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South Valley Journal

Secrets of keeping staff happy, healthy

Apr 19, 2021 10:39AM ● By Jet Burnham

Christy Barkdull hits the workout room to earn points in the health challenge. (Photo courtesy of Teri Griffiths.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Take care of yourself first is the lesson the staff at Kauri Sue Hamilton School has emphasized this year with the introduction of social groups, committees and programs that address their mental, social and physical health needs.

“We've got to be healthy because what we do is really hard,” said Teri Griffiths, assistant principal at Kauri Sue, a school for students with severe disabilities. “When you walk out of the doors here every day, you are mentally and physically exhausted. And so we just want to make sure that everybody's in a good place.” 

Staying connected

The school has 184 staff members and is unable to meet together as a faculty under COVID-19 safety precautions. When the pandemic began last spring, the administrative team realized they needed to find creative ways to make sure everyone was taken care of and so created an exercise group, a cooking group and a book club, which meet virtually and, when possible, in-person. 

“We learn a lot about each other, and so that's fun,” Griffiths said of her experience in book club. “We're sharing with each other, and we're taking on each other's burdens.”

The exercise group meets for virtual fitness videos, water aerobics classes and walks around the school grounds. Christy Barkdull said, early on in the pandemic, the group activities motivated her to get up and moving every day and provided an opportunity to socialize.

“It was so nice to still be able to connect with people at work and talk with them, and it was fun to meet the new people that were hired and get to know them a little bit,” Barkdull said. “We just had fun.”

In the virtual cooking group, staff members take turns sharing recipes and giving cooking demonstrations. Janette Barton, an educational support assistant, showed colleagues how to make potatoes and peach cobbler in a Dutch oven. She said getting together to talk about what they like to eat and like to cook—even if it was virtual—still felt like hanging out with friends.

“It gave me some normalcy,” she said. “It was nice to connect with coworkers on a different level and learn about them and things in their lives.”

Principal Courtney Titus said early on in the pandemic, the activity groups helped people focus on something besides bad news and helped stave off boredom, depression and loneliness. As the pandemic wore on, the groups helped them stay connected, pushed them to try new things and provided a way to get to know each other better. She said the staff is still as tight-knit as ever; even though they don’t see each other at school, they still can’t meet in large staff meetings or overlap in classrooms due to COVID-19 precautions.

“We're a big staff, so we're just making sure that everybody is taken care of,” Titus said. “People just needed to be able to connect and in different ways, not always focusing on school-related things.”

Griffiths, who has worked at the school for four years, said the social groups have affected the school culture.

“I can see a big difference just in relationships within the building of those that participate in these types of activities,” she said. “People are talking to people that they wouldn't have talked to before because they weren't in their hallway. People stop and talk to people more than they used to. So, it's growing relationships that weren't there before.”

Wellness challenges

As the head of the new Wellness Committee, Cammie Larsen is responsible for keeping her colleagues focused on their mental and physical wellness this year. 

“With everything going on in the world right now, mental health is so important,” Larsen said. “I feel blessed to work in a district where they are aware of this and have a plan in place. I feel grateful to work at a school that I feel already has such a positive feeling when you walk through the doors.”

Larsen has engaged the staff in fun activities that promote health and wellness. Over Thanksgiving Break, they filled a relaxation bingo card with activities such as taking a nap, going for a walk, relaxing in a bubble bath and reading a book. During the month of February, they competed for prizes in a healthy eating challenge, earning points for daily step totals, drinking water, eating veggies and limiting sweets. Competitive staff members were vigilant with their healthy habits, but even those who only occasionally earned points still saw some healthy benefits, said Griffiths.

Spreading sunshine

Also new this year, the Sunshine Committee was created to care for the staff’s emotional health. One person from each hallway takes responsibility for being aware of the needs of their hallmates. They report to the committee when someone is having a hard day and needs cheering up or is struggling with problems outside the classroom and needs help.

Committee members sometimes decorate someone’s classroom door or collect signatures for a card or contributions for a box of goodies to give their colleague as a pick-me-up. They also take collections for baby-shower gifts or flowers for a death in the family. Small socials are held so hallmates can bond over nachos or hot cocoa.

“We’ve tried to do whatever we can do to just keep spirits up and to figure out who needs what and when and how we can help them,” Titus said. “We've just really tried to foster that because our job is hard enough as it is, and if we're struggling, it's hard to do it. We need all hands on deck with the students that we provide services to, so we try to take care of our staff, too.”

Feeling appreciated

Ensuring everyone feels appreciated has been another priority to keep spirits up among staff this year. Titus told the school community council that the teachers couldn’t wait until the end of the year for Teacher Appreciation Week; they needed to feel supported all year long. Both the council and the administration regularly express appreciation to the teachers with treats, notes and food.

“Because of the nature of what we do, working with kids with severe disabilities, it's very tiring, and it's very taxing,” Griffiths said. “So those little reminders of ‘we know what you do, and we appreciate it’ throughout the year is the boost that teachers need to keep going. When it's broken up throughout the year, it just keeps the momentum going.”