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Supporting Educators- Group Therapeutic Spaces



“I think the wellness of teachers is fundamental before we can help the wellness of students.”- Holly Combs, 4th and 5th grade teacher at Cobb Elementary School in San Francisco. 

The YMCA of San Francisco offers a variety of mental health programs to families. We serve almost 500 people weekly in mental health programs that involve youth trauma recovery, using group, individual, and family therapy for support. Clinicians work tirelessly on building relationships between children and their parents to create healthy environments for growth. However, family members are not the only influences in a child’s healthy upbringing. Teachers can impact young lives just as much as familial relatives.  The Teacher and Staff Support Team (TSST) addresses teachers needs. TSST is currently offered in over one-third San Francisco Public Schools.  

Not only are teachers often unsung heroes in a child’s life, but since COVID-19 additional responsibilities are expected from them. Their jobs have become something new, with new challenges and stresses. “[Teachers] don’t know if they should continue with the curriculum, or to just meet the emotional needs of a child who is processing this new lifestyle.”- Marielle Duke, YMCA Clinician responded to being asked about the recent stress level changes for teachers during Shelter-In-Place. The shift to distance learning has a new set of rules. Successful digital classrooms look different from in-person classrooms, and teachers had to adapt to this new lifestyle before their students. Some teachers express that class can now extend beyond that 3pm bell, and also happens inside of teacher’s homes, further blurring the personal boundaries that are already hard to define in physical classrooms. As teachers observe SIP (Shelter-In-Place) they have reported compounding stress and isolation. And that’s just what the teachers are expressing. Imagine how their students feel and react to their new academic lives.  

TSST Program

The TSST program is known as a ‘group therapeutic space’ that offers teachers a variety of support that emphasizes personal nourishment. “Our teachers are working with up to 40 kids, sometimes more. Classrooms might be filled with kids with complex trauma. Our teachers face a lot of stress and vicarious [stress and trauma]. The burnout rate is staggering,” Annya Shapiro said.  

“Group support and therapeutic spaces allows people an hour to focus on themselves. ‘I deserve care too,’ can be a really hard thing to say,” Marielle continues, “Yes, I could be doing grades or grocery shopping. But I’m choosing one hour a week for myself.” Coping skills within these groups include grounding skills and activities to get teachers to focus on themselves. They create ritualistic spaces and mindfulness practices to use at home, and go through the six types of self-care: emotional, physical, social, practical, mental, and spiritual.   

“Sometimes we don’t have time to light a candle and take a bath.”-Marielle says, who has not only taught for 13 years as an art teacher, but who is now a clinician who runs both Cobb and Roosevelt Elementary therapeutic group spaces for teachers. Long distance learning has put a burden on families that have to continue working, altering the emotional and financial stability in homes. A teacher may be inclined to reach out and support students who are clearly in need. Annya points out that these stressors in students’ lives are compounding on each other creating what she refers to as Global trauma, “creating a Petri dish of pain and stress, and trauma.” While teachers are dealing with the needs of their students, they rarely find time to make space for themselves.  

Group sessions also focus on trust and intimacy. Some techniques used in sessions allow teachers to make space for themselves while doing grounding practices to relieve their day. A major topic in the support groups is being heard and validated for all their work, and to be heard by people who know what it’s like to run a classroom. Normalizing the array of emotions teachers have is the norm of these COVID day group sessions is what Marielle says, especially feeling seen and supported.  

“We are addressing the community from all these different levels where they end up affecting each other. If our teachers are healthier, they are better able to help the kids. The kids learn new skills, whether self-regulation or a way to communicate, that they bring home and support their parents. It addresses the entire community.”- Annya Shapiro.  

TSST recognizes the need to support our teachers’ who influence our kids. Since the group sessions have continued, teachers reach out to each other continuously, and have even started a group text to talk about their personal self-care. The teachers' plan on continuing these programs for the foreseeable future.