My School’s Efforts to Support Teacher Well-Being Fell Short. Here’s How...

Opinion | Teaching and Learning

My School’s Efforts to Support Teacher Well-Being Fell Short. Here’s How We Changed It.

By Katerra Billy     Oct 19, 2022

My School’s Efforts to Support Teacher Well-Being Fell Short. Here’s How We Changed It.

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

It’s a chaotic morning. I’m rushing to our daily staff meeting, which starts 10 minutes before the doors open to students. Out of breath, I listen to the list of absent teachers to cover and a few other updates that could have been delivered via email. I think to myself: I really could have used this time to prep.

When it’s over, I chat with my colleagues for a quick moment before racing down the hallway to my room to gather myself before the students come in.

I say a few affirmative words aloud to center myself, then I reach into a drawer and pull out a small bottle of lavender aromatherapy that my leadership team gave me as a “wellness gift.” Knowing that this will be the last moment of calm until I reach my car at the end of the day, I breathe in and exhale. For a moment, like Calgon, I’m taken away. I imagine myself at a spa.

Then my colleague flings open the door and I'm immediately brought back to reality. The spa is gone. Back in teacher mode I gather my materials and head to first period. All I can think about is how frustrated I am about the lavender—and the failed efforts to support teacher well-being at my school.

Wellness Efforts Fall Short

Our middle school opened its doors to roughly 100 fifth graders in 2019. I joined as a founding teacher in its second year, and with the pandemic and the expansion to serve over 400 students in grades 5 through 8, it's been a rough three years. As we’ve added grades, we’ve welcomed in some new staff members and bid farewell to others. At my school, turnover is high, retention is low and morale even lower. The high turnover—which is in part due to the pandemic, and in part due to the influx of new teachers for grade expansion that each new year has brought our team—has made it difficult to build community.

During the height of the pandemic, every school was struggling, but we faced unique challenges given how new our school was. Everything was virtual, even our morning meetings, but we had to be present in the building, which most of us found absurd. By the end of the 2020-2021 school year we resumed in-person learning with full days. After so much transition and uncertainty, we were exhausted and overwhelmed.

Our leadership team knew we were run down so they began planning a strategy to boost morale and prioritize staff well-being. The problem? They didn’t ask us what we needed. The dean of culture started hosting after-work gatherings at local eateries to bring staff together to unwind and connect outside of work, but most of us didn’t show up. Then “Wellness Wednesdays” started as a weekly opportunity for the leadership team to focus on staff well-being and strengthening the community. Sometimes they would recognize teachers by putting a note on our doors with affirmations. Sometimes they’d give everyone a few unexpected hours back by canceling a professional development (PD) meeting. Other times, around holidays or teacher appreciation week, they would give teachers a gift—like lavender aromatherapy.

Even with these efforts, our small but mighty growing team just wasn’t feeling connected, supported or appreciated and it came to a boiling point this past spring. People were leaving. Water cooler chatter, which for us typically takes place by the printer or on somber walks to our cars, revealed the inner turmoil we all felt. One colleague, who ultimately decided to return to her home state, often complained of a lack of support as a new lead content teacher. Her coach had to go into the classroom full-time after another teacher quit, which left her without guidance. She was left to adapt and carry on, which brought her even more stress and resentment. A bit of lavender or a canceled PD session couldn’t fix that.

To turn things around, we needed more than “Wellness Wednesday.” We needed a plan that went beyond giving us 10 minutes back one morning a week. While that time might allow us to hit snooze one more time or stop for coffee on the way to work, it wasn’t substantial enough to make us feel as if our true mental health and well-being mattered. It wasn’t enough to make teachers stay.

Creating a Committee For Change

Toward the end of the year, I requested a meeting with my principal to share my concerns and discuss possible solutions. I laid out the issues: We were feeling underappreciated and unrecognized for our efforts and there was a lack of connection and camaraderie. I expressed that while the efforts from the leadership team were a start, we needed a bigger shift—and we needed teachers to lead the change. My principal listened, digested my feedback and was receptive to making some changes.

Ultimately, we landed on creating a teacher-led staff experience committee to improve morale and support retention. My principal committed to carving out time during summer professional development for us to meet and I agreed to lead the committee.

During summer PD, the staff experience committee—which included about 12 teachers—was loosely formed to brainstorm efforts that would make a difference. Our intent was to stop talking about wellness as something that happened once a week, and to consider what steps we could take to develop a culture of wellness at our school.

We mapped out experiences that could happen weekly, such as a yoga class on site, as well as larger-scale activities that could happen occasionally, like getting tickets to a sporting event. We created monthly themes with activities including making teacher survival kits, bringing a coffee truck to campus, having a potluck or catered lunch, going on outings to an escape room and karaoke night.

There was no shortage of creative ideas that came out of our summer planning, and there was genuine excitement about September. Unfortunately, the committee was put on hold due to beginning-of-year demands before we had a chance to get anything on the calendar. Morale began to dwindle again, so I reminded the principal that this needed to be a priority. Thankfully, my principal heard me and we now have a green light to plan and a budget so we can bring some of our ideas to life.

Leading up to October, we sent a survey to staff to see who was interested in officially joining the committee. Seven teachers opted in and we’ve been meeting weekly to discuss high-level issues, like our vision to shift school culture, and to plan more immediate steps, such as planning a set of experiences for October. We’re deeply invested because we know what hasn’t worked and we want to make a difference. We want to make this a school where teachers want to stay.

For this month, one colleague is leading a grade-level costume contest in which the winning team will win a prize and bragging rights (if you know my staff we are very competitive) and she’s drafting a flyer to engage staff. Two others are leading the roll out of our survival kits, which include snacks, must-have supplies and other goodies that are personalized for each teacher—and we’ve done our research, asking each colleague for some of their favorites.

While most wellness initiatives start out with good intentions, giving teachers small, token gifts like aromatherapy or providing a few minutes back to prep misses the mark for teachers who are feeling overworked and undervalued.

Even though there are challenges to having teachers lead this work, namely that we’ve already got a lot on our plates, it is critical because teachers know their experience and needs most deeply. Having teachers lead this work can build morale, inspire leadership and create a culture in which community members can support mental and emotional wellness.

For our school community, putting teachers in the driver’s seat when it comes to designing initiatives and efforts to support their well-being has been an important first step to moving away from thinking of wellness as “a thing we do on Wednesdays,” to developing a strong school culture that bolsters staff well-being.

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