By: Chanda Battle, NC Resilience & Learning Project Coach
Understanding the need to support the whole child is not a foreign concept for Elizabeth City – Pasquotank Schools (ECPS). The district has partnered with the Public School Forum’s NC Resilience and Learning Project for the last two school years with the goal of supporting students who may be impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). I have had the honor of serving as their Project coach these past two years, and from day one the school system has consistently shown how they value innovative practices to support all students, especially those coming from the most vulnerable populations. So, it was no surprise that after about two weeks of school closures due to COVID-19, the district leadership team at ECPS quickly realized that one of those vulnerable populations now included their employees.
As the impact of COVID-19 began to be felt by all, ECPS Superintendent, Dr. Catherine Edmonds, sensed the need for an intentional focus on staff wellness through her discussions with principals. It became apparent that they were in need of some time to just talk about any and everything that was affecting them — so, Dr. Edmonds began weekly calls with her principals and allowed them to take the lead on the conversations, giving them space to discuss the struggles and challenges that were weighing many of them down. Delishia Moore, principal of Elizabeth City Middle School, shared that her conversations with Dr. Edmonds made her see that “she was human, and not just my supervisor.” Another principal stated that these calls from his superintendent were a blessing because he felt like he had to be the strong one for everyone around him, and this one phone call provided him an outlet and a safe space to vent and express his own concerns and needs. It is with those principals’ sentiments in mind that the district leadership team, along with our NC Resilience and Learning Project team, began to brainstorm a plan to provide respite for the staff and encourage self-care and collective wellness for all of their employees.
Wellness Days & Staff “Happy Hours”
From that brainstorming session came the concept of “Feel Good Fridays,” which included creating a comprehensive plan to better support the overall well-being of school and district staff. One strategy, which the district had already planned for, was to identify one day each week for teachers that provided relief from planning and teaching and for students to have a break from any new assigned work. This action helped to alleviate some of the stress caused by creating the intricate lesson plans needed to ensure that online instruction was as effective as face-to-face instructional time. To build upon that, the team decided to use that “off” day as a day to focus on physical and emotional wellness. On these days, the staff and students, if they so choose, would participate in a wellness challenge. The challenge was designed to give staff the opportunity each week to do something to take care of themselves mentally or physically. Lastly, and perhaps the most impactful part of the plan was the “happy hour” time. Virtual happy hours were a scheduled time each week for individual school staff to get together in small groups or as a whole staff to socialize and engage in conversation or activities NOT related to work.
To kick off the initiative, over 45 school and district leaders in Elizabeth City joined the first happy hour via Google Hangout. During this time, I shared the collaborative plan we created in conjunction with district leaders with the school administrators and provided suggestions on how they could implement these wellness days and virtual staff happy hours for their schools. Another district partner, Rwenshaun Miller, psychotherapist and founder of Eustress, Inc., took some time to walk the group through the importance of self-care and strategies to practice wellness in such challenging times. This session was met with a lot of positivity from leaders. Several leaders even shared with the group the personal struggles they were having trying to find balance between leading and working from home and the other roles they are responsible for in their own personal lives. Gaining buy-in for such a plan proved to be easy with this group of compassionate educators!
Thus far, the focus on staff wellness has proved to be a positive and productive focus for the Elizabeth City – Pasquotank Schools. At PW Moore Elementary, staff happy hours are conducted through a Zoom call, with a staff host and a staff DJ to keep the energy up while they engage in various games and activities. PW Moore’s principal, Dexter Jackson-Heard, said, “Wellness Days truly brought my team and I closer and raised our spirits. Social interaction and having an outlet is the only way we will make it through these tough times.” Although the method of implementation may be varied from school to school, the message is the same: being an effective educator is hard, and practicing self-care is just as important as caring for others. You CANNOT give what you DO NOT have.