The Namaste Way: Teaching Teachers Healthy Lessons

March 31, 2015

Namaste takes its professional development seriously.

Namaste Charter School on Chicago’s southwest side embodies so many of the issues that are important to creating and maintaining a healthy school environment, including healthy school food, regular physical activity and parent engagement. A visit to the school is a visit to a world where students get the nutrition, activity and support they need to succeed — in school and in life — and it works! During the next several weeks, we’ll take a deep dive into some of Namaste’s successes with getting students to eat unflavored yogurt and drink plenty of water, ongoing professional development for staff and engaging parents. Click here to see all of the posts in the series.

On a frigid Friday morning in January, a handful of staff members at Namaste Charter School — including founder and executive director Allison Slade — gather in a classroom to participate in a short, seven-minute workout. The group holds a plank for 30 seconds, does a minute worth of squats and another of lunges before the final timer goes off. This impromptu workout is a regular occurrence throughout the school.

At lunch time, teachers and staff go through the lunch line with students; about 50-80% of the school’s teachers eat lunch in the cafeteria on a daily basis. Slade herself eats breakfast and lunch at the school almost every day.

After all, Namaste promotes physical activity and healthy eating for all members of the Namaste community — not just students. Teacher and staff wellness is incredibly important to the school because teachers and staff are role models for the students, Slade said. “If students see staff and teachers being active and eating school meals, they’re more likely to do those things themselves,” she continued. “It’s a great way to model good behavior.”

Namaste doesn’t just encourage teachers to lead active, healthy lives — the school’s professional development provides teachers with the tools and skills they need so they can create a culture of health for their students. Namaste has an extensive professional development program that holds sessions every Friday, which is a “huge amount more than traditional CPS schools,” said Lola Pittenger, the school’s manager of health and wellness, who leads sessions on health and wellness. Each meeting begins with a healthy snack — a way to get Namaste teachers into the habit of eating healthy and modeling good behavior for students. “The healthy snack is really important to getting teachers excited and ready to learn about health and wellness strategies,” Pittenger said.

Professional development begins early and continues throughout a teacher’s tenure at the school. Incoming teachers attend a two-day boot camp of sorts to familiarize them with the health and wellness focus of the charter school. But the training doesn’t stop there.

Many of the professional development sessions are health and wellness focused, including how teachers can work movement breaks into instruction. They even help teachers understand the connection between their behaviors — teacher activity breaks or eating with students in the lunchroom — impacts student perceptions. Pittenger said K-4 classrooms are in a really good place with incorporating movement into the classroom. Because grades 5-8 switch classes between periods, the movement of students from one class to another meets a lot of those kids’ needs. “Right now, we’re working on trying to incorporate more intentional movement breaks during class periods themselves,” she said.

All of this staff training allows everyone in the school to be on the same page about Namaste’s focus on health and wellness and to really incorporate the mission into their everyday interactions with students. The school’s success — high test scores, high participation in the school lunch program and parent engagement — is a testament to just how well the staff is trained and really believes in the school’s values.

Namaste takes professional development one step further. As a member of HSC’s Fit to Learn advisory board, Slade is eager to pass along key learnings and successes of “The Namaste Way” to other teachers and administrators in Chicago and elsewhere across the country.