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……
As always, your thoughts are well worth considering and you’ve hit on some really valid points. Here’s my truth: I haven’t had any time to open the director’s message with the accompanying video, and when I was delivered an email from said company this morning, I thought it was spam. Not an auspicious beginning…
Thanks so much, Mary. I expect you are not the only person to have this experience. I don’t know if I got that e-mail. I will have to check. I really hope that movement forward can come out of this initiative.
Thanks for sharing the story and your thoughts about it, Lisa. This is one of those things for which there is no perfect solution.
When I think of what would work for myself, I would tend to not agree with the staff meeting approach. Those always came across as truly laid on and a check mark achieved by the presenter at the end of the event. Often, the examples are contrived and are difficult to get onside with.
On the other side, the package that arrives via videos, podcasts, and articles often falls into the “one size fits all” category. I suspect that many will just ignore the materials or give it a passing glance like so many other initiatives. The very nature makes it a visibly optional initiative. I know what I’d do if I had to weigh a favourite activity versus taking the time to wade my way through the activity.
I would suggest that, if it’s truly of value to the board, that they show good faith in removing something from the table. Imagine a situation where you drop the need for extensive report card comments for a term in exchange for devoting the time to take care of yourself.
It would seem to me that that approach would send a strong message that the program is indeed important; we want you involved, but we’re willing to meet you half way.
Thanks, Doug. I agree with you about the meet halfway approach. I’ll be really intrigued by staff response. I am hoping some people can suggest other options from their boards.
Some key points that really stood out for me:
*Staff well-being is incredibly important, for bigger reasons than reducing absences. I think it’s the bedrock we build on.
*Relationships are key
My mental and emotional health have always been at their best when all the relationshjps (both personal and professional) in my life are healthy. I am not convinced that a package of resources will take the place of knowing that the teacher in the next room cares about me as a person. Beyond that, I need to feel the support and appreciation of my administration. These relationships buffer me from the stresses of my profession. No video on YouTube will ever take the place of a hug. EVER.
I watched the video until the 2:32 mark to see if I had the same reaction as you, Lisa. For me, my initial reaction is that it’s very “general”. There’s a lot there that the board hopes to cover. Let me comment on a) the “program approach” and b) teacher-initiation vs staff meeting vs PLC.
A = I can understand and appreciate why you are definitely wary of a “this will fix everything, just buy our stuff” program approach. Yet, I also appreciate those who seek (oooh, 10 points for using my #onewordOnt focus word in a post!) to find answers via something that’s already tested and made into an easily-digested format. No one program can cure all of society’s ills. For instance, my school likes the Zones of Development book, lessons, and posters. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. I like it, but I also like Dr. Shanker’s work on self-regulation better – but could this not also be considered a program? (It has a group devoted to its practice, and specific workshops to take and so on.) At what point does something become a “prescribed program”? (And people like prescriptions, don’t they? Take these 2 pills and call me in the morning; you’ll feel better.)
B = I like how you looked at the idea of sending things to people’s in-boxes with a critical lens. You are right that people will often skip those kinds of emails because they are mass-sent. Yet, Doug makes a great point in his comments. The staff meeting may be fine for some but not for others. It’s hard to differentiate for how-many-thousands of employees, to ensure there are many options that honour the variety of ways people internalize information or seek (bing – 20 points) help when they are struggling. Still, if teachers are expected to differentiate for their student body, then the former/current teachers in positions of responsibility can also get creative in offering many ways in to support their staff.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I am going to try and set up a meeting with the director so that I can talk to her about some of this. I do think there have to be multiple entry points, and multiple opportunities for people to communicate about what they’re learning. I’m absolutely sure my friend Mary, who commented above, is not the only person who didn’t open the Monday e-mail, and therefore deleted the first e-mail from the program provider this morning. (I almost did, except it said STEM on it, so I kept it – that’s the acronym for Sleep, thinking clearly, eating bettter and moving more – I didn’t know that -I thought it was the other STEM). I’m hoping good things come of this. Are you applying zones of development to staff, too?
This definitely hits home. The current staff at my school seems burnt out, cynical, and stressed–not only with their work life, but illness of themselves and their loved ones, loss of family members, and other challenges. You’re right, the idea of downloading more content to sift through makes many feel like it is adding to the burden rather than relieving it, even if it intending to help staff.
I love the idea that you have about having a small focus at a staff meeting, or a smaller group meeting.
Thanks for sharing!
thanks so much. I had a year a few years ago that I kept thinking about in the context of this new initiative. I was working at a school that I would classify as high-needs, and had the pleasure of working with an incredibly committed group of teachers. However, we were falling apart – literally. 2 people lost parents that year, 3 people were in the process of ending marriages, and navigating what that meant, many had health challenges of their own (or their parents, or their kids). I didn’t know how to stop us from drowning, and I felt, for some reason, that that was at least partly, my job. It was awful. It would have been very difficult for us to find time to work through a mental-health/well-being module. I kind of feel like multiple access points would work somehow – or at least a way to communicate about what we’re learning – but maybe that will be part of the process.
Lisa, I should start by admitting that I haven’t listened to the video yet. It was an earlier reference to a “program” that really inspired this comment. Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg is not a program, and I think its success rests in that. We’re all different, and our stressors, and what helps us feel calm, vary depending on the person (and sometimes even the day). But there’s no doubt that an adult’s dysregulation impacts on children in their care. Kids read us and they respond to us. So if we’re angry, upset, or stressed, these are all things that will impact on kids. This is why staff mental health, in my opinion, is so important. If we focus on adults, we actually impact both adults AND kids! Thanks for taking on this important topic. Love reading what others think of this as well.
Thanks, Aviva. I knew you’d bring advocacy for selfreg into the conversation. Your comment about our dysregulation reminded me of an interesting conversation with Mr 14 the other day. He shared his opinion (based on his experience of me and other teachers) that he wasn’t sure people should have to teach and be parents of small children at the same time. He felt that patience might be in short supply both in the classroom and at home…..
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I’ve been thinking a lot about our principal and others in his place. I don’t know how he manages. I’ve often described his job as “getting a spray tan”. Things come at you from every possible angle. Sometimes it’s awkward. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it works out…. Oh yeah, and it all happens at the same time!
How might we support them?
Unlike teachers, they have few colleagues that they can rely on. In Boards where schools are really spread out, it’s even harder to connect with others that share the same experiences. And, if they’re not ok, how can we expect anyone else in their care (and under their leadership) to be ok?
Hugs to you Lisa! Thanks for bringing this up.
I’m so glad you pulled this into the equation. I worry about principals, too. My best friend has that role, and I had the gift the other day (thank you, self-funded leave) of being in her office at the end of the day on a Friday. Now, let’s add that this was a crappy weather Friday when the roads were a mess, and all people wanted to do was get home. Despite that, I was amazed at the number of staff who made it a point to stop in and check in- to share something that had happened, to share what plans were for the weekend, to just make sure that my friend knew she was important to them. I hadn’t seen that an awful lot in my career, though I know I’ve done it sometimes myself (probably not enough). It really is a trickle-down thing….if we don’t take care of our administrators, how do they take care of us?