Message to Wichita educators: Take care of yourselves

Take a deep breath.

Get plenty of rest.

Learn to say no.

Ask for help when you need it.

Remember to have fun.

That was just some of the advice offered to hundreds of Wichita teachers, school psychologists and social workers Tuesday at a professional development session focused on compassion fatigue and self-care.

“It’s important for us to monitor where we’re at: ‘How am I doing? How distressed am I? Am I taking care of myself?’” said Melody Stuckey, social work coordinator for Wichita public schools.

“Self-care is critical to you being who you need to be in the classroom with the kids. … If you’re not doing that now, I hope you can find some ways to do that.”

The afternoon session – one of dozens being held during a mandatory in-service day for Wichita district employees – was intended to help educators reflect on the trauma many of their students face and how that stress can affect their own physical and mental health.

Wichita, like many large school districts, has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children who come from homes of poverty or traumatic situations, including substance abuse, violence, hunger or neglect.

Data shows that the number of suspensions, detentions and negative behaviors have increased substantially in Wichita classrooms over the past four years, and teachers are on the front lines of that trend.

Stuckey and Lois Neace, a child and family therapist at Prairie View, a mental health center, led the afternoon session at the district headquarters building.

They guided educators through surveys intended to measure their own childhood trauma and the “compassion fatigue” they may experience from working with children and families in trauma.

Stuckey encouraged participants to be aware of their own limits and to think consciously about taking care of themselves.

“School professionals have been trained to operate in isolation,” she said. “So how do we ask for help, and how do we do that without becoming too vulnerable? That can be difficult.”

Self-care means finding creative outlets such as painting, cooking, bike rides or board games, she said. It also means finding humor in stressful situations and seeking help from co-workers.

“You need safe people that you can bounce ideas off of or (who) just help you process” what happens at school, Stuckey said. “Like, ‘Man, today was a great day,’ or ‘Wow, today was really rough.’ Let’s just support each other.”

The compassion fatigue survey asked educators to ask themselves 30 questions about their current work situation. Some examples: “I feel overwhelmed because my case workload seems endless,” and “I think that I might have been affected by the traumatic stress of those I help.”

“If you aren’t able to take care of you, there’s going to be that ripple effect,” Stuckey said. “Know that you’re important and that we need you. … We cannot do this work alone.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias