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Perspective | Collective care: Generating a school culture that promotes staff wellness

For the past year, schools and school districts have been wrestling with how to support staff through the intense and chaotic demands of this pandemic. Whereas a growing understanding of trauma and social and emotional learning in education has highlighted the clear importance of staff wellness, the pandemic is bringing this critical issue into sharp focus. And while much of the talk about staff wellness in previous years has centered primarily on encouraging self-care, more schools and districts are realizing that they have a key and necessary role to play in making staff wellness 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 have implemented innovative approaches for practicing collective care — the communal efforts and school cultural practices that bring self-care to life. In the first of our new spring 2021 webinar series on Jan. 27, panelists joined from multiple districts to share the collective care practices that have worked for them, and the lessons they have learned about what staff need.

Joining us for the speakers’ panel were:

  • Bert Lane, Deputy Chief Academic Officer with Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools
  • Delisha Moore, Principal at Elizabeth City Middle School
  • Stefanie Clarke, Principal at 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 real permission to take care of themselves.

“They never knew that they had to be given permission,” said Lane as he was describing teachers’ responses to a “coloring event” provided by a therapist through the district. He noted that it was a revelation for many teachers that they needed a sanctioned event of this type to feel that it was really OK for them to stop and take an hour for themselves.

Clarke talked about the importance of actually enforcing self-care boundaries for staff, for example by having a set time of day when everyone must leave the building. “It’s easy for me to say to my staff ‘I value wellness,’ but [that’s not enough] if I don’t set boundaries in this building to say that I mean that, I need you to go home and be with your family.”

At McGee’s Crossroads Elementary, virtual ways for staff to share their self-care have made a difference. What started as “The 12 Days of Self-Care” leading up to winter break has now become a weekly self-care challenge where staff are encouraged to share their self-care practices on a Google slide deck for the chance to win a prize, like duty coverage for a day. “It communicated that it’s OK, and encouraged, to participate in self-care. In fact, you’re getting rewarded for taking care of yourself,” says Montague.

This also means helping teachers prioritize their responsibilities, and communicating boundaries to parents on behalf of teachers. “I’ve said to my parents, after 4 p.m., my teachers are not responding to emails,” says Moore. She makes herself available in the case of a crisis, but she communicates consistently to parents that teachers need time to shut off and be who they are outside of work. Montague and Sullivan note that feeling real permission for self-care also means having some time during the school day to take care of themselves. To allow for this, non-teaching staff arrange times during class or duties where teachers are given coverage to take a short break from the computer screen, to get out of the classroom, or take off their mask.

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

Clarke says that what has been key for her, as a person who by nature is “go go go,” is “modeling for my staff that I too need to refresh myself, that I too need to take a break … I need my staff to know that this is how you’re going to keep going, is to give yourself those moments to replenish.”

Moore noted how meaningful it’s been to her staff this year for her to acknowledge when she has struggled and the actions she’s taken to take of herself, like seeking counseling. This gives staff the clear message that “it’s OK if you’re not OK, but what’s not OK is pretending you’re OK when you need the help.” She adds that this also means avoiding the risk of “toxic positivity,” where the emphasis is placed solely on encouragement and reassurance. Staff need to feel that their struggles are really acknowledged in order to feel supported in them.

Clarke agrees, emphasizing that it’s about building a trusting relationship with staff by listening and letting them know that you’ll go through the challenges together.

Staff need to see that their voices matter.

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

Lane notes that this is equally important on a district level, to show staff that their work and their needs are valued, in order to build a relationship of trust where staff feel safe to voice their needs honestly. 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 herself and her staff to enjoy coming to work, because they need that energy and the kids will feed off of it, too. At Elizabeth City Middle School, the whole staff begins every day with their own morning meeting, where they have an opportunity to share, to receive offers of support, to give each other shout outs, and to start their day with their morning chant [to the tune of Na Na Hey Hey by Steam] “We are ready, we are ready, we are ready for school!” Moore says that every grade level team also plans a fun activity for the whole staff every month, such as their (non-alcoholic) Sip N’ Paint event.

At Bullock Elementary School, infusing the school week with playful surprises has been key to helping staff through this difficult year. On early release days, you might find Clarke and Sullivan on scooters riding through the halls announcing animatedly to staff that it’s time for them to go home and take a break from work. From “Wellness Wednesdays” when parents might come to teach outdoor Zumba lessons after school, to Friday “House Days” when cross-grade level teams show a little competitive spirit, staff regularly come together to let loose and play.

Staff need us to go forward to normal, not back.

“I think education is forever changed,” says Lane. “I think we have scratched the surface with the social emotional and the resilience piece, but we need to go much deeper.” He hopes that districts will keep focused on these core priorities, and not get distracted by the “next new thing” that is always around the corner.

Moore plans to keep the focus on community building and self-care with staff, so that staff can also model these practices and skills with students. She hopes that this year helps normalize the need for practices which support mental health and take common factors like trauma into account.

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

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

When staff are invited to give their honest input and share in finding supportive solutions, being an empowered member of a caring community in itself becomes a support for wellness. A focus on, and real accountability for, staff wellness may be one of the most important lessons schools and districts take forward with them into the 2021-22 school year.

Stacey Craig Riberdy

Stacey Craig Riberdy is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a school consultant and coach through the Resilience and Learning Project at the Public School Forum of NC. She has a private psychotherapy practice where she sees child and adult clients over telehealth. Her life’s passion is helping school staff and families create and sustain healing communities where children with complex needs and stressors grow into healthy, connected, engaged adults.