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July 11, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 9

Self-Care is Not Enough!

Teaching through the pandemic has been traumatic. Schools must now prioritize organizational well-being.

School CultureLeadership
Illustration of 5 hands encircling a heart
Credit: WPAINTER-STD / SHUTTERSTOCK
For more than two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken education leaders, teachers, and school systems on a professional roller coaster ride. With very little notice, educators across the United States had to shutter school doors, move into isolation and quarantine, establish universal approaches to virtual learning, and devise innovative ways students could continue to access meals the school usually provides. They've had to learn and implement unparalleled public health mitigation strategies, and continuously reinvent day-to-day operational practices. Many districts closed and reopened classrooms several times and erected hybrid learning structures in the interest of reducing student and staff exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
During these years, K–12 educators worked tirelessly and were challenged in countless ways while living the frontline experience of responding to the global pandemic. Each has felt—and may continue to feel—wounded and weary. And leaders and teachers ran this gamut while navigating changing circumstances in their personal lives, too, which were often difficult.

Trauma—For Individuals and Systems

The reality is the pandemic affected many school leaders, teachers, and other professionals within the K–12 landscape in ways that can be considered traumatic. Trauma is defined as, "an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being" (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2022). By this definition, coping with this global pandemic has been traumatic for many people, most certainly including educators. And just like individuals, organizational systems can be affected by prolonged harmful or threatening circumstances—and the experience of COVID-19 has been traumatic to schools and districts throughout our country (and across the world). Two-and-a-half years in, the effects of this pandemic are taking a heavy toll on educators and on the schools they work in.
The prolonged stress of constant pandemic-driven changes in school systems has manifested for educators in three ways: burnout, moral injury, and compassion fatigue.
Burnout is "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed" (World Health Organization, n.d.). Burnout is often revealed in comments and conversations in school hallways, lunchrooms, and staff meetings in which educators articulate their experiences of energy depletion, feelings of emotional distance, pervasive negative or cynical thoughts, and fears of diminished effectiveness.
Emotions of moral injury are "strong feelings of guilt, shame, and anger about the frustration that comes from not being able to give the kind of care or service an employee wants and expects to provide" (Washington State Department of Health, 2020). Teachers have conveyed such feelings about enforcing isolation and social distancing on students as virtual learning shuttered schools and curtailed face-to-face engagement. Students lost out, and educators lost the direct engagement that is the cornerstone of effective instructional practice and, for many teachers, a source of great satisfaction. Educators at all levels felt helpless, too, when unable to comfort students who experienced pandemic-related family illness, trauma, and loss.
Compassion fatigue is the "natural consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowledge of a traumatizing event experienced by another and from wanting to help a suffering or traumatized person" (Beaton & Murphy, 1995). It's a weariness that comes from caring so much for someone who is suffering. Especially as it relates to the pandemic experience, compassion fatigue can manifest itself among K–12 educators as a sense of overwhelm, severe exhaustion, sleep disturbances, emotional dysregulation, boundary mismanagement, and physical and mental health-related concerns.

School leaders must begin to move forward in the spirit of post-traumatic growth.

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Toward Post-Traumatic Growth

Realizing that this pandemic has taken a toll on K–12 systems and educators, school leaders must take time now to reframe their perspectives and begin to move forward in the spirit of post-traumatic growth. Leaders need to acknowledge the wounding impacts of the pandemic while simultaneously finding and embracing any useful changes that could come from going through pandemic-related challenges. Now is the time to reflect on our experiences and make constructive adjustments, individually and systemically.
In this sense, school leaders have an opportunity, right now, to draw from educators' recent experiences to strengthen the effectiveness of K–12 organizational practices in ways we may never have imagined before the pandemic. As the pandemic starts to wane, we need to move away from believing that individual efforts toward wellness will be sufficient, that educator self-care practices, in and of themselves, can propel schools forward and out of this crisis of well-being. Individual self-care, albeit essential, isn't enough on its own. It's simply impossible for educators, as individuals, to self-care their way through the individual and systemic impacts of burnout, moral injury, and compassion fatigue. Education leaders must reaffirm their commitment to whole-organization wellness and shift their focus toward embedding well-being strategies within their organization to systemically support educators' well-being.
Organizational wellness implies that employees perceive that the relationships, policies, and social norms across their workplace support optimal wellness for everyone (Reynolds & Bennett, 2019). When individuals in an organization experience a commitment to systemic wellness, the operations, strategies, and culture of the organization fit together, make sense, and (most important) are healthy. There is minimal "politics" and confusion and high morale and productivity—and there is lower turnover (Lencioni, 2012).
As the director of a districtwide wellness and student support program, over the past few years I've seen a tremendous need for K–12 schools to implement more systemic well-being strategies. Today the need for institutional shifts is more evident than ever—and must begin as soon as possible to ease the pandemic-related impacts on K–12 districts and school cultures. Here are four places to start—three true shifts in practice schools should make and one area to invest in wisely:
  • Start or rekindle an organizational sense of belonging for everyone in the school.
  • Strengthen social-emotional competence in adult professionals.
  • Promote an active understanding and practice of workplace self-regulation strategies.
  • Invest in workplace well-being resources.
Until we make these institutional shifts to develop and reinforce whole educator well-being, our school systems can't move forward in constructive and healthy ways.

Toward Organizational Wellness

Creating a Sense of Belonging for All

Strengthening a sense of organizational belonging, the collective experience of fitting in, is the first institutional shift necessary to foster a wellness transformation in the workplace. Shawn Ginwright, professor at San Francisco University and author of The Four Pivots, has described belonging as "a mutual exchange of care, compassion, and courage that binds people together in a way that says you matter" (2022, p. 94). A sense of belonging in relationships and workplace communities is essential to both individual and systemwide well-being (Brown, 2021).
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, during the most active phases of the virus, the public health strategies of isolation, social distancing, and masking posed a significant, if unintended, barrier to belonging. The individual connections educators had had with one another and with their students were blocked. When social closeness is barred, and we're cut off from the power of human connections, systemic fractures and divisions begin to tear away at workplace belonging. This shows itself in the workplace as extreme impatience, overt irritability, emotional blunting, blaming, inadequate communication with one another, and even hostile behavior.
Institutional strategies that can rekindle a sense of belonging include:
  • Doubling down on relationship-based leadership, which looks like giving individuals or groups undivided attention when meeting; intentionally asking colleagues/staff "how are you doing" and making time to listen closely to and offer real support specific to their response; and approaching staff behavior challenges with an empathetic perspective before reacting.
  • Revisiting—as a whole school or in small groups—your school's mission statement and any statements of key behaviors and expectations for the school community.
  • Doing strategic team-building with key leadership groups (such as department heads or the administrative team) through activities like reviewing strengths and weakness of existing day-to-day operational processes; engaging in data-driven goal and objective setting; and ongoing, applicable action planning. Team building strengthens relationships and trust and increases a sense of belonging.
Phyliss Fagell (2021) has said that since we've no manual for helping children thrive in the wake of a pandemic, "We can start by ensuring that everyone feels seen, nurtured, and valued." There is no manual for helping adults during these difficult times, either. But schools can start by prioritizing belonging, so all educators and staff feel seen, heard, and valued. We need to agree again to cooperate with one another, rebuild meaningful connections, and make meaning together in the shared purpose and pursuit of K–12 education.

Strengthening Social-Emotional Competence

Social-emotional competence is the process by which individuals apply knowledge, attitudes, and skills to understand and manage emotions, set goals, feel and show empathy for others, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (CASEL, 2022a). Key elements of adult professional social-emotional competence are the ability to practice self-awareness and self-management, make responsible decisions, maintain and grow relationships, and practice social awareness (CASEL, 2022b).
The first step in practicing social-emotional competence in the workplace is having self-awareness, the ability to understand your emotions and thoughts and their influence on your behavior. At the core of self-awareness is the ability to successfully navigate emotions. Most of us think of work as being driven by skill sets, information, brainpower, experience, achievement, and accomplishment. However, emotions are the most powerful force inside the workplace, influencing everything from leadership effectiveness to innovation to customer relations. (Brackett, 2019). As we move forward in the post-pandemic journey, system-wide professional development focused on reinforcement of adult social-emotional practices, especially professional self-awareness and skillful emotion identification, is paramount.

Developing Self-Regulation Strategies

Awareness, acknowledgment, and practice of self-regulation strategies in the workplace is the third shift necessary to usher K–12 organizations forward in the pursuit of organizational wellness—and it's a crucial one. Bruce Perry, an author, teacher, clinician, and researcher in children's mental health and neuroscience, confirmed this insight, stating, "The single most helpful thing educational systems can do is to embed organizational care strategies into their systems, so educators are regulated" (Perry, 2022).
Dr. Perry is right. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the emotional brains (limbic systems) of K–12 leaders have been functioning on maximum alert, fight-or-flight, and survival mode. We have had to rapidly create and implement countless new day-to-day operational practices under great stress. No wonder many educators still often feel dysregulated—unable to adequately manage overwhelming emotions they experience at school, such as frustration or sadness. A teacher who's dysregulated during the day might have difficulty focusing and remembering details of assigned tasks or burst into tears in a collegial conversation.

Institutional shifts that allow educators to responsibly self-regulate can transform school cultures and contribute to organizational well-being.

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The Neurosequential Engagement Model of Therapeutics (National Council for Adoption, 2022) integrates the principles of neurodevelopment and traumatology. This developmentally sensitive, neurobiology-informed approach holds that individuals cannot fully relate to or reason with others in their environments, including co-workers, until they can identify their own neurological dysregulation. Once they recognize any dysregulation, they can actively regulate themselves and establish neurological control from within.
Effective self-regulation practices are relational, relevant, repetitive, rewarding, rhythmic, and respectful (National Council for Adoption, 2022). Regulation strategies that work well in K–12 workplaces include breathing exercises; creative expression like drawing or writing; rhythmic movement, including singing and dancing; mindfulness and meditative breaks; reflective time-out practices; positive self-talk; and laughter. Schools should familiarize adults with these healthy coping strategies and set up systematic ways they can practice them when they begin to feel dysregulated or flooded with tension or emotion.
When educators become skilled at self-regulating in the workplace, they gain the ability to coregulate and help others soothe and manage their distress. Practicing self-regulation, and in turn coregulation with students and colleagues, leads to an increased sense of safety, calm, and support during times of distress. Institutional shifts that allow educators to responsibly self-regulate can transform school cultures and contribute greatly to overall organizational well-being.

Providing Practical Supports

In addition to the institutional shifts indicated here, K–12 systems should invest in practical workplace supports for whole-educator well-being, including:
  • Employee Assistance Programs to help educators access mental health, financial, legal, and other related services.
  • Access to quiet, calming spaces in which educators can practice mindfulness and remain self-regulated, and a system through which they can go to such a space briefly as needed.
  • Expertly facilitated educator well-being support groups to focus on professional well-being and shared experiences and learn professional and personal wellness skills. Repurposing district budget allocations aimed at supporting educator professional development or partnering with community mental health providers are two creative ways districts can fund innovative educator well-being support groups.

The Power of Leaders

As school systems make shifts like these that support educator wellness, it's important to remember the power and responsibility education leaders have to model healthy professional well-being. By transparently engaging in practices to support their own physical, emotional, social, occupational, and spiritual wellness—and letting their vulnerability show—leaders can set an example for others, foster a culture of belonging, and contribute to the positive sense of well-being urgently needed in K–12 classrooms, schools, and districts nationwide.
References

Beaton, R. D., & Murphy, S. A. (1995). Sensory-based therapy for crisis counselors. In C. R. Figley (Ed.) Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. Brunner Mazel Publishers.

Brackett, M., (2019). Permission to feel: The power of emotional intelligence to achieve well-being and success. Celadon Books.

Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the heart: Mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience. Random House.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2022a). Fundamentals of SEL.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2022b). What is the CASEL framework?

Fagell, P. L. (2021). Fostering hope, healing, and well-beingEducational Leadership79(1), 50–55.

Ginwright, S. (2022). The four pivots: Reimagining justice, reimagining ourselves. North Atlantic Books.

Lencioni, P., (2012). The advantage: Why organizational health trumps everything else in the business. Jossey-Bass.

National Council for Adoption. (2022). Meeting children where they are: The neurosequential model of therapeutics.

Perry, B. (2022, February 21). Trauma, resiliency and healing in educational environments. [Virtual conference session]. Kansas Educational Service Center.

Reynolds, G., & Bennett, J. (2019). A brief measure of organizational wellness climateJournal of Occupational Environmental Medicine61(12), 1052–1064.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022). Trauma and violence.

Washington State Department of Health. (2020). Statewide high-level analysis of forecasted behavioral health impacts from COVID-19.

World Health Organization. (n.d.). Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon." International Classification of Diseases.

Mona M. Johnson is the Executive Director of Wellness & Support in the South Kitsap School District in Port Orchard, Washington. She manages programs focused on ensuring that students and staff districtwide are healthy, safe, engaged, and supported in their pursuit of social-emotional wellness and academic success.

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