A company that trains teachers faced a major pivot after schools closed last year

Curriculum Associates’ workforce was accustomed to going into schools. When that suddenly stopped, the need for wellness programs soared.

By Kathie Harris      

When schools across the country closed early last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it threw professional development for teachers and administrators into disarray. Virtual professional development, after all, has never really been well received in the education industry.

This was a worst-case scenario for Curriculum Associates (CA), a company that specializes in in-person professional-development materials and support for educators. The company, based in North Billerica, Massachusetts, had to pivot fast. Typically, its large professional development team would regularly visit schools to instruct teachers.

Now, CA had to shift to online coaching. Then, as schools began to re-open, the company had to deal with safety concerns and the political challenges of a divided nation fighting a pandemic. Employees had to know what was expected of them. In some cases, schools not following safety protocols endangered Curriculum Associates employees.

“Schools historically have not been open to virtual professional development, so it was a really big change to make sure that we could continue to teach teachers really at the time that they needed it most,” says Curriculum Associates Chief People Officer Sandra O’Sullivan.

Sandra O’Sullivan

CA’s professional-development team, which makes up most of its remote workforce and combined with sales makes up 60% of its 1,500 employees, began to struggle. There was isolation, lack of childcare support, and interrupted work hours. These new challenges had to be met. “We’ve always run the company with the mindset that our employees come first,” O’Sullivan says. “The mindset is if our employees aren’t supported from a wellness perspective, we’re not going to be successful as a company.”

CA expanded many benefits and added others. Now, as of last year, employees can expect flexible work hours, virtual fitness classes, a dedicated DEI team, and reimbursable caregiving support. The company’s popular onsite gym went virtual, with options allowing greater engagement than usual. Thirty percent of the attendees at a winter team meeting participated, half choosing yoga and the other half core training.

With schools and daycares shut down, Curriculum Associates’ usual childcare subsidies—covering 10 days of emergency daycare for free—weren’t enough. “It wasn’t adequate for full-time workers, so we subsidized that for families,” O’Sullivan says. “It was probably our biggest funding this year. We’re tracking to spend about $250,000 on that.”

Keeping employees engaged after going remote was also a priority. “We created a “Staying Connected While We’re Apart” webinar series that was done by one of our national directors,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s really well-researched content.”

The webcasts, posted to the company intranet, address topics like:

  • What is your work-at-home environment like?
  • What are your routines?
  • What are you doing for self-care?
  • How are you setting boundaries with email and work?

O’Sullivan says the series resonated well. Other connectivity programs included “Happy Hour with the CEO.” In this program, CEO Rob Waldron virtually interviewed employees or guest speakers around the country.

Dealing with the issues of 2020

One popular wellness benefit that Curriculum Associates found fortuitous last year was its crisis fund. Designed to help employees quickly in a catastrophic situation, the fun was critical for employees affected by last year’s California wildfires and the multiple hurricanes that devastated the Southeast.

Social justice also played a role. In response to last year’s racial reckoning, Curriculum Associates created a formal DE&I department. It hired a chief inclusion officer and created four affinity groups to support Black, LGBTQ+, female, and Latinx employees. An anti-racism book club meets virtually to discuss the topic.

Going into 2021, Curriculum Associates is committed to being an anti-racist organization. It created a roadmap team of non-executive leaders to evaluate policies and priorities. The plan is to meet on a bi-monthly schedule.

A wellness program with loads of benefits

The wellness program also includes a company employee-assistance program run through the insurance company Symetra. It offers five free sessions annually for mental health, financial counseling, and legal support. Employees also enjoy subsidized breakfasts and lunches, a popular benefit.

Curriculum Associates covers the entire employee portion of health insurance deductibles, and the company spends an additional $250 per employee per year on wellness benefits beyond its on-site gym and subsidized lunches.

The CA intranet hosts a wellness section where employees can access additional resources. O’Sullivan says it’s worked well for the company’s size, but it is seeking more formality in the future.

The wellness program also takes advantage of the challenges and gamification events. Employees have access to a wellness tracker called “A Healthy Me.” It tracks everything from steps to sleep and also preventative care efforts. Rewards are gift cards awarded when accumulated points reach a certain level.

“I love that it’s part of our culture that we respond quickly to employee needs, and I want to always be able to measure impact,” says O’Sullivan, a recent hire. “I think that’s a gap for us and one I’d like to correct going forward.”

The Boston Globe recently recognized Curriculum Associates as a “Top Place to Work” for the seventh consecutive year. It placed second in the large-company category. “Thanks to the hard work of our talented employees, we have been able to nimbly support changing student and educator needs throughout this challenging year,” Waldron says. “We’re happy to do everything we can to support and reward our team’s vital contributions to students’ futures.”