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PE teacher Sarah Lowe to retire— Caring for the whole person

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For all teachers, developing a good relationship with students is key. But it’s especially important when it comes to teaching the touchy and highly personal topics that health teacher Sarah Lowe has covered in her 35-year career.

“When you’re talking about human sexuality, suicide, mental health, drug and alcohol prevention, you have to build that rapport so [students] feel comfortable to open up,” Lowe said this week.

It’s those relationships that Lowe will miss most when she retires as the McKinney health and physical education teacher at the end of the school year, she said. Lowe, 58, is retiring because of statewide changes to retirement benefits.

During her career, Lowe, who worked in the district since her second year as a teacher, helped her students build healthy diet and exercise habits, deal with peer pressure, avoid drugs and alcohol and learn about their own sexuality.

Lowe not only helped students see how their choices impacted themselves but also society. She would discuss in class how vegetarianism and fast food affect personal health, then cover how they affect the planet. She showed films like Supersize Me, An Inconvenient Truth and A Seat at the Table about global hunger issues and entreated her students to make the connections between the local and global.

“I wanted to help them find some cause and wake up and do something about it,” Lowe said. “I can’t be a revolutionary but my goal is to get [students] to think and to be active in what takes place and to show them that you can play a role.”

Lowe’s focus on activism was no doubt influenced by growing up in the village in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she said. She remembers attending teach-ins against the Vietnam War at the high school, hearing presentations from the Black Panthers and the time she walked with the entire middle school to United Methodist Church to pray after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Lowe graduated from YSHS in 1973.

The physical education teachers Lowe had while at Yellow Springs Schools inspired her to become a health/PE teacher herself. It was those teachers who provided her with the support she needed while her father struggled with heart problems, she said.

Lowe went on to Wright State University, where she played college softball and volleyball. At her first teaching job, in Huber Heights, Lowe only made $25 per day without benefits, but was thrilled to be teaching nonetheless. During her first year as a part-time health/PE teacher at Yellow Springs, Lowe was asked to fill in for the special education teacher — for free. But she wanted to teach so badly, she was happy to do it.

In gym class Lowe tried to introduce students to new sports — like lacrosse and archery — so those who typically don’t excel at sports could have a chance to. And she taught them games they could play for the rest of the lives, like badminton, kayaking, bocce ball, croquet, ultimate Frisbee and disc golf.

“It’s not all about fitness,” Lowe said. “These are things you can do your whole life outside when you make choices about the kind of lifestyle you want to have.”

During her three decades on the job, Lowe saw student diets worsen, and she would scold those she found sipping sodas for breakfast.

“Sugary beverages and fast food addiction is killing us,” Lowe said.

Students are also now more sedentary, in part because of computers and video games, she said. To help them stay healthy, she had them create fitness plans in her class. The rise in technology use has also hampered communication skills in youth and disrupted sleep patterns, Lowe said. It’s a tide she has been trying to turn.

But human sexuality is what Lowe enjoyed teaching the most, even though it was also the most challenging, she said. When students would come in thinking they knew everything, Lowe would give them a pre-test with 30 words and students had to choose whether a word named a body part in males, females or both. After that, students realized their knowledge was lacking, she said. Students, and their parents, were grateful for sex ed.

“A lot of times this is the information place where they’re getting the truth,” Lowe said. “Usually parents are thankful. They say ‘Thank you. I try to say something and they run.’“

Lowe would use an anonymous question box so students weren’t embarrassed to ask what was on their mind. In her whole career, only three students opted out of sex ed because of religious reasons. To get through to students, Lowe would keep it light — “We joke a lot with them to make them feel relaxed,” she said. And she was grateful the district kept boys and girls together during the unit. By comparison, when she was in sixth grade the girls watched a film about menstruation while the boys watched Mickey Mouse cartoons, she said.

“It’s more realistic to have them together,” Lowe said. “It’s a time to build respect for each other and what’s happening in each other’s bodies.”

Lowe believed strongly in what she taught. When some federal funding initiatives during the George W. Bush administration encouraged schools to teach abstinence only, Lowe felt like she was betraying her students by not sharing safe sex practices. She brought in speakers from Planned Parenthood and would use current events whenever possible to address issues — like the widespread discussion of “rape culture” during the recent Steubenville rape case, when two teenagers were convicted of raping a classmate.

After her students, Lowe will miss fellow staff members, she said. While there are many different teaching styles in the school, all the teachers are equally dedicated. Though at times the district was challenging as parents were heavily involved and highly opinionated, she said she was grateful to have worked in Yellow Springs.

“I feel blessed to have worked here,” Lowe said. “When I got a job here, I never thought about going anywhere else. This is where I figured I’d be forever.”

In her retirement Lowe looks forward to a more stress-free life without ringing bells and constant time demands, she said. Her health may even improve. She’ll spend more time in a family cottage on Lake Huron in Canada and with her children, who took after their mother as a health/PE teacher and fitness trainer.

But before leaving, Lowe, who originally installed the courtyard gardens at YSHS/McKinney when the middle school addition was completed, planted two more trees there — a weeping cherry for her fellow staff and a crabapple for all her students. Long after she’s gone, the trees will continue to blossom in her absence, just like those she taught.

“The lifelong learner in our mission statement is something I really believed in,” Lowe said. “I want [students] to leave here and not stop learning.”

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