WEBSTER — Allan "Coach" Mutrie’s teaching philosophy can be summed up in one simple phrase.
"Play like Jesus today."
"If you do that, everything else is a piece of cake," explained Mutrie, who has been the physical-education teacher at St. Rita School in Webster for 15 years.
Not only does Mutrie tell his students at the Webster school to play like Jesus, but he’s also constructed a visual reminder to make sure that philosophy stays at the forefront of his students’ minds. This bright yellow sign — featuring the words "Play like Jesus today" in large letters above the school’s logo — stands propped up by a metal folding chair at the entrance to the gymnasium.
"Every day they come in and they just touch the sign, promising to play like Jesus every day," Mutrie explained, noting that at the end of each class, students touch the sign again as a way of pledging to spread God’s love in their classrooms.
A sign of encouragement stands outside of the St. Rita School gymnasium Oct. 13.
Mutrie was inspired to create his sign after learning that the members of Notre Dame University’s football team touch a sign that says "Play like a champion today" on their way out of the locker room before each home game. Mutrie liked the concept and decided to create a similar sign that would reflect his own teaching philosophy.
"I’m not trying to raise champion athletes here. I just changed it to ‘Play like Jesus today.’ If we are taking care of ourselves and taking care of each other, everything falls into place. I’m just trying to create a loving and caring environment," Mutrie remarked.
He seems to be succeeding, according to Kerri Kiniorski, mother of three current St. Rita students and one alum. Kiniorski noticed Mutrie’s sign when she was visiting the school one day and later asked her son, second-grader Elliot Epstein, about it.
"He said, ‘Coach has us touch that before we go into the gym every day so we can think about it as we’re playing,’" she recalled. "I love that notion. How often do we hear about competition getting out of hand and bad sportsmanship? Yet, Coach teaches the students to think about what it means to play like Jesus. It’s such a wonderful message."
Kiniorski said Mutrie has been an inspiration to his students at St. Rita, and she’s not the only one who feels that way. The inside of a storage-room door in the gymnasium is papered with dozens of letters, cards and drawings from Mutrie’s current and former students.
"His dedication is phenomenal. His humility and the way he leads the kids is so inspirational," Kiniorski added.
Mutrie’s sidekick of sorts in the gymnasium is Mr. High Five, which is a baseball bat with a spongy paddle on the end, emblazoned with a drawing of a hand and the words, "Mr. High Five." Mutrie holds this up as his students walk into the gymnasium each day, and children typically respond with high fives and smiles, he said. Mutrie also carries Mr. High Five during class, and offers high fives to children in return for their efforts in class activities.
These activities do not always take the form of traditional team sports, Mutrie added. Although athletics have been a big part of his life from an early age, he believes that sports are not the only component of physical education. He frequently creates games and activities to help his students master skills while having fun. The kindergartners in his class on Oct. 13, for example, learned about different types of underhand and overhand throws while playing group games that also incorporated running, skipping, rolling and teamwork. It’s more important for the children to have an active lifestyle than to be star athletes, noted Mutrie, who also teaches fifth-grade health and is the coordinator of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program at St. Rita.
"I try to do a lot of nontraditional things to show them there’s a lot of other ways to be active," Mutrie said. "If you keep it bottled up with all the skills and mechanics (of traditional sports), some kids can get turned off at a young age."
Mutrie, who also coaches volleyball and hockey for the Webster Central School District, said he loves the challenge of finding creative ways to keep his students engaged. He also treasures his interactions with the students, who he says "keep me young."
"I love my job. I’m the most blessed man in the world," Mutrie remarked.