Teaching Health

Imagine you were born 250 years ago, and hand washing before surgery, or when assisting in child birth, to prevent infection was considered hogwash by the established scientific medical experts. It sounds crazy today, but this was an enormous leap in health care at the time. In fact, Ignaz Phillipp Semmelweis, the doctor who discovered that hand washing dramatically lowered the mortality rate after the delivery of a baby, didn’t even understand at first why this simple practice reduced mothers’ deaths.

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Let’s move up to even 100 years ago. Because of the dramatic rise in scientific health knowledge over the past century, the average life span in the United States has increased from nearly 50 in 1900 to 78 years in 2009. That’s a huge difference. People are living 28 to 50 years longer. Indeed, many believe that centenarians—those living past 100 years old— will become the norm relatively soon.

However, while we’re living longer, the United States faces some serious health risks that could reduce overall life expectancy, as well as continue to escalate skyrocketing health care costs. The obesity epidemic, as just one example, is costing America an estimated $147 billion per year, but that’s not the worst part. Thirty percent of Americans are restricted in their daily activities as the result of obesity; they may suffer from diabetes, heart disease, increased cancer risk, infertility, lack of mobility, and social shame.

Health teachers are on the front lines of this and other critical health issues. Teaching students to eat correctly and ignore fad diets, and to get enough exercise, falls on the shoulders of health teachers. It’s a monumental task, in which health teachers must compete with hours of daily media consumption, but it’s vital to both students’ health and to the country’s overall health. The role of health teachers is crucial in educating students about lifestyles, so they can enjoy a good quality of life, for three-quarters of a century or more.

What is it like?

Confronting a classroom where 20 to 30 percent of students are already overweight is not the only issue where teachers are on the battle lines. Often health teachers face landmines of sticky, awkward, and politically charged topics. Health educators, especially at the high-school and even middle-school levels, are often responsible for explaining human sexuality and the reproductive system. This can be a stick of dynamite with parents, so it takes finessing to give students straight answers without upsetting authority figures.

Fun Health Facts
  • The tongue is the strongest muscle in the body. Licking a lollipop is like weight lifting.
  • Over the course of a lifetime, the average person eats eight spiders while sleeping.
  • Feet are vital; they contain a quarter of the bones in your whole body.
  • It would take under seven years of consistent farting to produce enough energy for an atomic bomb.
  • It takes only seven minutes for most people to fall asleep.

This education is also happening in the midst of the transition from child to adolescent, and with the raging hormones that accompany it. A sense of humor, and the ability to get students off any number of rabbit trails, is a must. At the same time, you’ll be teaching students about matters they’re currently dealing with, so if things “get real,” you’ll also need to learn to pull over to the side and deal with those issues as they come up, rather than sticking to the lesson plan. Ultimately, your students are the best life lessons you can offer.

Other issues that will fall to the health teacher to educate students about include cigarettes and drug and alcohol abuse. Some students will already be struggling with these issues in very real ways, while others are quite curious to try. Mental and emotional health are also fascinating topics to discuss with kids, most of whom are wondering if they are “normal.” Other curriculum might include healthy relationship communication. This subject has enormous breadth and depth, because health influences every aspect of our lives.

Many health curriculums also include family planning issues. Even if they don’t directly address birth control and sexually transmitted disease prevention, they do include fun projects like making students pretend to be parents to robot baby dolls or raw eggs.

However, not all health education issues are so emotionally powered. Much of the curriculum will be about healthy nutrition and encouraging students in proper hygiene, best sports practices, vaccinations, and environmental health.

Those drawn to making a huge impact on kids’ futures, even while addressing issues they’re facing right now, will find a rewarding career as a health teacher.

Can I get a job?

The expected growth rate for health education teachers between now and 2020 is 37 percent. This is drastically higher than average for teachers, and higher than the average growth rate for professions across the board in the U.S.

Disturbing Health Facts
  • 30 percent of kids under 18 are either overweight or at risk for obesity.
  • 14 percent of kids under 15 have had sex.
  • 20 percent of all abortions are administered to 15- to 19-year-old girls.
  • 25 minutes is the average amount of exercise in kids’ school days.

The demand is led by state and federal funding directed toward combatting obesity, drug abuse, and America’s health care crisis. Because social issues and widespread illness are such costly concerns for the economy and social well-being, the focus has shifted toward wellness and prevention.

Those who really want to make a huge impact in kids’ lives can get jobs in high-need schools. Many programs exist which will “forgive” or pay off student loans for those teachers who work in areas that are in desperate need for qualified and passionate teachers. These areas might be in inner cities, rural areas, and places combating poverty. Those states with high obesity statistics also have a high number of health teacher positions available.

In the U.S., 40 states require health courses and the completion of some health and physical education curriculum. This is good news for the health teacher, because they will always be in demand. It’s also a reminder that in many districts, health classes are still taught by physical education teachers, rather being the domain of a health education teacher who’s dedicated to that subject alone.

What salary should I expect?

The average income for a high-school health educator is $54,311 a year, with salaries ranging from $30,000 to more than $70,000. Teachers get increases in pay for number of years on the job and for additional education hours. Those who accomplish a master’s level of education will increase their pay significantly and will become eligible for administrative positions.

In addition, those inspired to pursue health education are often athletes, and thus might enjoy coaching an athletic team. These teachers remember the profound ways their own coaches influenced their lives—giving them direction, teaching them character, encouraging them toward excellence—and they want to pay it forward. This additional responsibility is also a great way to add onto their basic teaching salary.

How do I become a teacher in this field?

Potential health teachers need to look closely at the requirements for becoming a health teacher in their state. For instance, some states combine health and physical education. Regardless of state or college major, each state will require the completion of a teaching certification program. Visit Teaching Certification to get details of each state’s required coursework.

In addition to coursework, potential teachers are required to complete at least one semester of student teaching, where they will receive in-class direction from a veteran teacher. New teachers find this experience indispensable, as classroom management in real life is very different from hypothetical situations in books. Imagine the difference between reading about a student challenging a new teacher’s experience and authority versus actually confronting that student in real life. Talk about a difference. But it’s a situation teachers deal with on a regular basis. A mentor teacher is invaluable.

For non-traditional students—those already in careers or with children—the wave of online education is superbly helpful. Many universities offer degrees online, which can be taken on the student’s free time and at his or her own pace. Again, teaching-certification.com can offer invaluable information about which courses can be taken online and what different states require.

Health teachers can have a huge influence on students’ lives, because in many cases they’re the only teachers who address the hard questions and moral dilemmas that middle school and high school students face. Many teenagers don’t have the adequate maturity, and emotional and brain development, to handle such decisions without direction from a trusted adult. If you want to have this kind of inspiring impact on kids’ lives, then maybe becoming a health teacher is the right decision for you.

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