In middle school, Amber Rylak’s physical education (PE) teacher, Karen Coveleski, inspired her. In fact, Rylak wanted to be like Coach Coveleski so much that she matched her sneakers and shoelaces to her PE outfits, just like Coach.
Coveleski became Rylak’s soccer coach and, more importantly, a mentor who took Rylak under her wing and taught her about the importance of an active lifestyle. It is safe to say that Coach Coveleski altered the trajectory of her devoted student.
Rylak liked to run and ran track at the collegiate level at the College of New Jersey, where she majored in health and exercise science. After she graduated, she followed in her mentor’s steps and began teaching middle school PE in Princeton, New Jersey.
Rylak loved teaching middle school and coaching sports, but the opportunity to serve as an assistant camp director for the Special Olympics led her to take a sabbatical to become certified in Adapted Physical Education. She worked with teachers in New Orleans, providing in-home services. She recalls one experience where she witnessed a three-year-old boy who was developmentally delayed take his first steps. As the boy’s mother cried with joy, Rylak knew that the work she was doing mattered.
After earning her certificate, Rylak moved to Sarasota, where she began teaching PE at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, a Title I school. Rylak, who was recognized as the 2023 Innovation Teacher of the Year for Sarasota County, loves the supportive community she has found at Emma E. Booker Elementary.
Rylak is committed to changing the impression that PE is just about running laps or playing dodgeball. She believes in meeting the kids where they are and making learning fun. But PE also provides an opportunity to reinforce math and English skills and allows Rylak to help students find calm through breathing and yoga at a time when so many students struggle with mental health issues.
To captivate her students, Rylak will transform her room into Disney World. Her students become mermaids and fish swimming around the room when they are reading “Little Mermaid.” They dance and sing. Rylak relishes these moments.
“The weirder I am,” she said, “the more they’re into it.”
Leading up to Halloween, Rylak hides little pumpkins, spiders, and other Halloween-related items around the playing field. After her students find them, they must group the items and then complete math problems, practicing addition. They also share what they found so that her students learn important life skills.
Around the holidays, her lessons are inspired by the movie “Elf.” She creates an obstacle course that includes tunnels connecting the North Pole and New York City. To enter the tunnels, students must complete math problems or spell sight words. They get to pass through seven levels of the Candy Cane Forest but only after answering questions correctly. Rylak even brings in a snow machine and takes great joy in watching her students delight in what for many young Floridians is completely foreign. She provides them “snowballs” that her students toss, learning hand-eye coordination.
What’s amazing about these activities is how interconnected they are. Each activity engages students on multiple levels physically as well as academically. And, of course, they are fun.
Rylak is also dedicated to ensuring her students can play all sports. At Emma E. Booker Elementary, many of her kids cannot afford equipment for sports such as lacrosse, so Rylak has written grants and developed partnerships with local organizations to secure the resources needed to create more opportunities for her students to be active. For Rylak, good health and an active lifestyle are essential, and students must have an equal chance to find a sport they love.
Developing and pulling off exciting new lessons or starting a lacrosse team pose unique challenges, and Rylak is grateful for her PE aide, Jaqueline Mendolia, and her supportive colleagues throughout the school. “Coach Jackie and I make a good team,” Rylak said. “I wouldn’t be here without her.”
Together, they are always formulating new ideas and plans, creating new obstacle courses and introducing new sports, which is just how Rylak likes it. “I get bored easily,” she said. That is a good thing. Her students are having so much fun and learning so much because she’s always changing and innovating the activities.
About the Education Foundation of Sarasota County
The Education Foundation of Sarasota County sponsors the Ignite Education: Teacher of the Year annual recognition in conjunction with Sarasota County Schools. The Education Foundation is an independent, philanthropic organization whose mission is to enhance the potential of all students, promote excellence in teaching, and inspire innovation in education, guided by strategic philanthropy and the belief that education changes lives. Read more at EdFoundationSRQ.org.
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