Linda Carlson, 45, has taught physical education at Oak Park and River Forest High School for more than two decades.
She’s been an instructor for everything from racket sports to team sports, but it’s her defining role in shaping a comprehensive 45-day course called R.A.D.ical Self-Defense that merited special mention in a statement released earlier this month by the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE).
Carlson, SHAPE announced in the statement, was this year’s National High School Physical Education Teacher of the Year.
Carlson has taught self-defense at the high school since she first started working there 23 years ago. First implemented prior to her tenure, in the 1980s, the course has evolved to encompass much more than how to land the most precise kicks, punches and strikes.
R.A.D.ical Self-Defense, which is mandatory for all freshmen — male and female — is designed to teach students how to recognize, reduce and avoid aggressive behavior and actions, according to SHAPE’s statement.
In an interview last week, Carlson emphasized how important the course is, particularly to students who may be on the cusp of going to college. Upperclassmen have the option of taking a week-long refresher course to shore up on the lessons they learned as ninth-graders.
“Anywhere from 1-in-3 to 1-in-5 girls will be sexually assaulted in college and 1-in-33 men will be sexually assaulted and abused in a lifetime,” Carlson said. “But we’re not really sure what the real statistics are, because rape is underreported due to victim blaming and shame.
“Part of what this class does is help survivors overcome that shame and empower them to know that they deserve healthy, romantic relationships and friendships — regardless of gender,” she added. “This is everyone’s issue and we all can get on board to help each other fight rape culture, sexual assault and dating violence.”
According to Philip Prale, OPRF’s outgoing assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, “No other teacher in my experience has committed more effort or has accomplished more in improving the profession through individual and collaborative efforts.
“She has extensive experience with diverse populations, a broad set of curriculum expertise, and she has never forgotten that central to our role as educators is the need to create and sustain caring and supportive relationships with students, colleagues, parents and community,” he said.
Carlson, who is a member of SHAPE America, obtained her bachelor’s degree in K-12 physical education at Wheaton College and her master’s degree in kinesiology from University of Illinois at Chicago.
She said this is the first time she’s been nominated for the award, which she was given at SHAPE’s 132nd National Convention & Expo, held March 14 to March 18 in Boston.
“The award is given in recognition of outstanding teaching performance at the high school level and the ability to motivate today’s youth to participate in a lifetime of physical activity,” SHAPE officials said in their statement.
Each year, the organization gives Teacher of the Year awards to educators who are selected in the areas of “adapted physical education, dance education, school health, elementary physical education, middle school physical education and high school physical education.”
During last week’s interview, Carlson said she was shocked to learn of her nomination and also surprised at how she became a national contender for the top distinction, which requires nominees to advance out of different levels.
“I never expected to go to the Midwest or national level,” she said. “And I was surprised to win the national award, because many people would not consider this traditional physical education.
“I applaud SHAPE for having that vision and understanding the importance of teaching our youth this material. I really think it’s a win for students. Hopefully, this program and programs like it will continue to be part of physical education.”