By Kendra Varnell and Justin Brandon, Ravenscroft School

Given the unprecedented circumstances of the last two years, there is hardly disagreement that the unique consideration of teachers’ needs and well-being is not just important but required. The challenges facing all aspects of education have been well documented since the beginning of the pandemic, and the impact, both collective and individual, on classroom teachers has been unquestionably substantial. 

At Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, NC, we serve as the assistant head of school for student affairs and the assistant head of school for academic affairs. These positions are designed to work in concert to serve our community through connecting the “head” (academic affairs) and the “heart” (student affairs). As educators, we are aware that our duty is first and foremost the care of our students. Yet we also know that for teachers to execute to the fullest of their abilities, care and wellness must begin with them.

Polarity of Faculty Care and Accountability

With this awareness, we have spent much of this year considering how to best support the social and emotional well-being of faculty. This charge, challenging in and of itself, coincides with a year of preparation for our upcoming accreditation with SAIS, a task that comes with additional responsibilities for our teachers to which they are held accountable. Our partners at the Center for Creative Leadership frame this tension — of caring for our faculty while also holding them accountable to immense responsibilities — through the language of polarities: “A polarity — also described as a paradox, conundrum, or contradiction — is a dilemma that is ongoing, unsolvable, and contains seemingly opposing ideas.” Polarities represent issues that are not problems to be solved but tensions to be managed.

The polarity of faculty care and accountability has underscored much of our work together this year, including a very focused approach to reimagining our professional development days. We read numerous articles and spoke with colleagues across the country to learn more about teacher burnout, reasons for the great resignation, and pandemic fatigue with hopes of identifying best practices we could apply to our community. We also learned through the trial and error of our own attempts to support teachers and through the valuable feedback they provided.

What came to the forefront were our faculty’s feelings of isolation within our community. Prior to the pandemic, faculty and staff were able to gather across divisions for a variety of activities, and, of course, the pandemic paused gatherings for health and safety reasons to create a necessary separation of our campus by division. Therefore, we recognized that creating a space for our faculty and staff to meet and reconnect with each other was paramount to the success of our professional development days.

Work and Wellness Days

The concept of our “Work and Wellness Days” began this past fall. As we constructed the day, we were very intentional about dividing it into two parts. At the same time, we decided not to schedule all-school meetings, allowing our colleagues unscheduled time for professional development. The first half of the day was designed for their curriculum mapping in our learning management system, Canvas, and for preparing for accreditation.

As we considered the second portion of the day, we knew we wanted to be intentional about bringing our faculty together as a community and doing it in a way that was meaningful to each person. An initial invitation to faculty to host activities or sessions led to an overwhelming number of teachers volunteering to lead gatherings based on areas of passion or interest.

The second half of our first Work and Wellness Day featured faculty-led classes and activities such as an early morning Peloton class, yoga, high intensity interval training, groups for walking around campus, board games, use of our maker space, and hard hat tours of an exciting new building that was under construction, the soon to be Olander Center for Student Life. Activities were available in the afternoon — and we were careful to reinforce that the activities were optional — with the hope of allowing teachers to determine what their greatest needs were for their time and choose activities that were of the most interest to them.

Building on the success and positive feedback from our Work and Wellness Day in the fall, we held a second day in the spring. By this point, the Center for Student Life had opened; it became an incredible workspace and hub for activities and provided the opportunity for everyone to eat lunch together — something that had not happened in over two years. In addition to faculty-led activities, we partnered with our Parents’ Association to provide breakfast and offer chair massages and hand reflexology massages throughout the afternoon — a huge hit with our teachers!

Energized by the sessions they had enjoyed in the fall, we saw our faculty initiate ownership of planning the spring Work and Wellness Day. New and creative activities came to life including pickleball lessons and tournament, fairy hair (our most popular offering), a pickup soccer game, tours and workouts in the newly renovated fitness center, and a gallery walk through a beautiful and impactful visual art exhibition by our lower school students. In addition to the wellness activities, our technology department volunteered to offer ongoing professional development workshops focused on enhancing the faculty’s use of Canvas. Seeing a fatigued workforce not just volunteer their time and energy, but do so with spirit and enthusiasm, infused profound joy into our community.

Faculty Feedback

We surveyed our teachers, seeking their feedback about the impact of their experiences, and the following key themes emerged:

  • Flexibility: The teachers appreciated the absence of required meetings and being able to create their own schedules.
  • Opportunities: Teachers noted the creativity and passion evident in planning sessions.
  • Community: The greatest impact of the day was not just in participating in a fun activity, but in having an avenue for reconnection with so many colleagues they had felt separated from for so long.

In the end, one colleague shared, “I loved the open format, flexibility, and the options offered. I left the day feeling like I had a chance to bond with several colleagues through eating lunch with them and going to play soccer. It was fun to do something that focused on wellness, and nice to have unstructured time to work on my Canvas pages and any other items on my to-do list for preparing for the last months of school. I walked away with a very positive feeling about school, my colleagues, and my job.”

Justin Brandon is the assistant head of school for academic affairs at Ravenscroft School. Brandon holds a master’s degree in educational policy and administration from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a bachelor’s in political science and African American studies from Macalester College. Justin has held numerous roles, including director of diversity, history teacher, dean, and upper school division head. He serves as president of the Macalester College alumni board and vice chair of the board of directors for the Global Youth Leadership Institute.

Kendra Varnell is the assistant head of school for student affairs at Ravenscroft School, overseeing institutional programming for student wellness. Kendra graduated from Wake Forest University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Fuller Graduate School of Psychology, completing her doctoral internship at Duke University. Kendra joined Ravenscroft in the fall of 2017 and has served in several roles including middle school counselor, upper school counselor, and co-director of clinical services.

Ravenscroft, founded in 1862, is an independent school enrolling approximately 1,200 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12. The Ravenscroft community, guided by our legacy of excellence, nurtures individual potential and prepares students to thrive in a complex and interdependent world.