Investing in Teacher Wellness
Categories: Active Living, Advocacy, Wellness policy
I often wonder if the average person ever stops to think about the multitude of tasks and responsibilities that a teacher has. Sure, many jobs are difficult but I believe that the job of a classroom teacher is an especially difficult one that is often taken for granted. Teachers are bombarded with duties that go far beyond creating and delivering an effective lesson. Most professions don’t come close to the levels of stress and burnout that teachers go through. It’s common for teachers to be seen only as teachers who give and care for others, and not as real human beings who have their own lives and may experience a litany of their own unfortunate events. How can a child succeed if his/her teacher is not healthy him/herself? Just as much as there is a push to improve the health of our students so that they may flourish academically, there needs to be an equal push to ensure that our teachers’ health is being taken care of as well.
A lot of time and money is spent on designing and delivering mandatory trainings for teachers such as Common Core, child abuse prevention and reporting, chemical safety, sexual harassment and bullying prevention, etc. All these trainings are to ensure that the well-being of our students is protected but what about the well-being of the educators? Several assessments exist that measure the health of LAUSD kids including the FitnessGram and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). The results are used to illustrate their health status, rank them in comparison to other school districts, and support strategies or programs to address the problems. Where is the assessment for the health of a teacher? I often wonder what students would say about their teachers’ health if we conducted a student survey and/or focus groups. What would the results reveal about educators?
The District’s Blueprint for Wellness Policy includes a section on “Staff Wellness” which, on their website, provides links to basic information on topics such as weight and diabetes management, smoking cessation, and advice on nutritious snacks that should be served at meetings. Although this plan comes from good intentions and may be one method of addressing employee health, it certainly isn’t enough. I believe that most employees would not think to seek health guidance via the district website. According to many behavior change models that are used in public health, the very first step in attempting to get someone to make health modifications is figuring out an impactful way to inform them that a problem exists and secondly to effectively make them take action to address the risk. People live habitual lives and very seldom do they come to realize, on their own, that they should improve their health. If they decide to take action, very few people know what to do or how to stay committed to that change. With all due respect, the goals of most LAUSD health programs and its supporters, such as The L.A. Trust, are focused on improving student health, not teacher health.
As a high school health teacher, I feel frustrated in knowing that I teach my students many concepts that encourage them to improve their health but they come across other teachers who don’t see health as a priority. As a faculty member, I appreciate when others look out for me, check in on me, and/or offer me something that helps me as a person. It makes me feel valued and protected and it makes me want to continue to work and give my best. In public health, it is also widely known that communities need relatable role models and opinion leaders to set the tone for others to take action in their own health. Bottom line, LAUSD can and should do better to invest in its teachers. Start by creating effective trainings for administrators to have them jump on board in the Wellness wagon. After the faculty’s needs have been assessed, an administrative team/committee should implement strategies on their campuses that address, promote, and even reward healthy staff behaviors. Some of these strategies could be: Offering periodic wellness workshops by health experts in different fields that relate to staff demands; creating friendly challenges to get staff to adopt a new healthy behavior while tracking and publicizing their progress; providing regular newsletters on current health topics and tips; organizing staff family fitness outings such as hiking and bike riding; acknowledging staff goals, commitments and accomplishments; checking in with staff emotional needs; offering resources where people can get help for different issues; and building an overall healthy workplace culture in which junk food is highly discouraged in all aspects of school functions.
The possibilities are endless and I’m certain that when these messages begin to circulate as the new norm, the staff will follow, feel better about themselves, and, in turn, result in more effective, strong, and productive educators. Isn’t this what all children deserve… To be around healthy adult role models who teach and lead by example? I think YES! And just as much as children need to be constantly reminded to practice healthy habits, adults, too, need friendly hints, encouragement, suggestions, role models and assistance to keep them on track to a balanced life. It’s worth the investment if we really want to see well-rounded improved school communities.
Leticia Jenkins is a MPH student in Community Health at Cal State Northridge and a health teacher at Monroe High School. This summer and fall, we are fortunate to host Ms. Jenkins as a student engagement intern where she brings her intimate “adult ally” perspective to the program. When she’s not teaching, Leticia enjoys cycling, hiking, dancing, and sleeping.