From mood meters to circle time, formalized ways for teachers to routinely check on their students and take the pulse of the class are an established best practice in social-emotional learning.
But what about the well-being of teachers and principals?
Adults can reap many of the same benefits from check-ins as students: a sense of value, belonging, and connectedness. Extending check-ins to the adults is part of a growing awareness in the social-emotional learning field that promoting these skills among adults is every bit as important as—some might argue a prerequisite even—for teaching them to students.
“If adults don’t have those social-emotional competencies themselves, if they’re not feeling heard, if they’re not feeling valued, it’s hard to then translate that to students,” said Karen Van Ausdal, the senior director of practice at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL.
“The research is very strong that if young people have at least one strong adult connection in school, they are much more likely to stay engaged, they are much more likely to meet with academic success,” and the same idea applies to the adults in the school building, she said.
But what do check-ins look like for educators?
Before the pandemic, Allyson Apsey, then the principal of Quincy Elementary, a pre-K-5 school in Zeelend, Mich., started a “Monday Morning Check-In” system for staff.
It’s a simple Google form sent every Monday morning to gauge how the staff was feeling and their readiness for the week ahead.
They were able to check off options such as: “I am doing great, looking forward to the week!”; “I have lots of work to do, but I am going to be OK.”; “I am overwhelmed and need some extra TLC.”; and “HELP me!! I could really use some help with something.”
A blank box, labeled “other,” allowed staffers to elaborate on the kind of assistance they needed.
The check-in system is a “safety net,” said Apsey, the author of Leading the Whole Teacher: Strategies for Supporting the Educators in Your School.
While a principal can make every effort to meet daily with everyone in their building, that’s just not always possible given the realities of school life.
“I would touch base with my staff members in person; my door to the office would always be open; they have my cellphone number, but just in case we weren’t connecting, or they needed something that Monday morning, it was like a safety-net of communication,” Apsey recalled.
Checking the TLC box
The initial idea came from one of Apsey’s teachers, who, while the staff was working on SEL check-ins for students, mused that it would be nice to have a similar system for teachers.
Apsey worked with teachers to ensure the check-in would be meaningful and simple enough to use on a regular basis. She thenchecked whether other teachers would be on board and workshopped the questions with them. Chief among the recommendations they gave her: Keep it simple and be ready to follow up.
“They were like, ‘If you are going to send this out Allyson, be ready for the responses because if you want us to be real, we’ll be real,’” Apsey said.
That’s a critical point: Teachers must believe—and see—that their concerns are being addressed.
“It’s meaningless and actually can hurt trust if there is not that follow-up,” Apsey said. “If you are asking the question, you have to make sure you are on top of responding to them as quickly as possible.”
To make sure that happened, Apsey developed a color-coded accountability system. Red denoted urgency and that she had to follow up immediately; yellow meant she had 24 hours to address the issue; and green meant that she’d already responded to a staff member’s concern.
The initial responses to the first Monday Morning Check-In were mixed.
“The data I got was that staff was doing well,” Apsey said. “The majority of the time they would respond ‘I am doing fine; I’ve got a lot to do.’ Sometimes they would say, ‘Doing great, looking forward to the week ahead.’”
Other times, when staff ticked off the TLC box, Apsey followed up by text to find out whether they needed her right away.
“It was funny in that they asked me for help with grading or time for planning in the beginning and that kind of faded away,” she said.
Giving teachers a dedicated avenue to ask for help didn’t overload Apsey, either, she said. Teachers didn’t go overboard or abuse the system—they asked only for what they needed and nothing more.
“They didn’t ask for subs continuously,” said Apsey. “I say that because if teachers are asking for time, principals might hesitate to give them time because they might say, ‘Oh no, we’re opening a Pandora’s box.’”
During the pandemic when school buildings shut down, the Monday Morning Check-In became a critical tool to keep staff connected, she said. The concerns changed to reflect the new realities of the world:
- “We have sick family members, but we are doing OK.”
- “Please call me, I need some TLC.”
These check-ins are an avenue for quieter teachers to reach out, too, said Apsey.
“We were [a] pretty connected staff, and we had a trusting environment,” Apsey said. “But “there were some staff members, who don’t speak up, or they are not sure what they should speak up about or not speak up about, and it gave them a conduitd to communicate with me in a way that felt really comfortable. I think it helped elevate all the teachers’ needs, not just the loud teachers.”
Principals can also do check-ins with their teachers during staff meetings, said Van Ausdal, by inviting each teacher to share one emotion they’re feeling or asking what has been on teachers’ minds most recently (and it doesn’t have to be work related). Then they can close the meeting on an optimistic, forward-looking note.
For superintendents, Van Ausdal recommends making check-ins part of principal meetings. Start with asking a principal what’s on their mind or acknowledge a success, before talking shop or doing a walkthrough of the school.
It’s especially important for school and district leaders to model this type of caring, said Van Ausdal, because it trickles down to teachers and students.
Check-ins don’t have to be formalized. A spontaneous “how are you doing” and an attentive ear, whether it’s in-person, on the phone, or through a text message, can still improve the recipient’s well-being. A recent study found that people tend to underestimate how much recipients appreciate a casual text check-in from friends and acquaintances. The more out-of-the-blue a check-in, the more powerful, the researchers found.
Check-ins among staff doing similar jobs are also important, especially for principals, said Van Ausdal, because they can feel isolated as the only person in their position in their school building. Group chats or text threads among principals are a good avenue for peer check-ins.
“Building this culture of collective care, that we are in this together” is what’s important, said Van Ausdal. “We want our students to notice when their peers are isolated, so we want our staff to model that, too. ”
3 tips to make check-ins meaningful:
- Use simple, open-ended questions. This allows people to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable with.
- Follow up. If a check-in reveals things are not going well for someone, it’s important to address those concerns to the extent possible and connect the person with additional support inside or outside the school.
- Be consistent. “Check-ins are not something you do once and then done,” said Van Ausdal. Check-ins for teachers and principals should be “built into their relationship with their supervisor or into the classroom rituals for students.”