The GDS health and wellness classroom on the third floor of the high school building looks like no other, with students lying on rugs, sprawled across couches and sitting on yoga mats all under twinkling lights and art hung on the walls. As GDS makes a complete return to in-person learning for the fall semester of 2021, one critical element will be missing from the space: its creator.
Next year, Meg Blitzshaw, the creator and teacher of the high school health and wellness program, is leaving GDS after five years at the school. Blitzshaw is moving to the Boston area, where she hopes to continue being a teacher, and her husband will work as a life science consultant, advising companies in the healthcare sector on their practices. She is excited to live closer to her parents, who live in New Hampshire, and start a new chapter in her life, but will miss GDS and the program she has built at the school.
“It’s super bittersweet for me,” she said. “This program has sort of become my baby.”
The GDS health and wellness class teaches students how to manage their physical and mental well-being. Students enjoy the casual, safe atmosphere the class provides, which allows them to feel included and comfortable enough to ask awkward questions.
“It’s more of a safe space [than other classes],” sophomore Sofia Sevak, who is a student in the inaugural sophomore health class, said. “I walk in there and I’m not stressed about homework or tests or exams. I feel really comfortable in her class.”
Blitzshaw started at GDS in 2016 as a biology and environmental science teacher, after teaching at the Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school in Wallingford, CT for six years. Even before the health program was created, she incorporated a little health and wellness education into her classes.
“We would talk about sex and poop almost every day,” she said. “And on Valentine’s Day, I would teach about the science of love.”
At the time, GDS had snippets of health and wellness education in physical education classes and special programming throughout the year, but no comprehensive course. Director of Student Life and Wellness Bobby Asher observed a need to teach high schoolers more about mental health when he was serving as dean of student life. He noticed students struggling with “a lot of anxiety, some depression and even some self-harm.” When Asher brought up the idea of a health program to Head of School Russell Shaw, Shaw was intrigued and wanted to expand the prospective program to include younger students. Now, the health and wellness program runs from 5th through 10th grade.
Blitzshaw first got an idea of what it would look like to teach a comprehensive health course during GDS’ first Minimester in 2017. Each teacher was told to come up with a course for Minimester, the then two-day dive into one subject away from the classroom. When Blitzshaw asked students what they wanted to have her teach, over and over again, students asked for a sexual education course. Along with counselor Amy Killy, Blitzshaw taught the Let’s Talk About Sex course for the first two years of Minimester.
Asher and other members of the administration thought Blitzshaw would be the perfect person to run the proposed health and wellness program, due to her past work with the Minimester course. When asked if she wanted the position, Blitzshaw had a mixed response. She wanted to teach but did not want the administrative responsibility of designing a program for the whole school that came with the job.
“I want to teach,” Blitzshaw said of her response to being offered the position. “If GDS was willing to separate the teaching part from the administrative, I would be really interested.”
GDS met Blitzshaw’s request, and Asher took over the administrative responsibilities once he stepped into the role of director of student life, while Blitzshaw taught the first freshman health and wellness course in 2018.
When starting the program, it was important to make her classroom into a unique, casual space conducive to learning and talking about uncomfortable topics. She talked to students and affinity groups to hear what students were interested in learning. Today, her curriculum covers topics including consent, human sexuality, stress and sleep. Her class teaches students what they really want to know, with the curriculum evolving based on students’ interests.
“We do really great projects and group work,” Sevak said. “She finds a way to make [health and wellness] engaging.”
Sophomore Charley Quillian finds that the material covered in Blitzshaw’s class has helped her improve her mental health. “She made us meditate every day for a week,” Quillian said, “and that really helped.”
Students appreciate how Blitzshaw runs the class day to day, engaging everyone and showing interest in students’ lives. According to freshman Malcolm Baar, Blitzshaw asks students about their days at the beginning of class, which he appreciates.
“We got to talk about what we did in the day or the weekend, or what we like in the world,” he said.
The health and wellness program will continue to evolve with more classes for different ages, possibly developing into a program all GDS students would participate in from pre-K through senior year. Yet Asher believes that the program will never be the same without Blitzshaw, with no one being able to run it close to the way she currently does.
“Meg is a unicorn,” he said. “She’s one of a kind in all the best ways.”