- Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools
Focusing on Staff Wellness at FPGB in the "Zen Den"
“Zen Den”. The words conjure all sorts of possibilities. If you close your eyes, imagine the calm and quiet, then you’ve begun to envision the newly reconfigured space at Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe Elementary School. The FPGB “Zen Den” is now open all day, every day for teachers and staff to seize a few minutes of respite and serenity. To step over the threshold of the small room is to enter a true haven. Off with the shoes, on with the weighted blanket and the soft sounds of music inviting instant relaxation.
The brainchild of Positive Behavior Support Specialist Becky Brown, the Zen Den immediately excited and inspired FPGB Principal, Karen Galassi-Ferrer, who said, “Becky takes initiative immediately. She’ll bring her ideas and she’ll be persistent.”
“When I feel it’s important, I’ll advocate,” said Brown. “If we focus on health and wellness for our students, our staff needs to come first.”
Brown submitted a formal, low-budget proposal to the school’s administrative team, and when it was accepted, she scouted out every room throughout the school. The space is located between the offices of Brown and School Counselor, Barbie Garayua-Tudryn, which underscores the “zen” and wellness aspects of the den. The design and the intentions for the space go well beyond a spruced up break room. The goal is to provide a tangible strategy for reducing stress and burnout among all school staff.
The previous COVID-19 protocols included the requirement to keep students in their classrooms, instead of sending them to other locations for specials. “Teachers never had a space or break until recently,” Galassi-Ferrer said. “Now students are going back to specials, but even so, teachers rarely have a minute to sit down.”
“Educators are always on the move,” Galassi-Ferrer said. “You know you have to just keep going no matter what, and sometimes you’re already so drained. Now you can come in here, and you think, oh wait, I can just sit for a few minutes and the world is not going to end.”
“It’s like when you’re at a spa,” Brown said. “No multitasking, just sit and breathe.”
Included in the Zen Den are a “give and take” Affirmation Jar, a Gratitude Journal, puzzles, aroma therapy, a calming coloring book, a weighted blanket, a water feature, and meditative videos and music.
“Becky has done such a good job, thinking about all five senses,” said Galassi-Ferrer. “By masking the windows, it’s enclosed and foggy. You can’t see the students outside and they can’t see you! You notice the textures on everything. There’s the music, and the sweet taste of the cake pops.”
The Zen Den was introduced to the staff the week before Thanksgiving break. Brown said, “We told the staff, we have a surprise for you. We sent out an invitation in our weekly newsletter. The morning of the official opening, November 18, staff received a reminder - Don’t forget to stop by the Zen Den.
“On Thursday when we opened it, the staff was super in awe,” Brown said. “The response was actually very emotional. Some staff were in tears. Some were so grateful and could not believe it was for them and not the kids. As teachers they are so used to giving and making sure the kids have what they need first that they did not realize such a gift could be for them (fidget spinners and all). I know that they have been using it. I have found more notes written in the gratitude journal, affirmations in the jar, snacks consumed, and fidgets played with.”
Galassi-Ferrer said her message to the staff is, “We want to honor you guys, we’re so grateful to you - your work and stress are not going unnoticed. Here you have this lasting space as an expression of our gratitude. This is your space.” She smiled when she said, “I may have a tendency to just lie on this floor. Being in this space, it’s okay.”
“I’m so glad she trusted me with this,” Brown said. “This place can humanize us. When you’re working so hard, you feel like a robot, but here is a safe space where you can process what you need to process. Our staff deserves it, every educator in the world deserves it.”