Case Study: How Healthy, Active Teachers Create a School Culture of Wellness

January 28, 2013

Today we’re featuring a case study from Health in Mind, a new report from HSC and Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), which details immediate solutions that can help close the achievement gap and create a healthy future for all children. Here, we learned about professional development at Namaste Charter School in Chicago.

by Kadesha Thomas

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Namaste students participate in an outdoor exercise break at a nearby park.

It starts with the interview process.

When a prospective new teacher sits down to interview with Allison Slade, founder and principal of Namaste Charter School in Chicago, one of Slade’s first questions is, “What attracts you to our mission?” And then she listens for clues to whether the candidate will integrate into the school’s unique culture.

Namaste’s mission aims for academic excellence, and health and wellness is their way of achieving it. The school was founded in 2004 to fill a void in public education, one Slade felt was setting students up for poor performance by not ensuring that they were physically or psychologically healthy enough to learn. She wanted a school environment in which health and wellness principles—like nutrition and physical activity—were a part of the school’s mission, as well as a personal mission for individual school staff.

“It’s about how they think of themselves as a model for students,” Slade said of prospective teachers. “If you’re always walking around with a pop in your hand, that’s a problem. For students, a teacher’s behavior has an impact on them.”

Namaste’s culture of health and wellness is a shock to many new teachers. The day starts with a 15-minute morning movement, usually a yoga routine to “get younger kids to calm down and get older kids to wake up,” Slade said. The school’s 450 students, kindergarten through eighth grade, have 25 minutes of recess and 60 minutes of physical education each day.

During lunch, students have access to healthy food and learn about why that food is healthy. All teachers teach a 30-minute wellness block every day, where students learn about a pre-selected theme such as the human body, eating a balanced diet, safety and the benefits of physical activity.

Though the health and wellness culture resonates with new teachers’ personal values, most don’t know how to incorporate it into the classroom when they come to Namaste. But the shared mission among the teachers makes it easy for them to learn during Namaste’s rigorous teacher preparation. That preparation starts with a three-day induction specifically for new teachers. Sessions focus on introducing the new teachers to Namaste’s six core pillars—Nutrition/ Health and Wellness, Movement, Peaceful School Culture, Balanced Learning, Language and Culture and Collaborative Practice.

The induction takes place before the school’s summer break begins so that new teachers can observe classes, witness, and, afterward, discuss, how health and wellness are incorporated into the core curricula. The induction Namaste students participate in an outdoor exercise break at a nearby park.30 / Health in Mind / Improving Education Through Wellness / healthinmind.org also includes a session at a nearby yoga studio, to help new teachers understand the foundation for Namaste’s focus on mental health.

Over the summer, new teachers are given core reading and additional training on how to incorporate health and wellness topics into their trimester lesson plans. A seven-day orientation with all teachers also includes additional presentations on infusing health into the classroom. This is also a time when teachers outline the topics for the daily 30-minute wellness blocks. Each Friday afternoon during the school year, teachers come together to review and critique each other’s lesson plans for the coming week.

Student academic performance has confirmed Slade’s conviction that emphasizing health in the classroom boosts learning: nearly 87 percent of Namaste students meet or exceed state academic standards, compared to 73.4 percent throughout the Chicago Public Schools district. Namaste’s daily student attendance rate is also five percentage points higher than the district average.

“Attendance is high because the kids are healthier, so they miss school less,” Slade explained.

Teachers are also demonstrating their commitment to health and wellness among themselves outside of the school day. In May 2012, the staff started an afternoon Zumba class and several teachers have joined local residents to train for the Chicago Half Marathon in September.

As the year progresses, we’ll share more about Health in Mind and the progress of this initiative! For more information or to view the full report, please visit www.healthinmind.org.