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Student Experience

Renewing Physical Education

Gaetano Antonacci Children

Being a first-year teacher in a failing school is difficult, to say the least. At the age of 22, Gaetano Antonacci experienced just that.

“Our school was deemed a renewal school by the New York City Department of Education. We had low test scores, poor student attendance and a high teacher turnover rate,” Antonacci said.

Originally from Lindenhurst, New York, Antonacci had a strong passion for athletics. He was a varsity athlete in high school, then pursued a degree in exercise science from Adelphi University, which soon changed to education. After graduation, Antonacci took a position as the physical education instructor in New York City, where he felt he could positively impact students and their ability to achieve their goals.

“Learning was not the priority when it came to physical education or health environment here,” Antonacci said. “It was my job to change that. Students needed higher expectations from their teacher and from themselves as well as a place where they could try something new and explore activities that might have been out of their comfort zones, which was essentially any activity outside of basketball or soccer.”

While this sort of environment may be ideal for discouraging an educator, Antonacci let it motivate him.

“It was not until I realized how much my students needed me and how much they truly deserved in my first year that my mindset changed. They needed me socially and emotionally, just as much, if not more than they needed me as a PE teacher. I instantly became more than just a teacher; I wanted to be a role model for my kids,” said Antonacci.

That desire led to an idea: graduate school. Through a simple online search, Antonacci found out about Emporia State’s Health, Physical Education, and Recreation online master’s program. As he continued his research, two of his friends applied and enrolled in graduate programs at Emporia State, and highly recommended the school to Antonacci.

“Once my mindset changed, I put my foot on the ground and applied for graduate school to further my education as well as benefit my students and haven’t looked back since,” he said.

From halfway across the nation, Antonacci enrolled in his first online HPER programs as the first step toward his graduate degree.

“My favorite part of learning through the distance college was how each assignment created by my professors provided me with something tangible I could bring into my classroom and use to benefit my students,” Antonacci said.

Although very applicable, the path was not an easy one.

“It’s not easy being a full-time teacher while attempting to obtain a master’s degree. The beauty that lies within that, however, is the opportunity to take what you learn daily and immediately implement it into your teacher practice,” he said. “The education at Emporia State challenged my thinking, pushed me to think outside the box and provided me with the tools to be great ... I never felt as if I was ‘distant’ from my education.”

The hard work paid off. Within four years, Antonacci already has a growing list of accolades due to his knowledge and leadership. His school has been a recipient of the School Wellness Council Grant for three years. Antonacci was one of 15 teachers in New York City who piloted the Middle School Health Smart Sex Education Curriculum. And, in February 2018, he was one of eight health educators in the city selected to attend the Time to Thrive Conference in Orlando, Florida. He has served as the dean of students, mentored fellow physical education teachers in the area, led and attended multiple professional learning opportunities and currently holds the title of a Model Teacher.

“Not many people have been able to have such valuable experiences in just four years, and I credit a lot of that to my education at Emporia State University,” Antonacci said.

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