Tag: Sport and Exercise Psychology

College of Ed alumna shares KNPE instructional philosophies with P.E. teachers in Chicago

Yara Santillan

Yara Santillan

Yara Santillan traded her sneakers for high heels, her gym for a cubicle and her whistle for a smartphone.

What the new coordinator of Physical Education for the Chicago Public Schools hasn’t given up is her drive and ambition to make a positive difference for children through sport.

“I look at my own personal experience,” says Santillan, a two-time alumna of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. “I’ve always noticed that, in the times when I’ve really needed something, sport has always been there. It’s always been there for me. Sport kept me out of trouble.”

Growing up in suburban Aurora during the 1990s – she was born in Mexico but moved with her family to Kane County at the age of 18 months – Santillan glimpsed the danger lurking on the streets but wisely chose kickball and basketball over “the wrong crowd.”

Her decision to stay on the straight path, along with her K-12 academic success, resulted in a scholarship to attend NIU. Without a clear career path in mind, however, Santillan couldn’t find her footing in DeKalb and soon left for home.

One year later, she returned as a commuter student, earning straight A’s. Her unease lingered, however, and she became “a two-time college dropout.”

“I knew that college was important, and I was trying to get myself through school,” she says, “but I hadn’t found something I was truly passionate about. I was out of school for the next seven years.”

During that time, she worked at a restaurant. In 2009, she donned the Huskie red-and-black again – and the third time was, of course, the charm.

After completing her bachelor’s degree in Physical Education, she secured a position as a graduate assistant and began work toward her master’s in Exercise Physiology.

cps-logoSantillan crossed the NIU Graduate School commencement stage on a Friday evening in May of 2014. Less than 72 hours later, on a Monday, she sat for an interview with the Chicago Public Schools. Hired on the spot, she began work immediately to complete the school year for a P.E. teacher who’d taken a leave of absence.

By the end of her temporary gig in June, a full-time position with CPS was hers.

“What I love the most is getting kids to set goals. When we work on a skill, a lot of kids think immediately that they can’t do it, or they try not to do it, but then they get very excited when they see they can do something,” Santillan says. “And when they do that in P.E., they’re going to be able to transfer that and do it another part of their life.”

Part of that philosophy – life lessons through P.E. – is a gospel evangelized by Paul Wright, NIU’s EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor in Kinesiology and Physical Education.

“When I supervised Yara’s secondary clinical placements for the P.E. licensure program, I found out she decided to teach because she had a deep belief in the potential of physical education and sport to have a positive influence on children,” Wright says. “In particular, she said she had a passion for reaching children and youth who might be struggling due to circumstances in their lives and their communities.”

Following the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility model on which Wright focuses his scholarship, Santillan worked alongside her professor for several semesters in an after-school program for “at-risk” youth in a DeKalb middle school.

Her hands-on learning included promoting responsibility and tailoring programs to youth with more social and emotional challenges

Paul M. Wright

Paul Wright

“This approach really fit her existing values and commitments, but gave her some new strategies, structures and concepts to integrate into her teaching. She went on to apply these ideas, while making them her own, in her very successful career in CPS,” Wright says. “She is proof that the best theories and ideas are ones that can be put into practice.”

In her new role with CPS – leaving the gym “was one of my most difficult decisions but worth it,” she says – Santillan works with all of the district’s P.E. teachers to boost their productivity and, by extension, enhance student outcomes.

Serving as a “cultural mentor,” she ensures that the teachers are following standards, writing and implementing lesson plans, practicing concepts of Social and Emotional Learning and conducting assessment.

Meanwhile, she stresses to her teachers that P.E. is “not just inside the four walls of school” but also something that can empower students, parents and siblings through newsletters, after-school programs and family nights.

“Overall, I’ve had really positive response from the teachers,” Santillan says. “I tell them, ‘I know what you’re doing is important and meaningful, and I’m with you.’ They know I genuinely care about what they’re doing – that I care about their success, the kids’ success and that P.E. is one of the most important content areas in school.”

For her own role in extending P.E. beyond the school grounds, Santillan has volunteered with Beyond the Ball, “an organization that uses the power of sport to change lives, give hope, reclaim space and develop a culture of opportunities for youth and families in Chicago.”

She plans a 2020 run for a seat in the Illinois General Assembly. She also is contemplating a return to college for a doctorate and perhaps a career teaching in higher education.

Yara Santillan

Yara Santillan

At this point, however, her future is in the Windy City.

“I’m increasing teacher effectiveness in the City of Chicago, and I see myself doing that for quite some time,” she says. “I still have the same passion, but instead of teaching 600 students in my school, I have the opportunity to reach 381,000 students in CPS.”

Wright applauds her commitment, calling its beneficiaries fortunate. That group soon will include current students in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education after Santillan returns Monday, Oct. 9, as a guest speaker.

“The students she has worked with in the schools, our current students at NIU and P.E. teachers throughout Chicago are lucky to have Yara as a champion and a role model for doing what you believe is important and right, for yourself – and for others,” he says. “It’s been my pleasure to work with her and follow her success.”



Alumna Alexandra Wulbecker shares wisdom with KNPE 583

Alexandra Wulbecker

Alexandra Wulbecker

Just two years after Alexandra Wulbecker completed her days in Anderson Hall, she returned to the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education with an unexpected message for the students who are following her.

It’s OK to not know where you’re going, as long as you’re passionate about what you do and prepared to do it well.

Wulbecker, who earned an M.S.Ed. in Sport and Exercise Psychology in 2015, found employment at alma mater Hoffman Estates High School as a special education teacher’s assistant. She then began to coach volleyball, girls basketball and softball, a sport in which she also offers private lessons.

Speaking July 20 to graduate students in Jenn Jacobs’ KNPE 583 class – Psychology of Coaching – Wulbecker explained how her passion for helping athletes boost their mental game put her NIU education to work while also illuminating a different career direction.

“There is no real clear path in sports psychology. It is what you make it,” said Wulbecker, who played for the NIU Huskies softball team. “There is no right or wrong, but just what works for you.”

For Wulbecker, that has meant striving to develop a new position as a “mental training consultant” for high school athletes.

wulbecker-alexandra-softball

Alexandra Wulbecker waits for the pitch
during her NIU Huskie softball days.

Drawing from her six undergraduate and graduate years at NIU, two of which were spent guiding and comforting new Huskies and their parents as part of the Student Orientation Staff, she combined her interests and talents in counseling, psychology and sports.

Next, Wulbecker began to replicate a graduate school project in which she collaborated with athletes one-on-one for a year. Three Hoffman Estates High School student-athletes – two girls and one boy – took part.

Athletes define what they want to accomplish. They list the things they most respect. Each determines a motivational “power word” for inscription and placement somewhere frequently visible – maybe on a locker door, she said, or maybe on a shoe.

They rate themselves, complete online surveys for further personal reflection and seek the feedback of family and friends. They then examine a list of their top 24 strengths, answering questions of whether they agree, what surprised them and what they think of the input of others.

Customization is crucial, Wulbecker told the KNPE students, and organization is key.

“If the athletes don’t believe in it,” she said, “they’re not going to want to participate or put their time and energy into it.”

Volunteers for the counseling are more interested and more willing to open up than are those students who are referred, Wulbecker said, but providers who are flexible, patient and good listeners are likely to succeed with anyone.

wulbecker-alexandra-2She also offered good advice.

Make each session a conversation. Use “relatable examples” and activities suited to individual learning styles. Change things up with meeting locations and agendas. Allow athletes to vent.

“What I ultimately realized is that these teenagers just wanted to be heard,” said Wulbecker, who is about to begin study in Chicago toward a master’s degree in Counseling with a specialization in Sport and Health Psychology.

Wulbecker’s presentation also focused on her professional endeavors as a coach, including her motivational philosophies and strategies, something valuable to many of the graduate students who already are working as physical education teachers and coaches.

After earning her next degree, she will become a licensed professional counselor.

She plans to continue working with athletes, including those at the professional and collegiate levels, and hopes to complete post-graduate training that would qualify her to counsel Olympians.