Adapted Physical Education graduate student uses platform to inspire
Jennifer Heebink’s story from student to educator exemplifies her personal motto to “shine through your story.” Her journey to adapted physical education began with a difficult college experience. After missing a group teaching lesson, she had to teach a middle school class solo. Her first time in front of the room of seventh graders was challenging, and she felt discouraged about her choice to major in health.
“I remember walking down the hallway of my university thinking I can’t do this,” Heebink says. “I met up with an adapted physical education professor, Dr. Sue Tarr and she encouraged me to consider changing my major.”
Heebink was invited to a bike camp that summer to experience what it would be like to teach adapted physical education. She began helping students progress from not knowing how to ride a bike to riding bikes with adaptations and then to two wheels. She was hooked!
“It was incredible to help students engage with this rite of passage,” Heebink says. “I fell in love with seeing kids grow in skills and bravery. I latched on and haven’t let go.”
Her professor complimented her work with the students and shared that she did a great job. Heebink would go on to become the SHAPE America National Adapted Physical Education Teacher of the Year.
“We were in the midst of the pandemic and everything shutting down, and I found out I was selected as the Minnesota state Adapted Physical Educator of the Year,” Heebink says. “I was given the opportunity to apply for our district and then national awards. The whole process is very rigorous.”
Heebink was announced as the national recipient at the SHAPE America Convention in 2022.
“The fellow teachers of the year become your brothers and sisters,” Heebink says. “The process opened up opportunities to share our passions and work together with other educators. I think that has been the biggest advantage of the whole process. I feel so well connected and supported. I know if I can’t find an answer, I can find someone who will help.”
Heebink shares that she and her fellow educators are motivated by giving the students their best. She is proud of the unified programming she has implemented at her school. This pairs students with and without disabilities during physical education to create a powerful and impactful experience for students.
“It’s a place where students can come be brave and learn about people that are different than they are,” Heebink says. “It helps them grow socially and learn how to be active throughout their whole life.”
Heebink’s school was designated by the Special Olympics as a “Unified Champion School” meaning that her school promotes social inclusion and is a welcoming atmosphere for students with disabilities. Her students can participate in a club called “Inclusive Leadership” that features an executive board of students who plan inclusive events.
Heebink’s school promotes whole school engagement through events like a school-wide polar plunge. The Special Olympics brings a mobile trailer into the school and various administrators and student teams jump into frigid waters to raise money for inclusive initiatives.
“This three-pronged approach with classes, the club and whole school engagement has been really successful for us,” Heebink says. “It makes the school culture more inclusive and is beneficial to everyone. It has a ripple effect throughout the school.
Heebink will share this work along with her message to “shine through your story” at the National Adapted Physical Education Conference this fall as a keynote speaker. The experience is on her professional bucket list, and she is excited for the connections she will build.
“It has been hard the last three years to be an educator,” Heebink says. “I’ve been thinking about what would motivate me as I prepare. I want to share that even through difficulties and challenges we, like our students, can be brave. ‘Shine through your story’ means that our passion and success come through when we are brave and our world expands. How can we help our students live this out?”
Heebink is exploring these ideas and more in her online master’s program in adapted physical education. The program expectations and asynchronous nature fit into her busy schedule as an educator and a mom.
“I’m currently in professor Taliaferro’s class, and she uses subject-matter talks to help us think about different aspects of our work,” Heebink says. “These have been challenging me and growing me as a person and encouraging me to do the same with my fellow educators and students.”