• June 22nd, 2024
  • Saturday, 11:02:10 PM

New México School District Focuses on Teacher Wellness

Photo: Kelli Johansen for The Hechinger Report In view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, teachers, cooks and custodians connected over fresh air and the simple act of walking.


By William Melhado


On a sunny day in early November, teacher Trish Curran wasn’t corralling elementary physical education students as she normally would be. Instead, she was educating her colleagues at Taos Municipal Schools in New Mexico, on the benefits of walking.


“If nothing else, we’re spending our work time just rejuvenating a little bit,” Curran said. The point of the walking session she was leading at this wellness retreat for school staff members was connection, she said. “Connecting your feet with the earth and your moment with the mountain or catching up with colleagues you work with but never see.”


Despite having had a knee replacement a couple of years ago, Curran walked briskly around the track outside Taos Middle School, which has a view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Taos Pueblo to the northeast. About 10 of her colleagues, forgoing jackets to bask in the fall sunshine, walked in groups of two or three at varying paces around the oval loop.


Technically, it was a normal districtwide professional development day: one without students, where school staff members are expected to come and learn something new, refine existing skills or plan upcoming lessons. But with teachers and custodians walking the track together in one session, and counselors and administrators learning about homeopathic remedies side by side in another, it was obvious that this had little in common with traditional professional development days.


Instead, the event, “Reconnect and Reinvent,” was meant as a retreat, a chance for educators and other school staff members to step away from their daily responsibilities and focus on themselves. It was the second of its kind, following one in August.


Jennifer St. Clair, who works in Santa Fe Public Schools, another district 70 miles southwest of Taos, didn’t attend the retreat. But she knows why such events exist.


“This year is in a class of its own in terms of difficulty and low morale,” said St. Clair, a 29-year veteran teacher. Between asking students to wear their masks properly for the 100th time and constantly worrying about close contacts with people who later tested positive for Covid-19, the year has left teachers “hanging by a thread,” St. Clair said.


The well-being of educators everywhere has been stretched to its limits over the last year and a half, both teachers and experts say. And continued high-stress working conditions appear to be accelerating teacher turnover.


The need to improve wellness support for teachers is urgent. Right now, teachers experience symptoms of depression at almost three times the rate of the general population, according to a study, “Job-Related Stress Threatens the Teacher Supply,” published in June by the nonprofit Rand Corp. Virtual instruction, child care and health are among the pandemic-era issues that are likely responsible for an increase in teachers’ desires to leave their jobs, the study said.


In Santa Fe, the district provides workers with an employee assistance program, a benefit that many other large employers offer. The district tailored its program to address additional stresses faced by school employees, offering services and supports that range from drop-in meditation breaks and tips to reduce Zoom exhaustion to short-term counseling, said Sue O’Brien, the student wellness director at Santa Fe Public Schools.


“Everyone from the school site to administration, you know, I’m worried about people,” she said. It’s “critical for us to take care of the adults who are working with and for our children and their families.”


Despite the efforts, some teachers said the unprecedented challenges of this year have not been addressed. St. Clair, the 29-year veteran, said, “There’s a huge disconnect between the administration who are acting like it’s a normal year and requiring the same things. Our teachers really feel like the administration is completely ignoring the crisis in our schools this year.”


Experts say teachers who are taking care of themselves are better prepared to take care of students. If educators aren’t reflecting on their own well-being, “ultimately, there may actually be harm done to young people,” said Karen VanAusdal, senior director of practice at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a national nonprofit working to expand social-emotional learning in classrooms.


“I think there is some individual responsibility to attend to our own well-being, but I think it’s not enough just to say that self-care is the answer for teachers,” VanAusdal said. “I think it also needs to be built into the structures and systems around adults.”


Mark Richert, social-emotional learning coordinator for Taos Municipal Schools, explained that he had worked with a number of community organizations to plan the day’s retreat as part of a broader effort to strengthen the connections between the town and its schools.


“It was all about creating groups of employees, and giving them a shared learning experience that they might first apply to their own life [and] somehow maybe to their family lives,” said Richert.


“We’re short-staffed, we’re filling in for absentee teachers and we’re all saying yes because we know how hard it is. We know it isn’t fair on some level, but if we don’t do it, then who’s going to do it?”
Christine Autumn, Teacher


Richert doesn’t expect the staff retreats to be a universal cure for what ails his district. Taos lost 62 staff members last school year — 41 resigned and 21 retired — out of roughly 280 employees. That left them scrambling to replace nearly a quarter (22 percent) of their workers. The district still needs to fill 16 teaching positions and hire a number of educational assistants, substitute teachers, custodians and other staff members.


“Well-being is having enough adults to create a safe environment and few enough students in the class to do the same and an education system whose success is not dependent on unpaid teacher overtime,” read one anonymous comment that Richert shared from the first teacher retreat he organized earlier in the year. “Until these types of systemic problems are addressed, no amount of essential oils, herbs, yoga, [or] improv medicine will really address the fundamental unwellness of any of our staff.”


Richert agrees that systemic issues are the root cause of much of teachers’ unwellness. But, he said, something needs to be done for educators to address their mounting stress.


“The challenge is, does the school system — whether it’s Taos, the state of New México, the American education [system] — share that value?” Richert asks of the need to lessen stressful conditions in schools.


“We’re short-staffed, we’re filling in for absentee teachers and we’re all saying yes because we know how hard it is,” said Christine Autumn, a Taos teacher. “We know it isn’t fair on some level, but if we don’t do it, then who’s going to do it?”


Helping other teachers through this chaotic time is reason enough to show up for an event meant to help improve well-being, said Curran, the phys ed teacher leading the track exercises. It’s not to please anyone in admin or even for the students exactly. Instead, Curran said, “We’re doing it for each other.”



This story about teacher wellness was produced by the Santa Fe Reporter and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read the full article here.


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