This Is Not Your Parents’ Health Class

In October 2019 I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at the TEDx event at Barrington Area Library, with the event theme being community health. My message was in three parts – an apology for many of the bad practices from health class, a message of hope from the direction in which todays health class is focused, and a plea for community members to embrace our students for their passion, vision and drive so that together we can improve the health of our community.

Here’s my TEDx talk, along with the transcript.

(0:06) I’d like you to cast your mind back to high school. The sights and sounds of the building, the smell of the locker room, the awkwardness of being a teenager. 

Now picture yourself in health class, and imagine the teacher at the front of the room. I wonder what your memories are of this experience, of the content material, and how valuable the lessons learned were.

One of the first connection activities that I do with my students in health class is ask them to interview their parents about their experience of health and I have come to the inclusion that if you’re my age, give or take 15 years, your health class wasn’t one of your high school highlights. And so, on behalf of my predecessors, I apologize.

(1:03) I apologize if the teacher that you pictured in the front of the class was anything like Coach Carr from Mean Girls, who, in a typical portrayal of health teachers on the big screen, famously said “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!”. I apologize if your high school health teacher was a coach who spent the day killing time in class thinking about X’s and O’s when they should have been teaching about X’s and Y’s. 

Historically health class hasn’t always been taught by a teacher with a health endorsement, and thankfully today’s best practice in health education includes having certified or highly trained health educators teaching health at all levels.

I apologize, if like Coach Carr, your teacher taught by using fear. Teaching through the use of scary stories, showing photographs of the most gruesome of sexually transmitted infections or sought to shock you with the infamous “this is your brain on drugs” public service announcement. I apologize if you were told of all of the dangers of certain behaviors – sex is bad, these foods are bad, drugs are bad…but then were told that the only advice that you needed to counter these evils was to “Just Say No”

Teaching through fear does not work, and in fact conditions students to associate fear with certain behaviors, that they will take into adulthood. 

Scare tactics often show extremes that will never be experienced by most people. Think of Sexually Transmitted Infections and the fact that the most common (and perhaps scariest) symptom is no symptoms at all. Fear might work with those individuals that are equipped with the skills needed to make behavioral change, but what use is a “Just Say No” campaign without equipping students with the ability to say no effectively?

(3:05) I apologize if at any time during your health class you were shamed because of the way that you lived your life, or because the relationships that you sought out, and your expressions of love weren’t included in the one sex-ed lesson, that probably split boys and girls and taught them in different locations. “And no, there’s no time for questions, and even if you did have a question, the classroom space was the least safe space in which to ask that question.”

On behalf of those coaches, and teachers who came before me, I apologize if your health class left you with more questions than answers, and failed to equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to live the healthy and happy life that lay before you as a teenager.

(3:51) And so if you feel like you “know” health class, I’m here to say that things have changed a lot since you, and I were students. The approach to teaching health has changed and can best be summed up in this quote from a student of mine from 10 years ago when they said “In Health, it’s not just about getting an A in class, it’s about getting an A in life”. We’ve moved away from memorization and recall of facts and towards an approach that introduces students to health skills, provides them with opportunities to practice those skills and empowers them to use those skills to improve not only their health but that of friends, family and their community. We’ve moved away from playing the short game, hoping for a successful semester, and are now focusing on the long game, aiming for a successful lifetime.

Health behavior theory tells us that knowledge alone does not change behavior and as such, teachers are transitioning from a “knowledge is power’ approach to one that believes that “skills are power”.

(5:01) Don’t get me wrong, teachers are still teaching content but that content is woven in between the teaching of skills. And, that content is based on the specific needs of the school community based on data taken from behavior surveys. Although it’s fair to say that teenagers are teenagers, there will be specific health behaviors unique to a schools location. Informed by data, I know that binge drinking is an area of concern for my students, and as such we will focus on that behavior in my curriculum, and ensure that support services are available for students in need. 

We identify the functional knowledge, the information that students need to know in order to develop and apply health skills. Students don’t need to know the 206 bones in the body but they do need to know how to find a valid and reliable orthopedist if they injure one of those bones.

(6:07) So if you were in my class today, there are seven skills that we would address.

With so much information in student’s pockets on one of these, it’s important that students search the internet effectively and so we might take the skill of Accessing Valid & Reliable Information and apply it to the questions they might have about sexual wellness.

We can take the skill of Analyzing Influences and apply it to nutrition to see what factors, both internal and external are affecting the decisions that we make about food.

Communication Skills play a huge role in our lives and can be applied to teen-specific situations, often involving participatory methods such as role play to practice conflict resolution, negotiation, or refusal skills. Providing students with the opportunity to practice these skills in the classroom makes them more likely to be successful when they apply them in the ‘real world’.

During our drugs and alcohol lessons we might practice Decision Making factoring in personal values before making an informed choice and then reflecting upon that choice. This might lead to future lessons on Goal Setting where we can identify the steps needed to hit both short and long term targets in order to be successful.

With the skill of Self Management I would be looking for evidence of students practicing health-enhancing behaviors, and as they practice this skill and have continued success we start to see an increase in self-efficacy. My students start to believe that they are in control not only of their health but they become more confident in their ability to help others become healthy. 

(8:16) Which leads to my favorite skill, that of Advocacy. If I have learned one thing from working with students for the past 24 years it is that if you encourage a student to speak up and speak out on behalf of a cause, boy do they use that voice. I can take this skill and open it up to be applied to any area of health that resonates with a student. When you have a student advocating for binge drinking awareness because their father is battling alcohol dependency, you can guarantee that that student will pour their heart and soul into that assignment. When you have a transgender girl write to the school board to implore them to address issues concerning the LGBTQ community, and you see the school board take action….you know that that student is going to continue to make change throughout the rest of her life.

(9:06) Today’s health class is creating a generation of young adults who are practicing healthy behaviors and feel empowered to help others do the same. These students are confident that they have the ability to make change .. for the better. And here’s where you play your part.

I ask you to see life through the lens of a health literate teenager and consider what role they might play in helping improve the health of the community. These students come with 21st century skills that they are eager to put into practice as they consider the type of world that are ready to inherit from our generation.

Listen to these young adults when they communicate their wishes for a healthier future, seeking answers to the issues facing society today. Provide them with a seat at the table and involve them with decisions being made about the provision of local services. Ask for their opinions and ideas and listen as they share their passion for improving the health of those around them.

Share your experience with the young advocates and mentor them, help them to develop and amplify their voices. Find an opportunity for them to speak up and speak out alongside you on the community issues about which you are most passionate. 

(10:30) Health class will continue to create these health literate teenagers. I ask you to harness their energy, embrace them for their passion, vision and drive, and together we can work towards a happier and healthier community.

Thank you.

Please consider sharing this TEDx talk with administrators, teachers, future professionals, parents and students. Health class has come a long way, and skills-based health is becoming increasingly more popular in classrooms, but there is still more work to be done. Continue promoting the good work that we do with our students, and support those teachers who are looking to improve their craft.

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