Leading the Way for Staff Wellness 

By Juanda Jones, Social Emotional Support Specialist for Columbus City Schools and SEL4OH Leadership Team member

Almost every day I see a story in the news about teacher shortages across the country. Maybe it’s just the algorithm or maybe the country is finally waking up to the stark reality that being an educator is hard. We are underappreciated, undervalued, and underpaid. While there are many factors that contribute to teacher shortages, this is not a new development in the field of education. It took a pandemic for others to recognize and have empathy for the challenges that have been plaguing us for years, but I believe that sometimes it has to get worse before it can get better. I am hopeful that our awakening is just the beginning of a major shift toward supporting our school staff in a meaningful and sustainable way.

As a social emotional learning specialist, I have the privilege of supporting student and staff wellbeing every day. I understand that when emotions run high and our bodies are in survival mode–as they have been the past couple of years–we have to find innovative ways to create calm environments for staff and students where transformative teaching and learning can happen. 

Wellness is a Culture

You must first give yourself permission to feel and process whatever emotion comes up for you. Getting in touch with our own emotions helps us to better connect and build relationships with others. As you navigate this process, understand that there is no quick fix to meeting your staff’s emotional needs and doing so cannot be the responsibility of just a few. It’s time we are intentional about taking care of the people who serve our students. But how do we do this in a systematic way that creates a positive work culture?

What to Avoid

In Jo Lein’s article, Preventing Wellness Fraud for Leaders, she notes, “in a severe teacher shortage, leaders may feel like they cannot make demands of others if it is not immediately applicable to their job responsibilities. But not involving others in school wide efforts often leaves people feeling isolated or not part of a school community. By overprotecting the team and their time, leaders can inadvertently make rash decisions in the spirit of protection.”

This past year I witnessed a principal make this unintentional mistake and it was reflected in our staff survey as a perceived decrease in the quality of the school climate. Teachers often felt even more stressed because the familiar had become unfamiliar: opportunities to have a voice in decision making were minimized; chances to collaborate with their colleagues were fewer; and, ultimately, many felt the building was beginning to fall apart. Did the principal have good intentions? Absolutely. But we had never been through a pandemic that required us to pivot to online learning in a matter of days and had certainly never had to deal with this much loss of learning, connection, and security. Everyone was operating in a state of stress response and simply doing the best that they could. There was no formula or research to aid us in our time of need, and many schools are still in the midst of managing the impacts of this ongoing stress. So whether you are a classroom teacher, support staff, building administrator, or district leader, we all have a responsibility to make wellness a priority, for ourselves, our staff and our students. 

Where to Start

  • Staff and student voice will help you identify key areas that can give you direction on where to put your time and resources. Panorama Education has a curated list of wellbeing questions that you can use to create your own survey. 
  • Share those results with your leadership team and discuss how to make wellness a part of your building culture.
  • Create a goal and action plan around improving the wellness of your building and have a way to measure improvements.
  • Start small, and avoid adding to the feeling of overwhelm: even one to two goals in this area can create impact.
  • Use ESSER funds to allocate resources and personnel if needed.
  • Attend to your own wellness needs so that you can be a model for your staff.

In my role as an SEL specialist I have learned that one small change can create a ripple effect and that incremental change is the only way to create meaningful, lasting improvements, especially when there have been so many demands on our educators.

In one of the most challenging school cultures I had ever worked, a principal began to ask what his staff needed to feel appreciated. He shared with me that he was using 5 Languages of Appreciation At Work  to facilitate this conversation. In a staff meeting he had everyone identify their own appreciation language and I saw the eyes around the room light up and the conversation became positive for a change. Who doesn’t want to feel seen, heard, accepted and appreciated? 

Why School Leaders Should Make Wellness a Priority

As I write this, my district is in the midst of a union strike and we are not okay. At the core of negotiations are concerns about working conditions. Some of our buildings are in disrepair, there is a lack of proper heating and cooling, there are fears for safety, and salaries are not comparable to surrounding districts. The lack of physical and psychological safety contributes to bad cultures, poor working conditions, and mental health challenges. If unaddressed, teacher shortages will only get worse.  

Not only do I have concerns for my own financial wellbeing but I have even deeper concerns for how this will affect our students, our families, and our community. There are already deep divisions between our staff and administration so as I am attending to my own wellness I am also asking myself, how do I help to lead us into reconciliation and healing? My calling is to disrupt systems to create authentic environments where we can all thrive, but at minimum, for now, I know I have to take care of myself so that I can show up for those I support. If we want to see fewer teachers leaving the profession and if we want to improve our school cultures, student and educator wellbeing must be prioritized. 

Additional resources: 

3 Ways Leaders Can Prevent Emotional Drain – Mindful.org

How Schools Can Build a Culture of Support for Educator Mental Health | EdSurge News