We are hearing it again and again: In the face of the pandemic and the sudden transition to distance learning, even veteran teachers feel pressure as if they’re just starting out. As one teacher recently told me, “My baseline level of stress is so much higher now than before distance learning. It’s wearing me down.” It’s always my job, as a school leader, to support teachers, but given the exhaustion they’re feeling now, their emotional and social well-being is of paramount importance.
As assistant principal at Arcadia High School, outside of Los Angeles, I have been involved in creating some unconventional but extremely successful channels of support for not just our teachers but all of our staff—certificated and classified—as they weather the upheaval of the pandemic. Importantly, we arrived at these channels not because we imposed what we imagined would serve them, but because we listened when they told us what they needed through feedback such as online surveys.
The solutions we’ve come up with might seem unorthodox in the public school environment, but they borrow from standard professional mental health practices and social connection practices.
A Help Line Dedicated to Staff
The idea for a staff help line came from our school’s Educationally Related Intensive Counseling Services (ERICS) psychologist and marriage and family therapist (MFT), Tim Crosby. “I thought about how Covid was going to impact everyone—teachers included—and wondered what I could do to support them,” he said. “I knew stress would be high, so offering mini check-in therapy sessions seemed like it would be helpful.”
To gauge staff interest, we sent them a wellness survey and included the question, “If we created a staff support hotline, staffed by marriage and family therapist trainees, would you use it?” The response was positive (72 percent said they’d be interested), so we moved forward with designing the staff help line.
We intentionally named this program “staff help line” because we wanted all staff, both certificated and classified, to know they were welcome to utilize this service. Once the program was created, I announced it during a staff meeting and walked everyone through the process. Our wellness website has a Teacher Resources page, where teachers can access the staff help line referral form. Every month, I send out an email to the entire staff reminding them about the staff help line, and we’ve also included a link in the weekly staff newsletter.
If staff members are interested in a session, they fill out the referral form; two MFT trainee counselors, supervised by Tim, conduct the sessions. Along with each session, the trainee counselors provide resources for outside mental health services if the staff member expresses interest. Staff members communicate with trainees via email, phone call, or virtual meetings. The goal is to provide multiple ways for teachers to connect based on their preference and comfort level. After each session, teacher feedback is gathered through a staff help line feedback form. Feedback from teachers has been positive, with most indicating that they find the sessions valuable.
We utilized our staff help line during one particular time of crisis that was not Covid-related. When a staff member died unexpectedly, the MFT trainees conducted small group sessions with teachers and instructional assistants who needed help processing their grief.
“I would encourage any school to provide a staff help line if they could. It’s worth investing in because it’s so easy to set up and a great tool for staff members,” said Tim.
Drop-In Wellness Sessions
When we surveyed teachers on the wellness topics they’re most interested in learning about, the majority of teachers indicated “self-care and wellness strategies.” With that feedback in mind, we developed 30-minute mini-lessons on topics such as mindfulness, positive psychology, emotional freedom techniques, and self-care strategies. Our SEL counselor collaborates with Karen Junker, a longtime restorative practices consultant with our district, to review survey data. From there, Karen creates and presents optional mini-lessons, which are held once a week after the instructional day is over, during teachers’ planning time.
The focus of these wellness sessions is teacher self-care. Research has shown that teachers have the most impact on student achievement, and it is clear to our administrative team that supporting teachers’ social and emotional well-being directly benefits our students.
After each 30-minute wellness session, we ask teachers to fill out a feedback form. During our weekly wellness program meetings, which include myself, the SEL counselor, the school psychologist, the MFT, and interns, we review teacher feedback data and use it to inform future sessions and make sure we are explicitly responding to their needs.
Distance learning has stripped away the spontaneous conversations that people had in the staff lounge or while passing through the hallways, and during virtual meetings, we often get straight to the business at hand. Our initial surveys indicated that one of the things our staff missed most was the social connection that naturally occurred in casual interactions on campus. In partnership with our school’s social committee, we hold a biweekly social hour when the only rule is “No work talk.” It isn’t quite the same as in-person gatherings, but it’s a nice way for staff to connect with colleagues outside of a work setting.
In addition, we partner with a middle school counselor who is also a certified yoga instructor to offer virtual yoga classes once a week. Our wellness counselor also leads staff through mindfulness and breathing exercises at the start of staff meetings. This practice has a huge impact: Starting from a place of peace and calm makes all of us more receptive and present during the meeting.
Living through this difficult time in education has been a good reminder that the social and emotional health of teachers and school staff is vital to student success. If our staff is stressed and overwhelmed, they can’t show up effectively for our students. That said, efforts to provide support to teachers should be collective. The success of our programs lies in all of us—school administrators, counselors, psychologists, MFTs, and teachers—working together toward the shared vision. The more we connect and collaborate, the more effective and meaningful our program is.
Again, our success started with asking, listening, and setting a goal to provide our staff with what they actually needed rather than what we thought they needed. The lessons we’ve learned on this journey are powerful enough that as we continue this journey, and eventually return to “normal,” our team will continue to formally support the social and emotional well-being of teachers.