Superintendent’s Corner: Investing in staff wellness pays off in student learning
I was rushing back from Basalt to a meeting in Carbondale one day shortly after I moved back to the Roaring Fork Valley. I took the Catherine’s Store shortcut, crossed the Roaring Fork River, rounded the bend, and stopped dead behind a cattle drive.
For a split second, I was irked. Then I realized, hey, this is exactly why I wanted to live here — to be able to enjoy these interruptions to my workaday life and celebrate when our 21st century technology and transportation frenzy defers to a healthier 19th century pace. I got out of my car, snapped a few pics, and adjusted my mental time frame to the reality in front of me. By the time I got to my meeting, I was twenty minutes late, but with a sense of renewal and a much better perspective.
I remember that cattle drive and others I have seen since in vivid detail, but I can’t remember anything about the meeting, important at the time, to which I arrived 20 minutes late. So often we rush from meeting to meeting — or teachers rush from class to class — with diminishing energy and concentration. A break from the daily grind would, ironically, renew our focus on the present. In order to be more productive at work, we need a more healthy approach to work.
According to a recent publication, “Healthy School, Healthy Staff, Healthy Students,” funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, taking a pause at work for physical or social-emotional wellness isn’t just a whimsy:
Just as children need to be healthy, safe, engaged, challenged and supported to perform to their highest ability, so do the school employees who are charged with educating, guiding, nurturing and protecting them. Whether teaching students in the classroom, running the school, maintaining buildings, or providing safe transport, every school employee contributes to a school’s mission. However, employees can only give their best when they are feeling their best. Supporting school employee wellness is an important way to communicate that each staff member is respected and valued.
Countless studies have shown the importance of employee wellness for improving performance, increasing productivity, reducing absenteeism, and lowering healthcare costs. Of course, we also know that wellness is an end in itself.
The Roaring Fork School District is launching an employee wellness program this year for a multitude of reasons:
• We value and respect our staff;
• We believe that wellness is a fundamental driver of employee performance and school improvement;
• We know that lower absenteeism and higher productivity will benefit our students; and,
• We hope that employee wellness can actually reduce healthcare costs (thus allowing us to shift dollars into staff salaries).
Thanksgiving is a good time to start thinking seriously about wellness: The days are getting shorter, a wicked virus is going around, and the typical American is bingeing on thousands of calories of snacks and beverages while engaged in the great sedentary pastime of Turkey Day Football, followed, of course, by a Thanksgiving feast.
As we start thinking about New Year’s resolutions, we hope that our employees will consider signing up for a collective wellness effort to get more exercise; spend more time with friends, family, and community; volunteer for a nonprofit organization; get more sleep and relaxation; and participate in preventive health.
An important part of wellness is being more serious about taking breaks to renew and recharge. A Harvard Business Review study reported in the New York Times by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porathmay found that, “Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus … nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively, and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being.”
Our school district calendar intentionally builds in regular breaks for renewal, but we need to build them in every day.
We need to support our students by asking teachers to engage in a conspiracy of wellness, whether that’s using a planning period to go for a walk with a friend, lifting weights in the school gym, or eating lunch with a colleague rather than using those precious twenty minutes to grade papers. In our health conscious valley, when we see somebody engaged in non-work activity during working hours, we should celebrate them for rejuvenating, knowing they will be more productive in the long run.
I realize I’m on thin ice here, encouraging our overworked and underpaid teachers to take a break and take care of themselves. We must find ways to compensate teachers and other school employees fairly and to reduce the increasing burdens on their time. We also need to invest in their wellness, which is why the district’s teacher bargaining group recommended to the Board of Education that they allocate funds to formalize an employee wellness program.
We have so much to be thankful for, especially for the teachers and staff members who pour their energies into our schools. Because we value our teachers and staff members, we are supporting an employee wellness effort that will encourage them to take care of themselves and occasionally to take a break from their jobs to engage in other activities they enjoy. This will actually make them better at serving our students.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools.
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Carbondale Middle School has transitioned most of its fifth grade cohort, including students and teachers, to distance learning for the coming week due to a positive COVID-19 test.