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Philip Watters in his classroom

Philip Watters, a teacher at Randall Elementary School for 29 years, gets ready to head outside for recess with his fifth-grade students. The blackboard behind him shows team standings from the popular touch football games that Watters has organized at the school for decades. 

It’s always football season at Randall Elementary School — during recess, that is, when Philip Watters is on the playground with cheering teams of exuberant fifth-graders.

Watters, a teacher at the school at 1802 Regent St. for 29 years, spends his recess time coaching touch football along with a colleague, Randall physical education teacher Thomas Bakken. Some 100 boys and girls sign up each year to work off steam and master skills such as fair play, team-building, agility and strategy. For many, it’s an extra highlight of the school day.

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Philip Watters on the playground

Fifth-graders at Randall Elementary School take part in a touch football game organized by teacher Philip Watters, center background. Watters runs the popular games during recess with Randall physical education teacher Thomas Bakken. 

Watters himself came to Madison because of football. He won a scholarship from legendary UW football coach Dave McClain, playing cornerback and free safety as a Badger. A native of Los Angeles, Watters majored in education, following in the footsteps of his mother, Barbara Josephine Watters, a sixth-grade teacher whose framed photo he keeps in his classroom next to a picture of former President Barack Obama.

But Watters is a dancer, too. In September he was a finalist in the “Rising Stars” talent competition at Overture Center for the Arts. His pop-locking number drew loud applause from the audience and an affectionate tribute from well-known record producer Pacal “DJ Pain 1” Bayley, a “Rising Stars” judge who was once one of Watters’ fifth-grade students.

When he’s not teaching, dancing or organizing fifth-grade football games, Watters parents six children, coaches track and varsity football and serves as JV head coach at Stoughton High School, and is head coach for the Madison Mad City Nightmare, a semi-pro indoor arena football team, and the Madison Mad Dawgs, a semi-pro summer football team.

He teaches his stylized dance moves to students for school talent shows. In 2000, he received a Distinguished Service Award from the Madison School District.

What is pop-locking?

Pop-locking is a rhythmic movement of your body, where you freeze (or) lock your body into different positions according to the beat of the music. You stiffen up your limbs and then stop, or freeze, for a moment, and it’s a “popping” look. ... You’re moving like a well-oiled machine.

Where did you learn it?

I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, in Watts. It was on television. You saw Michael Jackson doing it. It was called locking, and as it advanced, it became pop-locking. You just picked it up from the streets, and you’d go home and try to master it. A lot of times you’d see a big crowd gather, and it was a pop-locking battle. You’d go up against some well-known pop-locker, and the crowd determines who is best by saying “Ooooo,” or cheering, depending on what moves you do. ... Society thought it was a fad, but it’s still here to this very day.

How did you start teaching at Randall?

(After college) I found a job in Milwaukee. I was working here at the Best Western in order to earn money to move, and a position opened up here at Randall. I interviewed and ended up getting the position. I’ve been here ever since. It feels like home.

And why teaching?

I was always good at working with kids. In my neighborhood I would form football teams. Track teams. I would teach them how to pop-lock and dance, and just kind of coach them in different things. So when we would pull up to the house, there were always younger kids waiting on my porch for me. I’ve always had a good relationship with students, athletes.

Have you seen kids change over the years?

One thing that hasn’t changed is that a hard worker is a hard worker. There’s no substitute for hard work. Whether you struggle, whether you’re at grade level, or whether you’re above, when they work hard, it shows. They get better. They grow. They just need you to believe in them. That part has not changed. I think they appreciate teachers that are honest, that are transparent, that they know care about them and push them to be their best. ... I think it’s where you set your parameters.

For me, you’re going to sit up in this classroom. I expect my students to sit up. And they’re going to do it because it’s about pride. We take pride in writing neatly, turning in our homework, raising our hands and asking questions. We take pride in being the neatest and quietest line when we walk through the school. They want that — something to be proud of, doing things that separate us, in a good way, from the others.

— Interview by Gayle Worland

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