the eyes tell our stories

Trigger warning: This post may be triggering to some folx as it discusses the emotional and physical toll happening on our students and our profession. I hope you read on.

A student asked to speak with me the other day. They said things weren’t going so well. They didn’t have to say a word. Their eyes told the story of someone who had been going through a lot lately. They shared and I listened while resisting every urge to cry along with them. How has it come to this I thought? How have so many of life’s weights been placed on a student who deserves to enjoy these years without worry, fear, or doubt?

While they spoke, it became known that these feelings of sadness and dread have been building up for a couple of years already. It struck me a bit odd as this student comes across as one of the most well liked, bright, and optimistic persons. If they were struggling, then how many more have not found the courage to come forward? My mind raced around how best to support them in the moment, but then moved to thoughts of what needs to happen on the macro level of our classrooms.

Despite some training, my mental health first aid kit is still only partially stocked, and unless additional social workers can be added to our school, I fear things will only be getting worse.  If it is happening in one school, then it is probably happening in many others. Notwithstanding the already existing immense work loads placed on centralized caregivers in school boards, it does not appear that supply will meet demand any time soon.

I guess that my best move for this particular person will be to check in with them a little more frequently, contact family to construct a cohesive support plan, and to recommend seeking some help from a social worker if at all possible. I am also going to build in some wins for them throughout the week. These could be a few more affirmations or intentional opportunities to have fun in their day.  Maybe this approach could help in supporting staff as well? Read on.

They didn’t have to say a word. The eyes told a story of someone who has been crying a lot lately. What happened before coming to school? How were they going to make it through another day when the sound of fast paced walks toward their door meant another part of the day, intended to plan and organize, was going to be co-opted again. How can this continue to happen when things are supposed to be safer, better, and back to normaler? Cue the tears. Cue the sadness. Cue the confusion. It’s hard to hide the stress or frustration. With all of that to manage, anger is never far behind. So when someone asks what is causing the tears specifically, the answer is nothing and everything at the same time.

Nothing because there is nothing we can do about what is happening other than mask up, make sure the kleenex box is full, and brave out the current chaos of each day. Everything because the number of issues provide more than enough straws to collapse every camel’s back. Mixed messages, inaction, anti-vaxxers, non-maskers, insane rates of infection, lost preps, fatigue, and having to complete the same system work with less time due to time that has been ‘liberated’ from one’s daily schedule.

Image
via https://twitter.com/MikeJToronto/status/1520175065333219329?s=20&t=NLlivpQQu-yLApHE3_iEUA

I looked into the mirror. My eyes were dull, glassy, and dry. Thankful that another week has passed where I did not have to be out of the classroom. Thankful that I did not have to isolate. Relieved that time outside of school meant a chance to disconnect and recharge.

Although there is no single thing to attribute this current state. It could be because of the daily dread built up from what is happening in schools right now. It has gone far beyond any occasional days when OT jobs went unfilled to a sadly predicatable and unprecedented time in our profession. When was the last time you ever heard of 9 unfilled OTs at one school? Last week comes to mind.

If it hasn’t been mentioned before, the folx caring for this province’s most precious resources are having a tough time and are being pushed to the brink of exhaustion and anxiety. It seems that once again, pontificating politicians have put their heads in the sand when it comes to equipping educators to meet the realities of the day with the resources they need.

Let’s start by having more teachers available to cover the amounts of educators having to take time to quarantine due to illness/exposure to COVID19 or to care for an infected family member in the same home. As we enter the final months of the school year I am not feeling super confident that things will change and that has me worried about my own energy and emotional levels.

Despite every educator’s individual efforts, ‘things ain’t goin’ so good’. No amounts of extra time or out of pocket expenses are going to fix what is happening. We need personal supports for students and staff more than ever not affirmative memos and lipservice from elected/board leaders. Help.

The Power of Groups

It has been a full two years without student desk groupings and I had completely forgotten about all the benefits it brings to the classroom. Not only does it brighten student morale, but it provides so many rich learning opportunities. I wanted to dedicate this post to the celebration of being back in groups!

Last year as we all know, (even though we did group work) students had to sit on their own due to COVID regulations. Since I taught online last year, I did not get to witness many group work settings as my students who worked in breakout rooms chose to keep their microphones and cameras off. I was able to witness group chats but nothing is better than in-person group work.

As restrictions are lifting, students are able to get back to some of the simple things they could enjoy pre-COVID, one of them physically sitting beside their peers. ** I created groups in my classroom last week and I cannot express how much of a change it has brought into the classroom. Just having a peer nearby has brought so many students to life, some who have been putting their head down and not participating this year. Now that they are sitting directly beside a group of people, they have no other choice but to become involved in the conversations and the learning around them. They do not seem frustrated at this, rather they are thankful for this new opportunity. This peer support has really helped a lot of my students. I was starting to think that some of my students would never regain the ability to socialize with others but the proximity of their peers has really helped them grow out of that discomfort. About six students decided they wanted to continue sitting on their own, but after a few days of seeing how exciting the prospect of sitting in a group was, they merged groups with nearby friends. These group settings have created new friendships that couldn’t have started without the new group settings.

Having students working nearby each other has also allowed for many group work activities. Some of the ones we have enjoyed in the past two weeks have been:

  • Solving complex math problems, drawing off the ideas of their peers to contribute to their answer
  • Brainstorming about topics such as the forms of bullying, landforms and types of mixtures
  • Solving hands on tasks that involve building structures or mechanisms
  • Students getting help from a friend with spelling (before they had to travel out of their seat to ask for this assistance which wasn’t allowed)
  • Confidence when solving independent problems by comparing end solutions
  • Sharing devices to research as we only have two iPads in our classroom
  • Being involved in conversations which otherwise would have had to take place across the room
  • Continuing to improve collaboration skills which have been on pause
  • Allowing for differentiated instruction opportunities that have been on pause since 2020

I know that groups can pose a classroom management issue such as breaking up group conversations. I am actually thankful for these conversations as before, it was challenging to get anyone to speak to each other. Attempting to chat with someone across the room was actually more disruptive than it is with the group settings. I continue to work on classroom management techniques as I have not had the practice with managing physical groupings since 2020.

I look forward to continuing to look at new and exciting group work activities as we are able to provide these for our students again. We are currently learning about hydraulics in our grade eight science unit so I am looking forward to students creating their own hydraulic machines together. I am also extremely thankful for the new friendships that have formed, especially with it being so close to the end of the year.

I know these successes are small and it may seem silly, but the power of physically grouping students has really changed things in my classroom and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

If you have any exciting new group work activities you have tried, I would love to hear them as it has been a while since I have done some fun team building activities. 

**Note: All of my students that sit in groups wear masks (their personal and preferred choice).**

ETFO’s recent media release related to masking can be found here.

PLEASE NOTE: 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.

 

Mindfulness in the Classroom

Are mindfulness activities a part of your program? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This resonated with me. 

 

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

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

 

Mindfulness or mindlessness?

 

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

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

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

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

Does this exist? Likely not.

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

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

Supporting Student Mental Health

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

no cape required

Have you ever seen or heard this one? “I teach. What’s your superpower?” It’s on shirts, mugs, plaques and all sorts of other tchotchkes. I’ve heard it at conferences and keynotes too and it never fails to make me chuckle when I do because it seems like a humble brag even though it is true. To continue the candy coated clichés then, it comes as no surprise that each educator possesses super powers that they use everyday.

You know the ones I’m talking about. Pivoting (easy stomach) to emergency online learning with little to no notice, covering classes while losing prep after prep due to a lack of available occasional teachers due to illness or quarantine requirements, putting on a brave face for students and colleagues who are showing the signs of anxiety at the edge of a nervous breakdowns, and facing a barrage of unrealistic expectations from system leaders who are decades between the classroom and the boardroom. I guess the capes these superpowers come with are back ordered due to supply chain issues like our HEPA filtration units, school nurses, RAT tests, and consistent policy. 

Cape or no cape, I guess it’s not bragging when it’s backed up with actions because I know that it is happening in classrooms in Ontario and beyond on a daily basis. 3 weeks into the new year and the shift is coming to relax restrictions rather than enforce measures to protect the public. Each day another classroom is emptied while caretakers “sanitize” because another student departs with symptoms. Each day our front office team deals with 20% more calls and reports of COVID related absences of students. Each day we prepare to accommodate learners who have stayed home able to choose the hybrid option. Each day the struggle to see something positive in every situation becomes more difficult even for the most enlightened optimists among us. 

That is why, this post comes with its own irony, as I write this month, because it is taking all of my superpowers as an educator just to get through each day right now. I truly believe that it is not normal to wake up feeling restless or trudging home with little left in the emotional tank for family let alone friends or additional school work such as planning and assessment. It is taking every ounce of my superpowers to find the air and the serenity right now. Each exit from school at day’s end feels like emerging from underneath water to finally draw an overdue breath of air. 

The move to online and then back to the classroom this month with little to no regard to the wellbeing of students or educators is once again due to negligence and dereliction of responsibility by the current government. There’s nothing better than making sure families start the year wondering and witnessing ongoing acts of orchestrated distraction, unchecked number vomit news pressers, and photo ops provided confusion in the media for the public. These stage managed wretched events only amplified how an out of touch premier and his party of gaslighting grifters are able to go to inconvenience a province and its 2 000 000 students and make it sound like they are doing their jobs.

It is political performance art at its worst through a series of non-messages, announcements about announcements and off news cycle timing intended solely to keep everyone stuck to a web of distraction and uncertainty woven by political incompetence. It is also the kryptonite that weakens education and civil society at the expense of future generations who are only learning about their super powers in our classrooms. 

Thank you for reading and for sharing your superpowers. 

Please note: 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.

Restorative Circle Activities

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

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

7 STEPS FOR FACILITATING MEANINGFUL CIRCLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circle time questions – Exemplars

Getting Acquainted

– What is your favourite…?

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

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

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

 

Values

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

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

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

 

Story Telling

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

– A time when you laughed a lot

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

 

Achievement

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

– One of my goals this year is…

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

 

Behaviour / Conflict

– Share one thing that makes you annoyed.

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

– How can you show respect to others?

The Unspecified Parts of a Lesson Plan

As I was creating my lesson plans one day, I took a step back and thought about what my plans would look like if they were delivered exactly the way that I wrote them. Academic learning and curriculum connections are crucial to the lesson plan itself and seem to be my main focus when planning. I began to think about the ways I engage my students in learning that I don’t record in my lesson plans. I thought about my specific ways of being with students during certain times of the day. The times I exude calmness and the times I exude excitement. I wondered about the times I use words of encouragement, constructive feedback and the moments I applaud students efforts. 

I wondered what would happen to my planning and teaching if I added notes into my plans like “remind students they are important” or “remind students to be safe this weekend”. 

As a newly permanent teacher, I am constantly reflecting on best practices and looking for ways to plan meaningfully and effectively. I am teaching virtually this year and often add additional information about my lessons into the “speaker notes” section of my Google Slides. As I was creating my lesson, I added in some of the above mentioned “unspecified” aspects into my plans. I wanted to explore how or if this practice would impact my teaching or have an effect on student learning. After implementing this practice for one week, here are my reflections:

  1. Adding notes about social and emotional learning into my lesson plans allowed me to continue to be mindful and check in with students about how they were feeling throughout the lesson and the school day itself. 
  2. The added positive notes and words of encouragement to my class were a great way to remind myself that, along with my students, I am also doing the best I can.
  3. My focus remained on my students, rather than the curriculum. Especially during reporting periods, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the worry of meeting curriculum expectations. Adding in my “unspecified” notes grounded me to what was most important. 
  4. Even with my “unspecified” notes, I noticed that I still added meaningful dialogue into each necessary moment. Even though there are daily reminders or common phrases we say to our students – there is no way to predict what each of our individual learners are going to need to be successful or feel loved that day. There is no plan other than to be responsive.

What are the unspecified parts of your lesson plans?

Please note: 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.

 

Teachers’ Mental Health – We Need Care Too

It is now, more than ever, so important to recognize and acknowledge the importance of self-care. To me, self-care is a life skill that many teachers of all ages and experiences, including myself, tend to neglect and push off for another day that never seems to come. We are all working in a time and place of uncertainties and are under constant pressure to adapt to rapidly changing situations in the workplace and in our personal lives. We are, at times, forced to find new innovative ways to do our jobs in this current reality. There is no doubt that, for many (if not all) of us, there has been a steady increase in our stress and anxiety levels due to the ever changing realities of COVID19. However, it is vital that we take time and take action to care for ourselves and to respond to our body’s needs. Self-care will improve our energy level, our focus and attention and our ability to cope with daily challenges. When we take care of ourselves, we are also showing care for our students and our loved ones. In particular, we are modelling good mental health strategies to, and for, our students who are often looking up to us for guidance and moral support. 

I often practice mindfulness activities to keep myself sane and ready to face the outside world on a daily basis. These activities allow me to see things more clearly, as it happens, and to pay attention to what’s going on with my body and the things that are happening around me. These mindfulness activities allow me to create a “pause” in which I can respond to situations calmly and justly throughout the day. Here are some simple activities I follow that might be of some support to you:

  1. Pay attention to your body and the messages/signs it sends out to you. It sounds simple, but it’s one of the things our bodies do that we often misread, misunderstand or completely neglect to follow. Try to tune in to your body’s natural signals and respond accordingly.
  2. Be kind to yourself. If your body is telling you that you need a break then take a mental break. A mental break doesn’t have to be something long (though I wouldn’t count that out, if that’s what your body needs). It could be a 5-minute break during work, something done over the lunch break, or something you do right before or after work by yourself or with others. I often listen to some relaxing music while I am working/planning, or even when students are collaborating on a task. You can do some art, play a game on your device or read a favourite book during your break. One of the things I find most rejuvenating is leaving the classroom and going for a walk to see or chat with other staff members. For me, talking to others really helps to clear my mind and to destress from a tense situation. I have also done a walking club with staff. On a Friday afternoon, during the lunch break, we would put on our walking shoes and walk around our community for about 20 minutes. It was always something to look forward to and we always felt reenergized and ready to manage whatever comes our way. A colleague of mine is heavily into martial arts and he would organize sessions for staff once or twice a week. The focus (i.e. martial arts skill sets, meditation, mindfulness or self defense) of each session would change depending on the needs of the group. Whatever interests you, just make sure you intentionally take time to make it happen on a regular basis, for your own mental health.
  3. Eat, eat, eat! Take time to hydrate and to nourish your body. Have healthy snack breaks and drink plenty of water. If you often sit, get up and walk around or do some stretches to get the blood circulation flowing. Use your lunch break for lunch (or something of your own choice)! Don’t take on too much work, especially during your personal time, that leaves you with very little time to eat uninterrupted or very little time to unwind in your own way. I personally value that “me time” because it helps me mentally prepare to manage the rest of the day. I am learning to say “No” when I really mean no, and to have a balance between the demands of work with my own personal time and wellbeing. 

Self-care is a necessity in life, but for some, it is often easier said than done. Above all, please remember that you are not alone. There is support that is out there to help you get through these difficult times. Your school board usually has an employee assistance program, a wellness page or mental health podcasts to support your wellbeing. Here are some other resources that might be of support to you.

LiveWorks offers clients mental, social, emotional and financial support in all aspects of life.

Ted Talk: The Importance of Self Care for Teachers Kelly Hopkinson talks about how teachers should prioritize their own wellbeing, in hopes that one day the school board will do the same. 

Your wellbeing matters to us all. Over the upcoming holidays, I encourage you to commit to taking care of yourself by intentionally creating/making space throughout your day to do you! My hope is that this commitment and the strategies developed over the next few weeks can be transferable to your work day in the new year. It is through our own ability to self-care that we can become the beacon of light in someone else’s life. 

Saying you care is not enough…

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first experience as an official mentor

Yesterday began my first official day as a student-teacher mentor. So for the next six weeks, I will be blogging about the experiences of having a student-teacher in the classroom.

Since I have been teaching for longer than five years now, I am eligible to have a student teacher in the classroom. Since I was remote last year, I did not jump at the opportunity as I thought it would be more beneficial for that student teacher to learn in a physical classroom. This year, I could tell I have an incredible class who would give that teacher candidate a lot of experience and I was excited at the opportunity! Not only is having a student teacher an amazing opportunity to inspire the next generation of teachers with new ideas and methods but it also allows for all students to get an extra adult in the room. That is an incredible opportunity for all for those six incredible weeks.

My student teacher started yesterday and was visibly excited to start her practicum. She had been waiting for her placement to begin as her experience in the physical classroom got cut short last year as we switched to virtual. I could tell right away that her positive attitude and attentiveness would do so well in my 7/8 classroom.

The day started well with introductions, routines and the basics. As the day unfolded, I could see her getting to know the students and having chats with them. This was great to see as this is the best way to get involved right at the beginning. Almost immediately, a student shared about how they hadn’t slept the night before and how they were feeling upset. Right away, my student teacher got to see how if a student isn’t feeling mentally healthy or ready for the day, they cannot succeed in the classroom. I let my student know that they were heard and that we would support them at school and look to help them at home. Mental health and student well-being will be and should always be the main focus in the classroom so it was important for my student teacher to hear that discussion on her first morning.

During our planning time, we had great discussions around why she had decided to go to school for teaching, her teachable areas, any aspects of her placement that she was feeling anxious about, any extra-curriculars she would like to be involved in and a few more questions to get our journey together started. These answers are important to set the foundation for her placement. I also asked her to complete a small task for homework, to write out the seating plan and to write down any small comments or observations that she had made about the students on her first day.

This morning, when she shared all the observations she had gathered, I was shocked with how much she had learned about my students after she had only met them for five periods. I mentioned how knowing the learners, their needs and learning habits will ultimately determine the way that she teaches for the next six weeks. I cannot stress enough how thrilled I was to hear all she had observed in that short amount of time.

After school today she came to assist with volleyball, which was great to see. Funny enough, we have the same coaching interests so it will be great to see her get involved in these activities as well. I am so excited for this journey as I can tell she is an eager university student who was meant to be a teacher. I am happy to pass on all that I know and of course, guide and help her through this journey. I was so fortunate enough eight years ago to have two associate teachers who did so much for me. They made me the teacher I am today and allowed me to explore so many aspects of this profession. I can only hope I will do the same for her.