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When you’re in crisis mode for long periods, as schools have been throughout the pandemic, it’s easy to forget about wellness. Cathy Kedjidjian is trying to change that.
Kedjidjian, director of communications and strategic planning for Illinois’ Glenview Public Schools District 34, is one of the leaders of #BeWell34, an ongoing campaign in her district. As president-elect of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), she’s working to spread the word to others in her profession.
“When I talk to my school PR colleagues about the challenges they face, burnout and work-life balance are the topics that come up every time,” she says. “Whether it’s their own burnout, or what they’re doing to deal with the burnout teachers, staff, and administrators face in the schools, it’s constant.”
School communications can be isolating work. Even though you serve as a conduit of information from all areas of the district, chances are you are the only person doing this work unless you come from a large urban or suburban school system. And in highly stressful times, when threats and TikTok challenges pop up out of nowhere, finding work-life balance is difficult at best.
Kedjidjian’s commitment to wellness is both personal and professional. A runner who has completed both marathons and triathlons, she runs, swims, or does yoga daily.
“People know me because of my love for kale,” she says. “I eat healthy. I work out. I’m not a wellness professional, but it’s part of my everyday life. It works for me.”
Wellness also has become a focus in her district, located in a suburb north of Chicago. At the suggestion of Sarah Gebhardt, an instructional coach for student services, Kedjidjian has made #BeWell34 a prominent feature on Glenview’s website. The section includes resources for staff to use with individual students and in classrooms; teachers and students can subscribe to a calendar with daily wellness reminders. During the pandemic, an assistant principal certified in mindfulness and meditation has led classes over Zoom that are posted in the section.
“It is pretty cool,” Kedjidjian says. “There’s a search feature that students can choose that asks you questions — How are you feeling? What grade level are you? — and provides age-appropriate resources. It has a bullying tip line and link to a statewide tool to report if you are having an issue or need help for a friend.”
The district also has a wellness challenge that started before Kedjidjian arrived in 2018. The challenge, now held in February and March, has expanded from one to four weeks during the pandemic. This year’s theme for the district is “I Belong.”
“People wanted a longer challenge that made them focus on their mental and emotional as well as their physical health,” Kedjidjian says. “Part of that was them wanting a connection to their colleagues. When you have an environment where you’re connected, that really does a lot for your mental health. You can participate as a team or as a building, but the purpose is building that connection. Belonging is one of the biggest boosts you can have for mental health.”
Kedjidjian says #BeWell34 has become “overwhelmingly the most popular” section on the website for staff, and many use the hashtag in their social media posts. “It’s become its own connector to our staff,” she says. “It’s become a way for educators to communicate and connect, and in turn that helps our culture of caring and culture of wellness that is important to our entire district.”
Connection is a word Kedjidjian often uses in conversation. As NSPRA’s incoming president, she is worried about burnout among her colleagues in school communications.
“It’s a Catch-22. We need the best people working in school districts, but the best people are leaving because it’s been so hard,” Kedjidjian says. “Oftentimes, we’re the face of the district along with the superintendent, and we’re the ones getting hammered and having to respond to community members when there is no right answer. That’s one reason wellness is so important, especially right now.”
Kedjidjian says she has gotten several of her ideas from Shawn McKillop and Kristin Magette, two school communicators from Hamilton, Ontario, who have developed the hashtag #k12prwell. She participates in and has spoken at webinars and presentations led by the duo.
“We are working to tell people, ‘It’s OK not to be OK.’ We’re all struggling through this, and there are resources you can and should tap into when you’re struggling,” she says. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If we’re going through the same situations and the same needs, then we can share those.”
The internet has been both a boon and a curse to school communicators. On the one hand, you spend your time stamping out falsehoods that anyone can post at any time. But, as Kedjidjian notes, tools such as NSPRA Connect—an online chat for members—and similar resources in many state chapters can help you get what you need in a matter of minutes.
“When you are stressed, overloaded, and burned out, your brain is not working the same, and you’re not able to create the same good work that you’re creating when you have the space and time and energy to do it,” she says. “I have become really good friends with people who are some of the best in the business, and I can text or direct message them on Twitter, and within moments, I’ll have a solution. That connection means everything to me.”
Glenn Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org), a contributing editor to American School Board Journal, is a freelance writer and photographer in Northern Virginia. He also spent five years as a communications director for a North Carolina school district.
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