When Teachers Are Healthy, Everyone Benefits

02/09/2016 11:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In the business world, most companies are structured like a pyramid. A CEO is on top, followed by a slightly larger group of vice presidents, then a larger group of managers and so on, all the way to the workers who make, distribute and sell the product.

You know this, of course. But have you ever noticed that school districts follow a similar structure?

A superintendent is on top, followed by administrators, campus principals and so on. This extends to teachers, coaches and various support staff, such as bus drivers, custodians and more. All told, it's a lot of adults for a realm we generally think of as being populated by children.

Let's set aside this comparison for a moment to dive back into the corporate world.

In recent years, we've seen a trend of companies prioritizing the health of their employees. Rather than merely providing insurance when someone gets sick, companies want to keep employees from getting sick. Healthy people will be better at their jobs, leading to a healthier bottom line.

As I've written about before, executives from 25 leading companies are working together to improve workplace health through the American Heart Association's CEO Roundtable. I'm proud to say that after two years of research, testing and sharing best practices, we've released a Workplace Health Playbook that any company can use.

Now let's connects this back to school districts.

Since we recognize that districts are structured like companies and we know workplace health programs succeed in the business world, it's tantalizing to consider the wide-ranging impact such programs can have in schools. After all, when schools maximize their bottom line, everyone benefits.

Jeremy Lyon is ahead of the curve on this. For nearly a decade, the biology teacher and basketball coach turned superintendent has been finding ways to improve the health of employees in the Frisco Independent School District in Texas. Here are two examples:

  • Everyone at the central administration building is encouraged to take a 30-minute walk. In addition to making them healthier, Lyon has anecdotal evidence that they resume work happier and more energetic.
  • He's working with a major athletic apparel company on a "teaching uniform" made of fit-friendly materials. He believes outfitting elementary school teachers in workout gear will help get them moving, thus modeling a healthy lifestyle for students while comfortably improving their own health. Everyone who hears about this begs for their campus to be the pilot program.

Lyon's ongoing work led to a spot on the American Heart Association's SouthWest Affiliate board; he's the first school superintendent to hold such a position anywhere in the country. So when we recently assembled our inaugural Superintendent Roundtable, Lyon was an easy choice to be our first co-chairman.

As we continue our celebration of American Heart Month, it's my pleasure to turn this spot over to him.

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2016-02-08-1454964627-3137004-JeremyLyon.jpgOn a typical day, student attendance at public schools in Texas is 97 to 98 percent.

On a typical day, teacher attendance at public schools in Texas is 90 to 92 percent.

This doesn't seem right. Why are adults absent more frequently than kids?

I often discuss this with principals in my district. To me, the solution is improving the health of our staff. The exciting part is that I know we can do it. And it doesn't have to cost taxpayers a penny.

As school leaders, we must encourage employees to embrace personal wellness opportunities on campus. In many cases, it starts with changing our approach.

I know many principals who take pride in not having time to stop and eat lunch. They think this shows a great work ethic because that's how they were trained. I was brought up that way, too, but I've changed my mindset. To me, a good worth ethic now includes an emphasis on health and wellness. I've learned that to be an effective leader, you need to be strong in mind and body.

So here's my memo to those workaholics: Instead of considering it a badge of honor to make a lunch out of a sleeve of peanut butter crackers and a soda, consider hitting your cafeteria's salad bar.

We put salad bars in every elementary school cafeteria a few years ago. The intent was to offer kids more healthy food choices, yet we made it so appealing that teachers and staff -- people who used to avoid the cafeteria unless forced to be on lunch-patrol duty -- now choose to eat there. What a delightful, unintended consequence!

A similar example is that when I was a middle-school principal, I struggled to get teachers into the halls to help monitor kids. Now that we offer walking challenges among teachers, they're always looking for ways to get their steps. This puts them out into the halls during their off periods and between periods.

Please realize that we are doing plenty to encourage students to be active and healthy. Today, however, my focus is strictly on the adults in the public school community and how I believe they are a sleeping giant that's ready to be awakened.

First of all, they're a community that has never really been approached as such. That's part of the reason I'm so optimistic about the Superintendent Roundtable.

The AHA has put together an impressive collection of individuals from some of the biggest and best school districts. Together, we will establish our values and common commitments. Then we will create a pathway to turn ideas into action. I envision plans that can be implemented by leaders of all types -- from superintendents and principals to, say, the head of a group of seventh-grade science teachers at a single school.

If all goes as planned, school employees will go home each day healthier than when they arrived. We'll up those attendance levels among the workforce. I think you'll agree this helps students in many ways.

It won't be easy. There's going to be pushback. I've already heard that maintaining a healthy lifestyle should be done during a person's own time, not on the public's dime. To this I say: How's that approach worked out for us so far? I also point to the success of workplace wellness in the corporate world.

It's important to note this will not be a mandate. These are adults and they can make their own choices. We will put the options in front of them and they can join us if and when they are ready. I've been doing this long enough to know that just like all those great resolutions we made about six weeks ago, change is only possible when people are truly committed.

The American Heart Association is working to build a culture of health and, take it from me, it's really happening. I see a shift toward healthy choices every day.

Let's make the next generation as healthy as possible. And let's do it using the current generation as an example. That's a great lesson for us all.

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