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Creating Communities That Value & Nurture Well-Being

Tuesday, August 11, 2020  
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Featuring Suniya Luthar and Nina Kumar of Authentic Connections
by Shannon Spaeder
August 11, 2020

 

Children’s well-being rests in large part on the grownups who care for them. Indeed, the physical and psychological heath of the adults who teach our children and lead our school communities is an area that deserves focused attention as we start the 2020-21 school year.

What are these adults’ specific concerns in this time of pandemic, social upheaval, change, and uncertainty? And what can school leaders do to create communities that value and nurture their well-being?

Ongoing Opportunities for Input

One key to addressing the health and well-being of school personnel, say Suniya Luthar and Nina Kumar of Authentic Connections, is for school leaders is to seek their input and feedback on a consistent basis. This not only yields powerful insights that schools can build upon. It also demonstrates a genuine concern that can be critical to morale and retention. As Luthar puts it, “There’s never been a time when having open communication and constant feedback has been more important.”

A survey is one way to gather such feedback. Starting this spring, independent schools, including many SAIS schools, have participated in a Faculty Resilience Survey administered by Authentic Connections, as well as in a Student Resilience Survey. On a macro level, the initial findings from these surveys reveal trends across the country. (See sidebar.) At individual schools, the findings are prompting important conversations, guided by data-driven insights specific to the school.

Apart from surveys, Kumar reminds us that gathering input can also be done in more informal ways, such as through regular check-ins or group discussions. To encourage more openness, she suggests organizing discussions so that they cut across teams or departments. People may be more willing to share with those colleagues with whom they do not work directly.

No matter the method, taking this kind of “pulse” on a consistent, ongoing basis is critical, especially considering how fast the context is changing. “Everything is still shifting as the pandemic continues, and so areas most needing attention will shift as well,” says Luthar. “On a national level, for example, our surveys have shown the general stress level among students went down a bit during the first few weeks of COVID, perhaps as a result of fewer tests, less packed schedules, and so on. On the other hand, by the third month of the pandemic, rates of serious depression and anxiety had clearly risen.” These increases were apparently most pronounced among high school juniors in general, and in some schools, those who were at transitional stages such as sixth graders new to middle school. The Authentic Connections team is currently looking at patterns of adjustment over time by students’ racial/ethnic backgrounds, to identify subgroups most urgently needing support and attention.

Kindness and Responsiveness

In seeking feedback from faculty and staff, it’s important that school leaders not only convey genuine concern, but also communicate with faculty and staff about the suggestions and concerns that they shared. As Luthar said, “Of course, not all concerns can be directly addressed. But even if a school head were to say, ‘These were the top two issues noted as concerns at our school, and here’s what we’re going to do to address them,’ this would bring some comfort during these times of great uncertainty. It always helps when people feel heard.”

In anecdotal comments submitted via the faculty resilience survey, Luthar and Kumar note strong reactions to the tone that school leaders set: In schools that have taken the commitment to authentic, two-way communication seriously, faculty express great appreciation. On the other hand, in schools where communication feels perfunctory or overly professional in tone, faculty and staff tend to be demoralized and discouraged.

Teachers are hungering for communication that clarifies expectations and is delivered with a tone of authentic concern. They want to see evidence of the school’s commitment to their health and well-being.

Care for School Leaders

In Authentic Connections’ work with independent schools throughout the pandemic, another reality is becoming overwhelmingly evident: the pressure on heads of school is higher than ever before.

With no break after leading the school through a tumultuous spring, and now faced with making very difficult choices regarding reopening plans, school leaders are finding themselves in the middle of growing conflict. Many parents want their children to be back on campus and many teachers and staff are concerned about being there. Stakes are high and feelings are intense. And the weight of decisions falls largely on school heads.

In the midst of such pressure, how can we ensure the well-being of those at the helm? Certainly, it is good to recommend self-care (for example, building in “me time”), but that’s not nearly enough; what’s needed is attention to this by the community as a whole. Luthar emphasized that in resilient communities, caring and consideration between leaders and their community members must go both ways. In other words, just as parents themselves need support if they are to function well in taking care of the family, so do school leaders need ongoing support from other adults, if they are to effectively steer the community through these trying times.

A concrete way to ensure such mutual support is to divide and share responsibilities. Across many conversations during the pandemic, Kumar found great benefits when school heads had a team of supportive and collaborative administrators--and often, other colleagues who stepped up voluntarily--to help provide support to all members of the community. Trustees also played a role. It was helpful when the board members set a clear overall direction for major school decisions and were available to serve as a sounding board for the school heads when different options were being weighed.

Another group clearly needing attention is those in charge of mental health and well-being at school. Data from the Faculty Resilience Survey showed that just between April and June of 2020, rates of serious burnout increased most drastically for school counselors and psychologists. Authentic Connections is currently working on ways to provide more proactive, targeted support for these individuals, who are essentially the foundation of mental health in their communities.

Luthar concludes that creating resilient communities in this uncertain time comes down to being genuinely supportive of each other, and this must include those people “in charge.”


Takeaways from the Faculty Resilience Survey

 Concerns Among Faculty
  • Feelings of Uncertainty about the Future
    This concern was shared by nearly all individuals, from all types of schools.
  • Worries about Health—for Self and Family 
    This basic, human concern cannot be overstated.
  • Communication 
    Teachers want clarity about expectations.

What Leaders Can Do to Nurture Health and Well-Being

  • Provide consistent opportunities for school personnel to share feedback.
    Surveys, conversations, and check-ins are key.
  • Communicate with clarity and genuine concern. 
    Be clear on expectations. Set a tone of kindness.
  • Create community-building opportunities, inclusive of all. 
    Connection with others is a key protective element. Build into the school calendar opportunities for faculty and staff to gather— whether to talk about their experiences or just enjoy time together.

 

 

Authentic Connections strives to improve well-being across school communities using data-driven insights. 

Nina Kumar is co-founder and chief executive officer of Authentic Connections.
Dr. Suniya Luthar is co-founder and chief research officer of Authentic Connections.

Hear the latest from Suniya Luthar and Nina Kumar at the SAIS Virtual Annual Conference, October 21-23, 2020. Register at www.sais.org/ac


Calendar more
Annual Conference
October 21-23 | Virtual
 
Webinars
Various dates & topics
 
Virtual Roundtables
Held monthly by role
 
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