Putting Health First

Michelle Bulla with Jessica Wright, March 2018
Putting Health First

It’s time for a new world order.

As I write, Dick’s Sporting Goods has just announced they will no longer sell assault rifles, and they will require all gun buyers to be 21 years of age for purchase. Thankfully, change is coming.

But I’m not talking about gun control. I’m talking about the distinction between physical education and health as departments in education, and the need for increased attention to health education K-12.

Gun control, the prioritization of health education…they’re miles apart, and then quite distinctly connected.

In both cases, we’re overdue for a shift.

One need only look at news headlines to read about the pandemic of anxiety amongst even our youngest students, the billions expended privately and by insurance companies in caring for mental health, and the devastating consequences of those with poor physical or emotional health on self-awareness, self-sufficiency, or healthy civic engagement to realize that health education matters more than ever.

Paradigm shifts in education have gotten a bad rap. Sadly, like so many other great words (“Engage” comes to mind, as it used to be one of my favorites…luckily, the pendulum is swinging back around on that one in NYS), “paradigm” has attained disdainful, education-speak status, losing credibility. Because a quest for a shift is not always a result of communal discussion or decision-making, it is a word that turns many educators off.

I’m calling for one anyway.

On this last day in February of 2018, my dear colleague Jessica Wright and three others are in Albany lobbying four NYS Senators for increased time on task in Health Education. She’s the esteemed 2017 Teacher of the Year for her state organization, NYSAHPERD (Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance), and the 7-12 Health Department Chair for my school district. Luckily for her and us, she follows the path of our revered colleague Laura Pietropaolo, her predecessor and leader in our district, in their state organization, and in advocating for a broadened and deepened program in Health for our students and students in NYS.

Jessica is the perfect person for this job, and this job is the perfect focus for NYS Senators.

Jessica’s goal is to persuade these four senators to agree to sit at a roundtable to discuss the need for increased programming in Health K-12, and to advocate for Health Education to have a seat at the SED table. Currently, Health falls under Physical Education at SED. While this might have been the paradigm of the 1950s – though it wasn’t appropriate even then – it is certainly not the perspective needed today. In the 90s, Health Education – and other areas for that matter – had over ten people in offices at SED; however, as they left, positions were not replaced. We’ve actually taken steps backwards.

The subjugation in the order and presence has been and is important.

In schools across NYS, students are required to have physical education hours multiple times per week, from Kindergarten through senior year of high school.

Instruction in physical education K-12 is prioritized, extensive, and overwhelmingly delivered by certified personnel. Current physical education requirements (including recreation) according to Education Law 135.4 are:

• K-3 – daily
• 4-6 – 120 minutes per calendar week
• 7-12 – alternate days or comparable time depending on the organization of the school’s schedule

Contrarily, health requirements are loose. This results in tremendously varied health programs around NYS. In K-3, the subject is specifically noted as “guidance” to allow for a broad span of implementation. Planned units of health “instruction” are mandated for grades 4-6, though only generally, and are delivered by the classroom teacher (Education Law 135.3b). At the secondary level, one half-year course is required at each of middle and high school levels (135.3c).

This is simply not enough. And it’s especially glaringly not enough when compared with the focus on physical education and recreation, and in the context of our current reality relative to mental health and wellness.

Thankfully in our district we do better than most, and even with that, many feel we absolutely need to do more. Our K-5 students get thirteen health lessons each year, our 6th and 7th graders each get one quarter of focused instruction, our 8th graders get the mandated one semester, and our high schoolers also get the single semester mandated by the state.

Across NYS, the frequency and delivery of health education outside the mandated time is scant, at best. In a recent APHERD 2016 survey of health educators on a question asking, “Who provides instruction in health education grades K-6?,” responses indicate that elementary programs are tremendously varied and in many cases, nonexistent. Of the 200 responses to this question, almost all indicated that either physical education teachers or classroom teachers may provide instruction, and many indicated there was no formal or organized program.

I’m advocating to reverse the ordering and publicly declare physical education to be part of health education, and expand the requirements for health education K-12. I’m not looking for this distinction to displace teachers, eliminate jobs, diminish the role and significance of physical education, physical fitness / wellness, or denigrate the importance of movement for overall health and well-being in anyone’s life. I’m a yoga teacher on the side, and I have long been encouraging people to move first and feel better after. Movement does make a difference in mental health.

The reality though is that physical education is only one aspect of health, and it often does not address overall wellness, relegating that topic to health educators. But health programs aren’t given the time they need to instruct and support our students as they need today.

It’s high time that matters.

You may feel this is about semantics. To that I say this: words matter. English teachers know this, lawyers know this, judges know this, legislators know this, and boards of education know this. It’s time we acknowledge the power of words, and put Health Education at the forefront of our attention to our students’ bodies and minds.

You may be wondering why I, an English teacher, am focusing on this. Why should English – or other content teachers, for that matter – care?

I hope by now that you’ve come to the conclusion on your own that all content areas matter to all others, as they all matter in the development of a human being, of a citizen, the creation of which is our collective job as educators. In the event you haven’t, perhaps the news regarding the tragic breakdown of many aspects of our moral and societal infrastructure at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, will help convince you.

And if a tragedy sounds too extreme a reason for a shift, know this: teachers are struggling against the lack of student wellness daily while trying to meet their needs and to execute curricular and educational goals.

Teachers cannot teach students who are not mentally, emotionally, and physically equipped to learn. In our classrooms it seems we have daily increases in the numbers of students who are identified as having a variety of disorders: eating, sleeping, depression, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, suicidal ideations, and more. As a result, teachers are constantly receiving new 504 plans to comply with, attending trainings on mental health issues of students of their charges’ ages, and are supposed to be on the lookout for warning signs and signals of either an undiagnosed problem, or behaviors indicative of a diagnosed illness. We regularly deal with students who are absent from the classroom as a result of their disorder, diagnosed or not. All of this leads to increased stress and anxiety for students, parents, and educators who are, in some cases, relegated to just trying to help a child “get through” a course rather than really focusing on educating that student in that subject. Certainly, this is far from ideal. It does little to help us build a healthy, productive, engaged citizenry.

Mental, emotional, relational, and physical health and wellness are foundational critical health realms, and we need our students to be educated and supported in order for the rest of the system to function as it should. In no way do I believe a robust Health Education program is the sole factor in accomplishing this, but certainly we need to do far, far more than a few hours a year in elementary school, and a what amounts to one full year between 7th-12th grades.

In Jessica’s own words, she explains the purpose and function of health education, the role of health educators, and the vital need to do more now:

“Our job as educators is to teach to the whole child. Our students come from all different walks of life, backgrounds, needs and wants. When they walk through our doors in the morning and before they leave in the afternoon, our job as teachers is to provide them with knowledge and skills for life. Our goal is to shape our youth into well-rounded individuals. We need to prepare them for all the different situations and scenarios in their lives. Health education teaches life skills.

“Every headline that has been in the news this past year relates to health education: #metoo, gun violence in schools, DASA, bullying, the obesity epidemic, social media influences, mental health, LGBTQ rights,…the list goes on and on. No student ever questions when they will use what they learned in health class again in their life.

“The objective in health education classes is to be proactive when it comes to risky behaviors and decision-making. From an early age, students need to be taught how to take care of themselves and avoid engaging in dangerous activities. Like any other subject, repetition and the practice of these skills is the key to mastery. We are failing our students in the area of health education. K-6 instruction is spotty at best and the secondary years, when there is the greatest amount of peer-pressure, temptation, and curiosity, we are only providing 2 semesters worth of instruction. We simply need to do more!

“Health is a class about life. We need to focus more on how we live. We owe it to our future to spend less time teaching to tests and more time teaching how to cope with failure and how to celebrate success. Before I headed to Albany, I asked my students to write down on an index card why they thought health class was important. After reading over 100 responses, the very last card simply stated: ‘Health Class Keeps Us ALIVE!’”

Out of their own mouths, the health and wellness of our students, our educational system, and our ability to support ourselves and those we encounter toward a healthier society should be our communal, educational goal.

It’s time we put our money and our students’ time where it’s needed.

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