HAPPY in Oregon - An example of student & school staff well-being

Great things are happening in the David Douglas School District in Oregon.  Really great things for both students and school staff specifically at Menlo Park Elementary School. 

If you are wondering how a Canadian educator learned about this school in the US, I was the keynote speaker at the recent ORTESOL conference where I spoke about teacher self-care.  When I asked the audience of approximately 100 educators who had a teacher well-being initiative at their school, only ONE teacher raised her hand. A loud gasp from the audience followed! Immediately teachers asked where she worked!

I was curious to learn more about Menlo Park Elementary School so I arranged a phone call with principal Kellie Burkhardt who has been at this school for 6 years.  The school is very diverse - 25 languages are spoken by the student population.

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How it started

First of all, the David Douglas School District is committed to employee health and wellness with the goal to create a healthy culture for all employees. This school-level program called HAPPY (Healthy, Active, Passionate, Productive and “Your Best You!”) is part of a larger, comprehensive approach to ensure that all employees have the tools and support to be healthy, resilient and thrive in a demanding work environment. School staff are positive role models of health for students which leads to their success.

The Principal’s Role

Burkhardt explained that she was hired to be a “healer” but was mindful not to make immediate changes since good things were already happening.  Teachers turnover is rare according to Burkhardt who proudly talked about the staff winning The Education Trust’s Dispelling the Myth grant.  https://edtrust.org/dispelling_the_myth/.  She started by building on the groundwork established by the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program already in place and transitioned it to apply to adults.  https://www.pbis.org/

Next, Burkhardt wanted to build relationships with staff so she met with each teacher individually to learn about their wishes and dreams.  It was important to her that she learned ways to help teachers “fill their buckets”.  She was also able to access a grant to observe an excellent school in New Orleans.  This gave her the idea of starting the morning with a 15-minute assembly in the gym where everyone comes together for movement, motion, singing and positivity to start the day or in some cases re-start the day.

Support for Students

Here are a few examples of how teachers suipport their students well-being:

In order to build positive relationships with students, teachers greet each student by name at the classroom door in the morning with their preferred method (handshake, high five, etc.).

As well, teachers write “good news” postcards with positive messages for each student a few times per year which are sent to the family.  Time to do this is built into the teaching schedule so it doesn’t add on to teachers’ workloads.

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Support for Teachers

To build on the “good news” approach, staff write similar cards where they acknowledge each other.  The cards are left in mailboxes but then three cards are drawn each month where the positive messages are shared with the whole staff.  A $5 Starbuck’s card is given to each recipient that month.     

In terms of supporting teachers, PD is embedded into the workday and educators are supported in all new learning with additional resources.  Once a month, there is a healthy staff breakfast so the staff can connect and building relationships. Also, once a year, all staff go bowling as a way to unwind and connect.  New teachers are highly supported for two years with mentoring and ongoing training.  Finally, I have met many educators in the US who give their cell numbers to parents.  I asked Burkhardt about this and strongly encourages teachers not to do this. 

District Approaches

The monthly newsletter called H.A.P.P.Y. HEADLINES showcases wellness events taking place throughout the district, wellness articles, and an employee profile.  Each newsletter clearly demonstrates that well-being is being put into practice.

Menlo Park Elementary School serves as a great example of what student and school staff well-being look like.  Kudos to the David Douglas School District for supporting this initiative and for principals like Kellie Burkhardt who put it into practice.  Well done!

If you know a school or district with a student and school staff well-being initiative, I would love to learn more and share your story.  



Cherkowski, S. & Walker, K. (2018). Teacher wellbeing. noticing, nurturing, sustaining and flourishing in schools. Burlington, ON: Word & Deed Publishing.

How can we reduce stress and increase support for teachers?? https://www.edcan.ca/articles/reduce-stress-teachers/

The David Douglas Wellness Committee https://www.ddouglas.k12.or.us/employees/wellness/

WellAhead (2018). Research Brief: Promoting the Wellbeing of Teachers and School Staff. https://www.wellahead.ca/resources/2018/6/18/evidence-brief-promoting-the-wellbeing-of-teachers-and-school-staff




Patrice Palmer has more than 23 years’ experience as an ESL teacher, trainer and writer in Canada and spent seven amazing years in Hong Kong. Her experience with professional burn-out in 2015 prompted her to reflect on her lack of self-care and adopt positive psychology interventions which she now shares with other educators and administrators. Patrice’s new book Teacher Self-Care Manual: Simple Strategies for Stressed Teachers by Alphabet Publishing is available at https://amzn.to/2rXcuA4



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