Teaching is a stressful profession. A 2014 survey found that nearly half of U.S. teachers say they experience a lot of daily stress. That affects their health, well-being, and job satisfaction.
Jayne Donohoe is out to change that, with exercise. The physical education teacher at Gunpowder Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland, notes that physical activity produces endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers — and also improves the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.
She organized a Teachers Fitness group at her school, which meets after the day’s classes and offers a variety of exercise classes.
“Today we’re doing Bodyflow’ which is like a yoga-Pilates-type class. Before that we had a step aerobics class, or we had a Bootcamp,” she said. “We all come from a variety of shapes and sizes and fitness levels. If I can get them to show up, I can usually keep them in here. That’s probably the hardest part because they are tired. I tell them ‘You’re tired. Once you come here and exercise, it’s going to give you energy.’ I started my workday at 7 a.m., so it’s a long day for me, but I know it’s important. So I’m here.”
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Many workplaces in the area offer similar programs. But Jenny Ward, spokeswoman for Baltimore County Public schools’ Employee Wellness, says they are especially important for teachers.
“They do have a very specific job during the day and they’re really tied to their classrooms with their students. They don’t have as much free time or flexibility in their day,” she said. “So it’s more difficult for them to schedule physical activity in their day, which is why we offer classes after work. So, as soon as the students left, they can change to their fitness attire and go to the gym with all of their coworkers who participate.”
The program is a big hit. It draws teachers from nearby schools, and they’re not all women.
“We have three men teachers,” Donohoe said. “One was staying today, but when the class got changed to Bodyflow instead of Bootcamp, he decided to go to his gym. The two other teachers are not interested yet. But I’ll get them, don’t you worry!”
Exercise and be happy
Gunpowder Principal Wendy Cunningham has watched attendance rise since Donohoe started the program a year and half ago.
“The teachers are excited to be together, to exercise, to support one another, to be healthy and maintain healthy habits,” she said. “Learning about how to manage stress has been extremely important. That is helping them to be more productive, be more positive in the classroom and have a lot more patience with all students every day,” Cunningham added.
“It’s very important for stress reduction, for just making you feel better about yourself,” Donohoe said.
Participating teachers agree. Third-grade teacher Ashley Schuchardt says being part of this group makes exercising more fun.
“Really, it’s the people,” she said. “They are a great support team. They really help you after a really long day. They help you keep going. I’m not a person who loves exercise, but they really make it fun. So I keep coming back week after week.”
Exercise is only one component of Donohoe’s Wellness program. Good nutrition is another.
“We have a weight loss healthy teachers program that I also organize,” she said. “We meet once a week. I bring in guest speakers on motivation and nutrition. We’ve been doing that since last year. We’ve lost over 300 pounds (136 kg), 18 of us, and you feel better and healthier, and you’re drinking more water and you’re eating better.”
Employee Wellness spokeswoman Jenny Ward is excited about the prospects for the program.
“We’re happy to say we have more teachers and staff participating than we have before,” she said. “But it’s still not high enough. We still have quite a few more staff that we try to get involved in healthy eating, healthy activity, stress management, and all components of wellness.”
Ward hopes to see every school offering on-site fitness classes at the end of the workday — in Baltimore and beyond.