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Prioritizing Well-being Support for Educators during the Pandemic: 6 Practices and Powerful Ripple Effects

educator well-being feelings relationships self-care whole system Apr 20, 2020

By Katie Raher, PhD

Nurturing teams of educators with well-being practices is an important part of the puzzle as we work to support children and families. This is always true, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever. In this blog, I share 6 practices I used with my own educator community and two organizations that are working to do this critical work, and a powerful follow-up story from one of the participants. 

With sheltering in place, quarantining, shifting to distance learning and teletherapy, “homeschooling” for parents, managing a bit of all these at once, and more, we are in so much unchartered territory right now.

Given these new variables in our lives, emotions can be strong, broad, and a bit all over the place. Uncertainty, stress, overwhelm, and anxiety are common emotional experiences on the roller coaster of these challenging times, and truly normal responses to what we are facing.

To be able to make the most impact on students and clients, it is vital that educators be supported with tuning in to the messages that these many feelings are sending and respond with acknowledgement, curiosity, courage, compassion, and community.

Support for well-being is broadly related to myriad benefits, including perceived health, healthy behaviors, longevity, mental and physical illness, social connectedness, and productivity. More specifically, from research on educators, the many benefits of supporting well-being translates to meaningful effects on students and families.

The educational research also points to certain components of educator well-being that are important. Creating a sense of feeling balanced and supported, offering opportunities for growth, and building a community to support through challenging situations are components that are certainly needed during this pandemic.

When educators are supported in these ways, they are able to more fully show up for the children and families in their care and give the very best of their knowledge, skills, and hearts. As the long-term ramifications of this pandemic may be grim, collective educator well-being experiences will be a central factor in resilience building for students and families.

Therefore, in addition to my hope that individual educators realize their worth and take action to prioritize their own well-being, I believe that schools, districts, and other educational organizations should be putting structures in place that nurture collective educator well-being experiences as a means to supporting the whole child and creating more equitable educational opportunities for all children. 

In other words, creating structures and systems that cultivate educator well-being will allow educators to give children the best of themselves, rather than just what’s left of them.

So I feel incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to support educators within my own community, and from two other educational organizations, who highly value collective educator growth and well-being as central to student success and who are creating structures to support the whole educator.

Communication Works (CW) is an organization that supports Speech-Language Pathologists working in schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. CW is well-known for providing nurturing support and supervision to its employees, as they are focused on employee satisfaction, supervision/mentorship, professional development, and embracing a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to therapy. It was thus no surprise when they asked me to lead their team in a well-being call near the start of the pandemic.

The UC Berkeley Professional Development Providers (UCBPDP) is a coalition of professional learning units who partner with K-16 teachers, instructional leaders, and administrators from schools and districts throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. UCBPDP fosters ongoing professional learning for educators throughout their careers. I was honored to be invited to facilitate an educator well-being call for their community during this pandemic as well.

Below you will find several practices that were part of each support call, with some variation between the calls, as I followed the lead of each of the three communities.

I am hopeful that using some combination of these practices - and any other practices that can build on the strengths and meet the needs of your unique community - can help you and your educator team in experiencing more well-being, more calm, and more connection, and that in turn, you and your team are able to more fully serve the students and families I know you hold so dear.

6 Practices to Nurture Educator Well-being as You Support Your Community

1. Name It. Dan Siegel, a neuroscientist and expert in regulation, notes that we have to “Name it to tame it.” In acknowledging and naming our feelings, our nervous systems are better able to return to calm. To support you in naming it, journaling can be a powerful tool. Grab any paper and pen, and do what I call a “brain dump.” Write everything that’s real for you right now. What have you been feeling and thinking? Allow yourself to sit in these hard-to-have feelings and thoughts. Allow your thoughts and feelings to move through you and out onto paper. If writing isn’t your thing, you can sit in front of a mirror and speak your truth to yourself.

2. Release It. While every feeling you’re having is valid, and certainly normal during this uncertain time, it can also be helpful to release these emotions. While the journaling alone can allow for a great deal of release, it may also be helpful to take what you’ve written and put it in a box, crumble it, toss it, rip it, or even burn it (using environmentally friendly methods). I remember the first time I did this, and though I had thought it was a bit strange, the relief that came from this simple exercise was surprisingly huge, and I hope you experience the same.

3. Courageously Connect. We may be at a distance from one another right now, and yet we can still deeply connect from afar. To experience the most powerful benefits of connection, albeit virtual, you might want to consider vulnerably sharing some of the challenges you’ve been facing and the feeling waves you’ve been riding. Because vulnerability involves “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” according to Brené Brown, professor and researcher at the University of Houston, it can be scary to share our truth with one another, with courage being a critical piece of this powerful puzzle. And, when you bravely step out of your comfort zone, and describe the reality of your current situation with colleagues, family, and friends, you will be at “the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences,” as vulnerability is the “birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity,” as Brown’s research further demonstrates, and as life so elegantly confirms again and again. So, to experience the benefits of this meaningful practice, share what’s real for you with others on your team.

4. Practice Love. For each support call, I led the group of educators through a guided meditation and visualization exercise that was focused on self-compassion. In addition to reading the synopsis of this practice below, you can find this free guided meditation HERE or any time over at my Coping Tools Hub HERE.

Visualize your best friend. Even though they likely aren’t able to be with you right now, close your eyes, and picture them across the room. Now imagine that when you look at their face, they have tears in their eyes. If you saw this, what might you do? It’s highly likely that you would provide some type of loving embrace with your gestures and your words. You might ask what is bothering them, and when they speak their truth, you’d reassure them that whatever they are feeling is okay, that everyone is having a hard time right now, and that you are here for them, to love them, to be there for them through thick and through thin.

Self-compassion is taking this exact compassion that you would extend to your best friend, and extending it to yourself. To experience the many benefits of self-compassion, you can use the 3 components Kristin Neff, researcher and professor at the University of Texas Austin, recommends (for more details and a free printable with more ideas, you might enjoy my blog on Quick Self-Compassion Practices to Build Resilience in Educators and Children). Place your right hand over your heart, and your left hand over your right. Name your suffering (for example, “I’m so overwhelmed and anxious right now”), connect to common humanity (for example, “Tons of people are feeling this way during these challenging times”), and be kind to yourself just as you would with your bestie (for example, “I’m here for you. You are not alone. I love you just as you are. May I be kind to myself through all of this.”).

5. Repeat It. Mantras, rooted in positivity, can be another powerful practice to cultivate your well-being during this time. Pick one of the self-compassion phrases above, or pick another phrase that resonates with you. Similarly, setting intentions based on what you need and want can help you on your well-being journey. Write your mantra and/or intention down and put it somewhere you’ll see on the regular. Pop a post-it on the bathroom mirror so you see it every time you wash your hands, or somewhere in the kitchen so you see it any time you make food. The more we practice these positive, loving phrases and intentions, the more we support our brains in expanding benefits to our bodies and mental health.

6. Celebrate the Wins. Although the negativity bias we have as humans leads us to quickly focus on the negatives beyond our control, we can curiously explore and celebrate the wins we’ve managed because of what has been within our control. What wins have you had? What can you celebrate? For me, it’s been sticking to my morning routine to ensure I start every day off with wellness, so I have a resilient core from which to bounce no matter how the roller coaster of a day might unfold. So, this looks like practicing mindfulness with my meditation app in bed as soon as I wake (Insight Timer is my favorite free app), drinking a full glass of water to start my day as hydrated as possible, and making myself a nutrient-dense, blood sugar-balancing breakfast with protein and foods covering various colors of the rainbow. What about you? I’m sure you’ve been doing things that are worthy of celebration, no matter how small or big. Thank yourself – verbally, in writing, or with a gesture – for doing something for yourself so you can keep on keeping on.

Success Story & Ripple Effects  

Immediately after one of the CW Speech-Language Pathologists participated in the educator well-being support call with her team, she needed to provide support to a client’s parent.

After the call, she wrote an email to one of the organization’s founders, and it wholeheartedly captures the value of this work and its potential for ripple effects. 

“I can’t tell you how much that meeting meant today.  I knew I was stressed, but until I got on that meeting and went through the exercises, I didn’t realize how stressed and alone I felt.  It meant so much to hear from others and have a sense of community and family…

Additionally, I got off the meeting and called a parent who had sent me a very desperate sounding email about her child’s stutter being exponentially worse, etc.  

Before this meeting, I was worried about saying the right thing.  I felt so much better after the meeting, I decided to call instead of email.  She just started sobbing almost right away.  But I was able to talk her through some things because of what I had just been in… Assure her that she is not alone and parents around the country are right there with her, etc.  I think it helped to just have a sounding board.  And I had the bandwidth and words to offer thanks to this meeting.

So thank you!  Once again, just grateful to be part of this team.”

Talk about some powerful qualitative data speaking to the effects of supporting educator teams!

If you would like to see a similar ripple effect on children and families in your world, I urge you to remember that we are all in this together, to prioritize collective educator well-being, and to give some of these practices a go.

What structures and systems are you putting in place to ensure the educators in your sphere are supported with well-being and able to give the very best of themselves to their students and families?

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