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TAOS, N.M. — On a sunny day in early November, teacher Trish Curran wasn’t corralling elementary phys ed students as she normally would be. Instead, she was educating her colleagues at Taos Municipal Schools on the benefits of walking.

“If nothing else, we’re spending our work time just rejuvenating a little bit,” Curran said. The point of the walking session she was leading at this wellness retreat for school staff members was connection, she said. “Connecting your feet with the earth and your moment with the mountain or catching up with colleagues you work with but never see.”

Despite having had a knee replacement a couple of years ago, Curran walked briskly around the track outside Taos Middle School, which has a view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Taos Pueblo to the northeast. About 10 of her colleagues, forgoing jackets to bask in the fall sunshine, walked in groups of two or three at varying paces around the oval loop.

“I think it’s very amazing that our district — I mean we’re getting paid, we’re on the clock — but that our district has committed time for us in this way,” said Trish Curran, a teacher in Taos Municipal Schools. Credit: Kelli Johansen for The Hechinger Report

Technically, it was a normal districtwide professional development day: one without students, where school staff members are expected to come and learn something new, refine existing skills or plan upcoming lessons. But with teachers and custodians walking the track together in one session, and counselors and administrators learning about homeopathic remedies side by side in another, it was obvious that this had little in common with traditional professional development days.

Instead, the event, “Reconnect and Reinvent,” was meant as a retreat, a chance for educators and other school staff members to step away from their daily responsibilities and focus on themselves. It was the second of its kind, following one in August.

Jennifer St. Clair, who works in Santa Fe Public Schools, another district 70 miles southwest of Taos, didn’t attend the retreat. But she knows why such events exist.

“This year is in a class of its own in terms of difficulty and low morale,” said St. Clair, a 29-year veteran teacher. Between asking students to wear their masks properly for the 100th time and constantly worrying about close contacts with people who later tested positive for Covid-19, the year has left teachers “hanging by a thread,” St. Clair said.

The well-being of educators everywhere has been stretched to its limits over the last year and a half, both teachers and experts say. And continued high-stress working conditions appear to be accelerating teacher turnover. Creative, systemic reforms are needed to support teachers as people, not just employees, according to experts. Reimagining how school districts use professional development days could be one solution to an increasingly urgent problem.

“We’re short-staffed, we’re filling in for absentee teachers and we’re all saying yes because we know how hard it is,” said Christine Autumn (left), a Taos teacher. “We know it isn’t fair on some level, but if we don’t do it, then who’s going to do it?” Credit: Kelli Johansen for The Hechinger Report

The focus of Taos’ professional development retreats is social-emotional learning, an educational practice that centers around issues like self-awareness, relationships and decision-making. In schools the practice typically focuses on students, but with swelling pressures on teachers this year, this well-being initiative targets adults.

The need to improve wellness support for teachers is urgent. Right now, teachers experience symptoms of depression at almost three times the rate of the general population, according to a study, “Job-Related Stress Threatens the Teacher Supply,” published in June by the nonprofit Rand Corp. Virtual instruction, child care and health are among the pandemic-era issues that are likely responsible for an increase in teachers’ desires to leave their jobs, the study said.

Prior to the pandemic, a national survey from the Learning Policy Institute found that roughly one-sixth of teachers left their jobs each year. When Rand surveyed teachers during the 2020-21 school year, nearly 1 in 4 said they were likely to leave. Among Black teachers, the proportion was almost half.

Related: Black teachers ground down by racial battle fatigue after a year like no other

“We found that teachers who were more likely to consider leaving their jobs were also more stressed about their own health and the health of their loved ones,” said Ashley Woo, an assistant policy researcher at Rand and a co-author of the study with Elizabeth Steiner, a Rand policy researcher. Teachers who worked in schools with fewer Covid-19 safety precautions were even more likely to express an interest in leaving.

Woo said local districts should collect data to understand their educator population. She said districts can then “use that information to collaboratively work with school leaders and teachers to develop well-being support that they would actually find useful in their particular community.”

In Santa Fe, the district provides workers with an employee assistance program, a benefit that many other large employers offer. The district tailored its program to address additional stresses faced by school employees, offering services and supports that range from drop-in meditation breaks and tips to reduce Zoom exhaustion to short-term counseling, said Sue O’Brien, the student wellness director at Santa Fe Public Schools.

“This year is in a class of its own in terms of difficulty and low morale.”

Jennifer St.Clair, teacher in Santa Fe Public Schools

“Everyone from the school site to administration, you know, I’m worried about people,” she said. It’s “critical for us to take care of the adults who are working with and for our children and their families.”

O’Brien said the district is focused on providing a number of options to support teachers’ well-being, including services provided by the employee assistance program.  It is also working with community partners to give staff more well-being support as needed, she added, though that project is still in the planning phase.

Despite the efforts, some teachers said the unprecedented challenges of this year have not been addressed. St.Clair, the 29-year veteran, said, “There’s a huge disconnect between the administration who are acting like it’s a normal year and requiring the same things. Our teachers really feel like the administration is completely ignoring the crisis in our schools this year.”

“It’s wonderful to take a break from our regular day,” a teacher said, reflecting on the various sessions offered during a teacher well-being retreat in Taos, N.M. Credit: Kelli Johansen for The Hechinger Report

Experts say teachers who are taking care of themselves are better prepared to take care of students. If educators aren’t reflecting on their own well-being, “ultimately, there may actually be harm done to young people,” said Karen VanAusdal, senior director of practice at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a national nonprofit working to expand social-emotional learning in classrooms.

“I think there is some individual responsibility to attend to our own well-being, but I think it’s not enough just to say that self-care is the answer for teachers,” VanAusdal said. “I think it also needs to be built into the structures and systems around adults.”

Related: Parents fighting, teachers crying: Grownup stress is hitting kids hard

The past year has seen shifts in how some districts support their employees. Atlanta Public Schools has always had a focus on well-being, said Rose Prejean-Harris, the district’s director of social-emotional learning, but “once the pandemic hit, there was a heightened awareness that you have to continuously do more.”

The district ramped up programming, providing staff members the chance to speak to one of nine therapists, in addition to the services already established in the district’s employee assistance program. District leaders are also hosting listening and healing circles to hear the staff’s concerns. Those conversations helped leaders tailor support to meet educators’ needs, Prejean-Harris said. A website listing well-being services provided by Atlanta Public Schools is also available to staff.

“It’s even more important that, individually … we can advocate for ourselves, because that’s what those [social-emotional learning] skills help us to do,” Prejean-Harris said. She added that her district’s shift to promoting adult social-emotional learning has enabled staff members to engage in honest discussions with their supervisors, which helps them do a better job of talking to students.

“I think there is some individual responsibility to attend to our own well-being, but I think it’s not enough just to say that self-care is the answer for teachers.”

Karen VanAusdal, Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning

“Having those emotionally intelligent conversations and modeling those skills really helps kids to then also manage their emotions,” said Prejean-Harris.

Some districts took special measures to provide extra support during the pandemic. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District offered full-time employees $500 in monthly child care subsidies when schools reopened in April. But that program has ended, even though high-quality, affordable child care is still in drastically short supply. (Lack of child care was a frequent source of anxiety for educators, most of whom are women and many of whom are parents, surveyed in the Rand study.) It’s unclear if school districts nationally will use the lessons learned during the pandemic to increase employee support.

Back in Taos, a small group of school employees walked in circles on a squeaky, polished wooden gym floor at Enos Garcia Elementary School, avoiding eye contact with their colleagues.

“Imagine you’re walking through a door,” Prisca Winslow, who was leading the session, called to the group. “And just beyond that door you’re going to have an uncomfortable conversation.”

People began to walk with an unwilling gait. Next, Winslow asked the group to imagine they were walking through a door with someone who “loves and supports you” on the other side. The pace of the participants picked up.

Winslow encouraged the group to be aware of how slight changes in movement can reveal things about one’s emotions. She is a practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method, originally developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, an engineer, physicist and martial arts expert, which uses  movement to bring awareness to every aspect of living.

Taos Municipal Schools collaborated with community partners, like Prisca Winslow, who led a movement group, to offer a range of sessions focused on developing staff members’ social-emotional learning. Credit: Kelli Johansen for The Hechinger Report

“As humans, as animals … our brain is occupied with movements 24/7, whether it’s sleeping, rapid-eye movements, breathing, digestion,” Winslow said. She hopes the exercises give participants a heightened awareness of their “place of balance,” which she said can relate to  emotional stability.

After this session of mindful movement with Winslow, the participants moved to the cafeteria, where Nikki Cain, of Growing Community Now, a food education group, paired kale and apple smoothies with a discussion of how gardens provide teachers and students alike a place for social-emotional learning.

Across town, Morgaine Witriol, the founder of Native Roots, a Taos-based school of ancestral folk and herbal medicine, invited attendees to learn about homeopathic remedies, like marigold and echinacea. Though the session lasted just under an hour, those who wanted to continue learning with the organization could attend classes after school with their families for free.

Mark Richert, social-emotional learning coordinator for Taos Municipal Schools, explained that he had worked with a number of community organizations to plan the day’s retreat as part of a broader effort to strengthen the connections between the town and its schools. Staff members who wanted to continue taking advantage of the well-being services offered at the retreat would be able to do so free for the next five months.

“It was all about creating groups of employees, and giving them a shared learning experience that they might first apply to their own life [and] somehow maybe to their family lives,” said Richert.

He explained that while teachers might also apply some of this acquired social-emotional knowledge to working with their students, it was primarily for the benefit of the teachers. “That’s a real shift,” he said, “because traditionally it’s, ‘What can we do to help you help students?’ ”

This was not the first time Taos educators had set aside time to incorporate social-emotional learning into their schools. For a decade the district has hosted an emotional intelligence retreat for all incoming ninth graders, led by 12th graders, which seeks to bolster students’ mental and emotional health at the start of high school.

For the teachers’ retreats, beyond using two days of paid professional development time, the district spent less than $12,000 for all the presenters and the additional 42 hours of free sessions employees could use after school. Richert said by working with community organizations, he was able to minimize costs and include partners that reflected the interests of local staff.

In an educational research brief published in October, Doris Santoro, of Bowdoin College, and Olga Acosta Price, of George Washington University, write that teachers’ involvement in the design of well-being support is key to getting them to buy in.

“We’re talking about systemic, ongoing interventions that prioritize wellness, and so it might be things like shifting school cultures,” said Santoro, a professor of education. She added that schools need to strike a healthier work-life balance for staff. “It’s much easier to have some sort of one-off, ‘this is what we’re going to do today.’ And it takes a long-term commitment to sustain the kinds of shifts that are required.”

Related: As teacher morale hit bottom, these Alabama districts looked for ways to ease workload

Richert doesn’t expect the staff retreats to be a universal cure for what ails his district. Taos lost 62 staff members last school year — 41 resigned and 21 retired — out of roughly 280 employees. That left them scrambling to replace nearly a quarter (22 percent) of their workers. The district still needs to fill 16 teaching positions and hire a number of educational assistants, substitute teachers, custodians and other staff members.

“Well-being is having enough adults to create a safe environment and few enough students in the class to do the same and an education system whose success is not dependent on unpaid teacher overtime,” read one anonymous comment that Richert shared from the first teacher retreat he organized earlier in the year. “Until these types of systemic problems are addressed, no amount of essential oils, herbs, yoga, [or] improv medicine will really address the fundamental unwellness of any of our staff.”

Richert agrees that systemic issues are the root cause of much of teachers’ unwellness. But, he said, something needs to be done for educators to address their mounting stress.

“[It’s] critical for us to take care of the adults who are working with and for our children and their families.”

Sue O’Brien, student wellness director in Santa Fe Public Schools

“The challenge is, does the school system — whether it’s Taos, the state of New Mexico, the American education [system] — share that value?” Richert asks of the need to lessen stressful conditions in schools. “That’s sometimes hard for decision-makers to stomach.”

Until they do, educators and other school staff members will continue to do their best to make this school year, the third pandemic-affected year in a row, work for kids. 

“We’re short-staffed, we’re filling in for absentee teachers and we’re all saying yes because we know how hard it is,” said Christine Autumn, a Taos teacher. “We know it isn’t fair on some level, but if we don’t do it, then who’s going to do it?”

Helping other teachers through this chaotic time is reason enough to show up for an event meant to help improve well-being, said Curran, the phys ed teacher leading the track exercises. It’s not to please anyone in admin or even for the students exactly. Instead, Curran said, “We’re doing it for each other.”

This story about teacher wellness was produced by the Santa Fe Reporter and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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