Staffing for Wellbeing: The Roles of the School Nurse and School Chaplain

Sometimes it takes a pandemic to cause one to reframe completely the manner in which one approaches the use of staff, and the primary lens one uses when making decisions. By revising our traditional view of staff roles at Hermannsburg School, in Hermannsburg, KwaZulu- Natal, we have created a much more effective learning and working environment which delivers mutual benefit to both learners and staff.

We no longer view staff members with a specialised purpose, such as the school nurse and school chaplain, as ‘non-essential’ niche staff members, but as central pillars in our plan to extend a culture of care and wellbeing across the campus.

We had already embarked on an implementation of Positive Education prior to the disruption of Covid-19 but the pandemic hastened our practical adaptation thereof. It became apparent to us that we needed to consider decisionmaking through a lens of wellbeing.

Our central question in all the decisions we made about bringing staff and learners back to on-campus schooling was: how will this impact on the wellbeing of our staff and learners? If an action enhanced wellbeing, we implemented it; if it had a negative impact, but was required by regulations, then we looked at how we could mitigate this impact.

Sister Khwetshube in her clinic

The transformation of two traditional roles

There were two staff members, the school chaplain (pastor) and school nurse (matron), who were critical in this process and who helped shape our thinking and decision-making. Both have traditional roles in schools, yet their roles have now shifted significantly which has created lasting value for the school.

Traditionally the role of a school nurse has been to deal with learners’ medical conditions, while the role of a school chaplain has been to deal with their spiritual and emotional needs. This all changed at Hermannsburg when we appointed a nurse with a background in employee wellbeing, who had previously worked for a large corporation. Sister Thandeka Khwetshube’s ‘non-school perspective’ opened our eyes to the need for thoughtfully crafted wellbeing programmes.

As a school that believes that wellbeing is critical to the future and present success of education; and having already implemented a comprehensive multi-disciplinary response to Covid and instituted Positive Education as a foundational pillar of our school; the move to create wellbeing programmes that harness the skill sets of school nurse and chaplain, should appear to be an obvious next step. And it is, but, for a while, our traditional school roles and demarcated structure prevented us from seeing the obvious.

It is often said that the roles of school principal and chaplain are the loneliest positions in a school because they are the only ones in their particular post; and they often have to carry information that is of such a sensitive nature that it cannot be shared with anyone – this is definitely the case in our school. For this reason it is such a blessing to have a school nurse to complete the trilogy of wellbeing care offered by the principal and the chaplain, and a bonus for them to have another person in whom to confide.

Pastor Risch outside the Hermannsburg School Chapel

Working on the value of wellbeing

Our nurse does not just attend to physical ailments, but to the overall wellbeing of our learners, including their emotional and psychological wellbeing. Sister Khwetshube has become an integral part of the pastoral care in the school and regularly teams up with our chaplain, Reverend René Risch, to share thoughts, discuss intervention strategies or de-brief after an emotionally taxing day.

The role of the school chaplain is complemented enormously by having a competent school nurse who Pastor Risch outside the School Chapel contributes to the overall well-being of our community, and who places a high value on care for the care-givers.

The role of the chaplain has changed positively in the sense that there is now another person who can see issues from another perspective, thereby enhancing the care for the child or the staff member, increasing their wellbeing tremendously. The chaplain has felt incredibly blessed to have the nurse available for those difficult but immensely important and life-forming moments of our staff and learners.

Our nurse and chaplain both have high regard for the values of our school and apply these in a way that assists individual learners and staff. As both our nurse and chaplain understand the complexity of the human being living in a society and know how to treat individuals, their roles have gone beyond medical or spiritual care.

Reverend Risch has been able to provide valuable support to the staff and learners, especially in the areas of grief counselling and coping skills. Sister Khwetshube, with her wealth of occupational health and employee wellbeing practice, has been able to transfer her knowledge through a wide range of practices so that the school nurse role has been transformed into that of ‘head of wellbeing’ – all based on the old truism that prevention is better than cure!

In this role, the nurse addresses unmet health needs that may prevent learners from focusing on learning; and invites all staff members to promote healthy behaviours in respect to nutrition, exercise, sleeping patterns, socialising and digital device use.

At Hermannsburg School we promote and support learner and staff wellbeing to champion better working and learning lives because an effective school and workplace wellbeing programme can deliver mutual benefit to staff and learners. We also work with external service providers and with the school chaplain and management in planning wellbeing days.

On an individual level, the wellbeing focus, which has been imparted to all staff by the school nurse, is to be on the alert for slight symptoms in students, to be vigilant and listen, to understand what learners aren’t saying, to hear their anxiety about assessments and relationships, internal hurts, depression, family stress and trauma. In so doing, it becomes possible to build trust with students and their parents or guardians to make a long term impact on their health at school and beyond.

The PERMA-V Model

As a school, we have adopted the PERMA-V Model to impart Positive Education systematically. This is driven by a team of staff led by the school chaplain and supported by the principal. There are five components to the model: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment and Vitality.

Upon her appointment, we expected our school nurse to contribute only towards vitality, but we have found that by focusing on wellbeing and prevention, Sister Khwetshube contributes to better relationships, encourages greater engagement, and models meaning and accomplishment by achieving a bigger purpose.

The interaction between nurse and chaplain has freed up Reverend Risch, so he now has more time to ‘linger with intent’ and be present in spaces where our learners can seek him out for support and to build relationships. This in turn has led to more effective PERMA-V adoption, and has allowed the chaplain to focus more on prevention than cure.

Our organisation of people, and even the roles those individuals are assigned, has been transformed, and we would urge others to look at their specialist staff and see whether they have skills that may extend to a greater purpose than just the duty assigned to them.

Trevor Harbottle, Reverend Rene Risch and Sister Thandeka Khwetshube

At the time of writing, Trevor Harbottle was head of Hermannsburg School. His dedication to schooling has now taken him to Komani, in the Eastern Cape, where he is currently operational head at Get Ahead College.