Staff Wellness: Creating a Healthy Balance to Best Support Students and Our Staff Members

By Dr. Raymond Heipp

Staff Wellness: Creating a Healthy Balance to Best Support Students and Our Staff Members

We continue to hear about the issues students are currently facing as they navigate this world and all that is and has happened. Their anxiety levels are still at all-time highs as we continue to experience health concerns as well as a wide range of global concerns on top of that. Unfortunately, students are also continually bombarded with polarizing news reports which augment this anxiety. As faculty and staff members, we are charged with assisting the students through these trying times. But what is being done for us as staff?

I am honored to be working with Connie Morris on the Pillars Initiative which focuses on creating pillars of support for our school staff. This initiative has also brought me into a heightened awareness of what is currently being done in our schools and the diverse range of approaches that have led to both positive and less than positive outcomes for the adults in those communities. As a former administrator, I recognize the need to make sure that our students have the best support we can give them. I also recognize that the foundation for that support must come from a balanced approach where staff members also have the same type of access to mental health and wellness support.

I feel as though I should begin the next few paragraphs with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but that has already been used. Still, we do see a tale of two approaches in our school communities. Let me begin with the “worst of times” example as we need to see that there is a way of changing that narrative as we move forward. 

In one of my recent journeys, I came into contact with a school culture where the emphasis on wellness is completely on the students. There is nothing wrong with having the students as that centerpiece, but it was how they were doing it that brought me concern. I was there to help with the creation of a sensory room which they were excited to bring to the students. We were speaking about the needs of the various groups of students at the school when I asked how they might also see this being used by the faculty. At this point, the administration explained to me that this was for the students only. Throughout the visit, I also met with teachers and therapists to get their insights on the needs of the room. They all seemed very tired and lackluster. I found out, from those who were comfortable enough to share, that the reporting, lesson planning, and amount of meetings had increased with the amount of down time given to the teachers during the day almost eliminated. They still had their lunch and planning periods but were expected to meet with students during those times daily. The faculty felt brow-beaten and not supported and several of the younger teachers shared that they were thinking of leaving the profession as it was just too much. This lack of balance eventually create a community where even the students become completely overwhelmed as the teachers are already exhibiting signs of exhaustion while expending all of their energy on the students with no energy being given to themselves. This is not a viable plan!

Ironically, I began virtually meeting with another school a day later with plans to visit there in person. It was a unified committee of an administrator, a teacher, a therapist, the school nurse, and a parent. This group was extremely positive and worked so well together. The administrator explained that they wanted the room but also wanted ideas on how to create a sensory space for the staff. The parent joked that they wanted a room for the parents too and everyone laughed! I had the opportunity to have a follow-up call with a group of teachers who were so positive and kept referring to what they were actually doing for themselves as the basis for what they could do with the students. I learned that the administration had begun providing them with additional time during the school day for “decompression” and had brought yoga and exercise programs to the school for use by the staff. They also had instituted “chair massage days” that occurred on a monthly basis for the staff as part of this program. The positive feeling that I perceived through these virtual meetings was powerful and completely opposite of what I felt with the other school. This feeling demonstrates the balance in approach being used by this school. Think about it this way, if the farmer is sick, then the crops cannot be properly cared for on a regular basis.

So how can we work to achieve that balance? Start with simple things! Is there a faculty or staff members who are also yoga trainers or who might lead a group in running/walking during free time? Even if one does not have a yoga instructor on staff, can something simple like sets of Pose Cards or Breath Cards be shared with the staff for their own use? Is there a way to rotate staff members so that everyone in the building can have a 15 minute break for “decompression?” Instead of creating sensory rooms, as some buildings may have limited areas for this type of use, can we create sensory spaces in classrooms, faculty rooms, and even offices? A beanbag chair, vibrating pillow, fiber-optic lamp, or bubble wall can add to the area and create a safe haven within the room. All of these are simple steps that one can begin to create that solid wellness foundation for the staff. This balance is like the adage of building your house on a solid foundation as opposed to starting from an imbalance and building on a foundation of sand.

Please let me know how I can assist you in building your foundation on the solid ground of balanced wellness!



Posted in School Health, Special Education and SH Special Education Today Newsletter