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Sunday, August 9, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Combatting ‘compassion fatigue’: Initiative focuses on well-being of Clarkston School District’s staff and students

Success in Clarkston public school classrooms depends partly on the wellness of both students and their teachers. (Barry Kough / Lewiston Tribune)
Success in Clarkston public school classrooms depends partly on the wellness of both students and their teachers. (Barry Kough / Lewiston Tribune)
By Justyna Tomtas Lewiston Tribune

A young boy hangs his head low as he approaches the counselor’s office at Grantham Elementary School.

He meekly shakes his head no when Josh Bruns, with counseling services, asks the boy if he’s OK. Bruns directs him into his office and tells him he’ll be right there.

A large part of Bruns’ job is helping students at the high-poverty school in Clarkston. But now his responsibilities have grown to include a focus on the well-being of staff members after the Clarkston School District decided to pursue a wellness initiative focused on employees.

The “wellness journey,” as Superintendent Tim Winter calls it, began in 2015. It kicked into high gear over the last year after serious concerns about the staff’s well-being were raised.

“What happened last winter was it grew to include staff, because what we were finding was our staff was really struggling,” Winter said. “We weren’t in the healthiest of places as adults in our school district, so we continued the focus on the students, but added the focus on the staff.”

Staff members suffered from “compassion fatigue” as they worked with students who sometimes come from difficult backgrounds.

Bruns now belongs to a team of six staff members at Grantham that supports the school’s employees on more of a holistic level. Sometimes that’s providing staff members with a few minutes to regain their composure, giving them someone to talk to, or supplying them with a surprise candy bar in the middle of the day to keep their spirits high.

The initiative at the schools has been well received, administrators said.

“I feel like it’s been something that for the most part people are welcoming, although we are still trying to figure out how it’s all going to kind of pan out and work its way out,” Bruns said.

This spring, the school district began monthly wellness advisory meetings and later sent a group to Washington, D.C., for a conference focused on creating trauma-informed schools.

In June, the district held its first “Top 5 Summit,” which focused on trauma-sensitive schools, self-care and social-emotional learning. About 130 staff members from every department attended, even though they weren’t being paid for their time. A guest speaker from the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction provided guidance.

In June, the district decided to hire four social workers at a price tag of around $360,000, which was funded through a high-poverty grant. The schools with the highest free and reduced lunch rates each received a full-time social worker.

The schools include Grantham, where 86 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch; Highland, with 79 percent of students; Parkway with 67 percent and Lincoln Middle School, where 60 percent of students receive the services.

For Mike Sperry, the principal at Lincoln Middle School, the initiative has given him a chance to take better care of his staff.

“It’s a big deal, and so that means we keep each other strong and we keep each other sane,” Sperry said.

Behavioral challenges

The number of kids with adverse childhood experiences – stressful or traumatic events – in their lives is increasing. That, in turn, has an impact on staff members who deal with difficult situations.

“With high poverty communities, you are going to see the percentage of kids with adverse childhood experiences or kids in trauma grow,” Sperry said. “We have to be prepared to face what’s coming . . You can’t ignore the fact that there are kids with these experiences coming, and it’s difficult for them to learn. There’s a toll that it takes on the staff that works with them, because they get invested in these kids. They see how broken and hurt they are.”

Steve Stroschein, a Title I coordinator at Highland Elementary School, worried about new teachers who haven’t been trained to deal with the influx of behavioral problems. Title I is a federal program that provides financial assistance to schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families. As the Clarkston Education Association president for the 2018-19 school year, Stroschein felt training teachers to cope with the issues many young children bring to school was important to address.

“The changes kids have gone through from when I first started teaching to now are huge, so I had a concern for young teachers that they weren’t getting the skills, or the tools, that they needed to deal with issues kids are dealing with now,” he said.

Now, in addition to the kids who talk or goof off too much in class, students are also coming in tired and hungry, he said. Sometimes they come from broken families or a household where drug and alcohol abuse is rampant.

“Not only are teachers teaching, but now they are really working on that emotional education and giving kids some tools to deal with issues and frustrations, whereas before, we’d send them home and the parents would take care of it,” Stroschein said. “Now teachers have a second job of making sure that emotional aspect of kids is being met.”

Addressing burnout

The stressors school district employees face are many. Despite any issues they deal with at home, they come to school and focus on the betterment of sometimes struggling students. The newly strengthened network of support helps ensure staff members are practicing necessary self-care, the administrators said.

“If we are going to have healthy children, we have to have healthy adults,” Heather Lang, student support services coordinator, said.

Preventing burnout among staff members is a significant concern for the school district.

According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. That’s something the wellness initiative hopes to lessen.

“We are trying to catch it before it gets to a point where someone says ‘I’m done,’ ” Bruns said. “We’re really trying to operate as a family that supports each other.”

Self-care is an important aspect of that.

“Ultimately it funnels down to being able to care for the kids,” he said. “We deal with a tough crowd, and we deal with tough parents, and so the better we are in a space personally, the better we are going to be in a space to handle kids. It’s ultimately about how we care for kids, and the best way we care for kids is to care for ourselves.”

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