Local schools to install refuges for teachers, staff to address stress, fatigue

Teachers at about a dozen schools in the Salem-Keizer School District soon will get a place to retreat when the day’s work seems overwhelming.

Backed by a health care grant, district officials are planning to convert some school rooms into “employee wellness spaces.” They haven’t yet settled on which schools will get the special rooms.

But the idea is one answer to increasing concerns about teacher well-being.

A survey of teachers last fall answered by 2,948 showed continued issues.

“People are feeling more comfortable sharing what their struggles are.”

–Chris Moore, Salem-Keizer School District director of social-emotional learning and mental health

One out of five teachers said they “almost always” feel overwhelmed at work. Another 56% said they felt that way “sometimes” or “frequently.”

About half of survey respondents felt they were effective at their job and about half considered themselves “connected” to other adults at the school.

“We know that our employees are struggling in much of the same ways our students are struggling,” said Chris Moore, the district’s director of social-emotional learning and mental health.

Moore said district leaders noted that while students seemed to be recovering from pandemic impacts, “the staff feeling stayed flat.” He said employees experienced burnout and “compassion fatigue.”

During the pandemic, school employees could tap into the district’s virtual calming room, which provided access to soothing music, games and live animal video feeds.

District leaders have in recent years paid closer attention to employee well-being, and a $50,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente is behind what are sometimes referred to as calming rooms. The district will add some funding with the ambition to get up to 14 schools converted at a cost of $5,000 to $7,000 per room.

Moore said the idea of a space for teachers and staff to take a short break came up in employee discussions

“As we normalize conversations around mental health, people are feeling more comfortable sharing what their struggles are,” Moore said.

At each school, the staff will drive what goes into a wellness space, from furnishings to art. They will set for themselves how and when the room can be used.

Moore envisions teachers taking a short break from daily duties. Someone else in the school might step in to cover a class so teachers “can look for those small moments of respite.”

He said “wellness champions” have emerged among staff at area schools, a key to effective planning for the rooms.

“We really want the schools to own this,” he said.

Moore said school leaders want to apply to teachers the lessons learned from working with students.

“When people feel better about themselves, they perform better,” Moore said. He also said the move is the right step “to creating a culture of care.”

District leaders will watch future survey results to judge how effective the new rooms have been.

“What we’re hoping to see is an improvement in staff well-being overall,” with a goal of seeing a 10% increase, Moore said.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.