Fall 2019

Staff Health and Wellbeing Through Community Building

The focus of our school this past year was on ways that a staff wellness initiative could be used to foster relationships between staff members and positively impact social capital within the school itself. This focus stemmed from a few years of significant changes at our school. These included frequent changes in leadership, a new French Immersion program starting, and a drop in student enrollment due to the opening of a new school. These were all factors that led to increased stress levels and lower staff morale. Through the implementation of our wellness initiative we were successful in lowering stress levels and boosting staff morale.

Description of Activities

A staff wellness initiative was introduced by our school division two years ago. Each school was given an annual budget to go toward improving staff wellness. For the two years prior to the 2018-19 school year, our staff put the money toward a couple of events that were held outside of the school itself and were used to promote team-building. While these events were a lot of fun, they were one-off events that did not have lasting benefits once we were back in the building. This year, we wanted to build a more comprehensive program that promoted wellness throughout the year. The activities planned in past years only addressed one area of wellness. Since all areas of wellness are connected and they all affect each other (Hewson, 2013), we wanted to incorporate more areas of wellness into our program.

At the beginning of the school year all interested staff members were invited to join a newly formed Wellness Committee. The committee was comprised of five teachers and three educational assistants. As a group, the committee decided to balance a focus between the physical, mental, and social aspects of wellness as activities were planned for the year.  

The first social activity was planned in September as a way of getting to know new staff members and reconnecting with staff we had not seen since the close of the last school year. A committee member hosted a Wine and Cheese evening after school that was very well attended. This gave all staff an opportunity early on in the year to interact and unwind. In September, a ‘Shout-Out’ program was also introduced. Staff members were asked to write short notes of appreciation each month to recognize the efforts of others. At the end of each month, one note was drawn and that person received a gift card. The rest of the notes were distributed so that individuals could read the neat things written about them. This program was introduced to address both social and mental aspects of wellness and help build staff morale.

As a way of keeping wellness a priority, time at each monthly staff meeting was requested in order to share any relevant wellness information. By discussing wellness each month, the hope was to keep an ongoing discussion alive and to keep wellness initiatives in the forefront. During the monthly staff meetings, information was shared that impacted multiple areas of staff wellness, for example:

  • stress management tips and strategies were distributed during report card writing days;
  • tips about accessing health benefit supports, resources, and programs available to staff through the school division’s benefits program, and
  • upcoming activities and ongoing initiatives were also communicated.

A lot of this information was new to both incoming staff as well as to even our most senior staff members. The time devoted to sharing information was kept brief, but proved very valuable in keeping staff members informed throughout the year.

The committee also decided to provide snacks at each staff meeting to boost morale as these days tended to be long and often went right to supper time. Each committee member took turns providing a snack that was themed based to add a sense of fun as well as nutrition. For example, when everyone was busy working on report cards in November a snack that consisted of foods that would help decrease stress levels was provided. In January, when immune systems typically start failing, a snack rich in vitamin C and other immune boosting nutrients was introduced. Recipes and food lists were also provided so staff members could make these snacks for themselves in the future.

In December, the wellness committee teamed up with the social fund committee to plan a Christmas party. This is an annual event, but it had been noticed that a decline in attendance was over the course of past few years. Ways were brainstormed to include more people. The combined committees eventually settled on a local venue that allowed for more mingling. A Thursday night was chosen as people tend to be busier on weekends during the holiday season. And to add a sense of fun a gift exchange was included in the evening festivities. The cost for the evening was offset by contributions from committee funds which made the event financially doable for all staff members. The combined efforts led to this Christmas party being one of the best attended parties that we have had in recent years.

In January, the committee decided to focus on physical well-being. A weekly DrumFit (www.drum.fit/schools) class was organized to take place after school in the school gym. The school’s physical education teacher happened to be a certified DrumFit instructor and was happy to run the class once a week for staff members. The first week saw a few eager beaver participants and by the final week the number grew to over a dozen. As we entered February, staff members were asking for more. With the help of the physical education teacher, the program was extended for the rest of the year. It then became a bi-weekly class and we alternated Mondays and Wednesdays so that people who had previous commitments were able to attend at least one of the days. In the spring an invitation went out to teachers from other schools in our community. Currently, teachers from the two other elementary schools and from the junior high have come and joined the classes.

February was a short, but very busy month. It was time again to plan something with a team building focus. We chose to plan a craft night hosted by a local company. This activity was planned to promote social well-being and improve staff morale. Majority of the staff attended the event, making it one of the most well-attended social events that we have hosted since the wellness initiative was introduced.

In February, it was also time to push the program out from staff alone to include students and their parents. To that end, we planned a school-wide outdoor challenge. The challenge was planned to coincide with some of our other school-based outdoor activities, such as the Alberta Winter Walk and outdoor Winter Carnival. Staff, students, and parents were encouraged to get outside and then share their photos with us. Photos were shared through social media accounts to inspire other families to do the same. The staff played an important role in promoting this challenge. Many shared pictures of their weekend outdoor activities to help encourage students to share theirs.

Pink Shirt Day also fell in February. This nation-wide initiative to raise awareness about bullying in schools has been warmly embraced in our school for a number of years. The added feature for this year’s participation had our committee purchase official Pink Shirt Day t-shirts for everyone on our staff. A bonus of this type of participation was that it promoted unity and social well-being of our staff members.

Throughout the year, the chair of the wellness committee attended a number of professional development sessions that related to various areas of wellness, including a session hosted by the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan (ASEBP). The session provided valuable information about benefits that our staff members could access.

Later in the year, the chair also attended a full-day session about anxiety, stress, and teacher wellness. The first part of the day was about student anxiety and the last half of the day addressed teacher stress and anxiety. The speaker from this session, Ariel Haubrich, also hosted a session about teacher stress and anxiety at the annual teachers’ convention held at the end of February. The committee strongly recommended her session to our staff. A number of staff members attended her session and reached out to the committee upon their return to the school in order to offer words of appreciation for their recommendation of the event. Their attendance led to a decision to approach the two other elementary schools in town to see if they would be interested in combining wellness funds to bring Ariel Haubrich in to speak to all of the staff members. This took some coordination, but we were ultimately able to make it work with all three schools. This session helped staff members understand how stress affects our bodies, how to recognize stress, how to cope with stress, and more. It was an exceptionally beneficial session to promote and support staff wellness.

Program Discernment

The comprehensive health and wellness program was filled with many success stories and just as many challenges. Starting with the activities aimed at building staff morale and addressing social wellness, we had a lot of success. The committee tried to schedule these events throughout the school year and at times when they were most needed. These events were used to build and maintain staff bonds. We had a few new staff members this year, as well as a new principal, and we wanted these opportunities to be a time to help foster relationships between these new members of our team.

A survey was conducted at the beginning of the year to help us plan activities, events, and happenings. The feedback we collected from the survey indicated that staff members wanted activities that were locally based, were mainly on weeknights, and focused on building staff morale. We used this feedback to inform all of our planning. The activities we hosted were well attended and received positive feedback. In addition to the survey we also made sure to observe staff reactions to the various activities as well as observe ways they were interacting with each on the days following the evening based activities. As a committee we saw increased numbers in the staff room for multiple days following an event and positive interactions between staff members in the hallways and common areas. Staff members made a point of sharing their enthusiasm for each event and thanking the committee for planning each one.

Specifically, the craft night in February received the most positive feedback. This particular event was attended by more than two thirds of our staff. This was a locally based activity which brought out staff members who have not typically participated in these kinds of events in the past. It was almost entirely paid for by our wellness fund which made it a cheap evening for staff members and also contributed to increased attendance. One of the challenges faced when planning the social events was finding a time that worked for the most people possible. As a committee we learned that it is difficult to meet everyone’s needs all of the time. However, we still wanted to make these events work for as many people as possible which was very challenging. Having the survey results from the beginning of the year helped because we asked staff members which days of the week worked best for them to inform our planning.

Another challenge we faced was having a staff that is primarily made up of women. We received a lot of suggestions for events and activities that we could plan, but many of these ideas were female-oriented. Even with that awareness, we went ahead and planned events that were geared more toward the female staff. While he was still encouraged to join us, he chose not to participate in these types of activities. This is something that we would like to improve on for future planning.

Finally, we found it challenging to make planning these events a priority during busier seasons. Our committee had every intention of balancing these events throughout the year, but found it difficult to maintain that enthusiasm as we all got busier. As a result, we had a number of activities planned in the final two weeks of June because we had funds left that we did not get around to using throughout the school year as we intended.

The challenge of meeting physical needs through wellness initiatives led to a tendency to gravitate toward food because it was easy. Physical wellness, however, goes beyond eating healthy and as we go forward with the program we would like to find more ways to meet physical needs. The success of the DrumFit program suggests that people want more opportunities to be active.

Planning activities that addressed mental well-being also proved to be difficult. We had one very successful event that helped us improve our mental health (our speaker), but it was challenging to plan activities that helped sustain positive mental health throughout the year. An added challenge was the fact that during the times of the school year when teachers need mental health support the most (report cards, parent conferences, music festival season, etc.), our entire committee was also succumbing to the stressors offered at these busy times.

A couple of new initiatives that were easy to introduce and conduct turned out to be very helpful in promoting and sustaining staff wellness throughout the year. The first was the introduction of the Shout-Out Bucket. This was a well used tool as it provided an outlet for staff to show appreciation for other people in the building. One of the challenges with this program was to keep it relevant as the year progressed. Providing a monthly incentive (a draw for a gift card) helped to keep interest high. We added to the draw incentive by making frequent reminders toward the end of each month and extended challenges to the staff if we noticed that the bucket was not very full.

The other year-long initiative was providing updates on activities and the rationale for doing each. Fortunately, our principal was very supportive of the wellness program and gave us time for the updates at each staff meeting. The challenge here was that only teachers attend the monthly staff meetings, so we had to find alternative times to share the same information with support staff: email, short meetings, and one-on-one conversations.

Conclusions Keeping staff members healthy and well should be an aim of all school leaders and staff members. However, finding the time to plan, conduct, and assess activities and events that promote health and wellness presents challenges. But time can always be found when the task at hand is important and keeping all staff well and healthy has such an importance. Through the wellness program at our school we learned: start with a vision, bring people together to work collaboratively, gain an early understanding of what the staff really want, stay focused on the task, and know that even when things get busy, the busy get going.

AUTHOR BIO:
Kathryn Coulter is a fourth grade teacher at École Brentwood Elementary School in Strathmore, Alberta. She has been teaching at the elementary level for 10 years. She is passionate about promoting healthy active living in her school to students and staff.

Dr. Carmen Mombourquette is an Associate Professor of Education specializing in Educational Leadership at the University of Lethbridge. For many years he was an elementary, junior high school, and high school principal in Alberta and Ontario.
References
Government of Alberta. (2018). Leadership quality standard. Retrieved from https://education.alberta.ca/media/3739621/standardsdoc-lqs-_fa-web-2018-01-17.pdf.
Hewson, K. (2013, January/February). Teacher wellness: A conversation with Adam Sáenz. Principal, 92, 12-13.