Generate a school culture that promotes staff well-being

For a year, schools and school districts have been grappling with how to support staff in the face of the intense and chaotic demands of this pandemic. While a growing understanding of trauma and social and emotional learning in education has highlighted the clear importance of staff well-being, the pandemic highlights this crucial issue. And while much of the discussion about staff wellness in previous years has focused primarily on encouraging self-care, more and more schools and districts are realizing they have a key and necessary role to play in making staff wellbeing more than a hashtag.

The Resilience and Learning Project is honored to work with many districts and schools across the state that have made staff wellness a priority and implemented innovative approaches to practicing collective care – efforts community and school cultural practices that bring self-care to life. In the first of our new Spring 2021 webinar series, on January 27, panelists from multiple districts joined to share the collective care practices that worked for them and the lessons they learned about staff needs. .

We have joined for the panel of speakers:

  • Bert Lane, Deputy Academic Director of Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools
  • Delisha Moore, Principal of Elizabeth City Middle School
  • Stefanie Clarke, principal of Bullock Elementary School in Lee County
  • Rachel Sullivan, school counselor at Bullock Elementary School in Lee County
  • Gina Montague, school counselor at McGee’s Crossroads Elementary School in Johnston County

Here are the themes and some examples of the strategies and lessons they shared.

Staff need to feel genuinely empowered to take care of themselves.

“They never knew they had to get permission,” Lane said as he described teachers’ responses to a “coloring event” provided by a therapist across the district. He noted that it was a revelation to many teachers that they needed a sanctioned event like this to feel like it was really okay for them to stop and take an hour to themselves.

Clarke spoke about the importance of enforcing self-care boundaries for staff, such as having a set time of day when everyone must leave the building. “It’s easy for me to say to my staff ‘I value well-being’, but [that’s not enough] If I don’t set boundaries in this building to say I really mean it, I need you to go home and be with your family.

At McGee’s Crossroads Elementary, virtual ways for staff to share their personal care has made a difference. What started as ‘The 12 Days of Self-Care’ leading up to winter break has now grown into a weekly self-care challenge where staff are encouraged to share their self-care practices on a Google Slideshow for a chance to win. a price, such as service coverage for one day. “He communicated that it was OK and encouraged to participate in personal care. In fact, you are rewarded for taking care of yourself,” says Montague.

It also means helping teachers prioritize their responsibilities and communicating boundaries to parents on behalf of teachers. “I told my parents that after 4 p.m. my teachers didn’t respond to emails,” Moore says. She makes herself available in times of crisis, but she constantly communicates to parents that teachers need time to isolate themselves and be who they are outside of work. Montague and Sullivan note that feeling real permission to take care of yourself also means having time during the school day to take care of yourself. To enable this, non-teaching staff organize times during lessons or assignments where teachers are covered to take a short break from the computer screen, to exit the classroom or to remove their masks.

Staff need to see their leaders modeling vulnerability and self-care.

Clarke says what’s been key for her, as someone who by nature is ‘go go go’, is “to show my staff that I too need to freshen up, that I also I need to take a break… I need my staff to know that this is how you are going to continue, it is giving yourself these moments to recharge your batteries.

Moore noted how meaningful it has been for her staff this year for her to recognize when she’s struggled and the steps she’s taken for herself, such as asking for advice. This gives staff the clear message that “it’s OK if you’re not OK, but what’s not OK is pretending you’re fine when you need help”. She adds that this also means avoiding the risk of “toxic positivity,” where the focus is purely on encouragement and reassurance. Staff need to feel that their struggles are truly recognized in order to feel supported.

Clarke agrees, emphasizing that it’s about building trust with staff by listening to them and letting them know you’ll overcome challenges together.

Staff need to see that their voice counts.

Montague says one of her school’s biggest lessons this year has been to raise the voice of teachers. At the start of each semester, counselors send a short 3-4 question verification survey to staff to see how they are doing and what support they might need. Not only does this give important information to help support staff, but “it also reassures staff that someone is looking after them and that we care about their well-being,” says Montague.

Lane notes that this is equally important at the district level, to show staff that their work and needs are valued, to build a relationship of trust where staff feel safe to honestly express their needs. In ECPPS, they made it a priority to give each school permission to do what their staff needed and to show staff genuine praise for the value of their efforts.

Staff need time to play and just “be human”.

Moore noted that it’s important for her and her staff to enjoy coming to work because they need that energy and the kids will feed off of it as well. At Elizabeth City Middle School, all staff start each day with their own morning meeting, where they have the opportunity to share, receive offers of support, greet each other, and start their day with their morning chant. [to the tune of Na Na Hey Hey by Steam] “We’re ready, we’re ready, we’re ready for school!” Moore says each grade-level team also plans a fun all-staff activity each month, like their Sip N’ Paint (alcohol-free) event.

At Bullock Elementary School, sprucing up the school week with fun surprises has been key to helping staff through a difficult year. On the first few days out, you might find Clarke and Sullivan on scooters cruising the halls animatedly announcing to staff that it’s time for them to go home and take a break from work. From “Wellness Wednesdays” when parents can come in for outdoor Zumba classes after school, to “Home Days” Fridays when cross-level teams show a little spirit of competition, the staff meet regularly to let loose and play.

The staff needs us to get back to normal, not go back.

“I think education is forever changed,” Lane says. “I think we’ve scratched the surface with the social, emotional and resilience piece, but we need to go much further.” He hopes districts will stay focused on those core priorities and not be distracted by the “next thing” that is always around the corner.

Moore plans to keep the focus on community building and self-care with staff, so staff can model these practices and skills with students as well. She hopes this year will help normalize the need for practices that support mental health and consider common factors like trauma.

Clarke stresses the importance of continuing to model vulnerability and self-care in leadership, and of imposing boundaries that will make it easier for teachers to take the time they need to replenish themselves.

For Montague, one of the biggest lessons this year has been to keep asking teachers and staff what they need. When they did this, it’s like the staff are “just waiting to be asked”.

When staff are invited to provide honest input and participate in finding supportive solutions, being an empowered member of a caring community becomes in itself supportive of well-being. A focus on staff well-being and true accountability for it may be one of the most important lessons schools and districts are taking with them in the 2021-22 school year.

Stacey Craig Riberdy

Stacey Craig Riberdy is a Certified Clinical Social Worker and School Consultant and Coach with the North Carolina Public Schools Forum Resilience and Learning Project. She has a private psychotherapy practice where she sees child and adult clients via telehealth. Her life’s passion is to help school staff and families create and sustain healing communities where children with complex needs and stressors grow into healthy, connected and engaged adults.

Carol C. Reed