CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) On the heels of the pandemic and in the midst of serious staffing shortages nationwide teachers are facing a growing mental health crisis. According to a report from the National Education Association released last year a whopping 90% of educators say feeling burned out is a serious problem. But one school system in our area is hoping some new programs will help improve staff wellbeing. 

Kim Mullins is a reading teacher at Kanawha City Elementary School. But she’s also the Social Emotional Learning or SEL Coordinator. Part of what she does is lead activities that help improve the well-being of her peers. Earlier this month during a scheduled meeting she led a simple exercise where people anonymously wrote something positive about their coworkers on a paper plate. She does similar activities several times a month as part of the TeacherWISE program. 

“Teachers wear so many different hats for everyone else except for themselves,” Mullins said. “So, they need to remember to take time for themselves and focus on their wellbeing so that they can pour from a full cup instead of an empty cup.”

TeacherWISE launched in Kanawha County Schools in August 2022. There is now an SEL Coordinator at each of the county’s 63 schools. Crissy Cantley leads the TeacherWISE program at South Charleston High School. 

“If you don’t have your emotional needs in check and you haven’t left those things at the door and you come in and bring all of that baggage in with you it is difficult to be the best that you need to be for your students,” Cantley said. 

Shortly after the program launched more than 400 teachers took a survey to assess five key areas of their well-being.

That survey asked questions relating to physical, occupational, intellectual, social, and emotional factors. 

When it comes to social wellness 89% of Kanawha County Teachers surveyed said they “mostly” or “almost always” support others and acknowledge their successes. Additionally, 80% said they “mostly” or “almost always” are aware of what triggers them and what they do to annoy others. 

But when asked about their own physical well-being only 41% reported getting more than 6 hours of uninterrupted restful sleep most nights. Only 30% reported “mostly” or “almost always” exercising for more than 30 minutes a day. 

“I think a lot of us carry the emotional baggage like the things the students bring to us. Of course, that is the loving hearts that we have. We don’t know how to just put that to the side. We always take that home with us,” Cantley said. 

The monthly and weekly TeacherWISE activities are optional but recommended. They focus on different topics relating to those 5 key areas. One school bright in a sleep expert from a local hospital. At South Charleston High School, they get creative. 

“For instance, for social, we did a fantasy football league which was really fun a lot of people involved in that,” Cantley said. “We also had a book club which covers the intellectual piece of TeacherWISE.”

South Charleston High School Principal, Kim Williams said the TeacherWISE program has been beneficial in many ways. 

“This is your home away from home. You are here 8 hours a day. And it is very important to get to know the people you work with. That you can share information with and have emotional support during the day,” Williams said. 

Even though students and teachers are back in the classroom now, the impact of the pandemic continues to linger when it comes to the well-being of both teachers and students. 

“We’ve seen an increase in depression and anxiety among youth and adults,” explained Jon Duffy, Director of Counseling and Testing for Kanawha County Schools.  

Nationally post pandemic staffing shortages are weighing heavy. Mullins said the pandemic brought on more stress for teachers as well. 

“It threw a wrench in the way we were able to teach our students, the way we were able to get information to our students, and the pressures that we have from above, like the central office and down,” she said. “It really affected teachers because we still feel like we needed to do everything that was mandated to us but a lot of times we couldn’t during the pandemic. So that added a lot of extra stress to our teachers.”

Crissy Cantley at South Charleston High School said she is hoping that by taking time to work on themselves teachers can set an example for students in their classrooms. 

“I think if we show them a little bit of that vulnerability, that yea we are going to have problems and emotional things and physical ailments and the things that you are going to have but it is the way that you carry yourself and the way we work through those. It can really be a good lesson,” Cantley said. 

During the recent session at Kanawha City Elementary people sat down to read the words their peers had written about them. It was an emotional experience for some. They were grateful to have a little time to themselves to work on becoming healthier and happier. Some markers, paper plates, and supportive words from their co-workers gave them a tool that could eventually help brighten a dark day. 

“It will remind you that you are worthy and that you deserve to be here, and you are a great person and it will get you through a rough day I promise,” Mullins told the group. 

South Charleston High School Principal Kim Williams said she hopes the program continues for years to come. 

“It just helps with the overall culture. If you have happy teachers, you are going to have happy students. It just puts everything like puzzle pieces together and I think it is a great opportunity and we need to keep it in place for our whole Kanawha County School System,” she said. 

In addition to the TeacherWISE program, educators also have access to the edwell Wellness Coaching service. That is a one-on-one coaching program. That was initially a pilot project for about 200 teachers in the Herbert Hoover feeder area. Starting in January 2023 the service was expanded to include teachers, administrators, and student support personnel countywide.

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