From the start of any teacher certification program, preservice students are bombarded with recommendations on how to teach health education.
Obviously, much of this advice is necessary. Professors help with content and pedagogy, and mentor teachers offer feedback during clinical work and student teaching.
But it’s also true that once people hear you have pursued a career in education, you may begin to receive unsolicited comments — from established teachers, retired educators, and even people with no teaching experience.
So what advice is actually worth heeding? How do you navigate the countless recommendations that will come your way?
If you are a new health educator, here are three filters for receiving — and heeding— teaching advice: authenticity, appreciation, and action.
1. BE AUTHENTIC
Too often, the first recommendation for a new teacher is to start off the school year by being strict. Lay down the law early, people say; you can always ease up on the teaching reins later. Unless this is your personality, such a strategy rarely works.
The reason? It goes against most teachers’ nature.
That said, there is no perfect mold for a teacher. Maybe you are in fact a bit strict, and it works. Maybe you’re more laid back, and it also works. Maybe you’re organized. Maybe you’re last minute. Maybe you’re great with routines. Maybe you’re better with flexibility. Or maybe you’re a little of everything.
New Teacher Tip: Just be yourself. Or, rather, find yourself.
There will be teaching advice that speaks to your soul and aligns with your “gut” or instincts — suggestions that make you nod your head in agreement.
Follow those recommendations, especially if they play to your strengths.
That’s because although you can sometimes “fake it ‘til
you make it” in life, in teaching it’s difficult to force yourself to be
someone you’re not. Not in the long run, at least. Students have a knack for
seeing through anything but the real deal.
In health education, consider the difficult topics and sensitive nature of the conversations that might take place in your classroom. Be authentic in delivery but also focus on your wording. How you speak matters. Follow the advice from leading organizations for inclusive language.
- Model how to analyze influences on
health behaviors (NHES #2).
Speak with correct mental health terminology to show empathy and maintain a trauma-informed classroom.
- Practice healthy interpersonal
communication (NHES #4).
Do your best to be gender neutral and/or non-binary. Eliminate “You guys” from your vernacular and consider something different than “Ladies and gentlemen” as well. “Hey everyone” works great!
- Demonstrate advocacy with
compassion (NHES #8).
When discussing sexual wellness, use “A person born with __________” instead of the terms male or female reproductive systems.
This process of finding yourself and your voice as a teacher is never ending. With each new year, and each new class, you will evolve and reinvent yourself as an educator. Being aware of this journey is a mark of great, effective teachers who remain relevant while staying true to themselves.
2. APPRECIATE FAILURE
The first recommendation — “Be Authentic” — suggests you find teaching advice that speaks to your personality strengths. This second recommendation urges you seek advice that pushes you to be open to your weaknesses.
Much of teaching is indeed finding your comfort zone. But sometimes, teaching involves putting yourself out there as you try something new.
Students are looking for guidance, but so are teachers — particularly beginning teachers. Realizing you are also learning from your students, and being transparent in the meantime, takes vulnerability.
Trying something new, even slightly new, can be a risk. But, let students know they’re needed in your own learning process — this inclusion has huge value. Ask for feedback from your classes, try to keep thick skin, and learn to love the process.
New Teacher Tip: Learn to appreciate your mistakes.
Failure can look different for each teacher and in each new circumstance. It might be one particular prompt, activity or grading rubric. Or maybe it’s a small interaction outside of class. Or, it might even be the entire unit itself.
Take time to reflect after a mistake to realize what might work better. What recommendations do you need to seek out? What sources might keep you up to date? How can you keep learning exciting and new?
Be a role model to your students to fail forward. Consider sharing your teaching imperfections. This will help you remain human, especially in the eyes of the most important person in this process — yourself.
In health education, you are bound to make mistakes with terminology or statistics. Trends, research, and medical findings change with each year. Focus on what you do know while being transparent in what you don’t know with students. Young people will appreciate the honesty. Students don’t need a perfect teacher; they just want one who cares.
- Model accessing valid information
Stop class as needed to look up a statistic on the spot or do some research overnight and provide more info the next class. Try, “I don’t know — not off the top of my head, at least — but I’ll do my best to find out.”
- Practice decision making skills
Model searching and utilizing accurate resources for substance use, then openly explain how you came to a course of action through the decision-making process to create your lessons or class project.
- Follow a goal setting structure
Walk students through a personal goal you have such as keeping up to date with health and wellness news, how you will do so, and in what ways you will modify this goal as you continue in your own learning. Share obstacles along the way.
3. TAKE ACTION
The final recommendation is to follow teaching advice that challenges you to get involved.
Teachers can’t expect everything to just fall into place. You can’t sit and wait for students to learn. You can’t expect to improve without actively pursuing excellence.
Plot a course of action that puts you on the road to success — whatever that looks like in your current context.
New Teacher Tip: Take action to promote learning.
It might mean keeping up to date with organizations and leaders in the field. Depending on grade level and content area, your motivation and continued education might come from professional conferences and related literature.
These recommendations will feel natural and, hopefully, challenging. And, being challenged will lead to action.
Want to try out a new lesson? Go for it. Looking to pilot a new idea for the school? Pitch it to administration. Trying to stay up with relevant information? Join professional organizations. Wish to connect with other educators? Spend time on social media. Wish to improve our image as teachers? Become an advocate.
Taking action will propel you to become the teacher
you were meant to be.
As a health educator, like any teacher, it’s important to take care of yourself as well as your students. Follow your own advice and put health skills to use for your personal well-being.
- Follow a goal setting structure
Develop a professional goal to connect with as many fellow health teachers in person and online this next school year. Share your own success and failures on media as desired.
- Practice self-management
techniques (NHES #7).
Put mindfulness and other stress management into action to know what to recommend for students.
- Demonstrate advocacy (NHES #8).
There are many causes you can choose to promote that might hit close to home for you. Also, follow leading organizations like SHAPE America for information and resources you can use in your class.
Being a quality educator doesn’t come from acting a part, it comes from being a part — a part of the school culture, a part of a classroom environment, and a part of the educational journey you are taking alongside your students.
- Mindful Mistakes Video
- SHAPE America Career Center
- E-Guide: 10 Tips for Becoming a More Effective Health and Physical Educator
Scott Todnem has been teaching health education since 2001 in Naperville, IL. In 2019, he was named SHAPE America National Health Education Teacher of the Year. Scott has been on social diversity teams, led educational trips, and served as team-building coordinator and strength and conditioning coach. He is the author of “Growing Up Great!”— a puberty book for boys.