Springfield City School District increases focus on mental health

Springfield City School District has committed to taking a deeper look at mental health and how it affects teachers and staff, students, families, and the community as a whole. 

Through town hall events, which started in June shortly after school ended, district leaders are working to connect with individuals about mental health concerns they have or see within the schools in order to make a plan for addressing those concerns moving forward.

"The pandemic made an already difficult job even more difficult," says Michelle Jones, the district's executive director of human capital. "Students are struggling, teachers are struggling, there's an increase in discipline concerns, and it's just a tough time. We are on the struggle bus - not only as a community but also globally - and these town halls give everyone a chance to voice their concerns so we have perspective on what they're feeling."

The first of the four town halls was focused on teachers and staff. The district decided to organize it following some round table small group talks last fall where Jones says some staff described feeling like firefighters. 

"Everyone was feeling like a firefighter. People were walking around here feeling like they were putting out fires and in a constant crisis state," Jones says, emphasizing how invested the teachers and staff are in the Springfield community and how much they carry a burden of trying to fix issues that come up - both with students at school and the weight students carry to school from their home lives.

Jones says the honest conversations about what employees would like to see and need regarding mental health are important to the schools' future. She says workplace culture is a big factor in the district's strategic plan.

"If we want a One Wildcat culture and a strong workforce where we are able to show up for the kids, we have to be honest about what it takes to make that happen," she says. "Our students do not win when we show up to work unhealthy."

Jones says the town hall sessions are as much about identifying issue as they are about normalizing discussions about mental health overall.

"One of the toughest things can be talking about mental health in an open way, so for someone who may not be feeling good about sharing their feelings, I hope if (the town halls) do nothing else, that they allow people to know that they are supported."

Creating a safe space for district leaders to hear directly from staff has been so important, says Amber Little, the district's lead behavioral specialist. 

"We want to listen. We have to listen first before we can do anything about it," she says. "We got feedback and questions from staff in all the buildings and from that the plan is to continue forward, but we're going to let the conversations drive the work we need to do. We are listening and then deciding how to provide support and services moving forward."

In addition to the town hall events, SCSD has made a point to emphasize a variety of mental health resources offered to staff, including counseling services, a wellness calendar, and an app geared toward positive mental health.

The district also organized a family get together night at Young's Jersey Dairy, where employees could spend time doing no-stress, low-key activities geared toward simply having time to enjoy each other's company. 

Jones says putting mental health on the table as an open, honest topic of conversation will ultimately provide the best workplace for teachers and staff, as well as the best learning environment for students.

"If you know you're not well and you're struggling, there's a likelihood that you will show up in the classroom and it will affect the way you show up. It can affect the way we talk to students and the way we listen to students," she says. "We have to have individual accountability to take care of ourselves and ask for help when we need it.

"If our folks can walk away from this entire undertaking with one message, it would be that it's OK to get help. It's OK to understand that you can't solve all the problems all the time by yourself. And we hope that moving forward, we have created a safe space for working together to solve challenges in classrooms. We want to change the focus from Band-aid responses to long-term solutions."

The district's school psychologist Dr. Martin Johnson says the shared experience of the pandemic has exacerbated the mental health needs of teachers, students and communities. And while it is a challenge to overcome, it has also brought conversations about mental health to the forefront in a positive way.

"There has been a push nationally to better recognize mental health, and the district is recognizing how difficult teaching has become," he says. "I appreciate that the district has recognized this by saying, 'Let's take a moment - let's take a step back and say that it's OK to say - this is challenging,'  and then taken it a step further to say, 'How from a district perspective can we help people be their best selves for the kids and the families?'"

For students, Dr. Johnson says part of the district's focus on student mental health will be to teach students to advocate for themselves, to better self regulate, and to build better interpersonal relationships with their peers. 

"What better place to start than with the staff," he says. "If staff know how to self regulate, they're in a better position to meet student mental health needs and support families with what they need as well."

Jones says that while all jobs can be challenging, the district recognizes that teaching and working in a school setting comes with a unique set of challenges that require a different kind of commitment from employees. And she says meeting the needs of employees and students can't be handled with a "cookie cutter" approach.

"We want to make sure we're focusing on the whole employee, just like we work to focus on the whole student," she says. "We want to send a message that we are committed to this, that it's not just about talking about it. It's about follow through and implementing and doing."

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.