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Need to Know

Need to Know

By John Henry Ledwith | February 13, 2018
National Sales Manager, ETR

The great state of Texas. Known for its sports teams, exciting weather, roots-based eclectic music and grand landscapes. After my visit to northern Texas a couple of weeks ago, I’m going to add to that list: outstanding health education teachers.

I was working with health education master Susan Telljohann, PhD, as she delivered a training on the 15 Characteristics of Effective Health Education. If you ever get a chance to take a training with this woman, do it. She’s remarkable. It was amazing to watch the participants in this training bringing a new level of concentration to the question of what to teach and how to teach it.

Anyone who becomes genuinely familiar with these 15 characteristics and how to put them to use will become a better teacher. I don’t care whether you’re using a state-of-the-art curriculum or a terrible one—put these principles into practice and you can’t help but improve. That’s what Dr. Telljohann communicates so clearly and elegantly in her trainings.

How Many Bones in the Hand?

Here’s one of my favorite examples. I’ve heard teachers present some pretty in-depth information about anatomy and physiology in high school health classes. I’ve seen lesson plans that review, “How many bones are in the hand, and what are they named?”

Interesting stuff. And who needs this information? Well, I’d like to think my primary care doc has it. I believe a hand surgeon or a physical therapist should know this.

But in all honesty, in the limited number of hours we usually have to teach health education, I’m not persuaded the average high school student needs to know this. In fact, I’d rather see a focus on teaching that student not to use those bones to lift a bunch of beers and drink them down over the weekend. That could be a life-saving bit of knowledge and skill.

This is an excellent example of the principle “nice to know” vs. “need to know.” It sums up the Characteristics’ focus on functional knowledge. The idea is that we teach what students need to know—information that “directly contributes to health-promoting decisions and behaviors.”

Saying No

Here’s another story I heard recently from a colleague. A guest presenter came to a class of fifth graders to teach about refusal skills. He introduced the lesson by saying, “I’m here to talk to you about how to say ‘No’ to dangerous things. But that’s almost impossible because we live in a ‘Yes’ society.”

He went on to give a personal example of going out to a bar with some friends and feeling compelled to continue drinking because his friends kept buying rounds for him. He encouraged the students to make plans about what they were going to do when they began attending parties where alcohol was present. He suggested that they pick up a bottle or cup of alcohol and simply hold it, without drinking.

The next day, when another educator asked these fifth graders (let me say it again—fifth graders) what they had learned from their guest speaker, they all replied, “We learned how to drink responsibly.”

Are you cringing? I sure did when I heard this one. But I also realized that this guest educator didn’t have the training or experience to deliver an effective, age-appropriate lesson to these young students. If he’d known how to put the 15 Characteristics into action, he might have focused on something more age appropriate—refusing cigarettes, declining to help a friend cheat on a test, avoiding a dare, being a responsible bystander in the presence of bullying.

Those Texas Teachers Are Making It Happen

And that brings me back to the training in Texas. I know those educators are ready and willing to be the best they can. They were given a chance to step up their game and they grasped it wholeheartedly.

It’s true that there are dangerous things out there in the world, and sometimes they harm our students. I’m grateful for fine health education teachers all over this nation who are giving students the power to choose health and influence their own destinies. I’m also proud of the district administrations that recognize the value of strong professional development and invest in the training of their staff. That’s an investment that will pay dividends for years to come.


John Henry Ledwith is National Sales Manager at ETR. He can be reached at

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