How to create a healthier school culture (opinion)
I recently celebrated my birthday. In addition to texts, calls and Facebook messages from family and friends, I received 27 less personal emails and texts. They came from the universities I attended, the stores I frequent, alumni organizations, my favorite perfumery, several restaurants, my auto insurance company, and the airline I travel with frequently. I also received small gifts from them: vouchers for free ice cream cones, a dozen donuts, pizzas, sandwiches, desserts, discount offers, a piece of pie; all from organizations I interact with on average once every few months.
These messages tell me that my business matters to them. They like me. They want to stay in contact with me. They see me and want to honor me as a customer in some way.
Reading the posts at the end of the day, the organization I spend the most time with and devote repeated extra hours and energy to was noticeably absent. I tried to remember the last time I got a card or email from my supervisor on my birthday, but I couldn’t. It never happened, and that emptiness says it all.
I did, however, receive Mother’s Day greetings, despite not being a mother. My Jewish and Muslim colleagues received Christmas and Easter greetings while their own celebrations went unrecognized. These generalized messages communicate something about the organizational culture and values of a district.
When I was a school principal, I worked hard to create safe, nurturing and trusting climates within the school community. It was also a priority for the region of schools that I supervised.
Everyone I supervise receives birthday cards from me and special recognition during the workday; I try to do the same for colleagues. This is an easy and important starting point. It tells people that they matter enough for me to remember their special day. I ask them questions about their children, I know their personal interests and I check when they are sick. As a result, they know that I appreciate them and care about them.
District and school culture does not happen by accident. Culture is formed from intentional decision-making about who and what to recognize (or not recognize). How and when management communicates with employees is important and clearly demonstrates the values of the organization’s leaders.
I once worked in a school district where the only birthday celebrated by the district was that of the superintendent. Money was collected for gifts, a big task was done at the cabinet meeting, and a fancy bakery cake was served at his table at a meeting of district directors, while directors and others ate supermarket sheet cake. This too sent a message.
The past few years have emphasized the importance of socio-emotional well-being for our students and staff. Even during the upheaval of the pandemic, there are many small, inexpensive ways for school and district leaders to continue this work.
For example, set up an automatic email for each employee’s birthday when they are first hired. If funding or donations are permitted, a token of appreciation such as a gift card for a cup of coffee may be included. The personal touch of a supervisor or superintendent can also boost employee morale, so consider a hand-signed card.
Another gesture that makes sense is to assign each new employee a partner who can welcome him and guide him in the neighborhood. Regular communication through check-in calls, text messages, or meetups will also ease the transition and help the employee feel a part of the organization as a whole.
A sense of belonging is a key factor in employee happiness. Everyone needs someone at work who watches over them, listens to them and helps them solve problems, understands their challenges and celebrates their accomplishments.
Be inclusive. Recognize all cultural heritage months and holidays. Remember that the recognition of a single dominant group has a more detrimental effect of exclusion than many realize.
Affinity groups are a great way to start cultivating a healthy community of support for people who are underrepresented in a school or district. Technology can simplify planning through virtual meetings. It’s one thing to recruit a diverse workforce, but if you’re not willing to examine your practices and create structures that support their retention, you’ve created a revolving door.
It’s not too late to make a shift towards developing a healthier and happier educator workforce. School systems are filled with talented, caring people who care for each other informally every day. Little extra effort is needed to formalize these efforts, even though their potential impact on the individual and collective well-being of employees is truly limitless.
Simple steps to support employee wellbeing
- Colored men have lunch
- Native American lunches
- Women in Science Dinners
- LGBTQ dating
- Book clubs
- walking clubs
- Museum Club (with discounted passes)
Virtual classes taught by expert employees (synchronous or asynchronous)
- Fitness classes such as yoga, bootcamp, or hip-hop dancing
- Hobbies such as cake decorating, gardening, auto repair
Virtual conferences by community partners (synchronous or asynchronous)
- Visit our parks
- learn to paint
- Balanced diet
- Learn mindfulness
Support groups led by district advisors or community partners
- Divorce group
- Diabetes and cancer groups
Thematic weeks or months
- District Gratitude Week
- Random Acts of Kindness Month
- Book donations/gift cards for employees returning from maternity leave
Free on-site health/wellness screenings