Tough emotional and right somehow

Tears.

I am pretty sure there were tears in the classroom. 
It wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last.
They were real. They were mine.

You know when you are in the middle of your classroom, midway into a lesson, and a thought hits? It was surreal to say the least as it happened on our first day back after another 6+ weeks of lockdown learning due to COVID 19. I was so proud of my students. Suddenly, thoughts of how hard they have worked through all of the ups and downs, changes, models, and separations that have been pieced into this school year.

Is it raining in here?

My students knew something was up because they all became really quiet. They are usually quite vociferous. Not that day. Perhaps the collective breath we had all been holding onto since Dec 18th was simlutaneously exhaled; we were in each other’s presence again. As often is the case, we were in the middle of a conversation about life. This one was about acts of kindness, and I shared a video from Thai Life called Unsung Hero.

The video tells the story of a person who does little acts of kindness for others, and how those simple gestures impact their lives. The narrator reads through the spot saying how the giver will not get anything in return, be richer or become famous. The only reward will come from witnessing the happiness in sharing simple acts of kindness.

It was at some point in the video when I thought about all of the grace and kindness of the students in my class, at my school, and around the world who have had their educational lives disrupted beyond anything in recent memory that could not be attributable to war or natural disasters. Where was their recognition for coping through all of this? I thought about the trust with which so many of the students whom I teach were able to transition to temporary education on-line, show up everyday, engage, continue to learn, and then at the flip of a switch show up for in person classes only having missed a few beats. In that moment I felt such appreciation for all that they have gone through this year all without complaint or disengagement. What kept them coming back with such positivity when there was so much uncertainty? 

I thought about all of the students who couldn’t return to in person learning as well. I thought of everyone who struggled and continues struggling to turn their cameras and microphones on everyday for virtual school. Whether it has been the result of inequitable access to technology and reliable WiFi, or that they could not stand to stare into a glass plate for 6 to 8 hours a day any longer. I thought of the students and teachers who are slipping through the cracks because they cannot hold on to emailed messages of “Your mental health matters”, “Stay strong”, “We are here to help”, and “We appreciate you” as their only safety harnesses while dangling over the edge of depression, frustration, and anxiety in the virtual classroom. 

I saw how brave my students have been to return with such positive attitudes, knowing that they would be cohorting, masking, sanitizing, listening to lessons muffled by masks and shields, eating lunch with 15 to 20 others at the same time, and trusting that the adults in their lives have made all of the right decisions on their behalf. I knew that these moments were happening in thousands of classrooms at the same time. It was in that moment, I could not help but be proud, humbled, inspired, and worried for them all at the same time. There were tears in my classroom that day.

Epilogue

What caused my brief waterworks could be chocked up to a mix of joy and exhaustion. Joy that we were back in the classroom together. Exhaustion because despite misinformation to the contrary, not only is syncronous learning online physically exhausting, but it comes with the added unjoyment of being mentally exhausting too. Teaching to 20+/- essentially (e)motionless emojis exacts everything of the educators who had to pivot to online learning during this round of lockdowns. Long term syncronous instruction online, in its current iteration, is unsustainable when it comes to the mental health of students and educators.

There has already been an incredible cost to all of this and that bill will need to be paid in full at the expense of the future. I am frightened that it will come at the expense of the social and emotional wellbeing of our communities. I fear what the default model of pandemic learning will do to us all if left in place. I fear it will not only serve as another social divide by widening disparities of equity, opportunity, and privilege, but as a wedge into the longterm wellbeing of families, our youth, and those who teach them. 

 

No Tired, Like Online Covid Teaching Tired – Rest, Sleep, Restore

ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students. ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

It’s been 6 weeks since I started teaching synchronously online and it’s draining me. Before the winter break, I was teaching synchronously online and in class. As a few of my students are solely online, I tried to make them feel included in all our lessons. Being physically in school gave me the opportunity to interact with people, from a distance. I enjoyed my days teaching physically present in school.

But teaching online all day is different. Interacting all day in a virtual class forum drains me.

Teaching online is also lonely. Yes, I get to spend my day talking to students through my online meeting platform. But in this lockdown, I am isolated as my partner is often away working for the Red Cross. It’s just me and my 19-year-old cat, Whitney.

When I was teaching in class, I had a chance to go for a walk, stretch my legs, visit with colleagues (via social distancing) and get outside during my recess duty. While teaching solely online, I am stuck in my home office at my desk.

For me, teaching is more than just explaining and guiding via lessons. Teaching is all about reading how students are feeling about their work and figuring out how to help them understand content and the ideas within the content. When I teach exclusively online, I feel blind as I cannot use my senses to read students’ moods and body language. This means I need to focus solely on students voices and asking questions to promote clarifications within students’ work.

One day, it was particularly challenging as I was dealing with a student who was having challenges attending online. I dealt with constant interruptions while teaching. I told the student that I would help them separately on a one-on-one basis. Their mother was also calling me on my cell phone about this student’s behaviour/mood. I heard the student state that “My mom wants to talk to you right now!” I informed the student that I would help them later and that I would call their mother after school was over. When I did go to help the student, they had left the online meeting. Mom did not pick up when I called.

I usually have a solid attention span, but this situation threw me off. While teaching about the surface area of 3D solids, I made a mistake forgetting that the formula for the area of a triangle is base times height divided by two. It was embarrassing but I turned it into a learning opportunity by explaining that I learned about math by making many mistakes.

I find being online all the time, exhausting. It’s pushed me towards burn out were I sit wanting to do nothing. I am also dealing with ongoing insomnia. My mood is leaning towards more being cranky than experiencing anxiety.

Being online sucks my “social” energy until it is gone.

As I try to write about issues that are informative and helpful to teachers, I’ve included some things that I’ve found helpful being isolated during this lockdown.

Acknowledge Yourself

Taking steps to care for yourself is not a selfish act as it is critical to your happiness and wellbeing. Without self care and setting limits with work, your physical and mental health will be impacted. Your effectiveness in your work will deteriorate. Work less to be more effective.

Restore Yourself

Image

Take time to do something you love.

This could be taking up a hobby you’ve  done in the past or reading books you’ve wanted to read. I’ve learned if I work too much, I become less effective. Taking time to restore myself with non work activities makes me more effective as a teacher in my practice. My hobby? I’ve returned to my cross-stitch, focusing on making “Really Cross Stitch” by @haleykscissors which has been fun and cathartic!

Calling Friends and Colleagues

Talking to friends and colleagues connects me to others and gives me joy to hear their voices. I have not seen some of my friends and colleagues, face-to-face, in over a year now. I miss the regular collegial conversations we once had at work. Reaching out to others also supports them in this time of isolation. It keeps us connected, even though we are apart.

Sleep Hygiene

Getting to sleep is an ongoing issue for me. Waking up is worse as I feel like “molasses flowing in February.”

When I am overworked, I find it hard to relax enough to fall asleep. Being relaxed before sleep means sleep comes quicker. I takes steps to make sure that I do not take any stimulants past 1 pm, drinking only decaffeinated teas at night. I even refrain from chocolate.

My need to fall asleep challenges me as my partner virtually falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow. I end up listening to him and my cat softly snore while I toss and turn, flipping like a fish in bed. The worse thing I can do is look at the clock, noting how long it has taken me to get to sleep. Some nights one, two, and three hours pass before sleep finds me.

When reading up on how to get a better sleep, I’ve found some tips that might promote sleep and establish an improved sleep hygiene :

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day (even on weekends!)
  • Set an alarm to go to bed, as well as to wake up
  • Take a bath with bath salts
  • Hydrate with warm caffeine-free drinks
  • Skip alcohol before bed
  • Try to let go of your daily “drama” related to work and/or family
  • Big one for me – stay off social media (I’m known for my late-night Twitter posts)

Readers, if you have any other tips to pass on, please note them in the comment section.

Wishing you more rest, sleep, & restoration,

Collaboratively Yours,

Deborah Weston, PhD

Occasional Teaching Online (part 2 of 3): My Challenges

I will never forget my first supply day for virtual learning. Even though I am early into my teaching career, I believe this experience has changed the way I will reflect on my teaching practice for years to come – dare I say forever?

As I logged onto my first Google Meet with no idea who was greeting me on the other side, so many things raced through my mind and my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. Nerves. Excitement. Fear. 

In my last post I reflected on my realization of the power of connection and children’s drive for relationships. As I continue to venture on with positivity and optimism, I cannot ignore the raw emotions I have felt, the challenges I have faced and the questions I have unanswered. 

 

“I don’t know”. 

 

In my personal and professional life this year, “I don’t know” has been part of my daily conversations with colleagues, friends and family. Last year, saying this out loud would have felt like admitting defeat, accepting failure even. As the uncertainty and the unknown continues, we are being forced to live in a world of “I don’t know”. The challenge is constantly turning the “don’t know” into “let’s try” with a smile on our faces. Of course we want to support our students, their families, and our communities. Of course we want to embrace change, challenge, and even failure. But, the reality is, we are navigating this new path in which there are no correct answers, there is no manual, and there are no instructions.  

Openly admitting what I don’t know feels uncomfortable and scary. But discomfort is required for growth and change. I share my challenges with you as a means of connection. Maybe you don’t know either – and that is okay. Additionally, admitting the unknown provides opportunities to gain insight from those who may know, those who have ideas and those who can say “I have been there, and I know how hard it can be”. 

As an OT I have felt it challenging at times to engage with students who are not turning on their microphone or camera, for whatever reason. I want to get to know them but am also mindful how vulnerable they may feel turning on their video to chat with a complete stranger. How are you supporting student engagement and providing a safe space for all? 

How are you supporting students with special needs, learning challenges and students who are working with limited resources? I once taught in a class where one of the students did not have paper or pencils. 

How are you supporting students through technical difficulties or navigating new online platforms? I have been doing a lot of screen sharing. I often share my own screen and/or ask students to share their screen if they are comfortable. I am finding this method to be extremely time consuming. Although sometimes necessary, it can also be very distracting. When students share their screen, it puts the issue they are having on display for the whole group to see. This can be helpful if someone knows how to solve the problem, or harmful under certain circumstances and can intensify feelings of helplessness for some students. 

 

*Holds breath* 

No correct answers.

No manual. 

No instructions. 

*Exhales*

 

There is beauty in this.

It may be hidden or the view may be obstructed right now. But it is there. Together with our students and our colleagues, we are the creators, we are the inventors, we are the pioneers.

M is for Mindfulness

My inbox and social media feeds are filled with reminders to take care of myself and to focus on the mental health and wellness of my students and community, and I am trying. This month, I felt the phunk of COVID fatigue. I am working hard to create playful moments of joy, and generate my own light.

My teacher friend, Bruce Gramlich, offered me a new resource called, “Fostering Mindfulness: Building skills that students need to manage their attention, emotions and behaviours in the classroom and beyond,” by Shelley Murphy (2019). In this book, Murphy has curated educator stories and several concrete examples of intentional exercises and activities to support the practice of mindfulness. Murphy believes that in order for educators to be successful at supporting students to be mindful, we must focus on our own practice. Like many educators, I am always paying attention and aware of what is happening to those around me, but mindfulness is about paying attention to myself.

What is Mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is both a way of being in the world and a practice. As a way of being, mindfulness is the quality of presence we bring to everything we do. It describes our innate capacity to pay full and conscious attention to something in the moment. It is the awareness that emerges from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of our experience” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

Reflecting the Sky:
When I think about mindfulness, I imagine sitting still and meditating, breathing with intention, not thinking about anything, just “be”ing in the moment. Those moments are very rare for me. As soon as I step into the school building, I am pulled into a current that is swift and fast. I am a strong swimmer, but I have to work hard to keep my head above the water. I rarely float, and there are few moments of stillness. I love my work, and I am grateful every day for the creative flow and waves of energy, but I know that the water needs to be calm in order to reflect the sky.

As I begin to cultivate a practice of mindfulness outside of the classroom, I am learning that there are moments of wonder and gratitude in many different activities, including walking in the park, cooking a delicious meal, listening to music, riding my bicycle, playing with my dog, and doing yoga. One of the challenges for me is to re-create these moments in the classroom. Here are some examples of how I am trying to practice mindfulness and honour stillness with/in my Grade 2 students:

Gratitude:
We begin every day outside in a circle. Before we acknowledge the land with respect, gratitude, and a commitment to take action, I invite everyone to take five deep breaths together. We do “Five Finger Breathing,” and use one finger to trace each inhale and exhale around the fingers of the other hand. Acknowledging land includes noticing and paying attention to all of our relatives: the wind, the birds, squirrels, puddles, and roots in our school yard. We recognize the original caretakers of the land and review our understanding that a treaty is a promise. This daily practice of gratitude is an important part of mindfulness and also supports decolonizing pedagogy.



Listen to the City:
As we sit together and breathe, we use our senses to pay attention. I ask students to share what they hear, see, feel, smell. We talk about seasonal changes and transformation. Murphy (2019) calls this practice “Mindful Sensing.” Soundscapes are a dramatic convention that can be used throughout the curriculum, and can be combined with movement. Students use their voices and/or found sounds to tell a story. We have created soundscapes connected to our learning about water and wind. After reading the book, “Listen to the City” by Rachel Isadora, students worked in small groups to create a soundscape about the city and share it with the class.

Blindfold Tree Walk:
In one corner of our school yard, there is a small grove of cedar trees growing together. This area is being cared for and used as an Outdoor Classroom by many educators. One day, we used our sense of touch to do a Blindfold Tree Walk. We worked with a partner to find a special tree. Then, one partner was blindfolded and guided carefully to different trees to touch, until they found their special tree. Before blindfolding students, we talked about what might be challenging for people who are Blind or have low-vision, and how we can support them to walk safely. After participating in this activity, students reflected on the experience, and described what they noticed and how they used their senses to find their special tree. I also tried this activity and was delighted when I reconnected with my tree.



What Does Peace Feel Like?
This activity inspired us to explore another book called, “What Does Peace Feel Like?” by Vladimir Radunsky. This book is filled with the voices of children who use their five senses to describe peace. Students were inspired to write their own descriptions of peace, and used watercolours to paint what peace looks like. We shared our poetry with a special guest who joined us via ZOOM. Donna Jodhan is a disability justice activist who we met ten years ago when she successfully challenged the Canadian government to make websites more accessible for Blind people. It was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate, reflect and recognize the importance of allyship and advocacy.



Loving Kindness:
“Heartprints” are celebrations of when we have been successful at meeting our learning goals. Currently, we are working on the following goals: “I can be a good friend”, “I can keep trying” and “I can solve problems.” After recess, I will often ask students to share a story about when they were a good friend to someone, or when someone was a good friend to them. As they are sharing, I write their story on a heart-shaped piece of paper. These heartprints are hung in our classroom. Heartprints support cooperative learning, encourage the practice of gratitude and sharing appreciation, reinforce positive behaviour, and help us to create an inclusive and kind classroom community.



My teacher friend, Kelly Fricker recently supported her Grade 1/2 students to share random acts of kindness and #passiton. Together, they generated a list of positive messages to encourage the adults in the school building, and wrote them on heart-shaped paper. Kelly filled every mailbox with messages such as, “You’ve got this!”, “You are appreciated! ”, “You are my sunshine!” I was inspired and worked with my own students to fill the mailboxes in my school with messages of loving kindness. It was a wonder-full activity. Pass it on!


Compassion Fatigue and Teacher Burnout

It is no secret to educators that teaching is an occupation of high stress.  A Johns Hopkins University study ranked teaching as the 4th most stressful job of all occupations.  Educators know that the job is stressful, but sometimes it helps to put a name to something in order to help us cope.  Sometimes, it is enough to know that others are going through what we are going through in order to come to terms with our own feelings. Recently during a webinar workshop from “Right to Play,” the facilitators referred to what some educators are experiencing right now as “compassion fatigue.”  I had heard of this phenomenon relating to emergency response occupations, but I had never really thought about it in terms of education.  What we may consider “stress” in the teaching profession may be explained in better detail by examining compassion fatigue.

According to Joanna Krop, author of  “Caring without Tiring: Dealing with Compassion Fatigue Burnout in Teaching,” compassion fatigue “is a form of burnout characterized by extreme mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion, and it’s an occupational hazard in the caring professions.”

Teacher burnout is not something new.  Recently, however, there have been a number of articles written on the topic of teacher burnout.  A few days ago, the CBC released and article with the results of a survey completed by 2,000 teachers about the pressures in education. One third of the respondents are thinking about retiring or seeking a new career.  One third.  Some educators cite that the pressure and stress is coming from trying to maintain the best educational experiences possible for students while also trying to adhere to pandemic rules and guidelines.  Teachers hold themselves to a high level of integrity and service in their work, in addition to wanting to help their students and their families.  Then add a global pandemic on top of the regular burnout reasons.  As if that wasn’t enough, there are so few teachers available for daily occasional work that teachers feel more guilty than ever when they need to take time for their health.  For many educators, teaching isn’t the only thing that is leading to that compassion fatigue as many teachers have the added pressures of taking care of children and/or aging parents. The most challenging aspect of burnout is that what seems to be the biggest factor in burnout is dedication to the job.  The more dedicated the teacher, the more apt they are to experience burnout. Teachers are burning out because they care.  Hardly seems fair.

The question becomes then, how do we counteract compassion fatigue and burnout? From what I’ve researched, it is all of the things that we know are good for our mental health:

  • figure out what you can control and what you can’t and focus on what you can control
  • temper your expectations of yourself and your work (remember that we are in the middle of a global pandemic and the circumstances are different)
  • small steps towards getting outside, eating betting, exercising and doing creative things
  • surround yourself with supportive people and trusted colleagues
  • be aware of toxic positivity or the rabbit hole of complaining about things
  • show your true self to your students, be authentic so that your students have permission to be authentic too
  • quiet time for yourself and for being mindful

All of that sounds wonderful.  All of it sounds like common sense.  However, it isn’t as easy to put into practice as all of the research makes it sound.  This can appear of just another long list of things to do added to an already long list of things to do. Sometimes burnout can get to a point where you feel immobilized or you may even be at the point that just getting through the next breath is all that you can plan.  As someone who generally plans the menu of meals for our family a week in advance so that we can do our groceries, I know the chaos I feel with uncertainty.  Right now my plan is to try to be patient and gentle with myself.  Everything is going a hundred miles an hour and I keep thinking that I have to keep up or somehow I’ll miss the bus.  However, I also know that if I get to the point of exhaustion, I become less self aware and I’ll end up getting run over by the bus and won’t be good to anyone.

It feels like an impossible task to willingly accept less of myself than I normally expect.  I feel like I will let others down.  However, if I don’t temper the expectations that I have of myself and my work I’m going to have tire tracks on my back and that won’t be good for anyone.

Toxic Positivity in a Brave New World

I am a huge science fiction fan and was excited to start the new TV series “Brave New World”.  I read the book for my “The Science in Science Fiction Literature” course (I know, cool course right?) in University and I was looking forward to the TV series. In the futuristic “Brave New World”, society has developed mood altering drugs that everyone is required to take to maintain their “levels” so that they can have calm, happy dispositions all of the time.  The result is that the characters don’t really have to “feel” anything deeply.  If there is discomfort or grief they can take a “soma” from their Pez dispenser-type tool and go on with life in peace and harmony.  The struggle for the characters is that once they discover the power of feeling true human emotion they want to experience it, thus going against the social norm.

The “Brave New World” narrative parallels the dangers of toxic positivity.  Psychologygroup.com defines toxic positivity as: “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”  Think of it like too much of a good thing can be bad for you.  Phrases like, “It could be worse,” or “Focus on the positive,” “Don’t worry, be happy,” may seem innocuous, but in fact reject, repress or deny negative emotions. The message is that it is not OK to feel anything except positive and happy.

So what does this have to do with education?  First of all, teachers excel at wearing stress and being busy as a badge of honour.  I’m guilty of doing it. I’ve heard myself say that I worked all weekend preparing for the upcoming week. We have established this as a norm in educational culture.  Human beings work best when they give themselves time to rejuvenate.  Teacher burn out is a real thing. I honestly think if I walked into a staff room and announced, “I totally relaxed all weekend and just read my novel.” I would face sneers and hear “Must be nice,” muttered around me. Not because teachers are bad people, but because as a culture we don’t value taking care of ourselves as much as we value productivity. Being positive about being overworked and stressed out is toxic positivity, and it is rampant in education.

The problem isn’t with genuinely upbeat and effusive people. Those people are rare.  Treasure them. The problem lies in people denying, repressing, minimizing or invalidating negative emotions.  Keeping calm and carrying on can be counterproductive and harmful to mental health.  While there are well intentioned people providing “just do it” kind of strategies and messages about being positive; those intentions may end up making people feel bad about feeling bad, adding guilt and shame to the mix of emotions.

So, what can we do?  We can try to shift the narrative to value and validate the real emotions that people are feeling.  We can try to give ourselves permission to say, “You know what, I’m not ok right now. I’m grieving the way in which I used to work and live.  I’m hoping that it will soon change.” It is OK to be sad and yet still feel positive about the future.  You can feel both things.

When someone shares their sadness, anger, grief or frustration with you, try to sincerely validate those emotions.  True empathy is saying, “I’m here to embrace the suck with you,” not minimizing the emotions of others.  You can be curious and ask questions, “That must be frustrating, tell me more about that, I’m here to listen.”  Then, do that.  Just listen.

I try to give myself grace and forgiveness.  I have not learned to knit, bake bread or trained to run a marathon during the pandemic. Some days, just putting two feet on the carpet beside my bed is a big win.  I have to remind myself daily that is OK not to be the “Quarantine Queen.” It is OK not to be productive beyond my wildest imagination during a global pandemic. I try to avoid offering platitudes about positivity. I try to validate the feelings of the people around me. I will try to give up “soma” in my Brave New Covid-19 World, throw out the fake positivity, and feel all of the range of emotions – good, bad and ugly.

 

 

Teachers Are Still Rocking It-

In March we were “Emergency Learning”.  Now we are either teaching “virtually” or “socially distanced” in classrooms.  We never thought we’d be teaching from behind a screen, learning all kinds of new technology tools, wearing masks and shields in front of students or removing all of the manipulatives from classrooms. We don’t know how long this will last.  We don’t know if COVID will worsen.  Educators aren’t used to not knowing things.  Most teachers I know like schedules, routines, knowledge and thrive on consistency.

However, in the midst of the new rules, changes and all of the things that we “can’t” do-teachers are still rocking it.  Throughout the summer I worked with a team of teachers providing virtual professional learning for KPRETFO.  Hundreds of teachers used their summer holidays to learn about technology tools before they even knew whether they were going to be teaching virtually or not. They logged in at 10 am some days in order to learn and some teachers even came to all twenty sessions that were provided. Educators were dedicated to their professional learning all summer long.

At the end of August, I had the privilege of working with another fabulous team of educators who dedicated their time to providing a three day virtual conference for over 500 Ontario Educators with ECOO.  These educators gave up their time to organize all kinds of schedules, sponsorship, presenters, keynotes and much more.  In addition, over a hundred educators created and presented webinars for their colleagues.  It truly FELT like a face-to-face educational technology conference took place in my living room!
There was a feeling of sharing, helping and collegiality.  It was exhausting but my bucket was over flowing.

As our school year is now well under way teachers are reaching out to me for assistance at all times of the day and night through email because they are dedicated to their students and want to do their best.  They are attending our evening “PD in your PJs” webinar sessions through our local union office to learn new tech tools at 7 pm on the week nights. The educators that I work with continually astound me with their dedication to professional learning.

I recently binge watched a Netflix series called “Away”.  It is a futuristic fictional narrative about the first manned mission to Mars.  The astronauts were in uncharted territory.  They encountered problems along the way for which they had not trained.  They endured mental and physical fatigue beyond anything they had ever felt before.  They were innovative and creative in order to solve problems and reach their goal.  While watching, I couldn’t help thinking about the parallels between this movie and the present state of education. We’ve heard that as we design these new learning structures and environments it is like we are building an airplane while flying. If I am going to stay true to the analogy here it is really more of a rocket ship! Educators are facing situations that they hadn’t even thought about in Faculty of Education Programs.  They are encountering issues of teaching without many of the tools they normally use such as manipulatives, group work or technology. They are suffering mentally and physically. They are being innovative  problem solvers around tools, equipment and technology.  They are building the rocket ship while they are flying it and it is full of students.

Are educators stressed?  For sure.  Are their nerves frayed?  You bet.  Are they innovative, creative, dedicated and passionate about learning and teaching? Absolutely, without a doubt.  Every educator is a front line worker,  doing their best, making a difference, being brave beyond imagination and truly an inspiration.

 

 

Illness, Shame and the Educator Martyr Complex

A recent Twitter post from Liz Ryan @humanworkplace read:

Coronavirus is teaching us that:

  1. Healthcare is a right
  2. Paid sick time is a right
  3. Many, many people could do their work from home (clearly not teachers)
  4. We are more dependent on a healthy society than we want to acknowledge

This tweet got me thinking about a couple of things. It got me thinking about how teachers and education workers drag ourselves into work when we are ill.  When I first began teaching I used to do this all of the time.  I thought for sure that my students absolutely needed me to be there and the classroom would fall apart in the hands of any other teacher. I was worried that my classroom would be a disaster and I would find notes about behaviour behind from the occasional teacher and thought that this was somehow my fault. So I would drag myself to work not feeling well, extending the sickness for myself and thoughtlessly exposing my students and colleagues to the illness.  I hear it all the time in the staffroom, “I probably should have stayed home but I figured that I had better drag myself in because…”  It is a martyr complex.  Get over yourself.  You are not irreplaceable. There is no reward for going to work ill.

This tweet also got me thinking about how much I appreciate the work our occasional teachers do each day.  Just by doing their job, they allow me to be able to stay at home and get better.  They are professionally trained teachers.  As fellow colleagues and ETFO members I trust that they intend to do the best for our students when they enter our classrooms.

The tweet also got me thinking about the shame and guilt that educators often feel when they are ill.  I mean, if so-and-so drags themselves into work even though they are sick then it starts to build a culture of expectation.  This is ridiculous.  This is how disease spreads.  Stay home and come back when you’re well. No one will thank you for getting them sick.

The tweet also got me thinking about how education unions have fought to keep our paid sick time and how much I appreciate it when I am ill.  A few years ago I had to take an extended medical leave and as guilty as I felt, it was the best thing I could have done for myself and my students. I had to work through the guilt.  If we didn’t have the benefits that we do, I might have had to quit the profession altogether.

I’ve typed lesson plans in between bouts of nausea.  I’ve sent plans from my phone in a hospital waiting room. At the end of the day, it was worth it to take the time to get better for me, for my colleagues and ultimately for my students.

 

Mindfulness in Education

There is a significant amount of research about the benefits of mindfulness in education.  Much of the research shows that consistent mindfulness practices in classrooms lead to lower stress levels and higher test scores.  It is a hot topic and wanting to to do the best for students, we are seeing more of it in schools. There are all kinds of books and videos on breathing and mindfulness exercises for reduction of stress for kids.  I have learned to practice meditation myself and I have used some mindful practices with my students and believe that at the right time and in the right circumstance mindfulness practices can be powerful.  I am left wondering, however, if the practice of mindfulness in some cases is becoming routine or something to check off on a plan and not truly ‘mindful’ at all?

Let’s take yoga for example.  Yoga instructors go through intense hours of study in order to practice and teach others.  However, teachers pop on a kids yoga YouTube video and we’re “being mindful”.  I’m not being critical.  I have done it myself!  My question or wondering is; what are the implications of these actions on a broader level?  Yoga is about mind and body.  My worry is that we are literally “going through the motions” with students and not really giving them a true mindful experience.

How about a timed meditation?  Everyone drop everything and take part in a guided meditation right now!  I understand the idea behind this strategy; the whole school is engaging in the practice at the same time. However, isn’t the idea that students will learn to develop mindfulness skills to help them in stressful situations? It is a starting place, but hopefully there is more in-depth practice and explicit teaching happening.  Otherwise isn’t it more a kind of fast-food approach to mindfulness?

Mindfulness needs to have an environment that is conducive to practice.  Norms and expectations need to be established and there has to be “buy in” from the students. Students require a variety of skills in order to truly practice mindfulness and they need to be explicitly taught so that students can use what they know in order to transfer the knowledge into other situations.  Finally, it has to be modeled by the adults in the room.  If there is mindfulness being practiced, everyone should be doing it and debriefing the experience and learning together.  If a teacher is busy organizing the classroom library while the students are being mindful, it won’t demonstrate that mindfulness is valued.

We can’t be experts at everything.  We can’t always have a certified yoga teacher come into our classroom.  Whatever we are teaching it must be done with intention, done explicitly and through modeling.  Going through the motions out of habit and routine may do more harm than good.

 

 

Holiday Break Assumptions

December is stressful for so many reasons.  Seasonal concerts and plays, crafts and the general hustle and bustle around this time of year.  While teachers attempt to make things fun and engaging for the last few weeks before the holiday, there are a few things to consider about assumptions that as educators we might make about our students.

Not every child is looking forward to the holidays.

As working adults we look forward to the break from our daily occupations at this time of year.  For us it means a chance to regroup and reconnect.  However, for some students it may mean a lack of routine and structure which can provoke anxiety.  The reality is that some students may find school the safest place in their lives.  The two weeks off of school at the end of the December will inevitably happen for everyone however, not every kid is looking forward to it.  So it may be best not to focus on the “Countdown to Break.”

Children living in poverty.

For those children living in families who celebrate the season with any kind of gift giving, this can be a time of stress and anxiety for parents and invariably children.  According to parenting expert Alyson Schafer, “Parents of low-income families will often put themselves last in order to shield their kids from poverty and the parents’ health and well-being suffers for it.”  Some parents may even skip meals or prescription medication in order to have enough money to buy gifts.  Whether the children are aware of their family’s financial situation or not, they will witness wealthier classmates getting more at this time of year and it can be difficult for those children.   While this is the time of year that many schools engage in a food drive, teachers need to remember that some students may not be able to donate and in fact, there may be students in your class or school whose family accesses the food bank.  It doesn’t mean that would need to stop these charitable acts.  As educators we just need to be aware of the assumptions that we make about our students when we engage in the activities.

Those “fun” activities aren’t always “fun” for everyone.

This time of year gets busy in a school.  There are often more announcements, events and things for sale or collection.  Students who already struggle in school find this time of year difficult because of the multitude of interruptions to regular routines.  When possible, keep things as simple as possible for your students.  I have always found that keeping as much routine as possible in my classroom at this time of year provided much needed comfort and predictability.