Student and staff wellness was on the radar of the board of trustees of the Black Gold School Division (BGSD) in Alberta even prior to COVID-19. Black Gold now adheres to three strong priorities that direct the work done with our staff and students: Success, Wellness, and Engagement & Partnerships. With a relatively small increase in the monetary investment in the Wellness pillar, we have been able to create momentum and change that is altering the trajectory of our division and snowballing in its impact. Our journey, while unique to our division, contains takeaways that can be applied in other contexts across the country to support staff wellbeing.
In the beginning
When the board and our senior administrators were discussing what our priorities should be in 2019, wellness was brought forward as an option, but focused mainly on students at that point. COVID-19, however, amplified the need for wellness support for our adults as well, as we started to hear that our employees weren’t doing “well” (a rather ambiguous term at this point). With this new priority and focus in place, we began to move forward with the wellness support for our staff members. To begin, an internal Employee Health, Wellness, and Safety Feedback survey was administered, and the big takeaway from it was that people in all positions were feeling a lack of time to do their jobs well.
It was at this point that our Division Principal, Jon Ganton, started to look for ways to dig a little deeper into our employee experience so that our next moves were headed in the right direction, rather than just being based on his interpretation of the in-house survey. He was drawn to the EdCan Network’s Well at Work Advisors program because the Advisors were all formerly involved in education and he felt this was vital. Schools are a different type of “business,” and we craved feedback from a perspective that would honour all the intricacies involved with that. When a partnership with the College of Alberta School Superintendents was offered, which cut the cost in half, Jon jumped on it, and in 2022 our connection with Caroline Picard, our advisor, began.
In order to understand our school division’s context and identify strategies and goals to move toward supporting staff wellbeing, our Well at Work Advisor began by reviewing the existing workplace wellbeing data and organizing interviews with a cross-section of employees.
Caroline conducted a series of eight interviews with pairs of employees that represented all of our union and worker groups in Black Gold. These took place over Zoom at a predetermined time that worked for each employee. Often, participants were paired with someone from a different union or role, which made for some really interesting connections and comparisons across groups of employees and buildings.
The questions Caroline posed centred around the perception and availability of wellness support from the employer, and also developed a context for each interviewee to share their personal experiences, concerns, and suggestions for improvement.
From the rich foundational review and recommendations that Caroline created, we put some suggestions immediately into practice, and continue to implement suggestions to this day. Three major pieces that have impacted staff wellness at BGSD are:
- Visible and increased support of our support staff members
- Continuation of funding for our Wellness Instructional Teachers (WISTs)
- Creation of a Division Lead Wellness Teacher position devoted solely to staff wellness.
Our support staff members were feeling left out and isolated because they weren’t always at the table for important school-based conversations and professional development (PD). This was mainly due to how many hours we were paying them to work each day, which conflicted with when our staff meetings and professional development opportunities were happening. In the 2022-2023 school year we completely changed our PD model to support the feedback from our teachers and administrators that they were feeling rushed and exhausted when meetings were on early-out days, and instead incorporated a model where a full day each month is devoted to PD at the school, division, and Alberta Teachers Association levels. With this change we have also offered to pay for half-days on our PD days for our support staff members so they can be present. We are excited that in our upcoming school year, this model has morphed further into providing pay for four full days of PD in conjunction with teachers and administrators, and the option for additional paid half-days.
Inclusion of our support staff remains an issue at the forefront of our minds, as many continue to feel isolated from their colleagues or underappreciated in their buildings. Having this brought to our attention allows us to continually move forward in our decision-making with this as a priority.
Wellness instructional teachers
In 2021, we introduced funding for a 0.1 FTE Wellness Instructional Teacher (WIST) in each building to support Wellness initiatives for two years. These amazing teachers use data collected in their buildings to inform their wellness focuses for the year. We truly believe that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work when it comes to wellness, especially as our district has a huge variation of school populations, from large urban high schools to small rural schools.
The WISTs record their action plan and the ensuing results throughout the year, and these are stored in a repository that everyone has access to. This sharing of best practices and strategies (and the ones that weren’t as effective) allows other WISTs who are new to the role, or who have identified a new area of focus, to learn from the work of others and hit the ground running.
Our board has witnessed the power these positions have had to impact culture and overall wellbeing in each building, and has decided to continue funding for the upcoming 2023-2024 school year.
Division lead wellness teacher
A full-time Division Wellness Teacher position was created for the 2022-2023 school year, and I was the lucky candidate who was awarded the job. At first, I was unsure of the direction to head in, so our Well at Work Advisor’s feedback was invaluable, as was the Well at Work K–12 Leadership Course online. They became my roadmap.
I quickly realized how to segment my work (individual, community, and systemic supports and changes), and how to streamline my communication surrounding the definition of wellness in Black Gold. My ultimate goal, right off the hop, was to ensure that the position was visible and had a measurable and immediate impact (that low-hanging fruit we often hear described). For us, this amounted to the golden oldie of bi-monthly Wellbeing Newsletters going out to everyone, and within that, individual challenges for the month. September, for example, was a step challenge, as it coincided beautifully with the Terry Fox Walk/Run that all of our schools participate in. The goal of the newsletter is always to provide information, research, and conversation surrounding best wellness practices in a way that is easy to incorporate into a busy life. The feedback I got from people was supportive, as one teacher wrote, “Your newsletter has been super useful, and I am really appreciating that it has things (recipes, challenges, etc.) that I can actually use/do. I like the tangible aspect of it, and the fact that it doesn’t feel like it’s just adding one more thing to my plate.” Ensuring that I wasn’t adding to the plate was vital and I feel like my own experience as a teacher allowed me to balance on the fine line between challenge/fun and creating extra work. Even with this goal at the forefront of my mind, I did have two people ask to opt out of my newsletters because they felt they were reminders of all of the things they “should” be doing. Of course I honoured their requests, and also remain cognizant of the number of times I am communicating with everyone each week.
The purpose behind the challenges was two-fold. In our Well at Work report, it was very clear that people were experiencing a sense of a loss or minimization of community (due to both COVID-19 and the siloing that occurs when workload intensifies), both at their own schools, and between schools and departments. Each monthly challenge has a team prize; the school or department with the highest percentage of participation wins a prize for everyone. I was hopeful that this shared incentive, and conversations around the competition and wellness practices, would re-engage people with one another.
Another community prong of support I offer is professional development. Each month I lead a 90-minute virtual session that coincides with the wellness focus of the month. These happen during designated time on our PD days. By allowing teachers the opportunity to log in virtually from their own buildings we minimize commuting stress. We anticipated that having wellness sessions run congruently with curriculum-based PD, especially with new curriculum currently being implemented in Alberta, would be challenging, but my sessions have had high attendance rates, which demonstrates the need educators feel for wellness-based learning.
I also work closely with administrators to create sessions for their staff-specific needs. Usually this begins with a conversation about what they are noticing, or what is worrisome for them about the wellbeing of their staff. In any form of PD I deliver I adopt a workshop model, where people are conversing and working through ideas together and individually to find ways to increase their own individual wellness capacity, and elevate the wellness of the community within their building. This work creates a common language and series of shared expectations between staff members, and also allows administrators to feel supported in their quest to support their own staff.
As suggested in our Workplace Wellbeing Review and Recommendations, I also looked for any opportunity I could to create fun and bring people from various locations together. As we all have experienced, going through COVID-19 has created a sense of separation and isolation. To bridge that, I created a BGSD Challenge, which is a smaller-scale corporate challenge-style event. This allows everyone’s talents to shine as they earn points for their school or department, and also hosts three in-person events (pickleball, yoga, and a softball tournament) for people to meet at.
Additionally, we hosted a half-day in-person Wellness PD day, complete with food trucks, massages, and amazing personal wellness sessions. This day provided us with an opportunity to reach out to in-house presenters to share their passions and wellbeing habits. One teacher, who was asked to present a fly-fishing session, commented that he “never considered doing any sort of PD presentation and enjoyed the experience immensely.” We found that the uptake on wellness sessions wasn’t as high during this day, when we were meeting in-person, as it is when our sessions are delivered online.
My work at the systemic level took a little longer to nail down, because I needed to get a sense of how all of the pieces and people interacted before I could begin to identify which direction to head in. At the Pan-Canadian Summit on K–12 Workplace Wellbeing, I had my lightbulb moment (actually, a teeny tiny little spark that eventually grew to a lightbulb a few weeks later). Dr. Vidya Shah gave a keynote address on “Wellbeing for Whom?” and that question, and subsequent information, stuck with me. It quickly became apparent that we needed to learn about the Black Gold experience from everyone, including members of our staff from traditionally marginalized groups. Our journey into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion began there, and while it is still in its infancy, it has already begun to spark vital conversation and change. We have administered a survey to all staff members, and the data collected and amalgamated from that has been analyzed first by senior administrators, our administration association, and our board of trustees. I have also developed a process that principals will take back to work through the data with their own staff.
One quick, instantly visible piece of this section of the work was creating and marketing Black Gold Pride shirts for our staff to wear. This movement grew legs, and we were able to benefit our in-school GSAs with a portion of the proceeds from each sale. As one teacher commented, “I just wanted to say I loved seeing a pride shirt order form in the newsletter today! I’ve always gotten my own shirts like that to show my support because the division has never put out their own shirts or even had emails regarding where to buy them. This is huge! And to have money donated back to school GSAs is awesome too! One step at a time to getting Black Gold more inclusive across the division.” An action that felt small was actually very big for many, as one of our trustees let me know that wearing her shirt not only got her a bunch of comments and kudos at a meeting she was at, but also opened up a really personal conversation with a young cashier scanning her groceries. She was moved by the impact something so small could have.
With Wellness listed as one of the three priorities of our division, it has been vital that we incorporate a wellness focus into all of our decision-making and meetings. I lead leadership-specific PD at each Administration Association meeting, and alternate between personal wellness for leaders, and ways to support staff with their wellness. I went into these sessions hyper-cognizant of the workload our administrators feel, and was very conscious of ensuring that my work with them was quick and beneficial, but as time has gone on, I have received lots of feedback that our work together is both appreciated, and a change from the usual flow of the meeting.
Our senior administration was encouraged, through our Workplace Wellbeing Review and Recommendations, to visit schools to increase visibility and remove perceived barriers in communication that were identified. They have been following this suggestion and have been present at schools more frequently.
Our board has also incorporated wellness discussions into their meetings, constantly ensuring their decisions align with Black Gold’s priorities. Our forward-thinking trustees have led the charge in this realm and we are extremely grateful for their commitment of funding and their willingness to converse about the employee experience at Black Gold.
I do not have a finalized roadmap moving forward into our next steps, as they need to be flexible and responsive to needs that are identified along the way. But I do know that providing psychological health and safety to all of our employees is at the forefront of our minds at Black Gold. I have three major questions I will be focusing on in the upcoming school year:
- What is our best course of action to alleviate the time pressure and job intensification many of our employees are facing?
- How can I organize and support employee resource groups to move our work forward in a way that’s effective and responsive to the Black Gold experience for all?
- What is the best method to collect data on the impact of our actions?
We are treading slowly, carefully, and in the right direction to best serve our employees. What I do know, without a doubt, is that focusing on staff wellbeing is powerful and important, as encapsulated by a teacher in our division: “I just wanted to express how grateful I am for all that you have done this year to encourage me, and all the staff, to take care of ourselves. It has been a tremendous gift to be given permission to practice self-care in real and many practical ways. You are a blessing!”
Our work with EdCan and our Well at Work advisor has kick-started a lot of phenomenal conversation, change, support, and growth already in our division, and it is exciting to consider where we might be a few years in the future. Our financial investment (0.1 FTE in 31 schools and 1.6 FTE at Division Office), coupled with the investment in the Well at Work Advisors foundational analysis, has been minimal in comparison to the insight and momentum gained. The impact at this point is immeasurable and multi-faceted, and we are so grateful to have had this opportunity to increase the wellbeing of all of our employees.
*This is part of Well at Work’s Stories of Success Webinar Series, which profiles the many ways that school districts across Canada are fostering workplace wellbeing.
Photo: Courtesy Black Gold School Division
First published in Education Canada, September 2023