Beyond Yoga and Donuts: Laying the Groundwork for Transformational Change for Well-Being and Student Success

Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 2/3/2023 11:00:00 AM

Pershing Student I Believe I Can book

Sharonica Hardin-BartleyIt has been a busy start to the New Year as students and teachers undertake new learning projects. Our students have so many wonderful Black History activities planned for February. Amid these life-affirming activities, we are, again, dealing with a national tragedy with the cruel and horrific death of Tyre Nichols during a police traffic stop. These sickening and inexcusable assaults are culturally and socially traumatic. They ripple into our consciousness and stir deep and often overwhelming emotions, especially in our youth. This leads me to thoughts about well-being among our students and staff.

As a superintendent, I am privileged to be on the frontlines of student joy and success. I get to hand out awards, hugs and diplomas. I can walk freely through schools when I choose and almost always find a smiling face or a warm hello. And when I see a child that is upset or stressed, I get the chance to walk with them. When we can’t talk any longer, I guide them to a trusting adult so their day can get a little bit better. And when that happens, my day gets a lot better.

My position also finds me sometimes on the front lines of tragedy. Mercifully, these moments aren’t frequent, but they do happen. I can’t predict when they will occur, or when I will get the call or a text alerting me that a child is deeply in trouble or worse. 

Many know that we have had two young men from our high school community lose their lives in the last two months. The losses were not technically related, and yet, there is still an ethereal force that connects them, because these young men were a part of our community, and this loss is indicative that all of our children are not well, and that our world right now is not well and fully servicing their needs.

These losses have rocked our staff and students, and I say that with deference and love to these young men’s parents, families and loved ones who are going through the unthinkable. When a student dies, our crisis response team goes into action. A phone and text chain forms between our school leaders, the students’ teachers, school counselors, social workers, well-being specialists, and our nurses. Their top priority is our students, who often learn of these tragedies on social media or by text chain. This is the worst way for a child or young adult to learn about something that they can’t and shouldn’t have to comprehend. For our response teams, it is, honestly, a race to get to them so they don’t feel these intense emotions alone, and that they have places, space and caring adults to healthily experience sadness, fear and grief that define us as being human. It is tragic that we have to have these types of response plans, but also indicative of our district’s belief that we must be there, always, to support our students' well-being. 

Amid our joys, I write today to recognize our grief and the fragility of young life in our world. It is deep and heavy. Our students are our everything and they are beautiful as they grow and cope with the unfairness that life may bring to them. So when we identified Joy and Well-Being as a priority in our district’s strategic plan, it was not just the equivalent of providing enhancements like yoga, mindfulness and donuts, but building a staff equipped with tools and full-on love that is not afraid to delve into the abyss of the human experiences for our children. 

Mercifully, this work is not every day. Most of the time, we are laser-focused on prevention and building relationships. Last year, our high school students and specialists urged our students to “Be the Change” as they worked to normalize talking about mental health. In every school, I see principals relating and teaching students to live with head and heart for themselves and one another. I see it in the passion and action of our parents as they build One U City into a vehicle for equity and joy among our families. While not yet a perfect organization, we are laying the foundation for transformational change and true parent/school partnership. I see it as our teachers grapple with identifying and mediating racial bias. I see it in our staff’s very keen ability to identify behaviors arising from past trauma. I see it in our students who develop public service projects that directly impact the well-being of our community.

This year, we are very intentionally integrating social emotional best practices into everyday classroom instruction and curriculum, because our students learn best when they are well. And, our teachers teach best when they are connected to our students with authentic relationships. This is learning and this is living to our best potential. I cannot help but think of the safety net this approach creates for our students. When we talk about joy and well-being, we are talking about encouraging humanity, and yes, in doing so, we have the power to change the course of our students’ lives.