With COVID-19 causing stresses, Grand Island school administrators say mental health and self-care for teachers is a priority.
Grand Island Public Schools Associate Superintendent Robin Dexter said the district has an employee assistance program, in which it purchases a number of mental health sessions per employee.
“We increased the number of sessions they can use,” she said. “That is anywhere from counseling to just mindfulness where they can go and relax. We are really encouraging staff to take advantage of the EAP program.”
Dexter said the EAP is something the district has offered for a number of years, but that it had not been used much by GIPS employees until last fall. She said teachers were hesitant to use it due to the stigma behind mental health, but GIPS has worked to educate employees about what EAP provides.
“We tell them, ‘This is what the program can do for you’ and give them testimonials from people who have gone to the different EAP sessions,” Dexter said. “We really just try to get them to get on the website and look at what is all out there.
“In this time of crisis, we all need support and encouragement. We are making a real push for staff to check in with each other and provide time during professional learning community team meetings to do that. They can also talk about some strategies to get teachers to talk about how they are doing.”
Dexter said that, because of COVID-19, students may have experienced more trauma than they did in the past. She said this makes it more important for teachers to care for themselves because “a teacher who is dysregulated cannot help a student who is dysregulated.”
Grand Island Central Catholic Principal Jordan Engle said the biggest thing his school will stress this school year is connectedness. He said teachers reported on Wednesday and felt more positive after being able to interact with other and “feed off each other’s energy.”
Engle said GICC offers mental health resources and assistance to its staff through Blue Cross Blue Shield. He added that staff members also watch out for one another and do their best to ensure one another’s well-being.
When GICC begins the school year Tuesday, Engle said if a directed health measure and the Central District’s Health Department’s risk dial mandates the school move to online learning, GICC will work to ensure teachers are able to do this from their classrooms.
“What we found from our own internal audit of virtual education in the fourth quarter of last school year was that a lot of the mental health concerns from teachers came from feeling isolated or just being detached from the school and students altogether,” he said. “So, if we are able to keep teachers in their classrooms, they are still isolated to a certain extent, but they still have support available to them and we are able to keep an eye on one another.”
Engle said since he has been at GICC, teachers’ mental health and self-care has been a priority. He said teachers need to have the courage to step up and acknowledge that they may need mental health breaks to “get themselves together and collected.”
Engle said he admires educators who have “a very strong inventory” of their mental health and well-being.
“There is not a trophy for the teacher who spends the most hours in school. The reward goes to the teacher who most efficiently teaches his or her students and strikes that balance between a teacher and still being a person, too,” he said. “That is the kind of behavior that we are teaching and encouraging all the time.”
Create livable routines
During a virtual assembly for teachers July 28, Karen Williams, a mental health therapist for CHI Health, discussed ways teachers can ensure their self-care. She said oftentimes teachers may be trained and/or raised to believe that self-care is “selfish” and that they should not be doing it but now it is “probably more important now than ever before.”
“Educators often have a huge list of people and projects to take care of every single day. Oftentimes, they are not even on their own list,” Williams said. “I would like them to at least be on the list. They may not be at the top of the list, but they should at least be on the list so they can start to figure out different ways to create a self-care routine — something that will help them during times of uncertainty to create a better level of resiliency.”
Williams said a big part of self-care involves creating a livable routine that will work for each individual educator. She said the routine should include a quality amount of sleep (seven to eight hours) every night, eating healthy foods, drinking a glass of water to avoid dehydration and reduce stress, some level of exercise and “some fresh air.”
Williams said one thing teachers can do at the end of the day is write down things they are grateful for that occurred that day. She added teachers can also sing and/or do some breathing exercises to relieve stress.
“It is important that teachers know that they matter and taking care of themselves has never mattered as much as it matters right now,” Williams said. “Those who take better care of themselves actually take better care of others.”