Empower yourself! #FitLeaders

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

With so much turmoil surrounding education’s deficits, too often our analysis paralysis blinds us to solutions lying dormant in plain sight. Time then for a little New Year’s Tabula Rasa…

Recently, there’s been a leadership and learning idea percolating in my head, brought to full brew with the arrival of 2016 and the unavoidable necessity for those ubiquitous New Year’s resolutions. As a quick aside and an attempt to quell any further jaded dispositions on NYE resolutions, I’ve grown quite fond of these promises since I’m now in my third year of an alcohol-free lifestyle and just completed a year’s worth of monthly blogging – both due to the power of New Year’s goal setting. Which tangentially prompts me to mention—

I’m a Libra.

Libras are notoriously desperate for balance. Ask any leadership Libra, this insatiable quest for a harmonious life keeps us in a constant state of reflection. I’ve spent the last three years diving headfirst into servant leadership. You know, the kind of leadership that lays it all on the line for those around us [the ultimate resource, make allies not enemies, the Underdog’s Advocate]. This kind of full-throttle leadership can spin a Libra completely off his or her axis. I’ve equipped myself for the unbalanced scale primarily through the research of John Medina and Rory Sutherland. In his book Brain Rules, Medina trumpets physical exercise as a key component in stronger brain development. Sigmund Freud doesn’t have to tell us “Happy brain = Happy life.” Thus, in a sincere attempt at a happy, well-balanced life, I’ve followed a simple creed—

Embrace a physically active lifestyle

3 plates

Originally, my choice to embrace the gym and a #FitLeaders lifestyle, putting myself through the consistent rigors of intense weight training, had nothing to do with the audacious goal of saving schools over $163 million annually. I merely needed a lifestyle change and found it sharpened areas I never would have imagined. I expected some stress relief, specifically measured through decreased blood pressure, and I most certainly welcomed a more fit physique, admittedly measured by the fact I can now wear a Euro-cut suit. What I didn’t account for was the unexpected boosts in idea generating, relationship building, goal perseverance and the potential, when multiplied across school systems, to revolutionize the correlation between leadership and school operating budgets. For me, adding iron to the opposite side of my Libra scale not only restored that desperate need for balance but it also awoke a synergetic sleeping giant. Back to that idea I mentioned —

We need to restore physical education in schools

Let’s go back to Rory Sutherland for a minute. In his TED Talk, Sutherland speaks to the idea of Psychological versus Newtonian solutions. I love it because it gives me hope each day while serving in an urban school that suffers from every single trapping of poverty imaginable. The idea is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we don’t have to demolish infrastructure in order to rebuild completely anew. Instead we can take existing systems, reframe our thinking, integrate innovative planning and goal setting and voila! Progress proceeds…

Like many non-tested subjects, Physical Education (PE) has fallen victim to standardization’s collateral damage purgatory. Yes, PE exists in varying degrees depending on which school you visit but by-and-large it’s an academic afterthought. What excites me to a great degree, though, is that IT-DOES-EXIST. We don’t have to rebuild anything: refurbish and repair, yes; rebuild and recreate, no! The more alarming reality is instead the tear-jerking truth discovered when peeling PE’s onion. Consider for a moment the nauseous-worthy amount of time wasted during physical education. Schools are perpetually vying for resources, continuously scrambling for capital yet the indelible reality is that TIME is the sole resource we can neither buy nor get back. Meanwhile, with little to no vision or outright concern for what a successful PE curriculum can accomplish, schools, students, families and communities are more often left with the effects of uninspired hours of pick-up basketball games or whole group attempts at volleyball – or much, much worse…

Thankfully the solution is purely psychological. For instance, imagine an educational system where the countless number of college graduates vying for those elusive physical training jobs instead flooded to our schools, charged with enhancing our students’ learning capacity through inspired exercise regiments and dietary lessons. Far fetched? Not only do I believe there’s room for this kind of curriculum with millennial teachers waiting in the wings to jump aboard, I’m willing to run an action-research study to prove it—

Follow our #FitLit research

Meet Ms. Gabrielle Hampton @MsHampton_ and Mr. Jarred Amato @jarrredamato, two of those inspired millennial teachers I was just referencing. Gabby’s an all-star science teacher at Maplewood High School in Nashville, TN who also happens to teach a practical, goal-centered health & wellness class. Jarred is a literacy guru who’s helped ignite Maplewood’s culture of reading in one of the most impoverished high schools in TN. Together these two forward-thinking teachers, driven by the immediacy of psychological solutions, are about to measure exactly what I’ve been preaching, the impact of organized exercise on student literacy. We’re setting out to prove that with vision, commitment and passion, every school’s PE curriculum can be reconstituted as a brain-based academic ancillary, designed to not only improve students’ overall well-being but also their learning capacity and cognitive processing.


The #FitLit PBL will be student-driven, with students active in the research of specific exercises, regiments and hypothesized outcomes. The students will also be responsible for quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis over the course of the study, including but not limited to weight change, heart rate, mood variations, and reading lexiles. Both Gabby and Jarred will oversee and facilitate this unique study, sharing progress and insights through Twitter using the #FitLit hashtag. I implore you to follow along as we are kicking-off 2016 with specific, concentrated efforts to improve schools from the inside out.

Finally, Kansas principal Paul Erickson @PrincipalPaul and I have started a discourse about the synergy between healthy leaders and healthy schools. The reason for “school” and the act of “leadership” both hinge upon the undeniable fact of survival. Renowned Leadership Diamond guru Peter Koestenbaum pulls no punches in his explanation, “leadership success is tied to survival.” Doubling-down on our own well-being increases the chance of both personal and professional survival. Join the #FitLeaders movement that seeks to build healthy, sustainable leaders capable of lifting our Nation’s most precious payload – Education.

It’s time we stop accepting the almost 30% principal turnover rate as “the $163 million cost of doing business” and instead do something about it, once again improving schools from the inside out.

See you in the gym!

8 thoughts on “Empower yourself! #FitLeaders

  1. How many times can I like this?! If the school system combined GOOD NUTRITION and physical exercise k-12, those test scores that they want would come so much more easily. You sir, are leading a fit lifestyle by phenomenal example, and the kids (and educators) you influence are very lucky to watch you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done sir. As a fellow Libra I also find myself searching for that balance of the physical and mental. Making sure I get to kick my own ass on a regular basis keeps me sane. Looking forward to your progress this year and jumping in with #fitleaders!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Just found this post! Love it. I run, workout, sprinkle in some HIIT when I can. All while being Dad to 3 kids, husband & principal. All of that more for mental health than anything. Sometimes we are made to feel selfish when we take time for ourselves to exercise. But I’m able to return so much more when healthy and fresh. Great post

    Liked by 1 person

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