Open Circles with School Staff about the Impact of COVID
Sharon Hoover, PhD
Co-Director, National Center for School Mental Health
Acknowledgement: This blog is adapted from a guidance document co-developed by NCS3 faculty, Drs. Sharon Hoover and Nancy Lever, with Dr. Jeff Bostic (Georgetown University) for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.
Group meetings with teachers as they return to school can offer a space to both acknowledge the stress and burden of the pandemic and associated changes in personal and professional lives, and to discuss ideas about how to foster well-being and support moving forward. Facilitating this group may feel uncomfortable initially, as you may not have seen many of these staff in the past 18 months, and indeed the staff may include both many new faces and the absence of familiar faces without the opportunity for the usual celebrations as staff transition to different places or positions. At the same time, this group meeting provides an important healing opportunity for everyone returning to this school to reengage, to describe how this unexpected time apart has impacted them, and perhaps most importantly, to reconnect with others and move forward together in a supportive direction.
The “Circle” group process builds on ancient First Nation and Native American traditions of having everyone be positioned as equals within a group, to all be treated respectfully, and to share thoughts in a safe, supportive group. Modern versions provide for each participant to have an opportunity to speak and to engage in listening. Each person’s truth is understood to be their truth, rather than a unified truth for everyone present.
The facilitator may employ the steps below or adapt these to best fit with the culture of the school. Often this occurs by the facilitator speaking initially with school administrators and other staff to determine what process best fits for this school group. The facilitator may wish to describe the steps at the beginning or provide them visually, particularly if this approach might be unfamiliar to this group.
1) Participants sit in a circle (without a table or other items/people in the middle).
2) Often a “ceremony” begins the open circle, such as a short inspirational reading, a meditation or mindfulness exercise, or other ritual (e.g., something unique to the school such as a song might be played).
3) Commonly, a “talking” piece/item is used to clarify who is speaking at a given time (the person holding the piece speaks, then passes to another person to speak, etc.).
4) Often an emphasis on values precedes purposes of the group. Efforts for the discussion to focus on the values that represent our “best self” prepares participants to be more open, vulnerable, and accepting of all that is discussed in the group.
5) The facilitator then provides prompting questions to guide the discussion. However, the facilitator is not expected to be an expert, mediator, or to resolve differences in opinion; the facilitator is to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak, and that all group members share responsibility for keeping the group safe and respectful for all.
Example prompting questions:
i. What strengths have you discovered about yourself during this past year?
ii. What would be most helpful to support staff well-being and connections right
iii. Are there unique or additional supports that may be helpful for groups more
impacted by the pandemic and other stressors (e.g., Black, Indigenous, Other
People of Color [BIPOC], staff with underlying health complications, staff who
have lost family members)?
iv. How can the school restore relationships with staff? With students and
families? With the community?
v. How would you like to see things different moving forward?
vi. What should the purpose of the school be this year?
vii. Can you imagine any changes we should make for the students or the school
viii. What challenges to these changes do you see? What ideas do you have to
overcome these challenges?
6) The circle is a place for passions to be reignited and for pain to be heard, as both are needed for healing.
7) After everyone is heard, often a closing ceremony (another inspirational reading, a song, a coordinated physical movement, etc.), to signal a transition back to normal interactions.
Read more about the process of doing open and healing circles at: