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Self-care and personal wellness resonate at NSPRA Seminar in Anaheim

Julie Thannum

One thing’s for sure, when 1,000 school public relations professionals gather in one place, the stories start to fly. And some of the best storytellers in the nation gathered in Anaheim, California July 15-18 as the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) held its annual Seminar. This year’s conference featured keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities second to none.

For me, it was energizing. I look forward every year to a time of refreshing and renewal with some of the brightest and best in our profession. This year, I felt like I needed a little extra dose of encouragement to face the new school year.

Thankfully, NSPRA did not disappoint. One of the messages that resonated the strongest at this year’s seminar was mental wellness for our students and staff. And along with that, was the need for those of us on the front lines to be mindful of our own wellbeing. To be perfectly honest, it’s been a very difficult year for me professionally and personally. While I wouldn’t say any one situation or incident set this year apart from the others, I will tell you that as school PR professionals, we tend to internalize things to the point that we allow people’s responses to district issues to break us down.

In January, CBS News reported on a study by CareerCast.com that showed that right up there with military personnel, firefighters, police officers, and pilots, that event planners, public relations professionals, and broadcasters/reporters were among the top nine most stressful jobs in 2018. It’s noteworthy that a school PR professional can find him or herself doing several of those roles for their school district.

As my colleagues Shawn McKillop and Kristin Magette would tell you, school PR folks are often the conscience of their district, asking the hard questions behind the scenes to prepare their leadership team for transparent dialogue with their communities.  The individuals in these key school PR positions have a passion for helping others, but that can take a toll.

With continuous coverage of traumatic events at the district, national, and international levels, we help our students, staff, and families process the most difficult, traumatic, and unimaginable situations that our communities experience, says McKillop, manager of communications and community engagement for Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in Canada. We are the shock absorbers in our districts so to speak, and when we wear down, the impact is sure to reverberate throughout the rest of the leadership team.

“I think a lot about the idea that we hurt because we care and take others’ trust seriously–and these qualities are what make us good at this work,” said Magette, who serves as director of communications for Eudora Unified School District in Kansas. She also authored the book, Embracing Social Media. “But that can also mean that we spend our evenings, early mornings, and weekends trying to problem solve and take care of our students and staff. We now have the constant, sometimes unapologetically raw feedback from social media. This can take a toll on our mental well-being.”

That’s why McKillop and Magette joined forces with social workers in their communities to start a dialogue with NSPRA about focusing on personal wellbeing. At the seminar, they shared a handout with all attendees that highlights the following signs as red flags for personal wellness:

  • Finding less joy in creative work and/or being around students.
  • Reduced inspiration to try new things or explore new ideas.
  • Increased use of alcohol or other mind-altering substances to unwind, numb, or forget troubles.
  • Joking about difficult emotions, stress, or pain to mask the pain.
  • Handling stress by “staying busy” instead of letting down.
  • Decreased engagement with others you care about (coworkers, family, etc.)–increased isolation and loneliness.
  • Sense of feeling lost, paralyzed, completely drained, and/or unable to recover in a day off or weekend.
  • Physical signs of stress within the body such as involuntarily holding your breath, disrupted sleep, or change in appetite.
  • Moodiness or difficulty getting along with people at work–or at home.
  • Inability to turn off your phone or device and engage with others around you, or have quiet time alone unplugged.
  • Difficulty knowing, honoring, and enjoying who you are as a person–independent of your job, title, or reputation.
  • An urge to be on social media, especially engaging or ruminating on topics that are inflammatory or emotional. Or having trouble letting these interactions go, even when you are offline.

Sound all too familiar? These are red flags that should alert you to the need for self-care. I know the 24/7 nature of school crisis and problem-solving took a toll on me this past year.

McKillop and Magette are consummate PR pros who earned their APR (Accreditation in Public Relations) while balancing full-time jobs and families. But they both would tell you they have suffered from times of mental weariness because of the job. Like them, I believe it is imperative that school leaders take steps to focus on being well. Apparently, the message resonated with numerous NSPRA members, too. Magette said that she and McKillop have heard from a lot of colleagues going through similar stress and difficult circumstances.

And although all occupations see hard times, when educators and school PR professionals feel themselves spiraling or showing symptoms above, action is necessary. Luckily, NSPRA has suggestions for improving your mental wellness on their website: Arms Outstretched. And as NSPRA, Magette, and McKillop would remind us, connectedness is one measure for good health.

Start connecting by joining us for our Tuesday evening #k12prchat discussions and online learning. On July 31, we’ll be discussing what we learned at the NSPRA conference, this is the perfect time to join us in the learning and connect with professional committed to strong mental health. If your schedule doesn’t permit live participation, go back and follow the hashtag (#k12prchat) to interact and join the conversation at your convenience. You don’t have to be in school public relations to participate; we welcome everyone with Arms Outstretched!

With mental wellness and self-care in mind, how do you plan to connect with others this school year? Tell us on social media or in the comments. 

About the Author

Julie Thannum
Julie Thannum, APR, is assistant superintendent for board and community relations at Carroll ISD in Texas and past president of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).

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