Why Union Matters

As a new teacher, back in the day, the idea of being a part of a union was fairly new to me. I had very little idea of what unions do and how they support the professional and mental well-being of people like me. I recall hearing varying opinions about ETFO, as a union body, as well as learning about some of the ways colleagues interacted with their local and/or provincial union. However, I wanted to find out for myself what my union was all about, what they could do for me and what I could do for them.

A personal story: My very first interaction with my union came at a very pivotal point in my career. My first job in 1999  was as a LTO teacher in Toronto. It was shortly after the amalgamation of the six cities into one mega city, and many of the administrative roles and responsibilities at the various board offices were still going through reorganization. After working for a month, I realized that I wasn’t getting paid and my bills were piling up. Though I submitted all the necessary paperwork and documentation to the board on time as directed, apparently I was nowhere to be found in their payroll system. Every time I called payroll to find out what was going on, I was redirected to someone else based on my last name. At one point, I was told that I was calling the wrong board office and was given another number to call. Apparently that person was out of the office and no one else was able to respond to my issue at that time, so I was given another number to contact, and so on and so on. This continued for another two months and I had no idea what else to do to solve the problem. One day, I shared this issue with a colleague, who happened to be our school’s union steward. She gave me instructions on how to contact my union with all the necessary information and documentation of my issues with getting paid. I contacted the union and, to my surprise, the very next day I got an emergency cheque from the board. Two weeks later my regular pay was deposited into my bank account and I have had no issues with payment ever since. That was my introduction, and the start of a great partnership, with my union and the connection has grown stronger over the years. 

As I got more involved in the union in my role as union steward, volunteering on various local and provincial committees, attending ETFO’s annual general meetings as a delegate and representing ETFO at the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) Project Overseas program, I began to learn a lot about why union matters. I learned that ETFO not only fights for better wages and working conditions of its members, ETFO fights to improve equitable access to publicly funded public education. ETFO also advocates to ensure that members’ working conditions are safe and free from harassment and oppression. I also like the fact that members have access to professional development and quality teaching resources and support to ensure high quality student learning and achievement. I believe in a strong partnership between the union and the school boards across Ontario. A strong partnership would help to ensure that members feel safe at work and students receive high quality education in an equitable and inclusive environment. I know that not everyone might have had the same experience with their union as I did, but what remains true is that, together, our union makes us strong. 

For more information about your union, visit: EFTO

Supporting 2SLGBTQ+ Students and Families

In today’s current climate, most would agree that there has been a significant increase in the number of incidents being reported that are motivated by hate over the past few years. Our classrooms and school communities have not been spared. Many schools across the province have reported a rise in hate-based incidents. Many school boards are addressing these issues by  implementing action plans to combat anti-racism within their school communities. In the many schools that I have worked in, I seldom see strategies that specifically address 2SLGBTQ+ issues in our school community. I wonder why that is so?  What barriers might exist that impede the opportunity for students to learn about the 2SLGBTQ+ community? How can schools equitably teach and support 2SLGBTQ+ students and their families so that they too feel safe and welcomed in our schools? 

From my understanding, it seems that 2SLGBTQ+ families are one of the fastest, if not the fastest, growing type of family structure in Canada, especially in our major cities across the province. These families are looking to us, as educators, to ensure that our classrooms and schools are welcoming spaces for their children. As such, I think that it’s important that 2SLGBTQ+ students see themselves reflected in the school environment and the curriculum.

In fact, teachers don’t need to wait for explicit curriculum expectations to teach about 2SLGBTQ+ realities in their classrooms. As educators, we have a moral and ethical obligation to do so.  Many school boards across the province are implementing strategies to support 2SLGBTQ+ students and families. However, more needs to be done to ensure consistency, accountability and equitable access to support, services and resources across the province. I feel it would be helpful to have clearer expectations embedded in the curriculum that address 2SLGBTQ+ issues and the lived realities that individuals who identify as 2SLGBTQ face in the community. With funding to support this, there would greater equity across the province when it comes to having access to resources and support for teachers, students and families. This is a matter of accountability and responsibility in providing quality, inclusive education for all students. I think 2SLGBTQ+ students and families deserve better from their education system, and better must come.

ETFO has put together 2SLGBTQ+ learning materials and resources for all grades to support teachers in the classroom. These materials and resources are geared towards helping teachers address issues of homophobia, transphobia and biphobia and create a safe and inclusive learning environment for all. 

ETFO 2SLGBTQ+ resources

ETFO has also created a brochure to support members that includes curriculum links, resources, useful language, and communication tips.

2SLGBTQ+ families brochure

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has a statement on the Ontario’s Health and Physical Education Curriculum that connects strongly with my post. Here is the link for your reference:

OHRC Statement: 2019 Health and Physical Education Curriculum | Ontario Human Rights Commission

Engaging Students Through The Arts

I love The Arts! The arts nourish the imagination and develop a sense of creativity and appreciation of the natural beauty of the world around us. Music was that for me. I played tenor saxophone in elementary and secondary school, and I still do today. I first fell in love with music when I was a young boy growing up in rural Jamaica. Every Sunday morning we would hear the musicians from our church band, particularly the bass guitar and drums, playing with such energy and joy. That was our call to get ready for Sunday morning service. The entire community would be humming and moving to the beat of the music, as we gathered and walked to church. For me, seeing all the musicians playing with such pleasure and delight brought joy to my soul. Today, I play the tenor saxophone in a concert band and I am practising playing bass guitar. Music has turned into a beautiful part of my adult life and has opened many doors to new experiences throughout the years.

Through music, I discovered my own creativity, learned about my own identity and musical culture, and I developed a strong sense of well-being. In fact, music (and sports) kept me in school. The arts worked well with my learning styles and offered me the type of self-motivation and incentive I needed to keep me focused on my academics and to get me through elementary and secondary school. Having an appreciation for the arts has also helped me in my teaching career. I have been able to draw upon my knowledge and creativity acquired through the arts to use in my teaching practices and counselling skills. The arts have empowered me to take risks, to think critically, to be opened to many possibilities and to be resourceful. So why are the arts the first things/subjects on the chopping block when addressing budget shortfalls or when schools have to go through reorganization?

Every year, millions of dollars are cut from school budgets due to education funding cuts by the provincial government. The school boards say the cuts are necessary as a result of decreased provincial funding. However, these cuts are affecting the growth and development, as well as the  learning environment, for many students and even teachers. Funding cuts have created unequal access to arts programs across Ontario for many of our students. In some cases, the arts programs continue to thrive due to parent/community efforts and financial support. While, in other cases, the arts programs suffer due to lack of space in schools, fewer specialist teachers and school boards prioritizing their budget to meet other needs. Students in small and rural schools, schools with higher levels of poverty, and schools with lower levels of parental engagement, might be less likely to have access to equitable arts programs in the classroom.

How do we make sure that all students, no matter the income of their parents/families, are able to have equitable access to quality arts programs, have the opportunity to play in a band or even go see a performance?

We need to put all students first by putting money back into education. We need to address staffing shortages, so that we can get more specialized teachers back into the arts. We need to do better at engaging all students, especially those who are often underserved and those with special educational needs. Not only will an investment in the arts demonstrate a commitment to an investment in students, it will also help close the learning gap, the poverty gap and keep students from dropping out of school prematurely.  

ETFO has launched a new professional learning resource for teachers designed to support the arts as a core part of the curriculum in Ontario primary classrooms. According to ETFO, “Primary ETFO Arts has been created for classroom teachers to counter-balance the lack of arts funding in schools, and the over-emphasis on literacy and math being driven by standardized EQAO testing. It recognizes that the arts are critical in fostering student engagement in learning, along with unique and critical thinking.”

Check out the following ETFO websites for additional information:

First Nations, Métis and Inuit Growth Chart

The Primary ETFO Arts book offers engaging, integrated arts activities with literacy links.

Primary ETFO Arts book

Support for Students with Special Educational Needs

I believe that Ontario school boards should provide more support and attention in identifying each child’s level of development, learning abilities and specialized needs. This would help to ensure that educational programs are designed to accommodate their social, emotional and academic needs and also facilitate their growth and development.

The truth is that many students with special education needs are not getting the support and access to services that they require to succeed. The lack of support has had an even bigger impact on students who face additional systemic barriers. Students need access to educational assistants, behavioural counsellors, child and youth workers, psychologists, and speech and language pathologists to help them learn and thrive in today’s realities. The number of students being identified with special educational needs is increasing. Unfortunately, in most cases, the system doesn’t reflect that change and the necessary funding to adequately support all students is just not there.

Creating an inclusive classroom culture that fully supports the needs of all students is often met with many challenges and barriers in today’s classroom environment. In my guidance and coaching roles, I build teacher capacity to help address students’ social, emotional and academic needs, and co-construct teaching strategies that support students with a wide spectrum of special educational needs. One of the greatest challenges I often see has to do with class sizes. Many of the classrooms I support have an average of thirty students with diverse learning needs, and often with only one teacher in the classroom. In this current learning environment, access to resources, specialized and/or individual instruction and support staff are often limited and sometimes none-existing. We need to reconsider and address the inequities in class sizes, if we truly value each and every student and the well-being of staff and students. 

When working with teachers, I focus on creating an inclusive classroom culture that includes knowing who the students are, building trusting relationships and ensuring each student feels a sense of belonging in the learning community. In partnership, we analyse data we collected to identify the learning gaps of each student. We co-construct lesson plans that are differentiated, embedded in the Universal Design of Learning model and are culturally relevant and responsive to the lived experiences of students. In spaces where there are a high number of students with specialized needs, I find it helpful and advantageous for me to know who my students are, to have a highly structured learning environment and to set clear expectations for a successful learning environment. Working in collaboration with the classroom support staff as well as families is also paramount to student success.

 

How do I support students with special educational needs?

  • Get to know individual students’ strengths, needs and interests
  • Consider the diverse needs of all students in the classroom when it comes to the learning environment, instructional practices, and assessments for, as and of learning
  • Develop the class profile for all students that includes their identities, as well as their social, emotional and academic needs
  • Using the principles of Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy (CRRP), Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Differentiated Instruction (DI), backward-design your program with the big ideas in mind
  • Consider how to best use Assistive Technology to support student learning in the classroom and at home

 

For additional resources, visit ETFO’s website on class sizes and special education and

ETFO’s Building Better Schools

Allyship with Parents/Families

I am a firm believer in parents/families/caregivers engagement in the school community, and, by extension, in their children’s learning experience and success at school. Families who talk with their children about their day at school, who support and continue the learning at home, who actively communicate with teachers and the school, and who volunteer their time to participate in various opportunities at school are all examples of engaged and aware  parents/families. That’s all great, but for me, the real question is how can we support parents/families who are NOT able to engage in many of the above opportunities at home or at school? Do we provide support to (is it our responsibility to support) parents/families so that they too can support their children’s learning at home? Do we need to reconstruct/redefine what engagement looks like?  Is our engagement with parents/families co-constructed and, if not, where do we begin and who will be at the discussion table? I think it’s important to shift our focus from getting parents/families into the school to supporting them at home.

 

How can we support parents/families to support student learning at home?

One of the things that has worked well for me was my focus on building strong relationships with parents/families and trying to understand their lived experiences, the systemic barriers they face on a daily basis and their diverse needs. Regular communication between school and home helped me to build trust, to break down barriers and also to create strong learning partnerships. I believe that students achieve greater emotional, psychological and academic success when they are able to see and benefit from an effective reciprocal partnership between home and school. Building a trusting partner relationship allowed me to better understand the underlying challenges students were facing at school, and by working in partnership with their parents/families, we were able to create greater opportunities for student success at school and at home. Parents/families were more likely to engage when they felt valued, acknowledged, respected and were seen as equal partners in their children’s learning and development. For me the learning that happened at home extended to school and vice versa. Now, how do we create that same opportunity for all of our students, parents and families? 

Another thing I did was to collaborate with community organizations to further enhance efforts at school to support parent interests and student needs. Public libraries, health services, community centres, community sports/clubs, religious organizations and so on can offer an array of programs and services that can support student learning, student mental-health and help bridge the support gap between home and school. I was able to connect with many of these programs and services throughout the years and they have been instrumental in providing additional support to students and parents/families. At times, it might be necessary/helpful to go above and beyond to make those connections possible. That decision can sometimes be difficult for educators to make, but often results in greater success when it comes to parental engagement, student success and well-being.  Helping parents access these programs  deepened my connections with families in my community and contributed to building a multi-directional and reciprocal approach to student success. I believe that when parents/families feel supported at home they are more likely to support their children’s learning and development at school. 

Helping parents/families understand their roles as co-educators in their children’s learning was also something I did to further enhance the learning that took place at home. One of the things I had to consider was how to communicate with and support parents/families from diverse linguistic backgrounds with limited comprehension of the English language. For the most part, I had access to interpreters, when needed, through my school board and I was able to share important information and documents with parents/families in their native language. Unfortunately, not every family, staff or school board has access to the same level of multilingual support in the province of Ontario. That is concerning to me and it’s something I hope will change in the near future. In the meantime, there are many other important roles parents/families can play in supporting their children’s learning at home such as being an active listener, a mentor, a coach, and an advocate for their children’s rights as well as their social, emotional and academic needs. I was able to work with many parents/families to develop strategies for student success at home. It was important to me to ensure that the parental engagement strategies we co-constructed were culturally relevant, responsive and differentiated to meet the needs of the individual families and improve student achievement. However, equitable access to interpreters and important documents in diverse languages continue to be a barrier for many parents/families across Ontario. This is something I hope principals, superintendents and executive members of each school board in Ontario seriously address in order to close the inequity gaps for our parents/families. 

 

Here are some of the things I considered when Co-Constructing Parent Engagement Strategies – Focused on Student Learning

  • Build strong, respectful relationships with parents/families to better understand their needs
  • Identify and help remove systemic barriers to parent engagement that may prevent some parents/families from fully participating in their children’s learning at home and at school
  • Provide resources and materials (including texts, digital resources and community organizations/connections) on ways to support children at home
  • Regularly communicate information about their children’s progress, including their successes, strengths and needs – keep in mind parents/families busy schedules and other factors that might limit their ability to communicate regularly
  • Encourage parents/families to also support children in other ways such as active listening, encouraging, guiding, monitoring, discussing and asking questions that promote courageous conversations and critical thinking
  • Create classroom opportunities that encourage parents/families and students to work together on tasks that are culturally relevant and have real-life applications

Understanding Gender Neutral Pronouns

There is no doubt that I am very passionate about addressing issues related to equity and social justice, especially any work related to anti-oppression, anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia. For me to fully understand and advocate for social justice and equity, it is important that I am aware of current challenges, barriers and inclusionary practices. However, I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of gender neutral pronouns requires further learning and understanding to ensure I am respectfully honouring the identities of staff and students (in fact, all people) in my community. So, I did some research for my own professional growth and I found out some interesting facts that I would like to share with you. 

It is understood that people who identify outside of a gender binary most often use nonbinary pronouns that are not gender specific. These include: they/them/their use in the singular form. However, I learned that there are other pronouns that are used, such as: ze (pronounced “zee”) in place of she/he and hir (pronounced “here”) in place of his/him/her. This was new learning for me that opened my eyes to the ways in which I address individuals and the assumptions I often make about their identities.

Assuming one’s identity and choice of pronouns based on how they look and/or how they dress can be false and disrespectful to one’s gender identity and gender expression. I learned that pronouns may or may not match one’s gender expression, such as how the person dresses, looks, behaves or what their name is.

In recognition and commitment to equity and inclusionary practices, as well as the Human Rights policies in Canada, it is encouraging to see more people, including workplaces and organizations, supporting individual’s use of self-identified pronouns, in place of assumed pronouns based one’s sex assigned at birth or other’s perceptions of physical appearance. It might seem a simple gesture to some, but it’s an important recognition for others. It’s about letting someone know that you accept their identity as they are. 

The response to the following questions might help you better understand gender pronouns and how you can affirm someone’s gender identity:

What’s the right way to find out a person’s pronouns?

If I was introducing myself to someone new, I would say, “Hi. My name is Gary. I use he/him pronouns. What about you?” However, do keep in mind that for many people who don’t identify as cisgender, it could be more difficult for them to share their pronouns, especially in spaces where they don’t know people and/or they don’t feel comfortable or accepted.

How is “they/them” used as a singular pronoun?

“They” is already commonly used as a singular pronoun when you are talking about someone and you don’t know who they are. Using they/them pronouns for someone you do know simply represents a slightly different way of thinking. In this case, you’re asking someone to not act as if they don’t know you, but to use non-binary vocabulary when they’re communicating with/about you.

What if I make a mistake and ‘misgender’ someone, or use the wrong words?

I would simply apologize for my error. It’s perfectly natural to not know the right words to use, especially when meeting someone for the first time. Consider addressing groups of people as “everyone”, “colleagues”, “friends”, “class” or “students” instead of “boys and girls.” The important thing is making that non-assuming connection with the person and being open to learning new things and new ways of understanding one’s identity. 

What does it mean if a person uses the pronouns “he/they” or “she/they”?

That means that the person uses both pronouns, and you can alternate between those when referring to them. So, either pronoun would be fine. However, be mindful that some people don’t mind those pronouns being interchanged for them, but for others, they might use one specific pronoun in one context and another set of pronouns in another context/space, dependent on maybe safety or comfortability in the space they occupy. The best approach is to listen to how people refer to themselves.

ETFO has a wealth of resources to support your teaching and learning of gender neutral pronouns. I found their Social Justice website very helpful in my research and understanding of gender neutral pronouns. In fact, ETFO has plenty of ETFO 2SLGBTQ+ Resources for students of all ages.

Supporting Student Mental Health

Everyone has some level of anxiety at some point in their life. I also understand that some forms of anxiety can be quite healthy (i.e., preparing for a test or speaking in front of an audience) can promote self-growth and development if managed appropriately. However, I believe that a sudden increase of anxiety in some students can serve as a warning signal for teachers that something is not quite right within his, her or they/them environment.  When I was a student, I knew that my anxiety level increased tremendously during tests and assignments and also increased when I had personal issues going on at home. When my anxiety was that high, I tended to lose focus on my academics and often did more poorly on tests/assignments. Luckily for me, I had great teachers in my life who really took the time to understand me and were able to offer accommodations to support my performance anxiety. As an educator, I can use my lived experiences to help manage student emotions around anxiety when preparing for a test or when grade eight students are applying to various high schools. I can also suggest strategies and offer resources students can use to monitor and self-regulate their anxiety. 

 

What are the current concerns around anxiety for students in elementary school and how do these concerns impact student learning and academic performance? 

Sian Leah Beilock in her Ted Talk video, “Why we choke under pressure – and how to avoid it” uses her experience as a soccer goalie to explain why we often choke under pressure. She says that, “When the pressure is on, we are often concerned with performing at our best and as a result we try to control what we are doing to force the best performance. The end result is that we actually screw up.” We try to control what we are doing in a way that leads to worse performance, that was definitely me. When our anxiety is high, it’s a sign that our prefrontal cortex is focusing on the wrong things. Practicing under conditions in which we are going to perform, closing the gap between training and competition can help us get used to that feeling of all eyes on us. Getting used to the performance under which you are going to perform really matters. When preparing for a test, close the book and practice retrieving the answer from memory under timed situations, so you can understand and visualize what it feels like before actually taking the test. 

Students who suffer from performance anxiety are likely to have an obsession with perfection. This may involve students constantly worrying about being perfect and putting a high degree of pressure on themselves to get perfect marks. An obsession with perfection is very unhealthy and can be detrimental to students’ mental health and well-being. In her article on “How Does Anxiety Affect Kids in School?”, Rachel Ehmke states that students who suffer from performance anxiety are often diagnosed with General Anxiety

  • Generalized anxiety: When children worry about a wide variety of everyday things. Kids with generalized anxiety often worry particularly about school performance and can struggle with perfectionism.

In some cases when experiencing a high degree of performance anxiety, students who normally perform well in school might fail to submit work or begin to disengage in class, which seems to counter against the one thing they most want to achieve. In her explanation of this contradictory behaviour, Ehmke says, “We tend to think of perfectionism as a good thing, but when children are overly self-critical it can sabotage even the things they are trying their hardest at, like school work.”

One key solution for teachers that Karen Nelson suggests, in her article “10 Ways to Help Students Who Struggle with Anxiety” is to offer individual accommodations. When students are feeling anxious, their brain simply can’t function properly or effectively. In that case, Nelson suggests teachers set up tests and assignments so that anxious students are less likely to become stressed. She suggests that, “Extended time and cue sheets could help kids who suffer from test anxiety.” She also suggests that providing wellness breaks, trying Walk and Talk and getting to know who your students really are and their lived experiences will help to build strong relationships and minimize performance anxiety. Other helpful solutions include mindfulness breathing exercises (from the MindUp For Life Curriculum).

Here are some resources that I have used over the years to support lessons dealing with managing stress, anxiety and emotions. I hope a few of these might be of some benefit to you.

  1. School Mental Health Ontario – Mental Health Literacy and Anxiety Management Social Media Bundles
  2. Kids Help Phone 1-800 668-6868 Free, anonymous and confidential professional counselling by phone or online, available 24/7 for kids and youth 20 years of age and younger
  3. Canadian Mental Health Association – Understanding and Finding Help for Anxiety

 

 

Why a Black History Month?

I have often wondered why February was chosen to celebrate Black History, so I did some research and found out some interesting facts. 

It so happens that Black History Month evolved from the work of Carter G. Woodson, a Black American historian and scholar in the 1920s. He actually first established Black History Week in the 1920s as a week of celebration to follow the year’s study of Black history. The week he chose contained the birth dates of two significant people to the abolition of slavery in the United States: February 12th for President Abraham Lincoln who brought emancipation into law and February 14th for Frederick Douglas who advocated for the freedom of Black people. Toronto first celebrated Black History in the 1950s when the Canadian Women’s Negro Association brought the celebration to the city. In 1978 the Ontario Black History Society successfully petitioned the City of Toronto to have the now monthly celebration formally recognized. Black History Month is now celebrated across Canada to honour the legacy of Black Canadians and their communities. 

 

But Why a Black History Month?

I think that all Canadians should be made aware of the historical contributions made by Black Canadians. It’s important to understand the social forces which have shaped and influenced the Black community and their identities as a means of feeling connected to the educational experience and their life experience in Canada. Canadian history should include all people’s history, and Black history should be no exception.

As a school community, I look forward to the day when all people are recognized, included and valued for who they are in our education system and in the broader society. Most importantly, I look forward to when everyday is a celebration of all our histories and all our contributions, and the topic of why a Black History Month would no longer be up for debate.

 

Move Away from Enslavement to Empowerment

In talking about and teaching about Black History, I find it more meaningful to focus on empowering students to become agents of change rather than victims of circumstances. One of the activities I have used is an Art/History lesson on understanding the social justice impact of Black Artists on our society. Below is an outline of my lesson that I hope might be of some use to you. The Google Doc was shared with me from another colleague, but I modified parts of it to make it culturally relevant to my school community.

 

Why are we learning about this anyway?

  1. To highlight the successes and accomplishments of Black visual artists
  2. To learn how Black visual artists use their work to address real-life, complex problems relating to anti-oppression, equity and social justice

Task: Using Google Slides – Research, analyse and recreate a piece of art from one of the Black artists discussed in class: Ernie Barnes, Varnette Honeywood, Romare Bearden, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Annie Lee

  • Describe, highlight and and explain the artist’s creative style and abilities
  • Explain how the artist’s work can be seen from an anti-oppressive, equity and social justice lens
  • Recreate the selected piece of art as a platform to represent your own interpretation and understanding of the message the art represents in the original piece

Impact: Students were able to use digital tools to make discoveries through inquiry and research. They were also able to make connections to what they are learning to current issues and their lived experiences.

Black History Artists – Assignment

 

Supporting Student Transition from Elementary to Secondary

If you have ever taught grade eight, you are currently a grade eight teacher or you have a child (or had a child) in grade eight then you might appreciate how exciting and stressful this time of the year can be for so many grade eight students as they prepare to transition from elementary to secondary school. As a former intermediate classroom teacher and a guidance counsellor who has worked with many grade eight students, I can certainly say that the process of choosing a high school, applying for a specialized program of study and/or completing course selections for grade nine can be a bag of mixed emotions for students, depending on the level of knowledge and support students have at school and at home. Regardless of the grade students are in, teachers can create opportunities for students to develop strategies and skills that can support them in their transition process. Even though students might feel overwhelmed and isolated at times, they are never alone in the process. They also need to know that our support is non-judgmental, though intentional at times especially for the most vulnerable students, and that our intention is to empower students to make choices about their own life and their own future pathways. 

 

Stress and Anxiety

There is no doubt that the transition from elementary to secondary school can be stressful for many students, especially during the current pandemic when more students are isolated and social support for their transition may not be readily available. Adults and students alike are all experiencing an increased level of stress and anxiety in these uncertain times. For the most part, adults have developed strategies to manage their anxiety, however young children are, more so than ever, depending on the adults in their lives to support them throughout this journey. So, how do we as educators monitor their emotional wellbeing and offer sustainable support?

Here are some suggestions that might be of value to you, regardless of your work circumstances or guidance model in your area:

  1. Get to know your students, whether they are in kindergarten or up to grade eight, and understand their emotional strengths and needs. Pinpoint which parts of the situation students are experiencing that you as an educator have the power to change or influence for the better, and then offer your support accordingly.
  2. Communicate regularly with families/caregivers about their role in supporting student achievement and well-being, as they are the ultimate decision maker in this process
  3. Chances are, you cannot do this alone, so get support to support students. Talk to colleagues, your admin and other school-based support personnel. Keep in mind the best interest of the individual student, the nature of the situation for the student and your Board’s policies around confidentiality. 
  4. Be socially and culturally sensitive to each student’s situation and lived experiences. Above all, be intentional in supporting (without dictating or pigeonhole) vulnerable students, marginalized students and racialized students and ensure they have equitable access to programs and services
  5. Support students in a specialized program or with an Individual Education Plan in having a successful transition
  6. Show care and empathy, and offer assistance to students who might need social/emotional support that best meets their needs

 

Your support to students is crucial now more than ever. Students of all ages and abilities continue to navigate through the pandemic, as well as managing other social and family challenges, and intermediate students also have to adjust to a new destreaming program in grade nine. Some students may find this time of year overwhelming and might need to develop strategies to self-advocate for themselves to ensure all their needs are met. There are many ways to embed self-advocacy in your assessment Of learning and assessment As learning to support student achievement and well-being. With a strong sense of self, students are more likely to see themselves as owners of their own destiny and can independently advocate for themselves. I see this as a gradual release of responsibility and an opportunity to empower students to take charge of their learning and their own future. 

 

Here is a Self-Advocacy Toolkit that was shared with me that could be of some support to you in your classroom (regardless of the grade you teach). This Self-Advocacy Toolkit is intended to be completed by each student. Teachers may wish to facilitate this as part of their instructional day. 

Self-Advocacy Toolkit: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1yCD8KViE7-B_NfB1fEkb2Uvsj74H0qcZ_6oka-b3WwE/edit?usp=sharing

 

Ultimately, when it comes to transition and course selections, students and families/caregivers make the final decision about their destination and pathways. We will offer support and guidance to ensure success and a seamless transition from elementary into secondary, and this support can begin as early as kindergarten. When we work together, support each other and respect each other’s choices, even when our perspectives are different, we enable individuals to self-actualize and reach their full potential.

Restorative Circle Activities

Students come to school with many issues on their minds and in their hearts. As educators, we can help them process their thoughts and feelings so they can better handle their situations and be more present in class. Restorative circles are a useful practice to do just that. While frequently used to replace punitive forms of discipline, restorative circles are equally important in proactively building the relationships and skills students need to support one another and collectively address the challenges they face, especially during these unsettling and uncertain times for many of our students. Restorative circles are most effective when they’re an integral part of school culture and are embedded in your daily classroom routines. After all, you can’t “restore” a community that you haven’t built or sustained.

Below are some steps and questions I have researched and used that can support you in initiating a Restorative Circles program in your classroom.

7 STEPS FOR FACILITATING MEANINGFUL CIRCLES

  1. Co-create a safe and supportive space: Circles work best if teachers invest time up front to build relationships, develop skills and design a bank of tools to draw upon throughout the school year.

Early in the process teachers and students together explore values—like empathy, patience, kindness, courage and open-mindedness—that are essential to understand and agree upon when sharing openly and honestly in a circle. These include honoring the talking piece, which goes around the circle as an invitation to share while everyone else listens (participants may pass if they don’t wish to talk). Participants are encouraged to speak and listen from the heart with an equitable and inclusive lens. It is important that educators inform participants at the outset that we are mandated by law to report when a student threatens to harm themselves or others, or when students divulge abuse.

  1. Be prepared: Make sure that you, the facilitator, are well rested, calm and focused.

To hold the circle space effectively, it’s important to be fully present and able to manage other people’s stories and feelings as well as your own. If you’re exploring sensitive issues that may require follow up, consider alerting support staff.

  1. Plan ahead: Decide together on a topic or theme that sustains students’ interest.

Find a relevant activity to open the circle space such as a poem, quote or piece of music. A mindfulness activity can also be used to bring students into the space after a particularly stressful event. Look for information to ground the conversation and develop questions and prompts to invite student perspectives into the circle. Keep in mind that the larger the circle the more time you’ll need for the talking piece to go around. Think about how things might unfold and be ready to adapt and adjust accordingly. Make sure to leave time for a closing activity, giving students a chance to transition into spaces that may be less conducive to being vulnerable. A closing activity can be a commitment to safeguarding the stories shared in a circle or a breathing exercise in which we provide students with prompts and time to put themselves back together again.

  1. Invite student experiences into the space: Encourage students to connect with the circle content by sharing stories from their own lived experiences.

Include storytelling rounds by asking students to talk about “a person in your life who…” or “a time when….” Share authentically with yourself. This gives others permission to do the same. Model good listening skills as the talking piece goes around the circle. Be fully present as others speak. True active listening can create the kind of welcoming space that encourages even the quietest voices to speak.

  1. Acknowledge, paraphrase, summarize and practice empathy: Listen closely to what students share so that you can build on their experiences.

When the talking piece comes back to you, touch on what you felt, noticed or heard. If you sense that there was limited substance in the first round, send the talking piece around a second or third time, asking students for deeper, more meaningful connections, reflections, or additions. If challenging or painful issues come up, model agreed-upon circle practices for students to follow. Listening mindfully and being present with other people’s ordeals and lived experiences can create supportive, healing experiences that strengthen community connections and build empathy. If needed, let students know you’re available to check in with them later in the day or week. You might also have them consider speaking with other supportive adults or students to find solace if they’re in need.

  1. Explore what it means to be an effective ally: Beyond creating a supportive listening environment, ask what else, if anything, students need from you and from each other.

Explore how to be better allies in a circle so that students know they don’t need to face their challenges alone. Invite them to talk about a person in their lives who is a good friend or ally, or a person they’d like to have as a better friend or ally. Discuss the qualities these people have (or lack) and how they make us feel. Invite students to talk about a time they’ve been a good friend or ally themselves, and what gets in the way of being our best with one another.

  1. Zoom out to promote understanding on the systems level: Explore whether there are larger systemic forces that underlie the challenges students have touched on (such as racism, sexism, homophobia or lack of access to resources). 

Introduce information, resources and voices that might shed light on how these systems operate. Look for examples of people who took action to interrupt these and other oppressive systems. Invite students to connect to this information by sharing their thoughts, feelings and related experiences. Studying larger, systemic forces in society can help students better understand their situation and can be a useful starting point for students to become more active themselves. Action and activism can inspire hope, connection and healing.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjVI-1XDX_Y

Circle time questions – Exemplars

Getting Acquainted

– What is your favourite…?

– If you had $1000 what would you do with it and why?

– How would your friend describe you, or how would you describe yourself to someone new?

– What do you like (or dislike) most about yourself?

 

Values

– Give me an example of when someone has been kind to you in your life (or when you have been kind to someone)? How did that feel?

– What do you want to contribute to the world; How do you want to be remembered?

– Share an example of when you did the right thing when others were doing the wrong thing, or when no one else was watching

 

Story Telling

– A time when you were scared to do something good/important, but you did it anyway

– A time when you laughed a lot

– What (silly/funny/crazy/weird) thing did you used to do when you were little?

 

Achievement

– One thing I couldn’t do a year ago… 

– One of my goals this year is…

– Something I can’t do but want to be able to do by the end of the year is…

 

Behaviour / Conflict

– Share one thing that makes you annoyed.

– Share a time when you were upset but then someone made you feel better.

– How can you show respect to others?