A world at our fingertips

What world?
The first question that comes to mind when I think about the title of this post is, “Did I ask for this world at the end of my fingertips, and since its “wide web” pervades my life, how then, is it possible to feel so isolated when everything is at our fingertips? Food, clothes, household items, tech, and other diversions can be at our doors at the speed of our clicks, credit cards, and local couriers. The choices are non-stop, but there is one thing I haven’t been able to order online yet; a real in-person classroom and the bristling energy of its learners. I can’t even order a bus duty right now. 

Anyone else miss yard and bus duty?

I miss school so much that I was thinking of making a program to simulate being at school. I miss yard  and bus duty. I miss taking the long way to the office via the second floor. I even miss the First Aid calls for ice and band-aids. Even with a top dollar VR set up, nothing comes close to the completeness of an in-person educational experience; no matter how brilliantly it is delivered or repeated. For now, the best I can virtually do is be the best virtual version of myself.  

Despite everything these nimble digits can cull from the world wide web, the feelings, sounds, and yes, smells of school cannot be re-created online. You see our connectivity comes with a cost. Our eyes may be tethered to screens, but it is clear that our hearts and minds are looking for something else. Connection.

What’s keeping you connected?

In my last post Insert name(s) here I wrote about focusing on connections rather than curriculum with students first. As we continue learning during the lockdown, I am finding that connection is the single most important thing to preserve our wellbeing. When I read that teachers are feeling pressured to load students up with homework each day I get worried. It’s concerning to find hear of distorted and unrealistic expectations that learning is supposed to be like it was pre-pandemic. The only question I can ask anyone who thinks it does is, “Have you ever seen a Kindergarten Zoom class?” “Have you ever taught one?”

Imagine taking the wonderous living maelstrom that is known as the JK/SK class, and then compacting it onto a small screen replete with daily pet show and tells, spontaneous dancing, hasty exits for calls of nature, and unsanctioned nose touching? I am sure that does not happen solely in JK/SK either. In my class, there are some seriously funny faces that get made while someone preens in to the camera, or when they suddenly think someone said fart, or when they all decide to stuff couch pillows under their sweaters for DPA. This must be playing out everyday around the world right now. 

Sometimes the supporting cast gets into the main shot.

How about when you hear parents yelling in the background or when they are trying to negotiate with a client while walking too close to their child who happens to be answering a question at that moment? Upon reflection, these moments are probably the best things about virtual school during these times. It’s the humanity of our students shining through, and that is one of the single most important reasons for us to keep coming back day in and day out for our students. Making time for laughter  in my class has led to engagement and to learning. 

But seriously folx.

Hearing humorous stories from fellow educators has been crucial to my mental survival during such a trying time. Lockdown learning also comes with the knowledge that there are a number of educators who are struggling right now. I encourage you all to reach out to someone to check in on them. That includes those who always appear like everything is going great based on their social media posts. The truth is behind the curated photos is a lot of toil and hard work. This grind is hard on all of us. We need one another and the good thing is we have the entire ETFO community of educators to lean on. 

Take time to reach out. Even though we can’t order a cure for COVID yet, we can use this medium to send support to one another without the excessive packaging and credit card statements either. 

Insert name(s) here

I hope this message finds you well. 
It has been a long time since we’ve been able to really; (circle one)
a. Chat
b. Catch-up
c. Connect
d. Collaborate
e. Other____________________________
f. All of the above (I circled this one)

I really miss the times when we were able to learn together, and to encourage each other in person too. Come to think of it, I miss a lot of things about the past year and a third. Most of all, I miss all of the joys, highs, lows, and in-betweens of being in our school. I’m not quite sure how all of these emotions built up so fast. Oh wait, COVID.

Our feelings are like CO2 being forced into a bottle and then put into a paint shaker to see what happens. I know what happens. It is messy. Other times its as if the soda bottle has been left out on the counter with the lid off all night. That sparkle and effervesence is long gone by morning. That was never the case when we were in school. 

Lately, it seems like all we do is view each other through layers of fiber optic signals and glass screens. Sometimes, I am not sure whether any of us feels like we are truly seen anymore. After all we miss the crucial dimension of proximity each time we meet in our virtual lockdown learning spaces. Well, at least our masks are off at home, yet somehow there is something really different, almost missing between being in each other’s presence and the telepresence we are forced to be engaging in right now. 

I know that it’s a struggle for me. I have meetings to teach now. I hear your voices, but our virtual interface might as well be a tin cans tied together with string like when we were kids. To me, it is becoming increasingly impossible to read small faces at 72 dpi. That’s if I see anyone at all after privacy and comfort levels are factored in. Decoding your complexity of emotions from what looks more like an animated postage stamp(gif) at best, or a motionless icon at worst never came with a training manual.

So I am writing my own. It starts every day with breaking down the digital walls that prevent us from proximity. COVID 19 may have moved our learning online for now, but it can’t prevent us from continuing the class community we have worked so hard to create. We’re chatting. We’re catching up. We’re connecting. We’re caring and then we are learning, but it is messy and it is draining. Everyone is bringing their best versions of their best selves to virtual school right now, and that looks different from day to day. 

I know you’re connecting because the little green metres rise and fall when you speak or type. Sometimes everyone is trying to answer at once and other times it is an awkward hush. How I cherish our variations from routine interactions and uniformity of it all. It is exciting to see the chat stream full of comments. I love it when the little virtual hands are raised up to respond. Each one not a pixel higher than any other. I know that there are others who want to say something, but are still feeling unsure about it and themselves too. There are even some who cannot participate because of limited tech/WiFi and that’s okay.

Whatever the reason(s) we will grow stronger and get through our days with:
Insert name(s) here, How are you?
Insert name(s) here, Would you like to share something with the class? 
Insert name(s) here, I notice you have been struggling with your tech. How can I help? 
Insert name(s) here, I wanted to let you know that you offered a really thoughtful answer in our discussion today, and I appreciated your perspective.
Insert name(s) here, I noticed you shared a lot of great ideas in the meeting chat today. I am glad you lead our class in that space.
Insert name(s) here, You are valued. You matter. I see you.

I know there is much more that follows, but everyday has to begin with our humanity before anything else. It may seem tough to give up that time at the start of each day, but the investment in knowing students, especially while we are in lockdown, will pay lifelong dividends in hearts and minds of your learners and self. It will make this time better than bearable while we prepare to return to our schools again soon.  

 

 

 

“How can I help?”

The adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” was ingrained in me at an early age.  Until recently, I have always thought that being confident, capable and successful meant never asking for help.  I used to think that asking for help meant that you were weak.  I now think that asking for help is incredibly brave.  My 17 year old son recently told me about a group chat with his workmates.  Someone at work had sent an urgent message to the group asking how to do something while closing up the restaurant.  Many of the coworkers poked fun at the lack of knowledge of the person seeking help.  My son (brace yourself for this proud Mama Bear moment) texted that it was really brave of his co-worker to ask for help and provided the information that the coworker needed to close up for the night. I think that his act demonstrated wisdom an empathy far beyond his years.

Have you ever felt a little territorial or protective about your ideas or lessons in your classroom?  I imagine everyone likes to be valued for their unique talents and abilities.  In general, I don’t think anyone likes to be seen to be struggling and consequently, some teachers might choose to work in isolation. Perhaps it is fear. I’ve spoken to many colleagues who have identified as suffering from imposter syndrome. Perhaps those of us who have experienced imposter syndrome think that if anyone else got eyes on what we do every day that we would be judged and found to be lacking in some way.  Often teachers will tell me that they don’t have time to share with their colleagues-there just isn’t enough time in the day to collaborate. With the busy pace of education, I know that I have absolutely felt that way. My experience has been that when I take the time to collaborate with others I in fact, have more time and consequently better programming.  It is a concerted effort and takes a trusting relationship to co-plan and co-teach but when it works, it is amazing.

In my role as an instructional leadership consultant I am responsible for two portfolios; Innovation and Technology and the New Teacher Induction Program.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic as teachers were teaching virtually for the first time, some had never used things like Google apps, FlipGrid and Kahoot. I was doing my best to support teachers with tools for teaching online.  Thankfully, I knew some other teachers that I could reach out to and ask for help.  These teachers, close to the beginning of their careers, were using these tools in the classroom and were able to help design and present webinars to other more seasoned colleagues.  As teachers, we often think that we need to have all of the answers for our students and with one another.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” We seem to feel that we need to stay ahead of everything, which is impossible.  Education is changing more rapidly than ever.  I learned so much from my colleagues over the months that we worked together as a team and even though it was stressful at times, it was also incredibly fun.  I look back now on the powerful outreach our work had and the gratitude that was expressed by our colleagues and I am so glad that I got over myself and asked for help.

In the t.v. drama “New Amsterdam” whenever the new director of the hospital is introduced to someone, the first question that he asks is, “How can I help?”  It happens in the first episode about twenty times. This was a BIG a-ha moment for me.  What a powerful question!  How often have we wanted our students to ask for help?  How often have they refused when we have asked “Can I help you?”or “Do you need help?”  Unfortunately, asking for help is still seen as a weakness by many people.  However the question “How can I help?” turns it around so that the responsibility and focus is on the person offering assistance.  It is more difficult for someone to just say “No.” to this question.  It can help to create psychological safety in order to focus on what can be done to help rather than someone sitting in discomfort or shame because they won’t ask for help.  Sometimes just asking can make all the difference to someone when they are feeling overwhelmed, even if they decline the offer.  The four small words, “How can I help?” can make a powerful impact.  Sometimes, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.

Online Instruction of Students with Learning Disabilities

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.

Since March of 2020, I’ve been teaching students with learning disabilities in an online environment. I’ve been wondering how well the online learning environment supports the needs of students with learning disabilities.

As a special education teacher of a contained learning disability classroom, this has been a question that’s been tricky to answer. In addition, I’ve got “skin in the game” as I also have a learning disability and can place myself in my students’ shoes.

As with all debates, there are always two sides and I’ll try to capture the main points of each side.

Online learning supports students with learning disabilities

As online learning is technology based, students can access their tools of technology by using talking word processing and many applications that support their lack of phonemic awareness and reading ability in writing and comprehension. My students seemed to thrive in this area as online learning promoted their use of technology to complete assignments. In addition, the forum also allowed them to explore new ways to present their work that did not focus on text.

For my students, some thrived as they preferred working on their own or collaborating via video with another student. One student stated that they would like to learn online all the time. Note that this student had excellent learning skills and support at home. I had my doubts as they would have missed developing the skills needed to work with others face to face. I felt that the student was missing the opportunity to develop the critical soft skills such as collaborating with peers and in building the essential friendships students need as they grow into adults.

Online learning does not support students with learning disabilities

Although I only have a small sample size of students in which to reflect on this statement, I will summarize what I noticed in this last year.

Students with learning disabilities need a great deal of teacher support to develop their reading and writing skills in order to eventually thrive in a mainstream classroom. The challenge with online instruction is that students must have some level of independence to complete work. Further, their teacher must be able to assess when to support the student and when to let the student work alone.

In Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, teachers must provide just enough support to let the student learn on their own without getting frustrated. As a teacher, teaching online, I was challenged by finding this golden spot as I could not use my senses to determine where the student was in their learning. As learning is linked to emotion, I use my senses and empathy to determine students’ level of success or frustration. Without being able to access this skill through a video link, I noted that students became increasingly frustrated before I was able to sense their distress. This is never good as students usually shut down at this point. This is where learning stops.

During online video lessons, I also noted that students with attention deficits had a great challenge attending to lessons. Often, this resulted in me calling their name several times. In a classroom, when watching students, I can redirect those who are off task. Despite presenting my very interesting online lessons, several students became disengaged. This was especially true for students with learning profiles that were tactile in nature.

Further, online learning does not provide the many accommodations needed to support students’ learning needs. Some feedback from students noted “I need to move around when I learn”, “I like to work beside my friend so we can help each other”, “I prefer doing work with a pencil instead of typing things” and “I really need to go for a walk right now.”

Online learning needs and skills specific to students’ profiles

Success in online learning depends on support from home, adequate technology, and students with good learning skills. Due to managing multiple agenda’s, parents are not always able to support their child online. This includes literally sitting beside their child to help them attend to online lessons. Many students lack adequate technology and/or reliable internet access leaving them at a disadvantage to their more resourced peers. Further, not all students have the learning skills to successfully attend and complete work online, instead needing another person to support them in their work. I’ve included a list of considerations to be made when making decisions to learn online.

Students with learning disabilities may consider online learning if they:

    • are able to follow written and/or verbal instructions effectively
    • enjoy working at their own pace
    • are able to work independently
    • are able to interact with peers and the teacher in a positive way
    • have good online manners
    • are able to communicate and ask questions when they don’t understand an assignment or directions
    • are able to start a task with confidence
    • have parental support
    • have adequate technology and internet to support learning online
    • have adequate executive function to attend to online lessons
    • have adequate self control to not play games or watch videos while online lessons are occurring
    • get one-on-one time with their teacher to support learning on an individual basis

Students should consider not participating in online learning if they:

    • need significant instructional support from teachers and/or educational assistants
    • have challenges attending to lessons online
    • need support to follow through and complete assignments
    • lack adequate support at home to stay focused
    • have challenges negotiating the online environment (i.e. finding assignments, resources, etc)
    • lack support at home (i.e. help with homework & completing class work)
    • have poor learning skills
    • enjoy the social part of school and working with others
    • are behind in multiple high school credits

8 Proven Ways to Overcome Teacher Burnout and Love Teaching Again | Prodigy Education

Teaching online is draining

From a teacher’s point of view, I found teaching online extremely draining. It did not help that at several points in the pandemic, I was teaching synchronously online and in class using the hybrid model. Without being able to use my intuition and empathy to read my students needs and feelings, I felt blind. I was only left with my visual and audio senses which became taxed very quickly.

In online learning, teachers must attend to all students, all at the same time. In an in class environment, teachers can focus on one student at a time, while others work on assigned tasks. With my students online, there were simply too many things to attend to … leaving me little energy to focus on specific individual students’ needs.

Online learning does not support the needs of most students with learning disabilities

In the end, I strongly believe that students who have learning disabilities MUST be taught in an in class environment. This means that teachers can assess, if and when students need support. Further, in class instruction allows teachers to assess and focus specifically on what one student needs to support their learning.

In this pandemic, online learning has been a stop gap to provide students with a classroom environment that is just a hint of what happens in an in class environment. Online learning does not promote collaboration and the occasions to play and interact with other students. It lacks the fundamental need, of students, for opportunities to build social skills and make friends. And I believe these skills are what make us most human.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston, PhD

Attitude of Gratitude

Many years ago I remember watching a gratitude themed Oprah episode.  There was a gratitude journal that the guest had developed and was relaying all of the benefits of writing down things that you were grateful for each day.  The power of suggestion (I’m a sucker for an impulse buy for self-improvement) lead me to the nearest Chapters to purchase one of those journals that weekend.  I certainly didn’t fill that journal. I think I lost interest in a couple of months because it felt as though I was writing the same thing over and over again.  I realize now that gratitude, like mindfulness and meditation, is a “practice.”

Gratitude practice is most effective when life is rough.  It sounds counterintuitive.  It is much easier to be grateful when things are going well right?  Easy to “count your blessings” when you are sitting on a beach in a resort in the Dominican Republic.  I personally feel the power of the gratitude practice when life isn’t going according to plan.  Though, I want to be clear here, there is a fine line between true gratitude practice and “looking on the bright side” or “finding the silver lining.”  That bright-side-silver-lining thinking can border on toxic positivity which isn’t helpful.

Gratitude practice means different things to different people.  For me, it is connected to daily journaling.  Each night since the fall I have been writing about my day in terms of gratitude before going to bed. Some nights I might write for 5 minutes.  Some nights I write for a half hour.  It might read something like, “I’m grateful that we got outside for a walk, that my son felt good about his essay after all of the struggles and tears, that we were able to eat a healthy meal, for Hello Fresh being delivered to my door and for the opportunity to reach out and connect to some new teachers through professional learning today.”  I try to reflect on the events of my day in terms of gratitude.  I could write in my journal that the technology in my professional learning session that day was glitchy, we got off to a rocky start trying to get everyone into the WebEx room, and there were links that didn’t work even though I had tested them twice. Instead, I choose to be grateful for the connection and discussion that I had with the teachers that day.  It isn’t that I ignore that bad things happen or think about how things can be improved, but ruminating on the bad things that happened during the day right before going to bed isn’t going to ensure much of a restful sleep.

In some of the professional learning opportunities that I have recently hosted with new teachers we have discussed the struggles of the current climate in the classroom.  It is important to have a safe place for teachers to voice those concerns and have someone listen with compassion and empathy and ask curious questions.  I will often say that there are many things that I can’t help them with, but that I am there to “embrace the suck” with them.   At the conclusion of those discussions my final question is always, “What is a recent personal or professional success that you’ve experienced that you would like to share with the group?”  This ends the discussion on a note of gratitude. It is SO easy to get caught up in venting and complaining about the situation in education right now. Teaching it is NOT an easy job on any given day but the difficulties have grown exponentially with the pressures that COVID has added.  So when we can take a moment to remember why we continue to go to work each day, why we got into the job in the first place and what our recent wins have been, I think it brings a feeling of hope.

Sometimes I practice gratitude in a less formal way that is more like mindfulness.  Recently while walking on a treed trail on a bright, sunny, winter day with my best friend, I stopped mid sentence and just looked around at the beauty.  I said to my friend, “I just had to take a minute to take this in.  We are so fortunate to be able to walk here.”  It only took a moment.  I don’t do that all of the time, we’d never get anywhere on our walks! However, remembering to do it every so often helps me to deal with stress and the bad things when they do happen.  If in the moment of a stressful situation I can take a moment to breathe and practice gratitude it sometimes keeps the emotions from escalating.  When conversing with someone who is frustrated and perhaps complaining or lashing out I try to remember that this person is doing the best they can at that moment and that each opportunity to interact with someone who is suffering is a chance to learn and I try to be grateful for that.  Author Andrea Owen in her book, “How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t” would call it an AFOG-another flipping opportunity for growth.  When I remember to think about gratitude in a not so great moment, I might do it raised shoulders and through gritted teeth, but I keep trying.  It is, after all a practice.

“If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough.” -Brene Brown

Wrong again

Privilege, position, and power are placed in the hands of all educators. Being a teacher, regardless of instructional medium is more demanding than ever before. While our world in and out of the classroom looks like nothing we have ever seen before, some things haven’t changed – such as the importance of social justice in education. What we teach must always be inclusive of who we are teaching, the community, and the world around us in our instruction.

This is why anti-racist education is so important. We need to continue this work beyond the month of February because systemic racism and bias are hard at work all year long. That means there’s always something more to learn. There’s also a chance that we could get things wrong and that can get in the way sometimes.

As learners, humans can gain much from making mistakes. There’s even an expression for it: “To err is human.” I must be really human because I have learned so much from my mistakes already. From what I am seeing in the news and on social media, our humanity has never been more human based on the loads of mistakes we’re making. Depending on how you see it, this could be good or bad? Isn’t that the essence of what we do on a daily basis? Isn’t education where we model process and progress over perfection?

Confidence does not come without failure

I am confident that there is a line about being ‘lead-learners’ in the fine print of our infinite-paged-job description. That’s because teaching naturally comes with all of the ‘lessons’ ever imagined whether you are leading or learning. The trick becomes knowing how to find them, and then accepting that none of us will ever know everything. Perhaps this peace of mind is why I have grown more comfortable with discomfort of not knowing everything, and even with being wrong at times. I have also discovered that there are many like minded educators just like me – most of us in fact.

In On becoming an anti-racist educator I wrestled with my past along the path, but it also meant confronting the existence of racism in my personal life and my part in it. A younger iteration of myself might have struggled with this, but by examining my past and my responsibility as a bystander has helped move me forward. Throughout my life I have grown accustomed to getting things wrong, but always believed that I was standing on the right side when it came to issues of equity and anti-racism. What I realized, after reflection, mentorship, and deeper learning was how my belief in those lies was solely meant to ease my burden of responsibility for my complicity and privilege.

Black History Month is 10 months away

Cue the current teaching situation where our roles have now expanded to include daily counselling on issues of mental health, experts at PPE, and classroom sanitizers extraordinaire. We have also become distance learning specialists, multi-modal lesson trailblazers, fearless conversationalists about issues of race and racism, and critical thinkers on how to overcome and dismantle systemic racism and bias. All because we have assumed a lead learners mindset fuelled by getting things wrong and working on it along the way to success.

So it doesn’t have to be different in the classroom then. For me it has meant trying to include culturally relevant and responsive content into each day. I am choosing to avoid the prescribed resources from text book companies that have grown largely culturally irrelevant and unresponsive. Now is the time to amplify new voices in our classrooms and staff meetings too. Regardless of the platform being used to deliver learning, the opportunities and responsibilities remain in every lesson and moment we engage our learners about issues of racism and how to fight against them. The work must continue long past Black History Month to undo 400 years of injustice in for the future generations.

Whether it is in my lessons or by omission, my mistakes are at the core of learning how to get things right. In all of this I find my humanity too with more mistakes to come. To misquote a Disney song and without their lawyers hurting me, “no one fails like Will G”. Embracing my messtakes, excepting korrection, and leaning form them are kee ingredients to a butter me in the classruin. Won day aisle get it write.

 

 

Nothing changes but the day

Vernal Equinox

It’s Spring and the recent trip around the sun finds me with some thoughts about fresh starts, green grass, and bunny rabbits bouncing around meadows laying chocolate eggs. Well at least the chocolate part is plausible. Thank you Cadbury. Anything to get my mind off of the fact that more and more schools are closing due to cases of COVID 19. Looking for any rays of hope, my thoughts turned to vaccinations. Now that we have those life saving jabs ready to distribute, things have to get better. Right?

For better or worse? 

My daily exposure to people in my school is around 300 people. That is 20 times greater than the promised/recommended class size for safe in person learning, and 100 times greater than at home. Who am I kidding? It’s exponentially bigger than that as each student has their own web of contacts. Like all educators, I have taken the safety precautions seriously because lives are at stake. Mine and my family members’ at home and school. All I needed to do was remain diligent, follow the protocols, and maintain my distances.

I did find some comfort knowing vaccines were coming. Having ignorantly assured myself, in January, that our provincial government would priortize educators to receive their shots (I’ll wait for you to stop laughing at my naivete). If not so much for our protection, but so that schools could remain safely opened as promised when “no expenses would be spared” was the promise. Our students needed to be back at school so their safety had to be guaranteed. Ventilation, new PPE, increased safety protocols, nurses(heard that one before), and mental health matters.

Meanwhile, at schools a different reality is playing out. Exhaustion and exhasperation while the world around us becomes smaller and smaller through restricted movement, cohorting, fatigue, anxiety, grief, fighting to speak while constantly masked, and becoming an expert at keeping 2 metres apart outside, but only 1 metre apart inside. Don’t forget the learning. What could possibly go wrong or be wrong with such a sweet set up for a learner’s success?

Gorilla in a sport coat

As an educator, nothing says, “You are NOT important to me.” like not being included in the first rounds of vaccinations. This only seemed logical as the numbers of new infections, hospitalizations, and ICU cases were climbing again through the winter and new year break. I take no joy in knowing that they are on the rise again.

The 800 pound gorilla who promised everyone would be safe, especially front-line workers, must have been distracted by something shiny on a can of buck a beer. 3 months into 2021, and despite ETFO demands for action, nothing has been done that gives me or my colleagues confidence that our health and safety are important to the sport coat set in government. As a frontline worker, I can’t help but feel saddened by the obvious message our current provincial government is sending the public about how little it values our profession by not including educators earlier on for vaccinations. Sadly, this inaction and lack of any rational thought of the long term costs will leave all Ontarians crumpling under the weight of lost lives and lost opportunities.

Is it me or are things getting heavier?

The past 3 months on-line and in person have been exhausting. There has not been a single day where I arrive home and am not wiped out mentally and physically. My students are too. This is like being asked to fix a leak on a dam with Play Doh and being told to hold it in place while the water on the other side evapourates.

January passes by, and February too, yet still little concrete news of when educators would be vaccinated. March arrives, our break is postponed in order to save the province from its collective irresponsibilty due to out of country travel and attending large super-spreader events. Now I am thinking about how each school with a case of COVID has the power to become a pint sized super-spreader event.

At my school and hundreds of others, we have had numerous students going home each week due to precautions. As of March 30th a whole class at my school is in isolation as a precaution. This is playing out across the province while restrictions are easing? If this isn’t reason enough for us to be vaccinated sooner rather than later based on data, then perhaps an appealing to compassion would be better since reason is off the table? Who am I kidding? Compassion is not part of their vocabulary because it gets in the way of patronage and profits.

As the inevitability of another lockdown looms in April, I encourage you all to stay safe and continue standing up for our students and profession as you have each and everyday. Make sure to look after yourselves too. I pray that, when this is all over, the ones who were entrusted to look after the health and safety of our public and failed will not be able to hurt our schools anymore.

 

Snow Day = No School Day

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.

As an elementary special education teacher, I teach in a hybrid class of some students learning synchronously online and some learning in-class. It’s a juggle of competing agendas as teaching online and in-class are very different due to different ecologies of learning. Ecology is defined as “the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment; it seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them.”

In-class ecology of learning

In-class learning happens in a physical environment of personal connections. In-class students learn by watching and listening to teachers while they also complete their work. Teachers can address specific students’ needs by reading body language and answering students’ questions.

Classroom learning is personal in nature.

In-class ecology is based on interactions between participants that occur face-to-face with the opportunity to directly deal with students based on need. Needs are determined by teachers being able to assess students’ needs by their knowledge of student learning profiles and emotions identified via body language. Classrooms also provide students with opportunities to interact with other students and move while learning.

Classroom learning is fostered by relationships and the interconnections between students, parents, and teachers.

Online ecology of learning

Online learning happens in a virtual environment of auditory connections. When students learning online, they learn mostly by listening through a screen via an online platform. Teachers explain concepts through images and speaking with little or no eye contact with students. As students often have their cameras off (i.e., their choice to protect their privacy at home), teachers cannot assess students’ level of engagement nor can they assess students’ understanding of lessons. Further, since students learn via camera, they miss the opportunity to engage in learning by manipulating objects such as with math manipulatives or creating experiments in science.

Online learning is void of the personal nature found in classroom learning.

Through a camera, teachers cannot develop the fulsome relationships key to the evaluation of students’ understanding and need for support. In addition, teachers are highly limited in the understanding of students’ learning profiles or emotional needs.

The assessment of work is also a challenge as teachers cannot directly witness products or collect observations in assessing success criteria. Conducting assessments via conversations is challenging as other students are literally in the same space as the student being assessed.

Online learning falls short in the building of relationships and interconnections between students, parents, and teachers. As the act of learning is fueled by personal interactions and relationships, without them learning is constrained. Online learning, especially for students with special education needs, is not an effective venue to learn. Further, online learning disproportionally impacts students who come from lower social economic backgrounds where the additional resources of time and money may not be available to support learning from home.

Online and In-Class Learning have different ecologies

Overall, it’s taken me many months to delineate what works synchronously online and in-class via the hybrid model. As learning about how to teach is based on experience, I’ve had some lessons that were not to be repeated and through this process I know what works with my current class of students.

In-class and online teaching “Flip-o-Rama”

Tuesday, February 16th, 2021 was the day my in-class students were to return to school. My online students would remain online but follow along in class via a camera (which was finally provided to me by my board of education after a year of teaching online learning.) But Mother Nature decided not to have us return to school via a big dump of snow – a snow day was announced via Twitter.

My lesson plans for this day were based on teaching in-class at school. We were to get our classroom organized, go over new Covid protocols, discuss plans for our science projects, and learn about anti-racism. I did not plan for another day of teaching online.

I was informed via Twitter by this message “On Feb. 16, 2021, all buses are cancelled & school buildings are closed to students due to inclement weather conditions. Learning will continue at home through remote, synchronous instruction, where possible.”

I understand the need for students to continue their learning and I have been working over 6 days a week to make this happen. I have been stepping up to “learning through remote synchronous instruction, where possible” by making it possible every day since September 2020. As a teacher, during the Covid-19 pandemic, I have worked hard to meet every additional expectation presented to me by my board of education. I have made “where possible”, possible.

Just Pivot In-class to Online

The challenge I face is that I cannot “just flip a switch” (i.e. or pivot) to go from planning for in-class learning to synchronous, online learning. It is not an easy, “flip of a switch”, transition. The reality is that I need to plan more for online learning by making sure students have the materials they need to participate in lessons.

My greatest concern is that, in the future, once the pandemic passes, Snow Days (i.e., inclement weather days) will automatically become online learning days. This will result in teachers having to flip from in class learning to online learning within hours of inclement weather announcements. Parents will have to arrange their day to accommodate their child’s online school by monitoring their work and supporting learning activities where possible. It’s a big ask for teachers and parents.

Setting a precedent for online learning during inclement weather days is a slippery slope.

I can see boards and ministries of education using inclement weather online learning to move more students’ learning, online.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deborah Weston, PhD

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

Per / Con / In / Re – form

Perform 
I am wrestling with my thoughts again. In other words, I am restless again. When this happens many questions appear soon thereafter. Is there anyone out there that feels restless too?

I can’t be the only one in questioning a lot of things right now because most days I feel like a busker at a street festival trying to juggle a bowling ball(technology), a chainsaw(lessons), and a fishtank(learners). Nothing to see here other than a fairly confident educator having a tough time with something that he’s done before – delivering lessons.

So why am I struggling to deliver my lessons? It seems like a good place to start. Right now, I am questioning everything about my professional practice, and it feels like running along a path and tripping over an imaginary object. My week long tumbles are not so much about the content I am teaching, but rather how it is being taught, how it is being received, and how it can be assessed. It is leaving me limping into the weekend? Tell me I am not alone right now.

Conform
And then it hits. How long until the realization that some of my students are not completely engaging with learning right now even though their eyes and emotionless emoticons tell me otherwise? After extended times staring at screens and thumbnail sized student/profile memes I can tell my students are becoming exhausted too despite the brave faces that I see popping up on occasion when called upon. Is this happening to anyone else teaching right now? Are your students tired too? I am. 

Why am I so tired right now? Shouldn’t getting an extra hour of sleep each night, drinking 2+ litres of water per day, reduced caffeine, reduced personal device time, reading more books, and getting more exercise than in years past be helping me out here? I have even added Tai Chi, Yoga, and Hip Hop Dance to our DPA to increase movement during class time. To top it all off, I take daily walks whether I feel like it or not. 

Inform
You see, I force myself to take a walk after each of my hyper-telepresent virtual teaching sessions. Once the goodbyes are done, it is pretty much all I can do to get out of my chair, climb the stairs, and get geared up to go out most days. Especially, when I have to pass by a very comfortable couch whose cushions scream, “Remember us?” It is very tempting, but something even better calls, my daily walks.

Regardless of the weather, these walks are my motivational carrots to keep taking the steps that get me through the many muddy moments along each day’s unpaved path. Knowing that no matter how the day goes, a walk awaits has been all it takes to see me through. Whether a lesson went well or died on the screen in front of me ceases to matter when I inhale that first breath of fresh outdoor air. The exhale feels pretty good too. 

You watch enough TV, and very soon the inside of your head has become a vast, arid plain, across which you cannot detect the passage of a thought. Harlan Ellison

So far this year, I have only missed one day of walking. In hindsight it was probably the day that I needed a it most. Instead, I ended up planted on that inviting couch with a bowl of Smartfood staring at our television. Tuned out. Achy. Sullen. Grumpy. Numb. These feelings got me thinking about screens. 

Reform
Sci-fi author Harlan Ellison referred to TV as the “glass teat”. He even wrote a couple of books about it. I see parallels to how education is being delivered right now. We need to wean our students off of their screens more and more in order to preserve their minds from numbing and tuning out. 

Somewhere along my way outside a struggle ensued about the work I am doing in front of my screen. Is it serving to numb our students over extended periods of time? Will these extended periods of online learning cause irreparable tears in our socio-academic fabric? I am not ready to believe that this is the beginning of the end for in person school and that we are heading for our isolation pods as told in E.M Forster’s The Machine Stops

We cannot continue feeding content from one glass plate after another and expecting students to grow up smart and healthy. A dear friend suggested that cutting the learning day back to 4 days might be a good idea. Allowing the 5th day for asynchronous activities such as self-directed inquiry and catching up on assignments during the day rather than in the evenings when fatigue sets in. Teachers could easily use that time for office hours, for one on one/small group support, and conferencing. Everyone wins. 

Yet to form
This is much more than having the tools to master a domain that has yet to be tamed? Virtual learning means we are virtually learning how to do this while we teach? I can tell you there are few system leaders or consultants that have as much experience as any teachers in this medium, and it has largely been gained through self-teaching and experimentation with their classes.

I worry that too much emphasis has been placed on performance and conformity without serious consideration to being fully informed of the true social, emotional, and physical costs of virtual learning. Teachers, students, and families are feeling the stress from this and without an alternative I fear that there will be problems far greater than being behind on assignments or failing a test.

There is a definite need to refine and reform how we are being asked to serve and support our students. I’d love to take a walk around the neighbourhood with those making decisions on our behalf, share some ideas, listen to one another, breath in some fresh air, and take the steps that would best support students and staff -from a safe distance of course. Maybe if we took away their screens everyone might be able to see eye to eye here about helping to change things for the better, our students. 

In the meantime, I think another walk is in order.