Shouldering the Load: How Counselors Can Effectively Support Staff
As educators, we’ve seen the memes and watched the viral videos. More and more states have joined the Red for Ed movement with formal walkouts or protests. There is growing stress among educators. Last week I saw the post “If your profession needs an appreciation week, you don’t get paid enough”. But it’s not just about the pay. Ask any recent retiree and they’ll tell you…Teachers face so many challenges that didn’t exist 20 years ago that make it harder and harder to do our best. According to a several recent polls, teaching ranks among the most stressful professions. Recent legislation, budget cuts, increased testing, and a revolving door of educator reform have worn many of our best to the bone. Add to that the increase in personal struggles our students bring into the classroom and it becomes harder and harder to recharge and bring our best selves into the classroom each day. As school counselors, we feel the burden as well, with increased student needs and increased caseloads.But as a school counselor, in addition to being an advocate for our students, we must consider our role as a school leader in helping to promote a culture change. How can we help our school staff become more resilient? What can we do to facilitate a less stressful environment? Because by doing so, we keep quality educators in the classroom (either by preventing stress-induced illness or retirement) and our students reap the benefits.
I first became interested in educator resilience after spending a few years guiding my staff through various trauma-informed trainings. Those programs and ideas just made sense to our staff, they embraced the concepts, and set about trying to foster resilience in our students. But as time went by, I began to notice the additional weight my teachers were carrying. Because of their love for their students, they shouldered the load. But not without consequences. Many became weary, utilizing their capacity to care for kids left little in the tank for anything else, yet the demands of the profession continued to grow with increased emphasis on standardized testing, scope and sequence, and school accountability coming from our lawmakers. It was then that I realized I needed to do more than offer an open door for the teacher who needed to vent.
I began researching educator resilience and found that while it is a relatively new initiative, many researchers are exploring programs and developing best practices. One of the groups on the forefront of this work is the Wisconsin Initiative for Stigma Elimination (WISE). They developed compassion resilience toolkits that became the foundation of my work with my staff. In this particular model, much like a classroom curriculum, the work is scaffolded to build knowledge and skills. Another great resource on the subject is the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical AssistanceCenter (REMSTA). They too have recently presented on the importance of educator resilience and developing a self-care plan in conjunction with the USDepartment of Education’s Office of Safe & Healthy Students. Additionally, many states are beginning the work of developing their own program, either through their department of education, department of health, or other offices.
Most programs begin by discussing trauma and helping to define compassion fatigue. Most staff members know how they are feeling, but this helps them identify some of the root causes. Then the program invites the group to explore system drivers of that fatigue and the expectations we put upon ourselves and those we feel from others. It invites participants to develop feedback for leadership and help staff identify areas within the staff culture that they have some power and control. From there, the work focuses on boundary setting as well as wellness strategies for all aspects of our lives.
Aside from a formal program, there are still many ways we can promote a better climate for educators. Here are just a few things I’ve done/heard about:
1. Promote the development of a self-care plan—everyone has different strategies for managing their stress. For some, it is reducing tasks. For others, it is deliberately adding meaningful activities. In either case, helping staff members identify what promotes wellness and making a plan is vital.
2. Gratitude Journal—Simply get a notebook, write a kind note to any staff member and leave it for him/her with the instructions todo the same for another staff member.
3. Spirit Days—Our students love them, so why not staff?
4. Goodie Baskets—I got a couple baskets at the dollar store and filled them with dollar store goodies (snacks, post-its, toys, etc) and left them for a couple of staff members I thought could use a boost.Similar to the gratitude journal, it can be a traveling basket. You might also make a basket of stress relievers (stress balls, silly putty, all the stuff our students gravitate toward in our office) and make that a traveling basket just for staff.
5. Wellness Events—Host an after-school music party, scavenger hunt, game day…you get the idea. Anything that brings them together to remind them they are not alone.
6. Honoring Birthdays—A little note, piece of candy, etc to let people know they are thought of on their special day. And make a point to recognize summer birthdays too!
As school counselors, our role in this work is clear. If we lead initiatives to create healthier environments for our staff members, they are able to give their best to their students.