scott

  12. My first experience with Don was meeting him at the AAHPERD Conference in San Diego a few years ago. I had just begun teaching a course I had created for our Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies department in the College of Education here at the University of Arizona and I was interested in getting his thoughts about the direction I was taking with the class. Even though Don didn’t know me from Adam, he took the time to share his thoughts and to help me feel better about my initial foray into teaching this class on Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility. Don mentioned that sometimes you have to take the perspective of “ready, fire, aim” and just get the ball rolling, making sure to reflect on what you’re able to accomplish and making the necessary changes as you go along. His guidance that day and his willingness to treat me as his colleague made a huge impression and I try to “pay his kindness forward” whenever I can.
    Though I only met you that one day in San Diego, I feel like I made a friend for life.
    Get well soon Don.

  13. What a great man. He completely changed my teaching and I am so blessed for having his influence on my life. Thanks for everything, Don.
    I especially liked his response to someone asking about having research support for his ideas – “if it works for you, it works”.

  14. Don was my motivator for pursuing my Ph.D. in the US. When I was a PE teacher in Seoul, Korea in the 90s, I came across Don’s holistic approach to teaching PE placing emphasis on the affective domain of learning. I was absolutely fascinated with the ideas so that I conducted action research in my middle school physical education classes using the approach. The study was evolved into my Master thesis and Don’s book titled “Goals and Strategies for Teaching PE” became my treasure. Although I did not study under him for my doctoral degree, his theory and practice have been my beacon mound for my teaching, parenting, and life living. Don, you are always in my heart! Stay strong.-Jin

  15. I, like many of us have never had the pleasure to meet Don personally. Yet, I like many of us have met him through his work! His “kid-first” philosophy helped my teaching put my students in a better position to learn in my classes. I hope I’ve helped them learn to use each other to help them learn and to enjoy learning.

  16. Keeping Don in my prayers. What an inspiration. I used his methods for classroom management my last several years of teaching. Wish I knew about them sooner. What a pioneer in Physical Education. Thank you Don. Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year.

  17. Hi, Don. I hope you are feeling and doing better.
    As you know, I’ve admired your work since we first met at Ohio State in 1975, and I’ve done my best to ‘behavioralize’ it while incorporating it into both my classes and research.

    Believe it or not, I’ve actually required my students to buy your books! I truly miss our 30+ years of friendly bantering about educational philosophy, humanism vs. behaviorism, and research at national and other conferences.

    BEHAVE!
    Thom

  18. I first met Don at a Curriculum Theory Conference in Athens Georgia, late ’80’s, where we were two of about 10 males attending a conference of around 100 professionals. At the same time, Don and I were “competing” for a job–he got it! Later at a national conference presentation, Don sat front and center snickering at an unfortunate acronym I had adopted for a study of Physical Education Methods Teacher Educators. Through all of these and other personal contacts, Don has always been one of the warmest, most supportive and engaging colleagues and friends in my professional career–the human side of the international impact of a man and his work.
    I’m looking forward to hearing more of your speedy recovery.

    Murray.

  19. Don, Your work has been an inspiration to me and our many undergraduate students majoring in physical education. Around 1990 you made a trip to Cortland to present your ideas. The chance to talk with you was a professional highlight for me. Thank you for your pioneering work humanizing our field of physical education and keeping the focus on our students.

  20. I had the privilege of being a student of Don’s at Portland State University. He had a way of connecting with his students, and his class was one that you didn’t want to miss…even if you were sick. As part of the curriculum for his class we all had to volunteer hours at the local school he worked at for high risk kids. We got the opportunity to see first hand how the Hellison’s model of social responsibility worked.We loved hearing his stories, we soaked up his teaching ideals, and to this day I still incorporate what he taught us in my own PE classes. I would like to tell Don, if I could I would raise my glass at the “Cheerful Tortoise” once again in honor of him! This was a place his students would meet with him to just talk life, teaching, etc. You are one in a million. Get well

  21. Thanks for this article Steve, it’s a great tribute to a giant of a man and actually reminded me of when I met Don. Before reading this article, and the comments below, I thought that my interaction (singular) with Don was special and because of the warmth and depth of his responses to my questions he would certainly recall our short time together. But now I kind of doubt it. The fact that one person after another has recounted similar experiences is a testament to who the father of TPSR is. Don has clearly spent a lifetime of giving of himself completely to not simply his work but his life and the moments therein, being present before mindfulness was the new hot thing! I thank you for that inspiration Don and hope that these words find you well and growing stronger each day. My very best,
    John Strong

  22. About thirty or forty years ago while attending a national convention I had the good fortune and the privilege of stumbling into a discussion between Don and a group made up of fellow professionals and students. The topics of that discussion ranged from philosophical through practical thoughts concerning life and teaching. I left that non meeting/ meeting with a renewed enthusiasm for teaching and especially for teaching physical education. Over the years and through many conventions I searched out Don and his non meeting/meetings and I was usually fortunate enough to locate him and his ever changing group of students and others who were interested in all that he had to offer. Many of those ideas and thoughts that were shared in those sessions were taken back to my students and colleagues. We never had the opportunity to have Don physically visit the campus of Canisius College, however his spirit and ideas permeated the classes that I taught. I thank you for welcoming me and allowing me to be a part of those non meeting/meetings and for sharing your thoughts on teaching. Sorry to hear about your recent set back and I wish you well in your recovery.
    Jim Sylvis

  23. In the spring of 1985, as a first year professor, I attended the Centennial AAHPERD Convention in Atlanta and went to the presentation, “Behaviorism vs Humanism” by Daryl Siedentop and Don Hellison. To be quite honest, I was excited to listen to Siedentop’s thoughts on behaviorism. Up to that point, his text, “Developing Teaching Skills in Physical Education” had strongly influenced the behavior management strategies I incorporated into my own teaching. I knew very little about the other speaker. Little did I know how quickly that would change! I was so impressed with what Don Hellison had to say during the talk that I immediately walked out of the presentation and went straight into the exhibits areas and bought his book “Goals and Strategies for Teaching Physical Education”. I read most of the book on the flight home. The information in his book really challenged me to reexamine my philosophy of behavior management which to that point was heavily based in operant conditioning. I was also struck by that fact that Don had this unique way of writing that although theory driven was very practical and personal. Over the next few years, we corresponded back and forth as I shared how I was training my university students to use the TPSR framework with children with disabilities. He was always very positive, giving me some great feedback, but would make sure to always end with, “I wish you weren’t so “B Mod”! Ha! In the early 1990s, I invited him to be a key note speaker at our National APE conference and I was struck by how down to earth and genuine he was with audience members who talked with him after his presentation and throughout the conference. He was really good at connecting with each person he spoke with. Over the years, I have enjoyed our conversations on behavior management and teaching in general. Some of them in a pub, usually Irish, like the “Field” in San Diego. Obviously Don has had a big impact on the profession and certainly influenced my writing and thinking. Don, wish you a strong recovery. Your “B Mod” friend.

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