Every month, Tiffany Anderson, superintendent at Topeka Public Schools in Kansas, emails the district’s 3,000 teachers and staff, asking whether anyone needs time off for either professional development or something else that’s quite unusual—self-care.
“We have self-care space in our schools and some office buildings where the lights are low, and people can have time to themselves or use the exercise equipment to de-stress,” says Anderson. The key is that central office staff generally take on that individual’s workload—even classroom teaching—during the time off. “It allows us to walk in the shoes of those closest to kids in the classroom, and see that we’re all one team.”
Struggling with common challenges, such as low pay, limited resources and mounting pressures surrounding student achievement, damages the way people feel about their jobs and workplaces. By helping all employees feel valued, the belief is that attrition rates will drop, job satisfaction will rise and student outcomes will dramatically improve.
Twice a year, the district also rewards one employee with a paid day off for “uplifting” others. Last year, a teaching assistant and cook were recognized at an event broadcast by a local cable channel. “I cooked for a portion of that day,” Anderson says. “Our jobs may be different, but everyone in our district is valued as an educator, as a teacher.”
Two years ago, the HR team at Lansing School District in Michigan wanted to be perceived as less transactional and more human. Team members overhauled major employee policies, invested in an employee assistance program and revised the employee handbook to clarify district expectations of workers, says Mark Coscarella, deputy superintendent who oversees HR.
“We were trying to be more proactive by reducing the ambiguity over policies and procedures,” he says.
HR reached out to employees in ways it hadn’t before. HR staffers began sending condolence cards with personal notes to employees who lost family members. Shortly before an employee retires, HR staffers now personally present them with a bouquet of flowers and thank them for their years of service, he says.
“Our employees now see HR as a resource rather than a place that’s punitive,” says Coscarella. “It’s more of a full-service place where they can get help or assistance—and their paycheck.”
Creativity trumps cash
If you don’t have space or money for self-care rooms, consider starting a coaching program to build teacher confidence and success.
The Ogden School District in Utah employs 21 full-time instructional coaches, formerly superstar teachers, who model lessons, offer tips for classroom management, help refine lesson plans, and—just as important—allow employees to seek help confidentially.
First-year teachers must engage with coaches for at least 90 minutes per week, says Jessica Bennington, executive director of HR in the K12 district that supports more than 1,000 teachers and employees. The following year, coaching time drops to 60 minutes per week, and becomes optional after that.
“Build your employees up so they believe and feel like they’re successful,” Bennington says. “Nobody wants to stay in a career feeling defeated every day.”
The district also employs three behavioral coaches. Many teachers spend a portion of each day, five times a week, with troubled students. By helping teachers become more adept at handling these disruptions, student encounters become less stressful or frustrating.
Creating a positive employee experience often relies more on creativity than busting your district’s budget. Build a diverse culture of trust and respect: Invest in employees and make them feel valued and proud of their accomplishments.
Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.