As one school year comes to an end, another is soon to begin! First things first, filling vacancies with the hope that the upcoming school year will begin with a full staff. In an effort to create as smooth a transition as possible for students and staff, it is imperative that a plan is in place to support all of the newcomers whether they are fresh out of college or simply transitioning from another district. Pairing new staff with mentors can lead to higher staff retention, increase quality of instruction, positively impact school climate and culture, and lead to higher student academic achievement. Learn more about the importance of mentoring from my phenomenal coworkers in their posts, Mentors: People Who Point Us in the Right Direction and The Importance of Mentoring New Teachers. I’d like to deepen the conversation a bit by considering how to provide mental health support to all mentees. This work is not easy. Many of us pour so much of ourselves into it that we are at risk for burnout, empathic distress, and even secondary trauma. Peppering in strategically planned wellness checks can prevent staff from reaching these dangerous points while also building resilience to continue to do the job well.
In addition to regular check-ins, it is important to meet with purpose at least monthly. Keeping in mind that the brain craves predictability, an agenda is a helpful way to outline the structure of the time together while ensuring nothing important is missed. When we consider the relationship of a mentor and mentee, we want to create a space that allows for vulnerability and safe sharing. When we allow someone to feel seen, heard, and validated in their experiences, we strengthen connection and promote healing. It is in this space of connection and community that the mentees can begin to flourish personally and professionally. Here is a sample of a meeting structure that encourages field support and wellness strategies.
Quick grounding breath together (5 minutes)
Beginning your time together with a breath helps regulate their nervous system and bring focus and attention to the present moment (Try Soft Belly Breathing)
General check-in (5 minutes)
Simply ask how they are feeling and what they feel they need during this time
Highs/Lows of past month (10 minutes)
It is important to celebrate the successes and acknowledge the areas of growth
Coaching piece (15 – 20 minutes)
This time will be spent providing support that specifically addresses any areas of growth your mentee might have in their classroom or practice. You might have something in mind to cover here based on your observations or interactions prior to the meeting or you might let this come up organically as you check in and review highs and lows. This is a beautiful opportunity to share your expertise in a way that will improve their skills and experiences in the classroom.
Wellness skill introduced and practiced (15 minutes)
Check out the resources below for more information
Reflection and closing breath (5 minutes)
Closing the time together is as important as connecting in the beginning.
This piece of mentoring is one that is near and dear to my heart. While mentors are certainly not meant to act as therapists, they are in a position to empathize with mentees in a way only someone with a shared understanding of the job can. In the field of education there are lived experiences that are unique from other fields of work. Practicing regulatory skills together can help prevent burnout or overwhelm and even offer ideas for co-regulating with students! It might feel a little uncomfortable at first, but that’s okay! Check out the books below for ready to go activities that take the pressure off of you when planning to broach these topics! This list is not exhaustive but may be helpful when considering the direction you’d like to take.
Boundaries are incredibly important to maintaining positive relationships with coworkers, students, families, and friends. Yet, they can be challenging to create and abide by. In the field of education we often are driven by a passion to serve. This can lead to too many “yeses” and an eventual over giving of ourselves to the detriment of all. In an ideal world we will be able to identify our capacity and prioritize our mental health as we maneuver through life and work. Developing self-awareness, compassion for self, a deep understanding of our value set, and an ability to learn from reflection can empower us to create purposeful boundaries that are neither too loose nor too rigid. This sweet spot will allow us to care for ourselves by striving for a regulated brain state. This looks different for everyone; however, seasoned educators who are acting as mentors can share their lived experiences to the benefit of their mentees. In her book, How to Do the Work, Dr. Nicole Lepera recommends a 3 step process for creating a boundary. Perhaps this could be practiced as a wellness strategy together.
Step 1: Define the boundary
Using these examples, create a boundary statement for yourself using the following prompt.
My (physical self/emotional self/resources) feels uncomfortable/unsafe when _____________.
To create space for my (physical self/emotional self/resources), I _________________.
For example: My resources feel uncomfortable/unsafe when I am receiving/responding to emails from parents and coworkers at all hours of the day and night. To create space for my resources to feel more comfortable/safe, I will no longer respond to emails on weekends or weekday evenings.
Or: My mental/emotional self feels uncomfortable/unsafe when my coworker constantly vents their frustrations to me while pressuring me to join in oversharing and/or agreeing with their perspective. To create space for my mental/emotional self to feel more comfortable/safe, I no longer care to hear about, argue about, or defend my personal perspectives.
Step 2: Set the boundary.
Now that you have identified some areas where boundaries might be beneficial to your mental wellness, consider how you might communicate one new boundary. This communication might be with another person or it might be a commitment to yourself.
Step 3: Maintain the boundary.
You’ve worked so hard to identify and create boundaries, now comes the hard part. Hold the boundary. Turn to your mentor or a trusted person to help you maintain boundaries.
2. Signs of burnout
Burnout is a form of exhaustion that can lead to very real physical and mental illnesses. Signs include: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Burnout is not a new struggle for educators and administrators. Prior to Covid-19, 78% of teachers reported feeling physically and emotionally stressed at the end of the day. The ever changing demands in education and the increasingly challenging needs of the students we serve are a recipe for disastrous burnout if educators are left unsupported. It is important to understand the signs of burnout and the strategies that can be used to either prevent or intervene. Check out this resource, Burnout and Quick Brain Health Strategies, for a quick way to introduce the topic in your mentoring session.
The practice and development of awareness can be particularly helpful for staff who are experiencing dysregulation but seem unable to name or work through the experience. By turning inward, we are able to explore our emotions with curiosity instead of judgment. Here we are better equipped for engagement, discovery, and attunement between ourselves and those around us. Awareness is the foundation of growth, development, and compassion. Furthermore, awareness has been shown to improve emotional regulation, increase positive mood, reduce stress and anxiety, increase empathy, and promote cognitive flexibility. In her book, Mindfulness for Teachers, Patricia A. Jennings tells us that awareness practices may even, “help teachers overcome the tendency toward emotional reactivity in response to student behavior that contributes to emotional exhaustion and burnout.” (p.17) Integrating this work into your own care routine and then sharing it with your students and colleagues will bring about transformative change for the individual, the classroom, and the community. Introduce awareness of brain state through this phenomenal three minute video by conscious leadership!
4. Meditation as a tool
It is important to discuss and practice skills together that can be used to protect the wellness of the mentee in their day to day lives. Meditation is a beautiful regulatory practice that can promote both physical and mental wellness. While there are many different ways to meditate, my two go-to introductory practices are soft-belly breathing and shaking and dancing. Soft-belly breathing is a concentrative meditation technique meant to calm the stress response system. You can listen to a guided soft-belly breathing reading here or simply check out the image below and try it together!
Shaking and dancing is an expressive meditation technique that will help your body release tension, relax the muscles, and give you the powerful stress release that can come with physical movement. With that physical release will come the emotional release. There are times where this activity can open that river of emotion back up by releasing things you were unaware you were holding. Daily practice can be invigorating and just plain fun! Follow along with Dr. James S. Gordon, founder of Center for Mind Body Medicine here or follow the instructions below!
5. Navigating change
Change is a big part of being an educator! We have certainly experienced that over the past few years but even in a typical year there is change to contend with as we take on new students or say goodbye to old, as new programs or laws come about that require shifts in our practice, or as we work through the high turnover rates in education (just to name a few). The brain doesn’t always like change and can sometimes view it as threatening, seeking the negative, and causing a stress response. Together with your mentee, simply ask them how they feel about the changes around them. Get in the practice of identifying and shifting focus to what is within your control and letting go of what is outside of your control. This is a difficult task for some people to do, but it can be extremely rewarding and beneficial!
Finally, creative self-expression supports well-being and resilience, reduces stress, and increases positive emotions! There are endless possibilities to this approach. Choose a song that represents your current view on life or work. Write a poem, dance, draw, paint, scrapbook, collaborate on an uplifting bulletin board in your school! Guide your mentee to identify and play with that creative spark within! It is a fun, healing activity that also reminds educators to explore with art and play outside of the classroom!
The Onward Workbook: Daily activities to cultivate your emotional resilience and thrive – A fantastic resource for developing resilience, taking care of yourself, or for integrating wellness strategies into regular check-ins between mentors and mentees when the new school year begins
The Transformation: Creating wholeness and healing after trauma – This a book I return to again and again when needing a little extra restoration and recovery. With strategies in every chapter, this is a great resource to guide wellness discussions!
Walking into your school in those first few years of teaching, counseling, or social working can be marked by a whirlwind of emotion. There is so much we didn’t learn in college and that we can only gain on the job and from the phenomenal educators around us! A structured, meaningful mentoring approach complete with strategies for mental health support can provide a solid foundation of professional growth. This safe space to share and learn from lived experiences and to feel validated and empowered to care for ourselves as much as we care for our students is instrumental in creating a future of transformative learning.