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Back to the Future

by Peggy Strass ASEBP | July 11 2019

Back in the fall, one of the employer groups I work with shared some tips on how to build wellness in their school community. I wanted to visit with them again to see where they were on their wellness journey and hear their hopes for the future. Spoiler alert: I was blown away with their responses to my questions! The purpose of meeting with them again so soon was twofold: first, to learn about their partnering experience with another school division as they boarded the Wellness on Wheels bus, and second, I wanted to dig a little deeper to learn what was most impactful for them in shifting their culture of wellness. I ended the conversation with a question about their dreams for their futureof what wellness would look like in their school community five years from now.

Enter Sarah B., wellness coordinator, and Paul C., assistant superintendent of Faith Formation and Wellness, from Elk Island Catholic Schools (EICS). Here’s what they wowed me with.

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Peggy: Using three words, describe your group’s progress building a culture of wellness at EICS in the past six months.

Sarah: Culture shift. Integrated. Innovative.

P: Can you give examples of how these three words resonate with you?

S: Let’s see…

  • Culture shift. We’ve learned that it’s not about a flashy idea or program. Rather, it’s a process. It takes time and it’s becoming the ‘normal’ way we do our work. We’ve also changed our language. Every school community understands what ‘bottom hands’ refers to—supporting every individual student and staff member in our division.
  • Integrated. We brought staff together from a variety of roles—education assistants, trustees, teachers, senior leadership, etc.—to discover and share an integrated understanding of what wellness is. As human beings, we need to support one another, using an inclusive lens and understanding that no one aspect of wellness is enough.
  • Innovative. We’re not afraid to try new things and we look to partners like ASEBP, Alberta Health Services, Ever Active Schools and others for advice and other models of wellness. In a nutshell, our division is flexible and approaches things with a different angle than most, with an openness to change.

P: Compared to a year ago, what are you most proud of in terms of where your school community is today?

S: We have a few:

  • Make it count. Wellness is a divisional priority, so our schools budget and strategically plan for it.
  • Set goals. From strategic goals across our entire school community, down to personal goals for staff and students, wellness is expected to be woven into everything we do.
  • Mental health matters. We’re also very proud that mental health is seen by our staff as a shared responsibility. Mental health doesn’t fall on the shoulders of the counsellor or the teacher. We all have a role to play.
  • Connections build our culture. Inter- and intra-divisional connections are strong at EICS. Our chaplains, health champions, family wellness workers and counsellors meet three to four times a year to build and plan for wellness in school communities.
  • Collaboration is key. We also have another initiative, Wellness on Wheels, which is a chartered bus aimed at bringing counsellors and administration from another, similar-sized school division to tour four schools within EICS and chat with students in real time. On the second day of the program, the group takes the time to reflect, share ideas and plan in their respective divisions.
  • Take risks. We pushed the boundaries and trialed a classroom swap for a day-in-the-life of a colleague. This involves not just teachers but also principals and education assistants who were interested in trading places with a colleague to learn more about their roles.
  • Students need a voice too. Two students (recommended by EICS health champions) from each school and grade (between grades four and 12) in the division gathered together in the fall of 2018 to help provide data and key information to develop our Mental Health Administrative Procedure. Students spoke to senior leaders and trustees to highlight student priorities. It’s important because their voice will better inform and change our practice of classroom teaching.

P: What will wellness look like in your school community five years from now?

Paul: Our hope and dream for our school division is that the fundamental elements of literacy, numeracy and wellness will be equal priorities, and that wellness will no longer be perceived as an add-on or an initiative. 

S: Continuing on with the momentum of our culture of wellness will take patience, persistence and lots of sharing stories and successes.

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My final word to team EICS: GO TEAM GO! I’m excited to see how their community grows and learns from each other along the way.

Peggy Strass

As a registered nurse with over 24 years in her pocket, 'Pegmeister'—or Peggy, as she was known around the ASEBP office throughout her time as a workplace wellness liaison—uses her superhuman skill of thumb-bending to help her tackle all sorts of jobs. And although the movie is still in the making, we hear her life’s story is set to star doppelganger KD Lang. Hallelujah to that!