The gym is quiet, the floor draped in a giant parachute of vivid primary colors. Fieldston Lower PE teacher John Dwinell enters from his office and waves hello. We only have a few minutes to catch up before a student pokes her head in the door and Dwinell invites her down the stairs. One by one, the 2nd Graders enter and spot the parachute. There’s a total eruption: “John, I love the parachute!” they chorus.
Dwinell, who has an effortless laugh and a perpetually kind expression, raises his voice without any edge and quiets the students down. “We have lots of games today, so listening is important,” he tells them. After he releases the students by birth month, they charge to the perimeter of the parachute, grabbing a handle. One student with an untied shoe stops in front of Dwinell, offering out her foot. He bends down to tie her laces and sends her on her way.
With the students circled around the parachute, Dwinell announces the day’s agenda: a round of “Jell-O” and — to enormous cheers — a game of “Washing Machine.”
In Jell-O, students lift up the parachute, take two “cha cha steps” — as Dwinell calls them — toward the center of the circle, and then pull the edge of the parachute beneath them as they quickly sit down. The parachute makes a dome above their heads, and they sway side to side to give it a Jell-O-like wiggle.
The kids are beside themselves, but Dwinell’s just getting started.
Dwinell joined the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in 1981. “I’m old,” he laughs. “When I got here, the Dead Sea was only sick.” In addition to teaching PE to Pre-K through 5th Graders, Dwinell also coaches the varsity golf team, which won five state titles, five years in a row. Over his decades at ECFS, he’s had a hand in other varsity sports: football, basketball, baseball, and cross country.
Dwinell also coaches outside of ECFS: he’s the assistant coach of St. Thomas Aquinas College’s basketball team and has previously served as head coach at other schools, including New York Maritime University and Concordia College. In the summers, he runs the sports academy at Chelsea Piers. “My coaching experiences through the years have been phenomenal, with great opportunities to meet some great people. It's been a good journey along the way,” he says.
The path toward a life in athletics started early, in Brooklyn’s Marine Park neighborhood. As a child, Dwinell played everything: baseball, basketball, stickball, Wiffle ball, roller hockey. To say he had an experience different from that of the children he teaches is an understatement. “Thank God there were no video games, no internet, and no phones,” he says. “I would leave in the morning and come back at night. As long as I came back for dinner, everything was okay.”
While sports were a passion, they weren’t without challenges. As Dwinell entered high school, he began to contend with lowered expectations, especially based on his size. “I’m not a big guy,” he says; he didn’t have the height to be a natural basketball standout. “People told me I couldn't do it, and I felt that if I worked hard enough, I could dispel anybody's thinking that I can't do it.” The doubt in his potential pushed him, helping him to develop a strong work ethic and a robust tenacity.
Dwinell’s interest in sports led to a natural choice in vocation. “I always knew I wanted to coach. I always knew I wanted to teach,” he says. In high school, he even wound up teaching PE classes during his free periods. The next stop was to Springfield College’s Physical Education program.
But after college, Dwinell was on the brink of a digression from his path: he was set up for an assistantship in the college’s public relations department and planned to pursue a master’s in administration. Then, a position opened up at ECFS to take over for a teacher on leave, and the pull of returning home to New York took hold. When he received a job offer, he moved home — much to the joy of his mother, he says — and planned to fill in for a year. When the teacher he was replacing decided not to return, Dwinell extended his stay. Thirty-nine years later, he is a critical part of the Fieldston Lower community.
Dwinell is also a member of the ECFS family in the truest sense: his wife, Nancy, is Ethical Culture’s Director of Admissions, and both his sons, Ian and Matt, graduated from the school. Dwinell was both their PE teacher and varsity golf coach.
As much as the students enjoy their game of Jell-O, it’s actually all about Washing Machine — a thrill ride from start to finish.
Here’s how it works: three kids sit in the center of the parachute. The students on the outside walk in a circle, carrying their handles and wrapping the seated kids up in the parachute.
“Put the detergent in,” Dwinell says, and the kids pantomime. Dwinell mimics the sounds of a washer — “shh, shh, shh” — before yelling, “Spin cycle!” The students on the perimeter pull the parachute backward, and the kids in the middle go flying. Shrieks of delight ensue.
When almost everyone has been called for a turn, some students point to a shy boy who has yet to go. The boy shakes his head — he’d rather be a washer than dirty clothes. Some students protest: everyone has to go!
“Nope,” Dwinell says, jumping to the child’s defense. “He has very clean clothes.”
The student nods with relief, and Dwinell recaptures everyone’s attention with a bonus game: “Popcorn.” If students were loud during Washing Machine, they reach an absolute fever pitch during Popcorn. While some adults might cover their ears or run from the room, Dwinell is completely at ease, maintaining a serene mood. At the end of class, the kids have to be cajoled out of the room by their teachers.
Dwinell has evolved over his time at ECFS, growing as a person, teacher, and coach. He used to have a real “competitive nature,” he says. “I was pretty intense.” But as he’s transitioned from head coaching at the college level to assistant coaching, he’s focused more on developing commitment, work ethic, and preparation in his team — to inspire in his players the same tenacity he learned as a young athlete.
Take his varsity golf coaching, for instance. He likes to play golf but doesn’t count himself as a particularly stellar player. “I bring a lot of golf balls. I keep the golf ball industry in business,” he says. But what he brings to the table is the work ethic — the idea that “being great doesn’t come easily,” he says. “If you want to put the work in, I think you’ll find the rewards and you’ll reap the benefits.”
This steadfastness shows up in his personal life, too: save for the occasional charity race, Dwinell prefers to run solely for the personal practice. And he works to instill that same motivation in his young students. “Never give up,” he tells them. “That’s what I believe in. That’s my mantra.”
“I tell parents on tours that I haven’t worked a day in my life,” he says. “I can be silly all day.” But beyond the fun, Dwinell finds real fulfillment in his work — always valuing a wave from a student on campus or the ability to make kids laugh. “You want kids to grow. It feels good to be a part of their lives where you can have a real positive impact. That’s the best part.”