Should Schools Be Responsible for Childhood Obesity Prevention?

No. No. No.

According to Emily Richmond, Kaiser Permanente recently conducted a nationwide survey and found that 90 percent of respondents believed schools should “play a role in reducing obesity in their community” and 64 percent supported it being “a major role.”

Richmond also notes that The American Medical Association has recommended that K-12 students be taught about the dangers of obesity and supported using revenue from proposed taxes on sugary sodas to help schools pay for such educational programs.

Mayor Bloomberg, at least, would be down with that.

Sixty-four percent of the public and the AMA are wrong. Schools absolutely should not be responsible for childhood obesity prevention.

With every societal problem teachers take on, public criticism of their work, already considerable, will increase. That’s because they’ll have less time to teach students to read, write, and ‘rithmatic and any progress in solving the problem will be so slow as to be imperceptible. A double whammy.

No one asks whether doctors should be responsible for cancer prevention because they’ve done a great job of saying there are many contributing factors—genetics, nutrition, smoking, environmental factors, etc.—and no cure in the foreseeable future. Teachers should eschew their built-in altruism and say, “Enough already. We love our students, but many things are outside of our control and we refuse to be substitute parents.”

Feel free to disagree, just explain where we should draw the line. Should schools be responsible for making sure students brush their teeth regularly, floss, make their beds, leave campsites nicer than they find them, get adequate sleep, exercise, limit television, avoid violent video games, and never ever text or post anything unkind on Facebook?

When considering a blurring of the lines between schooling and public health, it’s important to remember that students spend approximately 23% of the time that they’re awake each year in school. Richmond hits a homerun here:

As the Las Vegas Sun’s education reporter, I did some quality control spot checks at various campuses after Nevada’s junk food ban was passed. I found that bottled water and graham crackers had indeed replaced the sports drinks and chocolate bars — with one notable exception: the machines in the faculty lounges were fully stocked with the familiar array of candy, chips and sugary sodas. That the ban didn’t extend to the adults on campus illustrates the larger challenge facing schools, families, and communities as a whole.

Amen. Until adults figure out how to eat and live more healthily no amount of in-school teaching or behavior mod will have any kind of lasting effect. The only guaranteed outcome is a further devaluing of teachers.

The Teacher Appreciation Deficit

Thursday night, as I settled into my seat at Olympia High School’s end-of-the-year orchestra concert, my thoughts drifted back to earlier in the day when my thirty-four Masters Teaching Certification candidates discussed whether, as year-long interns, they felt sufficiently appreciated.

No surprise that most of them did not. Instead of partnering with them, they lamented that too many of their students’ parents ceded seemingly total responsibility for their  children’s education. I suggested that tough economic times seem to be bringing out the worse in an increasing number of people who seemingly view teachers—with their relative job security, solid health care benefits and retirement plans, and shorter than average work year—with antipathy and derision.

My doctoral dissertation was the story of a Global Studies high school in Southern California. Before putting pen to paper, I sat in on four classrooms for a few months. One dark fall morning, while I was interviewing one of the Global Studies teachers whose classroom I studied, he stopped me cold and said, “You’re the first person in twenty-three years who truly understands what I do.”

Most teachers do exceptionally good work in near total obscurity. Often, their administrators and colleagues don’t even have a feel for what they accomplish on a daily basis, let alone students’ parents or the public more generally. Ignorance breeds contempt.

Coaches, theater educators, and music educators are exceptions to the rule because their students sporadically perform in public. Typically, afterwards, the public praises their performances and applauds, sometimes as in the case of the Olympia High School end-of-the-year orchestra concert, lustily.

Absent audio tracks from their concert, there’s no way I can convey the brilliance of Olympia High’s orchestra program. It probably helps that I’m not a connoisseur of classical music, but at every concert I marvel anew at the excellence. Excellence that rests on parents like the GalPal who decided early on that our daughters were going to have every opportunity to excel at the violin, a network of outstanding private instructors, and Chip Freakin’ Schooler, the best orchestra teacher and conductor in at least this galaxy.

Of course privilege comes into play, but what better use of financial resources than artistic excellence? In fact, increasingly I wonder if beautiful music, dance, literature, design, painting, photography and related art forms are all that matter. Maybe we have it exactly backwards, cutting arts education in the interest of economic utilitarianism and consumerism.

CFS deserves his own post, but for now, suffice to say he embodies a critical ingredient to reforming education and improving teaching—off the charts subject matter expertise. A couple of tweaks to his life journey and I suspect he’d be conducting a major U.S. symphony right now.

Instead, he’s working tirelessly with fourth and fifth graders and middle schoolers at several different schools preparing them for the high school orchestras. His work ethic rivals his musicality, so much so it takes most of the summer at his family’s Lake Cour d’ Alene cabin to decompress.

I feel deeply indebted to CFS for the educational experience he’s provided Fifteen and Eighteen. At the end of the concert, each senior gave him a bag of chips, then took turns reading a touching poem to him, then gave him flowers, then new rosin rags, then a special tuning fork set to 2011 megahertz. Craziness, teenagers being touching.

CFS balanced appreciation for his students’ affection with selfless and pragmatic attention to wrapping up the concert. Pride in the students’ accomplishments, without the personal ego one might expect.

It’s the end of the school year. Tell a Chip Schooler in your community why you appreciate them.

Teacher Appreciation

Classrooms are organic entities. Each class session contributes in some small way to negative or positive momentum.

This fall my first year writing seminar titled “Teaching’s Challenges and Rewards” began positively and then got better and better. It was a great group of young adults who got to know one another during orientation. From the beginning they decided to give my more student-centered course design and informality the benefit of the doubt.

I lead discussions one and two, and then they paired up and took turns co-leading discussions three through ten. The first pair did a great job preparing their guide, facilitating the discussion, and setting the bar high. Afterwards, I detailed exactly what they had done so well thus nudging the bar even higher. And during that first discussion I purposely sat on the floor, out of sight of most of them, to ensure it would truly be their discussion.

Did their writing improve? For the most part yes as they’re in the process of detailing in their final papers.

One of the students was a Portland hipster who was committed to becoming a nurse. I liked her a lot. Mid-semester she confided in us that she spent a lot of her senior year in high school hiking in and around Portland. She was personable, a thinker, and always had nice insights.

A few weeks ago, after class, she asked if she could talk to me. Turns out she was troubled because the course content had gotten under skin. Now she explained, “I think I want to teach secondary science more than I want to become a nurse.” I told her she had time to learn more about both and that it was a win-win situation, she’d be a great nurse or teacher, both important, selfless professions. Complicating her future was rewarding.

The students’ final papers are trickling into my inbox. Several have added notes like this most recent one, “Thank you for teaching such a wonderful class in my first semester at college! I really enjoyed my time, and I look forward to the next three and a half years I get to spend at this university. This was a very interesting intro class and you were a very good professor to have! I appreciate all of your hard work!”

That’s not meant to be self-congratulatory. I share it knowing I can’t take much credit for the course’s success. It was a great course mostly because they always came prepared, they interacted thoughtfully with one another, and they worked hard on all of their papers. There wouldn’t have been a whole lot I could have done if they came unprepared, refused to engage one another, and threw their papers together at the last minute. If this sample of young people is any indication, I’m happy to report the world is not going to hell in a handbasket.

I also share it to highlight how much easier it is to teach adults. It’s rare for elementary, middle, and high school students to write or tell their teachers how much they appreciate them. That’s why K-12 teachers deserve much, much more of the public’s respect. Instead of scapegoating them for a litany of social and economic problems over which they have little to no control, we should compensate for their students’ who too often take them for granted by acknowledging the importance of their work, tangibly honoring it, and making sure they know they’re appreciated.