Preflight instructions always advise travelers to put their masks on first before assisting those around them. The same holds true for educators surrounding their mental health and wellness.

To ensure wellness and learning are maximized for students, teachers need to be at their best each day. Teachers not only bring personal struggles to school, they also help students manage and cope with their own external experiences that create barriers to their learning. Compassion fatigue is real. Given the combination of stressors on teachers, our school has paralleled efforts to address the core and tiered social-emotional and mental health needs of students and the needs of our staff to create an optimal learning climate.

As a school, we have focused on the stem “re-” with students—in our work with restorative practices for students making bad decisions, refocusing as a way for students to gather themselves before going to their next class, the refresh room for students to shower and do laundry, and a reset room for students to use strategies to readjust themselves before returning to class. We are using the same stems with our staff to help everyone rejuvenate, relax, and revitalize throughout the school year.

Our school has a “resiliency” room for students referred to as our “reset room.” Based on the same premise, we created a reset room for staff. The room is equipped with similar items—dim lighting, anti-gravity chairs, bean bag chairs, inspirational and self-care focused reminders, exercise balls, foam rollers and lacrosse balls for stretching, a fountain, and a resource wall—and is a place teachers can go for a few minutes during planning if they need an opportunity to reset or recharge. The room is designed to be a calm setting that allows staff to reset and prepare for their next class, meeting, etc. In order to make a reset room concept/atmosphere accessible from on-campus and remote locations, we also have a virtual reset room for staff and students. The virtual reset room contains links to visual and sound-based relaxation videos, coloring exercises, and mental health resources. Teachers (and students) are invited to access it anytime, as it is linked through our school website.

Tangible Tools

Our staff has been trained on the Community Resiliency Model (CRM), which is designed to provide self-regulation strategies to help widen our “resilience zone” and regulate our nervous systems. Teachers can use these stress-response resources when helping students cope with stress and stressful situations and for themselves when they feel they have been or are about to be bumped out of their zone. Strategies include:

  • Tracking—reading our body’s response to outside stimuli
  • Grounding—focusing on the response in this exact moment
  • Resourcing—seeking out a person, place, or thing that brings joy
  • Gesturing—calming or self-soothing motions

Within the reset room, we have asked staff members to post pictures of their resources that help them recharge. Additionally, teachers should model strategies for students as guides in order to help us embed those strategies within the culture of our school.

Each Friday, we send weekly notes to staff outlining important dates and other reminders. There is a link to a Google document embedded in the weekly notes asking teachers to share a highlight from their week or work with kids, a new relationship built with a student, a fun fact they learned about a student, etc. Allowing teachers to reflect on their week and review the reflections and positivity of others works to build a more positive school climate.

To help teachers focus on their own mental wellness/health and build community, we offer recharging activities for staff members. We design activities to allow staff to unwind and focus on themselves after pouring time, effort, and energy into students’ wellness and learning. We record participation in these recharging activities and raffle off prizes for participants. Activities we have introduced to staff include:

  • Wellness Bingo: Staff members were given a bingo-type card with 30 activities involving physical, intellectual, emotional, whole body, and general wellness activities. Staff members complete these monthly, and those completing the most activities win prizes.
  • Be a Coffee Bean: Based on Damon West’s story, this activity included watching his video, visiting the reset room with colleagues for coffee, and taking a small jar of coffee beans as a constant reminder to be a coffee bean—when they come under pressure, they can learn to adapt for the better.
  • Massages: A local chiropractor provided staff members with free 15-minute massages during planning periods.
  • Build Your Own Zen Garden and Stress Ball: Staff fellowshipped and built Zen gardens and stress balls to keep in their classrooms for a calming effect.
  • Tea and Chocolate: These are fan favorites of our staff—faculty visited the reset room during planning to enjoy tea and chocolate.
  • Paint Party: Staff stayed after school for fellowship and a paint party as our art teacher led them through painting a snowman on a provided canvas.
  • Yoga and Meditation: A local yoga instructor provided a yoga session after school for interested staff.
  • Weight Room/Exercise: Our weight room was opened for before and/or after school staff use.

In addition to providing opportunities for staff to engage in wellness activities, it is equally important to create a sense of collegiality and community-​building, as we are all in this together. One way we focus on wellness and the work of learning is to have robust professional learning opportunities. This provides a chance for teachers to collaborate and do the work together instead of working in silos. Teachers discuss and share strategies, successes, failures, and laughs. They distribute the workload to ease burdens in order to make themselves—and ultimately the students—successful.

To boost morale, confidence, and collective self-esteem, we recognize staff and students as often as possible. We have quarterly awards recognizing teachers for their efforts in curriculum and instruction, child advocacy, leadership, and innovation. The winners are determined by peers and passed to the next peer. Students nominate a staff member of the month, and they are asked to provide a reason for the nomination. While we present one staff member with the actual award, all teachers receive the “why” statement for each nomination they receive. This provides a confidence booster to staff members monthly and allows them to see their students’ admiration and appreciation.

For staff wellness and mental health well-being beyond activities we can offer at school, we frequently send information to staff members from the Employee Assistance Program.

Looking Ahead

This year, we plan to implement a daily mental wellness check with our staff. Each morning, an automated email will be sent to all staff members with the following questions:

  1. How are you feeling today? Answer choices: I’m great; I’m OK; I’m meh; I’m struggling; I’m having a difficult time and wouldn’t mind a check-in; Come see me; Bring caffeine!
  2. How can we help you?

Participation is voluntary, and staff responding with anything other than “I’m great” and “I’m OK” will be directed to another part of the survey with “Help Now” strategies, a link to the virtual reset room, a reminder of the actual reset room, and other motivational links and images. Additionally, responses will generate an email to administrators and the student services department. We make a concerted effort to go by the staff member’s classroom or office and check on them during the day. During the visit, we will drop off an item for them based on their “Staff Stuff” survey—a form notifying administrators of staff members’ favorite candy, drink, or snack.

Our goal is to ensure student academic, social-emotional, and behavioral success. In order to achieve the desired outcomes, we are tasked with making sure those who directly impact and interact with students daily are provided with opportunities to take care of their mental health and wellness. When we can accomplish this as a school, we are setting everyone up for success.

Chris Bennett, EdD, is the principal of Burns Middle School in Lawndale, NC. Megan Johnson is a sixth grade English Language Arts teacher at Burns Middle School, and Melissa Lawter is a school psychologist for Cleveland County Schools in Shelby, NC.

Sidebar: Building RanksTM Connections

Dimension: Wellness

Strategy 1: Leading the school community to focus on wellness in all its aspects—social, emotional, physical, and safety. You can draw your school community’s attention to the importance of social-emotional and/or physical wellness. You can promote a school vision and mission that focus on the whole child, and you can continuously hold staff members accountable individually and collectively for attending to students and to their own wellness.

Wellness is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.