Peak Performance Through Healthy Leadership

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Peak Performance Through Healthy Leadership
A Leader's Role in Bringing Mental Health to the Forefront


By Karen Rice Harris
Special Education Administrator - Instructional Leadership
Comm. Cons. Sch. Dist. 168

Rebecca Jenkins
Deputy Superintendent
Lake Forest District 67 & 115

The K-12 Mental Health Landscape

March 2020 marked a new era in K-12 education. For many school districts, the years-long goal of ensuring one-to-one laptops for students was no longer an aspiration, but a requirement for student learning. This was an exciting necessity that launched innovation, but the stress on the personnel in education was extreme.

During the FY20-FY22 school years, human resources administrators became contact tracers, CDC experts and managers of Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) leave. We were the listening ear of teachers, administrators and paraprofessionals who struggled to teach their own children in addition to performing their job duties. In addition, we strategized with our fellow administrators who received guidance from the state almost every Friday and would spend the weekend preparing for the next tumultuous week. When districts returned to in-school learning, emotions ran high for so many. Educators in general are so glad to return to normal during the 2021-2022 school year, but the residual effects of the pandemic still linger in the background.


Impact of Mental Health & Emotional Employee Well-Being

When teachers were thrust into educating their classrooms from home during a pandemic in one weekend, new pandemic-related concerns compounded everyday life challenges. On the home front, the pandemic created new frustrations, anxieties and depression never experienced before. Employees, like the rest of the public, searched multiple stores for masks, hand sanitizer, bleach and toilet paper. Some employees developed significant COVID symptoms, cared for family members with COVID and even buried friends, family and coworkers who died of COVID. New guidance was provided almost weekly from a state level and continued to change the education landscape while many staff worried about family members’ job security and health. Some employees even made the tough choice to take unpaid leaves of absence because of fear of returning to the classroom or to stay home with their own children.

In addition to stressors caused by the pandemic, the stressors of everyday life issues continued. Couples continued to divorce, and family obligations continued. Some continued to deal with their own pre-pandemic work stress and physical, emotional and mental challenges, as well as those of other family members. The combination of pre-existing and pandemic stress challenged the mental well-being of the education community. As education leaders, we cannot overlook how the pandemic impacted the mental well-being of our employees and ourselves.

As many schools have returned to in-person learning, we did not return to school as “normal.” Teachers were welcoming students with smiles while they held back tears and administrators were sleep deprived while trying to support staff. School systems were hanging on by a thread. School systems came together to support students during the pandemic but it still has impacted each employee in various and nuanced ways.

Employee morale is low, teacher retention is a concern, absenteeism in some districts has skyrocketed and recruiting and retaining talented employees is a struggle. As administrators, we are trained in creating district emergency plans and crisis teams for major incidents but school districts, as a whole, rarely create plans to manage complex traumas and ongoing traumas, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID crisis has been hard on many fields, but it has hit education in the gut.


How to Support Our Employees Moving Forward

As education leaders we must acknowledge our employees have and continue to experience pandemic-related issues and other factors that challenge their mental well-being. Our employees are the keys to student success, and we need them to be physically, emotionally and mentally well to provide quality education and services. Bringing employee mental wellness to the forefront of K-12 education will assist school districts in thriving during the pandemic and in the transition to a post-COVID K-12 landscape. Bringing mental wellness into focus takes commitment, education, planning and action. Consider the following recommendations to begin or enhance the mental wellness initiatives in your district.

Educate your team.
Education leaders can gain a deeper understanding of the impact of mental well-being on district climate and culture. Utilize your internal experts such as school counselors, psychologists and social workers to provide mental and emotional health education to administrators and staff. Community resources such as public health agencies and mental health consultants can also provide mental health education. Consider tapping into content specific to district administrators in areas for support. For example, human resources administrators can educate administrators on the impact of employee wellness on employee absenteeism and recruiting. Special education administrators can
educate employees on the impact of employee mental and emotional wellness on students with special needs.

Use district data to identify mental wellness needs.
To understand the mental wellness needs of employees, utilize employee data to find issues that may encompass employee mental wellness. As educational systems, we need to look at ways to do things differently. For example, if teachers share they are stressed about instructional loss, do not interrupt their instructional day with professional learning. Rather, offer professional development differently such as offering both live and recorded. Are teachers and paraprofessionals being forced to give up their lunch and prep periods to teach classes for lack of substitutes? Perhaps significant absenteeism may reflect an employee’s dissatisfaction with the work environment. Conduct stay interviews with your employees to minimize work conditions that are excessively overwhelming and replicate the things that make people want to stay in your organization. Are your employees leaving the district like birds leaving for Florida for the winter then permanently nesting away from your district? Collect data that capture information regarding employees’ reasons for leaving
the district.

Surveys are a great way to capture employee information; however, be sure to devise a strategy that is transparent, unbiased and confidential. The reason is trust issues can exist between employees and administrators, which could mean many employees will not trust how their district will use the information. For example, we have seen school administrators review district-created Google forms responses regarding workplace concerns. Once a negative comment or rating was found, or comments did not fit the district’s narrative, the administrators attempted to identify the employee and created a narrative to disregard the negative comments.

To prevent this from occurring, we recommend using a third-party data company to administer stay interviews, exit interviews and climate culture surveys. When employees know the data is being collected from an independent company, they will be more likely to report accurate information regarding their work experiences. In addition to surveys, consider using qualitative data from employee focus groups or one-on-one interviews. Examples of data tools that can speak to employee social and emotional wellness include stay interviews, exit interviews and climate and culture surveys and interviews.

Create (or expand) your district-wide system of mental wellness support for employees.
After data is collected and human capital and other resources are identified, utilize your district team to develop a districtwide Social Emotional Learning (SEL) wellness initiative with strategies that address the social, emotional and mental wellness needs of employees.


Keys to a Successful District-Wide Mental Wellness Program

Utilize and Increase Your Current Organizational Capacity
School districts have a wealth of human resource capital, including school counselors, psychologists and social workers. Now is the time to increase our school clinicians’ knowledge with refresher training on mental health counseling best practices in individual and group counseling. Particularly, training should focus on complex trauma. Complex trauma is the ongoing, pervasive exposure to multiple and/or ongoing exposure to trauma events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Providing employees and students with the skills and practice to effectively manage their mental health will increase their ability to successfully navigate through the pandemic, as well as other ongoing traumas that existed before and have developed after the pandemic. Education leaders can further increase organizational capacity by empowering various employees to identify mental and emotional issues with peers and students. Two trainings available to increase organizational capacity to address mental health are:

  • Mental Health First Aid — Offered by the National Council of Wellbeing, the certification program provides training that empowers any trained adult to assist youth and adults during a mental health crisis.
  • Deveraux Training Part 1 - Employee Effectiveness — This training certifies staff to prevent and defuse crisis situations. Over the years, we have found that paraprofessionals and office staff find this training beneficial because it empowers them to confidently manage events that occur in their everyday work experiences.


To increase organizational capacity, we can also go beyond the walls of the district. Partner with community organizations, local agencies and consultants to provide support services to employees. Don’t forget to partner with your health insurance providers. In addition to EAP programs, inquire about additional services the insurance carrier provides for employee wellness.

Memorialize Your Commitment to SEL
When creating or augmenting an existing SEL wellness program for employees, it is important to memorialize the district`s commitment to employee mental well-being. This commitment should be incorporated in district-level and school-level goals. Not only should the commitment be shared with employees and the community, but other audiences as well through district recruitment marketing.

Embed SEL Wellness into Your District Culture
Employees should consistently feel supported and appreciated by the administration. When employees struggle in personal and professional SEL wellness, they need authentic, non-judgmental, confidential, specific support to enable them to be their best professional and personal best. Here are some strategies district leaders can incorporate in their SEL employee initiatives:

  • Provide referrals and/or direct programming for SEL issues.
    Employee Assistance Programs are great; however, the numbers of visits can be limited. Administrators can develop relationships with local mental health providers and refer employees for long-term counseling needs. For immediate SEL and mental health needs, districts should have an “on call” district clinician during the school day to assist employees with brief counseling to help employees to manage their day until they can meet with a partner mental health agency for support.
  • Create opportunities to promote and support mental and emotional wellness.
  • When implementing your SEL wellness program, take advantage of your current communication mechanisms to share information about and provide SEL employee services.
    • New employee onboarding is an opportune time to share the district philosophy and commitment to employee wellness.
    • Provide professional learning opportunities for employees to increase their emotional intelligence skills and their ability to manage challenges.
    • Do not just visit employees to complete evaluations and walkthroughs, come in to just say “hello.”
    • Provide opportunities for personal development through wellness programming.
    • Offer monthly webinars to staff and the community on wellness topics such as mindfulness, yoga and self-care or stress-reduction strategies.
  • Understand that each employee has a preferred language of gratitude.

Some employees prefer to be acknowledged through recognition, like in the district newsletter, plaques and in front of colleagues. Some liked to be recognized with more money. Although some collective bargaining agreements may prohibit individual monetary rewards, it is a good idea to survey staff and determine their language of gratitude, then implement practices to honor employees for their efforts.

  • Integrate a commitment to work/life balance.
    After education in Illinois was thrown into a work from home setting, for many it blurred the lines of work and home balance. This has historically been an issue for educators, but the pandemic only amplified the problem. Educational systems that want the best versions of employees showing up for their students every day should continue to promote, model and create conditions for work/life balance. This will allow employees to respond to difficult situations and care for their body and mind so that they can be present and ready to care for our districts’ children. As administrators, we must also commit to work/life balance to be the best for ourselves, our families, our employees and the students we service.

Bringing Mental Health to the Forefront

One silver lining of the pandemic is the opportunity to look at the way we serve the people in our organizations and try to do things differently and better. As educational systems change, we need to look at ways to think differently — and supporting the mental health of staff members is a great place to start.

Strategies to Embed Wellness Into Your Culture

  • Provide referrals and/or direct programming for SEL issues.
  • Create opportunities to promote and support healthy mental and emotional wellness.
  • Understand that each employee has a preferred language of gratitude.
  • Integrate a commitment to work/life balance.

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