learn unlearn relearn teach…

To continue: learn some more, unlearn even more than you did before, teach even better, and then repeat.

I am not sure whether it is possible to enjoy anything more in my professional life than teaching – other than learning. Insert witticism here asking why then are students not jumping out of their seats when they are probably being taught something new everyday? I can see it now if it happened; a level of shock on the faces of teachers at what might be considered too disruptive, but oh the joy. All jesting aside, I believe it is within all of us to express and foster this type of joy in everything we do related to life at school.

Imagine if students bristled with excitement at each opportunity to learn something new rather than some of the blank stares and foreboding filled faces that silently shared that work was the only thing on their minds instead of the profound potential that can occur as new neural pathways are paved? What if that happened at a staff meeting? Maybe I am asking too much for that previous line?

Nevertheless, I still like learning new things – preferably by choice rather than prescribed. Not only does new knowledge strengthen my understandings and scalable skillsets, but being a learner helps me see teaching through a different lens from the seat of a student. For me, this is where the excitement happens along with a healthy dose of discomfort too.

Perhaps teaching and learning are simply sides of the same coin? Maybe it’s solely my intuition as an educator/lead learner taking over because nothing brings me more happiness and relief to finally arrive at another of life’s learning destinations only to realize it was merely a stop to refuel along the way.

What some might perceive as a bumpy ride filled with uncertainty and uncertainty is not a fact I wish to conceal from you. Agreed, it has taken some time to arrive at a reasonable level of comfort with this discomfort.  However, I have also realized that it was in each of those moments when I gained the most in perspective and understanding in my roles in the classroom.

Before that happened though, there were some demons to slay. Finances, fatigue, and giving up a bit of family time on occasion. Once these three things were balanced, I was able to focus on some really important AQ courses that I would highly encourage all teachers to add to their transcripts. My top pick is below.

Spec Ed Pt 1 has to be your goto first AQ.* When I took this course, I was working in a French Immersion school where the IEPs were usually for gifted students. Accommodations were for depth and breadth, but the learning about Growth Plans, ISTs, IEPs, IPRCs etc. was invaluable to support my students in the classroom. Since then, student needs in FI or significantly more complex and the role of SERT which was more geared towards supporting students back into the English stream is now focused on shaping the learning spaces to fit the students where they are within their French Immersion experience.

Spec Ed Pt 1 also came with some excellent classroom strategies that are thankfully still in my toolkit over a decade later. Of course once you have SpEd Pt 1, you might as well complete the set with Pt 2 and your Specialist. Don’t fear being forced into the role of SERT just because you have these qualifications. Think of them as gifts of knowledge for you to support every student that steps into your classroom throughout your career.

I vowed to refuse the job if ever asked to be a SERT fearing I would be placed in a space where I would not be able to survive, and then all of that changed 5 years ago – an offer I could not refuse. Stepping into the unknown discomfort zone that is the SERT role has been nothing short of transformational and invaluable to my practice in and out of the classroom. Working with students, peers, families, and system folx has been extremely rewarding even though pretty much clueless for the better part of my first two years. Thankfully, a mentor teacher and supportive admin were there to help me decode the work.

I guess this brings me back to the title of this post learn unlearn relearn teach.

I knew there was more to learn after my B Ed was completed and I entered the classroom. I unlearned some sticky habits and thoughts about student abilities and behaviour from my own schema and schooling by relearning from the experiences and wisdom of others, and now continue to apply new knowledge to my teaching.

That’s it for now, I have to go unlearn something to make room for more lessons ahead.

Next month look for a companion post about AQs and other cool goings-on at ETFO entitled ‘all good things on Isabella’.

*Did you know that ETFO is offering AQs for Special Education this Summer? Click the link to learn more.

Mindfulness in the Classroom

Are mindfulness activities a part of your program? 

Each day more than the last, it feels like mindfulness activities are being promoted for classroom use as part of a solution to what we are currently experiencing as humans on planet earth. 

I am not a mindfulness or meditation expert, nor am I trained in yoga instruction. 

I am however, a curious participant and reflective user of daily mindfulness opportunities in the classroom.

In a blog post for The MEHRIT Centre titled ‘The Self-Reg View of Mindfulness (Part 1)’, Dr. Stuart Shanker, an expert and leader in the field of self-regulation discusses mindfulness through the lens of self-regulation. He states the goal of mindfulness activities is not “developing techniques to suppress or flee from unpleasant thoughts and emotions” but rather to “pay close attention to them with the hope that, over time, you’ll be able to tolerate things that you have hitherto tried to repress or avoid”. 

Shanker highlights that one’s ability to engage in mindfulness and meditation experiences are not instinctive, for neither adults nor children. He acknowledges that for some people, the “act of concentrating on their breath or their emotions” while attempting to sit still or quietly can bring great amounts of stress or anxiety. 

Shanker cites the work of Dr. Ellen Langer and emphasizes the importance she places on understanding “mindlessness” in order to create an understanding of the term mindfulness. 

 

This resonated with me. 

 

If I am not achieving mindfulness am I engaging in “mindlessness”?

It had never crossed my mind how dangerous this dichotomization could be.

 

Mindfulness or mindlessness?

 

Thinking about those who do not find success or find stress in widely used mindfulness activities… are they still being viewed through a positive lens? How can I expose my students to meaningful mindfulness activities that are positive while maintaining a sensitive and trauma informed approach?

As Shanker points out, a state of mindfulness is unique to every individual person and should be achieved as such. Additionally, what calms you “may change from day to day, even moment-to-moment”. Mindfulness must be differentiated and unique: Like any new concept introduced, students need time, patience, space and practice in order to discover what helps them feel calm and under what circumstances. Contrary to this statement, students also need time, patience, space and practice while they discover what does not work for them in order to feel calm. 

Accordingly, the act of differentiating these completely personal moments of mindfulness feels to me like in order to be genuine, they need to be voluntary. To allow for students to discover their own state of calm: Mindfulness opportunities must be optional. Although necessary, offering students a choice of participation in mindfulness activities feels confusing or worrisome. What if they choose not to participate? Can they match the calm state of their classmates in different ways to avoid disrupting the calm state of others? Should mindfulness be practiced as a whole group? What are the benefits to whole group mindfulness instruction? What are the disadvantages to a ‘one size fits all’ approach to mindfulness?

Have I perfected the use of mindfulness in my classroom? No.

Does this exist? Likely not.

Nevertheless, I continue to reflect on the polarization of mindfulness and “mindlessness” and what this means to me.

What does mindfulness mean to you? How does this influence your teaching practice?

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?

Saying you care is not enough…

This month, students in our board completed a survey where they answered 60 questions related to their feelings in school. They answered questions about many topics which I assume will give a detailed account of how students view our board. Some of the questions were:

  1. How often are you taught about women, people of colour, Indigenous People and the LGBTQ community? (Often, sometimes, not at all)
  2. How often do you see posters around your school that you feel reflects an image of someone that looks like you?
  3. Do you feel safe when you come to school?
  4. Do you feel you had at least one caring adult in the building?
  5. Do you feel people would miss you if you were not at school?
  6. Do you have a friend/friend group at school?
  7. Do you feel that you have a purpose in your school?

As a grade 7/8 teacher, I know from experience what the answer to most of the above questions would be. Intermediate students often feel that they are never represented, that they are unsafe at school, that they can’t relate to any adults, that they are not relevant and that they do not belong. That is often the case in the intermediate grades because students start to reflect on the “perceived unfairness” of the world around them. But how do we as educators address these issues and the lack of sense of belonging that these teens feel?

These surveys were anonymous. So, unfortunately, I will not be able to see how my students answered the survey. Our board will share the results eventually which I am sure will create a need for new learning. However, our student success teacher created a similar survey last month and I was able to view the results to that survey. The answers shocked me. The students who I speak to the most during the day (since they often approach me for help with their relationships) shared that they felt they did not have a caring adult to speak to in the building. The students who appear to have the most friends shared that they feel that they have no friend group and that no one would miss them if they were absent from school.

I knew I had to have some private conversations to address these concerns, especially about the fact that they cannot connect with any adult in the building. The conversations that followed were very interesting. They knew that the staff would listen to what they had to say but they felt that they just pretended to care. They felt that they would only listen because it was their job, but that they didn’t actually care. It was very hard to convince my twelve and thirteen year old students that I would truly care about something that they were going through. Whatever had happened to these students in the past had led them to believe that adults would say one thing and mean another. I have a long road ahead to show these students that the teachers in their life will always be a positive support system.

I think it all comes back to instilling a positive class community. Taking time to have those conversations with your class about holidays that they celebrate, starting every Monday off with conversations about their weekend, taking time for fun activities are just a few things that can be done to show your students that you care. Also, remembering that at all times, the curriculum comes second to your students well-being and self-worth. I recognize once again the importance of creating that classroom community in September and remembering to take the time to listen to a student’s needs, even if it is when you are about to run out of the classroom at break. Actions speak louder than words and especially after that long period of online learning, students need to be reminded that we are there for them and that we care. Not because we have to but because we want to. I will continue to remind my students of that throughout the rest of this year, because saying that you care is not enough, you have to prove it.

Can the Integration of Students’ Lived Experiences in your Teaching Practices Impact Student Success?

I believe that there is a profound connection between student learning and student lived experiences and the ability of educators to embed who students are with what they are learning. I can vividly recall, as a young learner, the teachers who were most impactful in my learning. They showed genuine care for my well-being and often went above and beyond academic support,  in unconventional ways, to understand my needs, including my personal challenges based on my lived  circumstances, and to support me in all aspects of life. I can  honestly say that the relationships those teachers established with me directly helped to shape me into the person I  am today. Knowing who your students are, their identities, their barriers, their abilities and their lived experiences allow educators to create the conditions for dynamic learning opportunities that are culturally relevant and impactful to student learning.

What do experts say? 

Scholars Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay have spent decades at the forefront of researching Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogies. Their findings have been clear: “integrating a student’s  background knowledge and prior home and community experiences into the curriculum and the teaching and learning experiences that take place in the classroom are paramount to meeting the needs of all  students”.

Furthermore, research shows that learning needs of students from diverse backgrounds are not being met equitably in classrooms across the system. For example, in the current age of destreaming mathematics for grade nine students across the system, it is important that teachers are well versed and equipped with the necessary tools and strategies to support all learners in an academic classroom. When we acknowledge students’ cultural experiences and prior knowledge, we are better positioned to strengthen their ability to see themselves as doers of mathematics, language, science, history, art and so on. They are further empowered to interpret the world around them with a critical social justice lens.  

Activity

The “Where I’m From” poetry activity is a great strategy you can use to have students explore their cultural identities and values, to foster collaboration with their peers, to create a positive classroom environment and to learn about students’ lived experiences. This activity should be culturally relevant to the students in the classroom and  intentionally structured to engage all learners at multiple entry points. This will help to foster a sense of community in the classroom and help the teacher understand who the students are and how to embed their real-time lived experiences into the teaching and learning process.

My 2 Cents

I think teachers should spend the first week or two of each school year engaging students in conversations about their (the students) own identity and lived experiences and the intersectionality of their identity. This would allow students to feel comfortable and confident in sharing who they are, as well as their thoughts and opinions, with others in the classroom. Try to create a brave and nurturing space where students feel comfortable talking about their racial background, their gender identity, and their preferred name. You can use culturally relevant books, videos, posters etc. that can lead to those discussions where students are invited and encouraged to talk about their own racial, gender and cultural  identities. Teachers can then incorporate students’ identities and lived experiences into the instructional planning and teaching program. 

Whether it’s a math activity, collaborative inquiry in history or a STEM project, it is important that teachers provide opportunities for students to reflect on their interests, their passions and how they see themselves within the development of the task. Use culturally relevant and responsive resources that reflect student identities, interests and lived experiences. Providing opportunities for small group discussions and descriptive feedback will help students make meaningful connections to that task and to their real-time lived experiences. Educator’s willingness to share their own identity with students, their own experiences in school as a young learner and  how their experiences inform and influence their decision-making process are effective strategies in building strong relationships with students that engage them in embedding their own lived experiences into their learning. If we truly believe in developing young minds, creating strong leaders and critical thinkers then we must create the space for that to happen within the classroom. When we let go of the notion that we are the holder of knowledge in the classroom, we create opportunities for students to develop and demonstrate leadership, to become critical thinkers and to advocate for justice and social change.

Doodles and Daydreams

As I walk up and down the aisles checking the students’ work, I will inevitably find someone whose side margins of their worksheet are filled with colourful drawings.  When I first started teaching, I would have been annoyed at the lack of work being completed.  Now, I know so much more like some students doodle for mindfulness, or because that is their signal that they need help but are hesitant to ask for assistance.

But of course, I also have a duty to ensure students understand their work.  So, instead of admonishing them, I try to bring what they are doing into the current lesson:

“Wow, that’s a really nice dragon!  Remember how we’re doing colours in French today?  Do you think you could tell me the colours you chose in French on the side?”

“Cool robot!  Hey, you know how we’re talking about rocks and minerals for Science?  I wonder what metallic ores you might use for his body?”

Sometimes I read the stories in my Ontario College of Teachers magazine about Canadian celebrities and the teachers that have made a difference in their lives.  My favourite that I shared with my students was the one on Olympic gold medalist Bruny Surin and how he was encouraged to try out for sports in high school from the coach when he was a shy newly landed immigrant.

I often wonder if I’ll influence someone enough that they’ll mention me in an interview someday.  Then I worry that they’ll mention me, but as “that teacher that discouraged them and didn’t make them feel like they were good enough.”

I wasn’t really a doodler in school, but I was definitely a day dreamer.  There were plenty of times that I probably fooled teachers into thinking that I was paying attention when in reality I was just facing forward running through a story or an episode of my make believe world in my head.  I already understood a lot of the work, but this was my way of dealing with feelings and thinking what to do next with my learning.

I have plenty of students that have struggled with writing and math, but could run circles around me with their art skills.  So yes, sometimes I sigh inwardly at a lack of completed assignments but more often than not, I marvel at the way they use drawing to capture their feelings and assist with their memory.  That’s why I prefer to guide them to use their talents for where their creativity may take them.

Speaking of a doodler and a dreamer, I was reading a book this summer when one of the interview excerpts mentioned a young man who was caught by a teacher years ago making an elaborate storyboard with a Western battle.  Instead of punishing him, she stated she could help him put his work on a giant mural and present it to the class-on the condition that he also got his work finished.

The young man was movie mogul George Lucas.

Probability wise, I’m not likely to have the next big Hollywood writer/director in one of my classes.  But I’ve taught enough to know that my chances of of making a student’s day positive on how I react to their artistic expression are certainly more than 50/50.

First Days of School Through a Wellness Lens

The long awaited return to the classroom has finally come! After being outside of the classroom since March 2020, I was able to go back to the physical classroom this September 8th. I was so happy to be able to set up my room and await the arrival of students. Teaching online was challenging and did not allow me to have the face-to-face connections that are much needed in a classroom. I am so happy that schools are open and that my position is no longer online. This year, I am teaching grades 7 & 8. I hope to still be teaching the same class come October, but with re-organization, things could change. 

Preparing for the first day was challenging as it had been 14 months since I had taught in person. Luckily, our school board prepared activities for us entitled “Reimagining Wellness”, where teachers are asked to teach 90 minutes a day from the wellness activity choice boards. The choice boards have a variety of activities within one of these three categories: Community and Team Building, Physical Activation and Social Emotional Skill Development. Teachers select one activity from each of these categories to introduce each day (thirty minutes per activity). My students seem to enjoy the activities and have enjoyed getting to know each other without feeling pressured to jump into all the curriculum activities. I am thankful for these resources as it has always been important to start a class off with these types of activities, especially after many students have been away for 14 months as well.

Additionally, it has been great to get to know students such as finding out their preferred pronouns and to try to get back into the swing of things. Our school board is looking to start voluntary extracurriculars soon and my class has already begun planning for the Terry Fox Assembly. Myself and my students are looking forward to these leadership opportunities as we have been without them for much longer than the COVID shutdown. As long as we can stay safe and get back to doing the things at school that we love, the extra things make the day that much better. 

As October draws closer, teachers in our board find out if any students are leaving to go online/returning from online. Our school could undergo a massive re-organization and we are all hoping things will stay the same as many students have now had the chance to bond due to these wellness activities. However, after teaching online last year, I have gotten better at dealing with change and learning how to overcome challenges. So if my assignment changes, I will be able to accept that with a positive attitude. 

I hope all teachers and students had a great first two weeks and that everyone is happy to be back. I know that all students are definitely glad to be back in the physical classroom where they can continue to make connections and learn in the way we were always meant to learn. 

Educational Perfection

As we end another school year and look forward to summer vacation, I think back to my first years in education and what summer “vacation” looked like for me. July was spent taking additional qualification courses and most of August was spent prepping and planning. It wasn’t really much of a vacation.  So why did I do it? Two reasons. I am passionate about learning and I am a (now recovering) perfectionist-especially as an educator.

I must have thought there was some kind of a prize for having the tidiest, prettiest and well organized classroom. I wanted my classroom to look like something out of the Scholar’s Choice catalogue. The custodians would be annoyed at having me in the school and I would wait anxiously for them to be finished waxing our hallway so that I could get in and set up my classroom. I needed everything to match. If I had baskets for items in the classroom they had to all be the same colour. It isn’t always easy to find 24 of the same basket at the Dollar Store.  Before the students started in September I felt the need to have labels on all of their notebooks, duo tangs and I even labelled their pencils. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to control the environment for my students. My classroom looked like a showroom on the first day of school and I would spend the next 194 days trying to maintain that standard. Our first printing practice lesson (because we still did that back then) was to practice writing “A place for everything and everything in it’s place.” When I think back now to all of the time and energy that I wasted not allowing learning to get messy I shake my head. It was exhausting.

After twenty plus years in education I’ve learned a few things about educational perfectionism and letting go of control in order to empower the learners in the classroom. When I was given a portable for a classroom that I wasn’t able to get into much before school started I panicked at first.  I didn’t have space or time to create a showroom. I decided to give the design over to the grade 4-5 students.  I still had labelled duo tangs and a place for each of them to put their things that was their space ready on the first day but the rest, we did together. It built community, it gave the students ownership and it gave me some of my summer back. If you’ve ever taught in a portable that has the coat racks inside, winter is a bit of a nightmare for an organizational freak but eventually I let it go. We still had a tidy classroom because their wasn’t enough space to be too messy but the organization of things didn’t stifle the learning. We learned how to paint in a portable without water using buckets and trips into the school. We brought lawn chairs to school at sat outside at reading time. I loved our little cabin in the woods.

As educators we have a lot of people that we are accountable to in our jobs. Students, families, administrators, our board and our communities are all stakeholders in what we do. The pressure to be perfect in our roles can be overwhelming and paralyzing. What educators do each day is literally driven by “overall and specific EXPECTATIONS”. It took time for me to realize that the expectations that I was putting on myself were much higher than those of anyone else. It took reflection to realize that perfectionism isn’t the badge of honour that I thought it once was and that it was making my life more difficult. I came to understand that it isn’t the room or the resources that make me a good educator.  It is about the connections and relationships with my students and their families that matter. It is about embracing the Ms. Frizzle moments and rolling with it.  If I’ve learned anything from COVID-19 it is that being flexible and letting go of what I cannot control are the keys to staying out of perfectionism. I plan on guarding my summer vacation as I would a medical specialist’s appointment but I’ll likely take a few professional resource books along to read in the waiting room.

 

The Importance of Trust

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to uncertainty and change in education.  Just when I think I have a handle on the way things are going to go for the week there is a Government announcement that changes the plan.  I am “pivoting” so much I have motion sickness. When decisions that affect a work environment seem to be constantly changing, trust becomes more important than ever.  In a recent video “How Leaders Build Trust,” author and leadership thought leader Simon Sinek, describes trust:  “Trust is a feeling. It is earned and evolves based on a series of actions that prove that you are worthy of trust.  It creates a sense of belonging.  When you don’t feel trust or without a circle of safety, we inherently concern ourselves with our own survival and become cynical, selfish and paranoid.  You become convinced that everything is trying to hurt you.  We do things to protect ourselves.”  In her book “Braving the Wilderness”, author Berne Brown says that “in the absence of communication we make up stories and the majority of what we tell ourselves isn’t true.  In fact, our brain goes into self-protection mode and those stories that we make up are often exaggerate our worst fears and insecurities.” It is hard to learn or work when you are in self protection mode.

In learning more about culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy, I have noticed that a common keystone element in what I’ve been reading is that trust is crucial to creating a truly inclusive classroom.  In the famous YouTube video “Every Kid Needs a Champion” educator and speaker Rita Pierson stated, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”  I would go one step further to say that even more so, kids aren’t likely to learn from people they don’t trust.

So how do we create an environment of trust in which students can be their absolute best? More specifically how do we do this at a time when we are teaching students over Google Meet, through a PPE shield and mask or even through video that students watch asynchronously? I think that we do it the same way we would in a pre-COVID classroom.  One small interaction at a time.  I recently experienced an a-ha moment while engaging in a webinar called “The Neuroscience of Trust” presented by Dr. Rumeet Billan.  According to Dr. Billan; “Trust is something that has to be given to you and needs to be earned.”  Trust is something that comes from repeated behaviours that demonstrate that we are worthy of trust.  When we repeatedly demonstrate that we listen actively, show authentic care and empathy, we generate trust.  When we provide opportunities that deliberately and intentionally extend trust, such as giving students voice and choice in their learning, we generate trust.  When we provide actionable and meaningful feedback to students and celebrate their learning goals with them, we generate trust.  When we provide learning opportunities for students to make mistakes, when we celebrate the learning from mistakes and provide an opportunity to try again, we generate trust.  When we genuinely demonstrate transparency with students such as admitting to not knowing all of the answers about a concept or sharing times where we have failed and persevered, we generate trust.

Creating an environment of trust with our students and with our colleagues is something that we have to work on daily. It is currency that we build up with one another to draw on in a time of need.  I think of creating an environment of trust like learning how to play a musical instrument.  You cannot learn to play an instrument by practicing for seven hours straight.  You need to practice daily in order to become truly proficient.  When you don’t practice, you get rusty.  When things in my classroom feel as if they are particularly stressful or students are exhibiting behaviours that are uncharacteristic, I usually come to the realization that it is because  trust has eroded between us.  It might be that I haven’t been recognizing their accomplishments as readily.  It might be that I haven’t been giving them challenging opportunities to learn that extends trust to them to persevere and practice resilience. It may be that I haven’t followed through on something that I said was going to happen.  When I come to those realizations I have to go back to the student and repair that trust. Ignoring the event will only widen the gap. If we want kids to be innovative, creative and take risks a psychologically safe space with mutual trust is essential.  It doesn’t happen overnight but by making it a priority, amazing learning will happen.

I am happy you are here

As I was supply teaching one day in a full remote learning classroom, my wifi decided to take a short vacation. Now if you’re anything like me, technical difficulties feel like they come up at the worst possible times. Now that is a dramatic statement of course, but it really does feel like a “WHY NOW” situation. It can’t just be me?! 

Anyways, in the middle of our math lesson I was logged out of the google meet, leaving the students and their questions behind. I think my immediate reaction was “AHHH”. 

Upon taking a big breath, I was able to log myself back in after about 3 whole minutes. 3 minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but in this short time frame I had convinced myself the students would have left the meet, had become overwhelmed with the math questions or upset with me for leaving mid conversation. I was cautious upon logging in again and unsure the atmosphere to which I was returning. 

 

I could hear one student say “she’s back”, as I started turning on my camera and microphone. I then started rambling on and began to apologize and explain why I had left mid conversation.

 

“We are just happy you’re here, Miss”, one student replied. 

 

We are happy you are here. 

 

What a simple, yet powerful way to welcome someone into a room or conversation. 

 

To this day, I am still applauding whoever taught this child to say that, whoever fostered empathy within that child, and ultimately applauding the child themself for being so brave and confident to voice such powerful words. 

 

I have adopted this saying and now use it daily in my practice. 

“I am happy you are here”.

This statement shows compassion, empathy, understanding and is welcoming, inviting and warm. 

 

It would never be my reaction to ridicule students for showing up late. As I really believe there is always a reason for this. Especially with my job as an occasional teacher, I typically do not know much about students’ lives outside of school other than what they have chosen to share. Prior to this profound moment for me, if a student had shown up late or at the wrong time I likely would have said “that’s okay!” or “no problem!”. Presently, those statements seem much less inviting and warm and lack appreciation for the presence of another person.

Now, when students arrive late to class I smile and tell them I am happy they have made it. Happy to see they are here. 

To all who read this post…

I am happy you are here.