Feature stories

Power of positive teaching

Award-winning health educator shows students how to make right choices

Bruce Cotler Boyd gets kids moving with a game of air hockey.

Bruce Cotler “The smiles on their faces, their questions, the aha-moments” are what motivate Boyd. 

Bruce Cotler “We’re at the top in the wellness categories of health ed and phys ed,” said health educator Paula Boyd at Edward R. Murrow HS in Brooklyn.

Every day, health educator Paula Boyd deals with some hard truths about life in the high school lane: Most of today’s teenagers eat badly, are sedentary and are often ignorant about sexually transmitted diseases.

So she made herself into a one-woman wraparound-services coordinator, getting students hip to everything there is to know about wellness from apples to zits, with lessons about drug abuse, safe sex and self-respect in between.

“Positive decision making is the outcome I want to see,” said Boyd, who has been teaching at Edward R. Murrow HS in Brooklyn for nine years and works closely with paraprofessional Shantel Addison in her various health activities.

For making condoms available to kids who have parental consent, to banishing bad-news iced tea from vending machines, to supporting Broccoli Wednesdays and other activities in her comprehensive program, Boyd was one of only 18 health educators nationwide who were honored in 2012 by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

As an anointed leader in school health and the fight against childhood obesity, Boyd is on call to lead training workshops or speak at conventions. In the fall she gave a presentation in North Carolina on how she helped design her school’s health program.

When it comes to junk food and beverages, Boyd fights fire with fire.

“Obesity from those foods is the biggest problem, and we’re competing with advertising,” she said. “You have to fight at that level.” Boyd uses visuals and news segments about the evil triumvirate of transfats, refined carbohydrates and sugar to educate kids and present them with alternatives. “You have to be specific with images,” she said. “When you show a can of corned-beef hash, they’ll begin to understand what ‘processed’ means.”

All bets were against her when Boyd decided to offer options such as carrots with fat-free ranch dressing and fruit smoothies at the school fair.

“People said the kids wouldn’t buy any of that, but they did, and they liked it,” she said.

Also popular were her caramel apples — a kind of mini-course in Introduction to Apples. She also has a sort of Vegetables 101 class. When kids say they’ll never eat a vegetable, Boyd pulls out pictures of just about every vegetable in the world to show them that they don’t even know what’s out there. When it comes to legumes, she’ll say how chana in India and garbanzo in Mexico and chickpea in the United States are one and the same.

If kids say they would rather die than eat beans, Boyd points out that she saw them digging into a falafel sandwich the other day.

“When there’s a connection, there’s a solution,” she said. “You also have to do things in increments. If you can’t go straight to the apple, go to the caramel apple first.”

When a student is resistant to change, Boyd said, “you must take the whole child into consideration. Are they resisting because they don’t know any better, can’t afford something or because no one’s taken the time to listen to them?”

She also tunes in to the discouragement and low self-esteem often related to obesity and poor academic performance. For that she recommends counselors, matches kids with school clubs that reflect their interests or assigns class presentations about their family’s ethnic dishes. “I watch them beam with pride,” she said.

Boyd knew she wanted to be a teacher since she was in 4th grade, and she knew she would be a health educator when in 10th grade at Abraham Lincoln HS in Brooklyn.

“I had a phenomenal health teacher, Ms. Wexler, who knew how to reach children not only in their heads but in their hearts,” Boyd said.

When it comes to that inspirational teacher and her protégé, the apple — with caramel or not — didn’t fall far from the tree.

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