Staff-Focused SEL for Whole-School Wellness
One school leader highlights how she used factors for resilience to increase staff social and emotional proficiency—and how it boosted school culture.
Developing social and emotional competence is undoubtedly one of the most important subjects faculty and staff focus on with students throughout the school year. But equally as important is staff members’ social and emotional needs—something administrators should prioritize as they lead learning communities, staff included. Staff have also experienced issues relating to social isolation and trauma over the past two years and need support as they reenter a face-to-face work environment, five days a week.
Finding a roadmap for increasing staff social and emotional proficiency at my previous school was difficult, so I used the three protective factors for resilience highlighted in Martin Krovitz’s book Fostering Resilience Expecting all Students to Use Their Minds and Hearts Well as a guide.
A Caring Environment
I asked myself, Does everyone in my school have a good friend at work? I adopted the strategy of taking time to develop collegial friendships. I increased the frequency and broadened the timing for before, during, and afterschool activities, where all staff members, regardless of role, could bond with each other. We consistently hosted poetry jams, board game days, “lunch and learns,” yoga, cooking classes, paint nights, study groups, wellness classes, optional professional learning meetings, and themed pop-up parties.
As the leader, I intentionally worked to show the genuine love and care I have for each staff member. For example, I acknowledged each person on their birthday and at least two other times throughout the year through handwritten notes. I opened each staff meeting with 5 minutes of sharing gratitude for or positive observations of colleagues. I texted and called folks who were absent to check on their well-being and took action when certain staff members seemed more isolated. I explicitly made eye contact with each of my 110 staff members at least twice a week. On Mondays, I walked through the school to personally welcome people back at various times of day, initiating conversation. On Fridays, I ran around the school with a basket of candy wishing everyone a good weekend. I mindfully learned the names of staff members’ family members and other important people, and I consistently asked follow-up questions about things shared with me. My purpose was to develop meaningful relationships where I could also convey the genuine care and love I had for each person who worked with me.
Nurturing a culture of learning and sharing elevated expectations for staff members positively. We hosted optional professional development meetings, book studies, and coffee chats, where all staff members could learn and reflect on new practices. I strongly encouraged all staff members to take risks and to pilot innovations. I opened staff meetings to all staff members and shared meeting notes afterward so everyone could stay in the loop. The overall expectation for learning and sharing was evident in everything we did.
The most impactful activity was instituting 15 minute debrief meetings, open to all staff. Asking for feedback on what went well, what did not, and what should be done differently in the future after each event at the school meant that my leadership was placed under a microscope. At first, it was emotionally difficult for me to open myself up to public scrutiny, but then I realized by demonstrating my ability to hear and accept feedback, I was reinforcing that identifying and correcting mistakes is central to the learning process. The debrief meetings helped staff share in the leadership of the school. After each session, the changes that would be implemented the next time that particular event was held were shared with everyone, prompting more discussion virtually. Giving opportunities for everyone to voice their ideas for what to change cultivated a climate of flexibility, adaptation, and higher expectations.
All of these activities helped others build trust with me as the leader and with each other as collaborators, modeling problem-solving skills, and agility. They helped to foster opportunities for more shared experiences, conveying the message that all ideas are valued, that we are all connected and belong, and together, we can improve. Staff members were blossoming and feeling supported to improve, and many became more open to feedback and coaching as a result.
How could we provide opportunities for all staff to be more meaningfully involved? I created quarterly bulletin boards in the staff room, which encouraged interaction and responses, such as “What are you grateful for?” with note cards encouraging colleagues to anonymously post their thoughts. Then, I shared the responses in the weekly staff bulletin, sparking more to join and reflect. I demonstrated participation and my personal responsibility for the betterment of the school by regularly cleaning up areas in the school. My actions led others to do the same, for which I shared gratitude in our weekly staff bulletin.
I knew that we had reached a high level of collective agency and initiative taking when one morning we were hit with an unexpected snowstorm; we were down a custodian, and our snow blower was broken. I made an announcement for anyone who had a snow shovel in their car to bring them into the school for us to use because we also did not have any shovels. Staff members came outside in droves to remove snow for the students. Meaningful participation spawns more meaningful participation in schools, especially when it is noticed and celebrated.
Mindfully thinking about how all staff members are feeling at and about work provides them the fortitude they need to face change and to respond to issues proactively, with a “yes, and” mindset. Organizationally, schools are isomorphic in that what happens on one level is mirrored and repeated at the next level. We want and need students with social and emotional competence. The best way forward to achieving this is to ensure that everyone who serves students has a leader focused on their social and emotional growth, too.
Amy N. Spangler is an independent educational consultant and a former principal.
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