Focusing on teacher mental health: RPS educators take part in support sessions

Education
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(Photo: Richmond Public Schools)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The declining mental health of students has been a major topic of discussion over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. But the educators who have had to adapt right along with them are looking for support, too. Enter Whole Teacher.

Founded by Broad Rock Elementary School third grade teacher Trejahn Rutlin, Whole Teacher began in February 2021 as a way to provide a safe space for educators to learn from each other as they shared their challenges and their successes.

“My first two years of teaching were really hard,” Rutlin said. “During my second year, I was already contemplating leaving the classroom. I felt conflicted between loving the act of teaching and not loving the effect it was having on my mental health.”

Rutlin said that feeling is what prompted her to look for teacher support resources. But everything she found was student-centric.

“I decided to create something, a support network, that would be teacher-centered,” she said.

Rutlin started out teaching in Indianapolis, Ind. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and Norfolk native, she moved back to her home state and was teaching second grade until last year.

Then, the pandemic hit.

“I feel like this hasn’t been my hardest year of teaching, but it’s been the most frustrating,” Rutlin said. “Having to accommodate for the virtual setting, having to deal with things that I cannot control, whether it’s internet issues or the students or myself, trying to improvise, translate things from in-person to virtual — it’s been very frustrating.”

She soon discovered that she was not alone in that sentiment.

Now that we’ve been virtual, our students are now more focused on playing video games or watching YouTube videos. They’re sitting behind a computer screen for a whole school day. Personally, I feel like our biggest struggle is getting those kids up and moving when they on have PE once a week for 30 minutes,” Broad Rock Elementary School Health and Physical Education teacher Molly Ruggieri said. “Since virtual learning, I have had a tough time getting that connection with the students like before, and that can take a toll on you.”

Although the health crisis and educational adaptations that have come about as a result made the 2020-21 academic year unlike any other, Ruggieri and Rutlin agreed that mental health struggles for educators predated the pandemic and needed to be addressed.

“It’s important to focus on teachers’ mental health because we do so much,” Rutlin said. “We pour into the students and someone needs to be pouring into use, and I think oftentimes, it gets forgotten that teachers are human, too. So pouring into them and addressing their mental health is ultimately supporting the students.”

That’s what Whole Teacher aims to do. During monthly, small-group video calls, educators work with social services organization Greater Richmond SCAN to share their thoughts and come up with solutions.

“These support sessions are like community conversations,” former Richmond Public Schools Behavior Specialist and current Greater Richmond SCAN Trauma Education Specialist Surprize Parker said. “These conversations work to recognize and acknowledge the stresses that teachers are going through, not only during the pandemic, but they [have been] exacerbated because of the pandemic, and we want to recognize that not only are the children struggling, but our teachers, our professionals, are struggling, too.”

Each session begins with a Mindful Moment, during which Parker leads the educators in meditation focused on removing anxiety and being present.

“Mindful is not about behavior that we want you to be in right now because you’re going through something,” Parker said. “Mindful is being present for whatever’s going [on], acknowledging those feelings.”

Rutlin said that different teachers have raised similar topics of discussion over the course of the sessions, especially as it relates to putting in the effort to make remote learning engaging, but not seeing the same results from their students.

“We’re trying to make virtual teaching very interactive and fun for our students, but not all the time do they come and they’re interested in what we’re doing because we’re on a computer,” Rutlin said. “Outside of that is just dealing with all the stresses. You have so many students in the class and they all have different personalities, and that may even click with your own or not — so just navigating how to deal with all the different factors.”

Whole Teacher goes beyond providing a safe space to vent. The teachers then spend time formulating solutions with the goal of becoming better equipped to educate students in the long run.

“It has been amazing. I have struggled with some mental issues of my own, and to be able to rely on some teachers that might understand what I’m going through — being a new mom of a two-year-old, having to do virtual learning, having some sort of communication and relationship barriers with our students takes a toll,” Ruggieri said. “I definitely feel like I got to learn how to deal with my personal issues at home through other women teachers. I also learned how to deal with being a better teacher virtually.”

Ruggieri, Rutlin and Parker all said that feedback from educators on the support sessions has been overwhelmingly positive, and that many are hopeful that the program will continue.

“I feel like it’s such a strong support network and as it grows, I’m sure that will help teachers feel heard and seen,” Rutlin said. “My goal is that this will help with teacher retention because if we address their needs, then maybe it will encourage them to stay because they’re being given tools to help them navigate being in the space.”

Parker said that Whole Teacher’s monthly support sessions are scheduled to continue with the educators at Broad Rock through the end of the academic year, but that she is open to extending into the summer if the interest is there.

Rutlin said that she would also like to expand the program to other schools in the RPS division, especially as educators prepare for more changes with the coming shift back to in-person learning.

“How is the classroom going to be? How are the class sizes going to be? How are we going to realistically do this?” Rutlin said. “As an educator, because this year’s been hard, I wonder, how am I going to face that challenge of being in person and teaching through that?”

Rutlin and Ruggieri said it helps to know that there are other teachers facing the same challenges as them, and that they can all learn from one another to be the best people and educators they can be for their students.

“Being able to know that you’re not alone has been the best help that can be,” Ruggieri said. “It was nice to feel not alone.”

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