Apr 8

Any School Could Do This If It Wanted To. So Why Don't They?

Thoughts on the cultures of wellness in education.

For the first time in two decades, I ran a mile this week. It took me 8 minutes and 30 seconds. I don’t mean to brag here (with a time like 8:30, there’s nothing to brag about), but for me, it’s a significant thing.

Don’t get me wrong; I still hate running. This post is not an announcement of my intention to transform myself into some sort of mid-life runner. Running is the pits. Don’t focus on the thing itself, instead pay attention to why I just ran my first mile in 20 years: It’s because I’ve been going to the gym regularly (roughly three times a week) since September. This is definitely a thing that I’m proud of, and a thing that has made a big difference in my life. At some point between age 27 (the last time I ever went to a gym with any regularity) and 38, I took my eye off the physical fitness ball. Kids, career, and life in general probably have something to do with that. But really, it’s my own fault. But now, having moved across the globe, I find it easy (easier, at least) to go to the gym regularly. Why is that?

The answer is because FIS cares about the wellness of its teachers in ways that my former school did not.

As always, a few caveats are in order. My former school was not actively working against my physical health. It wasn’t forcing me to eat poorly, or limit my daily mobility. I don’t mean to suggest anything like that. But I absolutely do mean to say that compared to how FIS does things, I don’t think there’s a public school in America that comes close.

Let’s do the working out thing first: I’ve been working out so much because I do it at school, arriving to work an hour early on gym days to do what I need to. What I do, specifically, is participate in FIS’s CrossFit program. For whatever you might personally feel about the merits of CrossFit, leave that aside and appreciate the fact that FIS is a certified CrossFit gym (or “box” to use CrossFit parlance). Who participates? Teachers and admins (there are about 20 regulars, with more coming along soon). Who coaches? Teachers and admins (there are 8 certified CrossFit coaches on the staff, most of whom participate in the classes on the days that they aren’t coaching them). How did I get involved in FIS CrossFit? I sent an inquiring email to the majordomo of our particular box and was invited to join an “on-ramp” program for prospective CrossFitters that took place over five weeks in the fall. And then I joined the regular group, which offers sessions every morning, Monday through Friday. Right now I like going on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays. I work my butt off and get tons of encouragement and assistance from my co-CrossFitters, while also stifling my amazement at what so many of them can accomplish in their own practice. Then, when I finish, I shower and change into my work clothes in a locker room that is expressly reserved for staff use during that time of the day.

My old school would have happily let me use the facilities in a similar fashion, but it would not have been anywhere as easy to do so because it just isn’t in the culture of the system. There is no group of teachers coaching other teachers through workout routines five days a week.

This cultural emphasis on wellness extends past my own fitness journey. FIS has an entire “Working On Wellness” committee that spearheads all sorts of physical fitness initiatives. Here’s a partial list:

  • Making sure that the cafeteria offers healthy eating options every day for any staff members who want to take advantage.
  • Organizing multiple extracurricular wellness-focused activities, including things like "Power Yoga" (that my wife attends weekly) and walks around various Singapore locales.
  • Holding an annual on-site Family Fun Day for FIS staff and families that makes all of the school's amazing facilities available for us to play with.
  • Offering annual on-site full-panel physicals for any interested staff (and their spouses).
  • Organizing a selection of morning, and afternoon wellness activities during staff conference days.

These are just the ones that I can think of right now. My former school offered exactly zero of these. There was a Health & Safety committee, but it was usually focused on things like facilities issues, and similar (inarguably significant) concerns about the work environment, not so much the workers in that environment. Which is not a knock against that system, specifically. I don't know any other school system that has such a cultural focus on staff well-being. Outside of obvious issues related to funding, and the ever-expanding list of mandates that a typical US public school has to deal with, the main thing that seems to prevent them from having the same cultural focus on wellness is lack of consideration. When was the last time a public school superintendent decided to devote half of a conference day to wellness initiatives? Has anyone in a public school ever had it offer on-site physical exams for staff? These are things that can be done if there is any focus on doing them. In US school systems, that focus doesn’t seem to be there.

Over here at FIS, the cultural emphasis on physical wellbeing that makes it harder to act in unhealthy patterns. To take a cue from behavioral psychology, it nudges you toward making better choices about what you do. You certainly don’t have to do any of it if you don’t want to. No one is forcing me to take better care of myself, and no one would mind if I continued to live a life-pattern like the one I had back on Long Island. But I believe that people will generally follow healthier patterns if we reduce the friction for doing so, and encourage them to take advantage of what's on offer.

At least, I've got a recent 8:30 mile time and 15 fewer pounds of body mass that suggests they will, which is great for me, and for the FIS system more broadly. Because if teachers feel better, they do better work, and that’s better for everyone.

Do you have any thoughts on this one? Have I missed an entire culture of wellness-focused US public-school systems? Leave me a comment below or drop me a line if you want to have a conversation. I do not check social media for discussion of or commentary on my work.