Monday morning, as I checked my e-mail, I found a message from my director of education. She talked about our board’s focus on student well-being over the past few years, and introduced a new initiative, specifically targeting staff wellness. I admit, I got a little choked up reading that.
I have been that annoying person, every time we have professional development on student mental health, who participates fully, but always asks, “and what about staff mental health?”. For me, the two are inextricably linked. All teachers, and particularly those working with high-needs populations, need support to keep themselves healthy (physically, emotionally and mentally) in order to best support their students. They need to be working in spaces that feel safe, with supportive colleagues and admin, and have access to strategies and supports to help them when life is not going exactly as planned. I know I’m not alone in saying this has not always been my experience as a teacher. I was thrilled to see the e-mail.
I was less thrilled to read on and discover that the new focus on staff well-being comes in the form of a partnership with a particular research team, which “has over 20 years of experience working with some of the world’s highest performing individuals and organizations. They specialize in research-based strategies that improve health and wellbeing in challenging environments, including schools and boards.” I’m not saying that sounds bad – because it doesn’t. Teaching, and staying healthy while doing it, can define the phrase “challenging environment” . So, why did I have such a negative reaction?
Maybe I’ve become a cynic in my old age, but my experience has been that when we align ourselves with one particular program, a) we’re paying a lot for it and b) it doesn’t make for a lot of opportunity for differentiation. And I’ve wary of that at this point. I’m wary of anything that comes “pre-packaged”, that is supposed to meet a multitude of needs.
However, I try really hard to be a positive person, so I went on to the accompanying video.
And that’s when I really got frustrated.
I’m not going to go into all the things I struggled with in the video – those are probably for a conversation with my director, who I respect as a fellow educator. But I have to say that I felt like there was a gaping hole in the whole “pitch” (and yes, that’s my sarcastic voice coming through – it did feel like a pitch). There was no mention, really, of emotional well-being (other than as “stress”). In the interests of transparency, I need to say that my spouse is a couples and family therapist, who uses an emotionally focused approach. That definitely colours my thoughts on this.
The approach indicated in the video suggests a major focus on physical health, and I cannot argue with the importance of sleeping well, eating well and moving more, because those are strategies that work for me. I believe in the value of mindfulness practice, especially when it’s adapted to different people’s needs (some of us are helped by moving meditation). But for me, unless this program makes space for learning about the importance of our emotional health; for learning about our relationships – with ourselves, with our family and friends, with our school community – we’re missing a huge, vital, piece of the puzzle.
My other main struggle is that this program will come to us, as teachers, every couple of months, as a package in our in-box, including videos, podcasts and articles. Again, I’m thrilled at the thought of more resources. However, the expectation that teachers will need to take another piece of their constantly shrinking “own” time, and dig into those resources, and hopefully benefit from them, is not a realistic one. How many colleagues do you know who rarely access their school e-mail, because they already feel the demands are too much? Surely, if this is really a priority, we could spend the occasional staff meeting working through a module together? Maybe find some PLC time during the day to gather with a small group and listen to a podcast or watch and discuss a video (maybe even with snacks)? Staff well-being is incredibly important, for bigger reasons than reducing absences. I think it’s the bedrock we build on. A well staff means a well school, which means more ability to work with students, and their families towards their own wellness and, at its strongest, means being able to model what health and well-being looks like. Having been in the job for 25 years now, and currently experiencing the lowered stress level that comes with a self-funded leave, I know that many of us struggle with balancing our own emotional needs with the needs of our immediate and extended families and of our students, with the stress of deadlines and paperwork and trying to build safe spaces for our students.
I think that we deserve more than a package in our in-box.
I’m going to end in hope that this focus will grow. I’d also love to know what other boards are doing. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Let the sparks fly……