By Eulanda Thorne, Center Program Manager
There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
– Margaret Wheatley
The community at Hearne Elementary in Wilson County is a real-life example of the abovementioned quote. This year, I have the honor to work with the teachers of Hearne and have witnessed a cohesive community of teachers who not only have discovered what they care about but have definitively created an environment of trust, safety, and what we refer to as “collective care.”
Our North Carolina Center for Resilience and Learning defines collective care as: when there is a culture among staff to support and take care of one another, to feel safe expressing when they are overwhelmed or need to ask for help, and to feel that strong sense of “team” and community with others.
Each staff member at Hearne Elementary has discovered their firm conviction for fostering an environment of collective care. I am 100% certain this has a lot to do with the intentional, effective and inspiring leadership of Principal Byron Bullock.
I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a two-hour training session for Hearne staff which included time to voluntarily respond to the question: “How do you feel your school works to create a collective care environment among staff?” When I posed this question, I invited the staff to ponder it before responding. There was hardly a pause as staff readily raised their hands to freely and transparently share how they were either on the giving or receiving end of collective care in action throughout Hearne Elementary. What I felt and witnessed unfolding next was nothing short of unity, safety, hope, and love within a community of educators.
Over the following week after the two-hour training session, staff members voluntarily emailed me and continued to share examples of collective care.
Beginning Teacher Mentor Coordinator, Sabrina Amundson shared: “Collective care is vital at Hearne and shown in many ways. As the BT Coordinator for Hearne, it is even more important to show collective care toward my BTs and mentors for all of the hard work they show every day. I try my hardest to remind them of the great work they are doing during our meetings and throughout the quarter. I also show my BT collective care with occasional breakfast and I check-in throughout the day to make sure she is getting the breaks (bathroom included) that she needs. While small, I try to do little things to help these teachers in ways that others may not see.”
Though this act of kindness was described by Sabrina as “small”, I’m reminded of an inspirational quote by Kevin Heath:
“No act of kindness is too small. The gift of kindness may start as a small ripple that over time can turn into a tidal wave affecting the lives of many.”
I have no doubt about the tidal wave of kindness that has saturated others throughout Hearne Elementary.
Take Lisa Perry for example, who serves as the Multi-Classroom Leader (MCL) and Instructional Coach for K-1 who shared that part of her job is to support her team yet they are constantly checking in on her and asking “What can we do to help you?” Lisa went on to share how impactful her MCL team’s support has been:
“This school year has been difficult for me. My stepfather was diagnosed with cancer last spring, so I have been taking him to Duke for doctor appointments and helping my mom care for him. He passed away last month and my MCL team has been faithfully checking in with me, asking me how things are going and how I’m doing. These are small things, but it lets me know that they care, and that means a lot.”
And there’s that word “small” again. Like Sabrina, Lisa referred to their acts of kindness as small because of their humility to not be boastful in any way about what they see as their humanness. This humanness alone speaks volumes about the unified stance of collective care throughout the building.
Hearne’s Vision Statement includes the following sentence:
Hearne Elementary School will prepare each of our learners to be academically successful in a safe, nurturing, and challenging learning environment.
Working with Hearne’s staff over the past 5 months, I have witnessed, felt, and thankfully been immersed in what I would describe as a safe and nurturing environment!
In my exploration, I also discovered one of Hearne’s seven Belief Statements and Guiding Principles:
We believe all children can best learn in a caring, inviting, respectful, and disciplined environment.
I can attest that the staff as a whole lives out what they believe. Daily, they work passionately and diligently to create an environment that is caring, inviting, respectful and disciplined. One way that they do this is in how they treat each other and show up for themselves and each other.
As a former educator myself, I am aware and transparent about the heavy load that I’ve seen teachers carry with such determination and commitment to making a difference in the lives of children and families whom they serve. I’ve also seen so many beginning teachers who wonder early on if they can withstand. If we’re honest, the work of educators is tough work.
Stephanie Worrell is a first-year teacher at Hearne who emailed me to provide her perspective as a beginning educator:
“Everyone at Hearne has been extremely welcoming and helpful from the very first day. Everyone was coming up to me just to introduce themselves. Before school began Mr. Bullock arranged a game day. We all brought different games to play and had the amazing opportunity to hang out and get to know each other without focusing on work. When I come into work there is a line of staff members who always smile and say good morning. Then there’s Mr. Johnson who walks around the school just to say good morning and see how everyone is. Each of these little things makes me love Hearne a little more each day. Every member of staff is always available when I have questions or need help. They are always available for whatever is needed. Hearne is truly a family environment that most of us feel and love. I believe the children also pick up on these relationships and look forward to coming to our school too, as indicated by the plethora of artwork they constantly make for all of us.”
I also received an email from a veteran teacher who expressed how honored she felt to be able to share her feelings concerning her workplace environment at Hearne Elementary or should I say “Hearnation” as she describes it:
“Hearnation has been the place to be during this time in my life. Being considerate, kind and loving is not a forced action in this school and that’s what makes it so beautiful. I have had several traumatic experiences that would have caused many good folks to go down for the count, but because my colleagues supported, loved, and prayed with me. I am now walking with my head high, chest out and a big smile on my face each day heading to work. The collective care I receive begins each and every day starting at the Kindergarten level where I’m greeted with a great big ‘Gooood morning everyone! How are you guys today?’ This wonderful teacher gives everyone of us a hug and smile. Then we head down the hall where we pass the cafeteria staff (waving and smiling). Each step gets better as we take that big breath of relief. We know that we are loved and we are cared for.”
She shared with me that her colleagues are always smiling, singing, laughing and waiting at the door to greet her and all of their students. She told me, “We’re the DREAM TEAM! I LOVE MY JOB and I love the ‘collective care’ at Hearnation!”
As I prepared to close out my emails, my heart was warmed as I read one final email from Laura Thompson:
“I don’t know what I would’ve done without them [my school family]. Their calls, emails, texts and visits meant everything to me. I believe that God placed me at this school at this time because he knew I would need them! My school family was and continues to be a major part of my healing!”
Wow! What is left to say? It is evident how important it is to remember collective care in any environment, but particularly for educators. We serve in a capacity that could potentially leave us feeling burnt out, especially if we serve in silos rather than collectively. Collective care is crucial.
Remember, collective care refers to seeing members’ well-being – particularly their emotional health – as a shared responsibility of the group rather than the lone task of an individual. Simply put, collective care is when people in a group take care of the well-being of others! Within education, I truly believe when we stand together collectively, we stand a chance.
I’m sure there are disagreements at Hearne as with any school. Yet we remember that unity is not an absence of conflict but a consensus to agree to work together. Hearne’s staff has shown their desire and dedication to working together to support one another for the sake of the whole. At Hearne Elementary, they do hard and tough things and they do them collectively!
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. – Helen Keller