SERT= (joy + journey) x job

Fall 2021 marks the start of my 5th year as a co-SERT (Special Education Resource Teacher). Please, no gifts. Although, you can read on if you’re feeling generous?

2021 is also the first year that I finally feel comfortable in the position. Up until now, I’ve felt competent, somewhat confident, but never comfortable. If your school is like mine, there is a lot going on in SERTLandia as I fondly call it, and a lot at stake. Thankfully, I have been really blessed to have a patient and savvy mentor to work with throughout this time. There haven’t been many days when I didn’t need her wisdom, experience, and support to keep me on track while growing in the role. 

First, some background info

I never wanted to be a SERT. I initially took the course so I could be more adept in my work with students in the classroom. After completing Level 1, I figured a little more wouldn’t hurt so I enrolled in Pt 2. Did you know that many school boards offer their own AQ courses, and as luck would have it, my board provided an affordable option for staff. ETFO does too. The learning, although difficult to keep up with while teaching fulltime was worth it in resources, stories, and deeper understandings about how to truly support students whether they were identified or not in my classroom. Once Pt 1 and 2 were done, I retreated back to my comfort zone and began to apply ‘the learning‘. Or so I thought. 

“I will quit if I ever have to be a SERT.”

I actually said that to a superintendent during a conversation over needing her signature on an application for my SERT Specialist(pt 3). I know, as well, that the role of SERT looked different from school to school and board to board based on a number of things such as allocation of resources (human and financial). I know that many schools have 1 SERT lifting the weight for an entire community as well. So I count myself lucky to work in a team environment.

My ‘never’ was now a yes, but what I didn’t factor into that impetuously made statement was how the experience and knowledge gained from parts 1 and 2 began to take hold in such tangible ways in my classroom. My classroom management improved along with my ability to differentiate more for students who struggled but were otherwise not identified. I learned the value of growth plans and asking for help. Suddenly, it made perfect sense to go for my specialist to finish the learning I had started. It was nothing short of an incredible experience. Yet, I still did not have my heart or mind set on becoming a SERT. I did have some fun writing my own IEP with accommodations though. I think every teacher should do this at least once in their career.

SERT certification in hand, I retreated to the safety and comfort of my classroom once again. With new knowledge and perspectives in the tool box, things seemed to click even more. Throughout the entirety of the 3 AQ courses for Special Education Specialist I developed an even deeper respect for the SERT team in my schools. I witnessed the wonders that they worked everyday and the students who they supported. They made it look so easy, but I saw how much work they put in each day. I struggled to see myself in their shoes.

Qualified, but terrified

I was so terrified of the responsibilities, the paperwork, and the meetings that seemed endemic to the job. I love being in the classroom. I also feared making mistakes and letting students slip through the cracks. I was convinced that being an ally was a great way to support the awesome SERTs in my schools. However, the more I learned, the more I was able to apply outside of the classroom to help student teachers and fellow educators. Then the call came with an offer to be a co-SERT. 

New school. New Role. What was I thinking? 

As I have shared in past posts, I am a huge proponent of educators switching schools to explore new teaching opportunities and to stretch outside of their comfort zones. I believe that moves to new schools open educators up to new learning experiences and provide excellent ways to learn from others. This can lead to discomfort as well, but that is usually where the best growth happens for you personally and professionally. As a result, in 2017 I started teaching at the 4th school of my 12 year career – so far. In each case, I did not have a single reason to leave such wonderful colleagues and students behind, but for no other reason than to learn more. 

I can clearly recall the disorientation that came at the pace of SERT life and trying to balance out my instructional obligations those first weeks. I questioned whether my decision to join a new school was going to coming back to bite me. Thankfully, a supportive admin, co-SERT, and staff alleviated most of that stress. I wanted to do a good job, but I wasn’t even sure what that looked like. That was how new it all felt to me. That meant a lot of silent observation followed by a lot of questions. By October that first year, things seemed much clearer. Clearer, yet not clear. 

Fastforward to 2021

100s of IEPs, growth plans, IPRCs, SEA claims, academic tests, in-school meetings, student support sessions, teacher consultations, CPI calls, and parent convos later have all contributed to a very incredible set of insights into the needs of learners. I am not sure whether I will be a SERT in the future or not, but I will never regret taking the AQs or this job. They have been incredible tools in my growth and practice as an educator. My experiences as a SERT have been transformational and I wouldn’t go back in time and talk myself out of this opportunity even if I could. *  

So whether you dip your toe in the water and do SpEd Pt 1 or dive in for a 5 year swim, I encourage you all to take join me. The water is fine. 

If you would like to share your own journey about becoming a SERT or if you want to chat more about becoming a SERT please add a comment below and I’ll pass it on to my mentor. She still has all of the answers.  

* Well I might go back and buy some shares in Tesla, but that is a story for another dimension.

 

Why I Teach Through an Equity and Anti-Oppressive Lens

Lately, it seems that all I hear throughout the education system is about equity and anti-oppression. These seem to be the latest buzzwords in our profession and they permeate throughout everything we do. Teachers are encouraged to develop a belief statement about equity and anti-oppression work and to embed it into their philosophy, pedagogy and teaching practices. However, have you ever stopped to seriously ask yourself, what does it really mean to teach through an equity and anti-oppressive lens? I have, and the answer was quite revealing. 

 

First, I had to reflect upon my own understanding of equity and anti-oppression in order to truly recognize my role and position as an educator. To me, equity is liberation of the mind, body and soul. It is a human right to have the freedom to think, act and feel in your true authentic self, without fear and discrimination. Equity is a sense of being included, valued and respected in all spaces and in all communities. Inequality and discriminations occur when certain spaces and communities deny you of your rights as a human being. Equity and Anti-oppression is a framework used to address and dismantle these inequities and discriminatory practices, which are often systemic in nature and deeply embedded into our habits and norms. Honestly, that took years for me to understand and to define through my own lens. I had to reflect upon how, and acknowledge that, my own (limited as they are) power and privilege (as a middle-class male educator) contributed to the systemic inequalities that exist in our society and throughout the education system. I also had to think about what role I could play to be an agent of change. I think my understanding of equity and anti-oppression align strongly with ETFO’s Equity Statement

 

Now, do I feel included, valued and respected in all spaces and in all communities in which I engage? Unfortunately the answer is more often no than yes. My race, ethnicity and sexual identity often impact how I think, act and feel in certain spaces and how others interact with me in those spaces. I find myself negotiating and navigating spaces on a daily basis. It can be quite exhausting and disempowering. So, why do I endure this disheartening experience time after time? For the same reason I became an educator. I strongly believe that all people, all students in particular, should be included, valued, and respected in all aspects of life, including their school community. Unfortunately that does not happen in all spaces and for all people/students. I know this because it happened to me as a student and it continues to happen to me as an adult educator. I see the inequities in our education policies and practices, in our classroom management practices and in our assessment and evaluation practices. Most notably, as a guidance counsellor, I am constantly advocating for the rights of Black and Indigenous students, and students in the Special Education system, to receive equitable treatment and access to resources and programs during the high school transition process. Everything that I am, through my lived experiences, and everything that I do for myself and others is embedded in an equity and anti-oppressive framework. 

 

I use ETFO’s Anti-Oppressive Framework to align my thinking and practice. Here is an excerpt from ETFO’s definition and statement: 

 

An anti-oppressive framework is the method and process in which we understand how systems of oppression such as colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and ableism can result in individual discriminatory actions and structural/systemic inequalities for certain groups in society. Anti-oppressive practices and goals seek to recognize and dismantle such discriminatory actions and power imbalances. Anti-oppressive practices and this framework should seek to guide the Federation’s work with an aim to identify strategies and solutions to deconstruct power and privilege in order to mitigate and address the systemic inequalities that often operate simultaneously and unconsciously at the individual, group and institutional or union level. (ETFO’s Equity Statement)

 

Here is another quote that I would like to highlight on ETFO’s Action on Anti-Black Racism, ETFO’s Anti-Black Racism Strategy is focused on creating systemic changes to confront anti-Black racism and provide a more welcoming and inclusive union environment for Black members at provincial and local levels. Given the legacy and current prevalence of anti-Black racism in colonial systems, institutions and society, ETFO Action on Anti-Black Racism –  Building an Inclusive School Workplace and Union brochure provides information on what anti-Black racism is, ETFO’s anti-Black racism strategy and how to be an ally. You can find out more about ETFO’s Action on Anti-Black Racism here

 

Also of importance to share is ETFO’s Human Rights Statement: The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s is committed to providing an environment for members that is free from harassment and discrimination at all provincial and local Federation sponsored activities. Harassment and discrimination on the basis of a prohibited ground are violations of the Ontario Human Rights Code and are illegal.

 

I included these quotes and the Human Rights statement because I am proud to be a part of a union that has in place policies and practices that value and protect the rights of all its members. However, it is up to us, as members and as educators, to ensure that ETFO indeed practices what it preaches, so that we too can feel protected in our commitment to ensuring student equity and developing student excellence. 

 

I say all that to say this, know thyself, know your worth and know your passion. Use all of who you are and what you believe to challenge, support and inspire students. You don’t have to be Black to advocate for Black students, you don’t have to be Indigenous to address Indigenous rights, just like how you don’t have to identify as a woman or a member of the 2SLGBTQ+ community to support those who are impacted by gender inequities and homophobia. You really just have to show students, through your actions, how much you care about them and that they do matter, regardless of their circumstances and lived experiences. In fact, I encourage you to empower students to see/use their circumstances and lived experiences as a catalyst for self-empowerment and universal change. Show them that what matters to them also matters to you.  

 

To support you in supporting students and showing them that they do matter, here are some literacy resources from ETFO’s Social Justice Begins With Me Book List that might be of great help to you.

One Year Wiser

What a year it has been! At the beginning of last summer, there were black squares and new policies in place in organizations around the world calling for critical thought and change in the area of anti-Black racism. Some chose to read books, others chose to act with their students, some never moved beyond the black squares. For me, this has been a year of reflection and connection with those in and out of education spaces who are seeking to bring about change. 

My Blackness isn’t something that I can remove in order to fit into spaces that weren’t made for me. As such, this year has been a personal journey in learning how to better navigate. In this post, I share some of the experiences that helped me along and I hope that other Black women in education can find them of benefit in both their personal and professional lives.

Connections Online

Let’s face it, connecting online has been fraught with challenges.  We each have our own stories that we can share about miscommunications or experiences that were less than ideal either while learning or teaching online this past year. The last thing that I felt like doing was more of it! And yet, I signed up for more professional learning this year. Through ETFO, I noticed a number of programs for my own learning and committed to using these opportunities to make some great connections online with other like-minded educators. 

One ETFO program that I joined was Code Black. The program started in January and concluded in May. During this time there were sessions and online learning that prompted us to explore our leadership skills while developing new skills. One particular session that has stayed with me beyond the day was our second session. This session resonated with me because I had the opportunity to hear from incredible speakers who shared their experiences and I saw similarities within my own experience. Far too often, as Black women, we gaslight ourselves when we face experiences that are unbelievable. We talk ourselves out of believing what is actually happening and what we are experiencing because many of them are unfathomable.  It was in this program that I had the opportunity to truly get to know an incredible educator, Tracy Halliday.  

With any learning, I feel there must come action. As a part of this program, we had to come up with an action plan for an area in education where we would like to see change. Of course being Black women, Tracy and I wanted to work on creating an Affinity Space for Black educators who identify as women. We spent time together dreaming and visioning and I have to say that it was such a pleasure connecting with her to do this work. Although we have yet to meet in person, it was through this online connection that our idea came to life. 

While the pandemic has brought barriers to the way in which we connect, I’m so grateful for the technology that allowed the two of us to come up with this much-needed space. 

Affinity Spaces

Many Black women have found that minimal effort is made to wholly include and/or value our voices and experiences. Often isolated and required to be silent about the injustices that we see and experience – for fear of reprisal – many internalize the daily struggle that it is to be a Black woman. As a result, our overall health and well-being have been impacted in a variety of negative ways. Knowing this, Tracy and I wondered: 

“What if there was a space where we as Black women could voice our experiences and ideas for change within education and actually be heard? What would change for Black women? What would change for education as a whole?”

While we know that affinity spaces aren’t new, we hope that this space can help to support change based on the commonalities in our experiences and the needs of those within the group. Excited about the idea and knowing the power of connections that can be had online, we crossed panels and reached out to another incredible educator – judy mckeown – who we both admire and have learned so much from. She joined us for our first Affinity Space and it was JOY! Space to: speak, be heard, laugh, dream, challenge each other, and grow. That hour alone fueled me with so much energy and was a clear demonstration to me that as Black women, we need these safe spaces to just be. 

It’s summer and once again, which for me, is a time to reflect on what the next year will bring. This summer, I’m taking the time to dream big about the changes and impact that I will have inside and outside of the world of education. As I dream, I’m making sure that I take care of myself and fuel my days with things that bring me joy. I hope that you have a safe and restful summer. Please take care!

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.

Virtual Design Sprint

One of the highlights of this past month was working with a colleague to run a design sprint in their virtual classroom. I had so much fun working with students around a repeatable process that they could use to solve any problem! With our time limited to one day, these Grade 4 students rose to the challenge and created some incredible solutions that absolutely blew my mind!!!

What Is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a repeatable process that when the user is centered, allows students to gain empathy for those for whom they are designing. The process is cyclical and at any point, designers can always return to an earlier point in the process so as to create a more effective solution. 

We started our day using a Jamboard and considered all the problems that exist in the world around us. I think it was at this moment that I knew that this was going to be an incredible day! From the isolation related to dealing with Covid to food insecurity, these Grade 4 students were looking at the world with their eyes wide open. As we worked, the students took time to sort their ideas into categories, looking for similarities that may exist between problems. 

From there, the students each picked just one problem that they wanted to spend the day tackling. This is sometimes very tricky as there are so many different problems that we may be passionate about. Once they picked the problem that they wanted to focus on, the students took some time to research.  In order to create effective solutions, we must understand the problem in an in-depth way. 

Our next step was to consider who was affected and to pick someone for whom we would design our solution. Without actually doing interviews and knowing our users well, this is often difficult because we do make assumptions. This was a key part in helping students to understand that this is a process and once we know more, we often have to rethink the effectiveness of our solutions and sometimes this means going back to the drawing board.

Next, we moved into ideation and used Crazy 8s to come up with some new and innovative ideas. With most groups, there is some worry about coming up with ideas quickly but once again, these students jumped on board and came right along with me. 

In the afternoon, we spent some time paper prototyping and creating pitches for our solutions. After presentations and feedback, the students had the opportunity to reflect on the day: what they learned about themselves and the process, and also how they could use the learning in the future. 

What Was the Learning for Students?

The students walked away with some incredible ideas for how they would create change in the world. Through the use of these design tools, they were excited to consider the next steps to their creations. While I always struggle with the limitation of implementation that sometimes comes with design, with this group, I am actually hopeful for what they might create, given the opportunity to connect with someone who might support the execution of their idea. 

One idea that came from our day was the creation of an app that would record, track and report instances of racism. Clearly, over the past year, the students in the class have been having critical conversations about race and what is happening in the world around us. It’s because of these conversations and the fact that we can no longer ignore that these issues are having an impact on our children, that this student decided to focus on this topic. Although there were many features of this student’s app, I loved that the designer considered the fact that not everyone has data and that the app would work without it. They also made it easy to access and share the information so that even in a difficult situation – such as facing racism – the user would be able to utilize the app to its fullest potential.

With all of the problems and challenges we all are facing these days, I think it’s pretty incredible to learn a repeatable process for designing something new. Whether or not these ideas come to life right away, I know that these students have learned a new way of problem solving and I know that many will take these skills and apply them in the future. 

Interested in learning more about how to run your own design sprint or how to incorporate elements of design thinking into your program for next year? Join me in August for a 3-day Summer Academy Course on Design Thinking for All. You won’t want to miss it!

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.

Final Reflections from a Remote Teacher

Wow, what a year it has been! And to think, we didn’t think things could get any wilder than 2020. I have taught grade seven online since the first week of school and am finishing up next week. I have learned so much this year about myself as a teacher and about the things that children go through each and every day. Taking away the physical aspect of school has been challenging for some students yet so beneficial for others. For most of the students in my class, it was an overall positive experience. I was so lucky to have my 29 incredible students for this online experience. 

As I mentioned in my last blog post, my students participated in an interview with me where they asked questions about their efforts in certain subjects. 

I am pleased to say that many of them took the opportunity to hand in extra assignments or to bump up current ones. My students also had a chance to reflect on the learning skills they were most proud of and ones that they hope to work on in the future. They also had great final reflections about their year online. I posed the question to them, “What are you most proud of about your grade seven year?” Here were their responses:

  • The fact that I am in a class full of kind people
  • I am most proud of my marks and grades. I have been working so hard and it has paid off
  • Not getting distracted 
  • Staying on task and asking questions if confused 
  • Attendance and coming on time 
  • How to use different websites, finishing my work on time and kind of mostly everything because online school can be hard sometimes
  • My participation
  • I think I am proud that I did everything on time and proud that I did well
  • Improved on tech. skills 
  • I try my best and that’s what I’m most proud of
  • Doing my assignments on time, coming to class on time and being respectful to others in the chat or either the mic
  • I’m proud of staying in class and working on difficult work
  • Participating, even if I get the answer wrong
  • I’m proud that me and the class did a whole year of online school
  • How well I did even though I was nervous starting
  • I’m proud of my first term report
  • Doing online learning and enjoying it even though I thought it would be boring
  • Work through the MS teams platform, virtual activities and enjoying the whole experience
  • I’m happy with my marks
  • For making it through the year 
  • Not losing focus from the IRL transition to online learning
  • The fact that i can learn both in this environment and outside in an actual school
  • Being nice 
  • Online learning in general 
  • Finding a really good friend 🙂 

As you can see, it was an overall positive experience as my students learned how to see the positive in almost all situations, especially, learning remotely.

I have also learned many things throughout this year. I have discovered some incredible new programs and have developed some new teaching strategies in math and literacy. I have also discovered some game-changing activities and routines that I hope to keep as a permanent part of my program.

Math:

 I would like to keep using the virtual whiteboard in the classroom, having six (or however many iPads I have) students using the iPad during math. These students will share their strategies with their classmates after solving on their whiteboard platform. This will be a leadership opportunity and I am hoping as time goes on, all students will want to share their strategies. This was my favourite math teaching style that occurred this year as many “ah-ha” moments occurred as a result of the students sharing their work. I think it is much more exciting working on the whiteboards rather than coming up to write on the physical whiteboard. This will also ensure that students can work in their own space if we still need to worry about physical distancing. Other students will work in their notebook or physical whiteboard until it is their day to have the whiteboard app.

 I would also like to save Fridays for games in math as a way to summarize the learning from that week. The games my class loved were: Kahoot and Gimkit (which offers about 12 different types of games within). 

Language

This year I loved meeting with a small group one day a week to teach a lesson and then they would have the rest of the week to work on that activity. I received the most amount of participation during the small group sessions and by the following week, students always had their test completed. Many students commented about how their favourite part of the day was the small language groups. Having that small group size allowed all students to share and have a turn. This was actually the only time where I heard from students that did not participate in the main call. The setting of the small groups made them feel more comfortable.

I also want to make sure I have another class novel next year. I would love having students as the readers once again and they would pass the book to the next reader after they read a page or two. This was a great way to cover all the reading expectations which I would post as questions that would follow that days reading. They would answer these questions in the chat and in the classroom I would love to have this continue either by them raising their hands or by documenting it in a notebook. 

Routines/Activities:

  • Saying hello to each student in the morning
  • Spending every Monday morning sharing about our weekends and creating a goal for the week (and if they met the goal from the week before). These goals contributed to their self regulation mark.
  • Having student shoutouts at the end of each week. A student would raise their hand and give a shout-out to a specific student who went above and beyond that week or improved in something, etc. It could really be for any reason
  • Independent work periods once or twice a week as catch up periods and instead of breakout rooms, having the middle table open for students who need one on one support
  • Asking how everyone’s break was when they come back in from break 
  • Morning music until the announcements start
  • Student-led movement breaks where students design and lead a 20 minute DPA activity on the days without physical education
  • Discussing current events rather than hoping they didn’t hear the news 
  • Openly talking about all board holidays, special weeks or months in the year and celebrating in our class 
  • Cooking lessons led by students

Teaching online is an experience that I found very rewarding as it really tested all of us to see if we could handle this change. I know that as a teacher I appreciated the challenge and I know my students definitely rose to the challenge. I look forward to blogging about my in-class experiences in September!

Have an amazing summer everyone! 

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.

Top Ten Tips for Attending Virtual Professional Learning for Educators

So much learning is happening virtually now and it is amazing.  I recently attended a virtual EdTech Conference in Nebraska!  This is an opportunity I never would have been able to take advantage of before the pandemic.  I have attended a number of virtual conferences during COVID and I’ve also organized and facilitated virtual learning over the last year and it is a different way to get your learn on!

In order to really get the most out of Virtual Professional Learning here are my go-to suggestions:

  1.  Organize your time and your conference selections in advance.  If there are many choices, take the time to do the research on the session and on the presenter. If there are digital links for presentations on the conference site to add into a digital tote-do it before your sessions so that you aren’t tempted to leave the session in order to do so.  Thank you ISTE LIVE 21  for the digital tote feature!
  2. Be PRESENT.  Be mindful and intentional about your learning.  If it isn’t the kind of learning that you were expecting, hop over to another session otherwise you’ll be resentful of wasted time and learning.
  3. Put your “out of office” email message on and don’t check your email.  If you were in an in-person setting, checking your email would be rude. This is time for your learning so treasure and protect that time.
  4. When possible attend LIVE sessions not asynchronous or previously recorded sessions.  LIVE sessions have opportunities to engage and ask questions which makes the learning is deeper.
  5. Have a PLP (Professional Learning Partner) or two! No one really wants to go to a conference by themselves. Some of the best learning takes place when you share what you learned in a session that your PLP wasn’t able to attend! You double the learning!
  6. Participate in the learning.  If there is a chat feature then put who you are and where you are from in the chat.  Ask questions, engage and connect.  This is where you grow your Professional Learning Network.  In a face to face conference you would sit down and meet new people.  Think of how you would engage with others in a real conference setting.
  7. TWEET! TWEET!  Get the conference hashtag, follow it, retweet and tweet about your learning and the presenters.  Follow those presenters and give them a shoutout. Take a picture of the slide that they are sharing and post it (without people’s faces and names in it.)  It is awesome as a facilitator to see the tweets afterwards.  It is timely feedback and motivational for the presenter.
  8. Take notes.  My PLPs and I recently collaborated on note taking using a Google Slide deck while attending a conference.  We pasted links, took screenshots and put notes of important information into the slide deck so we have the learning for later.
  9. Participate.  As a presenter, it isn’t nice to present to the empty boxes on Zoom or Webex. Just as in person, it is nice to see the reaction of the audience to pace yourself and to know that they are still with you! That being said, if you are eating or dealing with your dog or family or have decided to multi-task, leaving your camera on can be distracting for the participants and the presenter.  If there is a question asked in the chat, respond! There is nothing like being a presenter left hanging.  If there is a poll, a word cloud, a Jamboard,or a Kahoot, play along! The presenter created these things in order to make the presentation interactive for the adult learner.
  10.  Take Breaks.  Make sure you look carefully at the schedule (and the time zone) in order to plan your screen, water, coffee, bathroom, movement or snack breaks.

The most important thing to remember is that the presenters put time and effort to share their learning and expertise with you.  It is nerve-wracking to present to a group of educators.  Tech savvy people have tech issues too.  Give presenters grace and remember to thank them and provide feedback for their work and expertise.  They will appreciate it!

 

What’s Your Superpower?

 

“What’s My Superpower” is a sweet and powerful book written by Aviaq Johnston and illustrated by Tim Mack. This is the story of Nalvana, an Inuit child who lives in a northern community, and her journey to find her own “superpower”. This book was gifted to me by my educator friend, Ellie Clin. She thought I might be able to relate to Nalvana, and she was right!

As we prepare for the end of year, some of us might be hoping to include student voice in our Report Cards and/or facilitate Student-Led Conferences. This story could inspire Writing, Drama, and Visual Arts, as well as meaningful opportunities for self-reflection and celebration of all of our “superpowers.”

Here is how I am planning to use this book:

1. Listen to the story, “What’s My Superpower?” by Aviaq Johnston, read aloud on-line.

2. Reflect: What is your superpower?
For example: What makes you a good friend? What activities feel easy for you? What are your gifts or talents?

3. Write about your superpower. Give examples.

4. Draw a picture of yourself using your superpower.

5. Optional: Dress up as a superhero and share your superpower with the class.


I shared this idea with other teachers in the school, and invited them to co-create the template and “success criteria”. We have been talking about creating a shared writing task that can be implemented across the grades to help us build a skills continuum or exemplars of student work from Kindergarten-Grade 6. This writing sample could be considered both a self-reflection for Learning Skills and an introduction to next year’s teacher. It could be included in every students’ portfolio, and/or used for moderated marking.

Transforming Power:
I recently participated in professional learning as part of ETFO’s MentorCoaching program. One of the workshops was called “Transforming Power,” and it was facilitated by Indy Bathh and Louise Pitre. The first activity we did together was to share our superpowers in the Chat. This was a wonderful way to introduce ourselves to each other, and to practice naming our strengths.

It is always interesting to reflect on qualities of leadership with a group of educators who identify as women. As you might expect, the impact of patriarchy and misogyny, capitalism and racism reinforce the oppressive belief that women have less value. In a group of union leaders, it was still difficult for some of the women to identify their own superpowers. This reminded me of how important it is for all of our students to know their power, and to feel powerful, and to use their power to make change.


I want to encourage everyone who is reading this blog to pause and reflect. What are your superpowers? Make a list or draw them. Can you think of a time when you used your superpower to support and empower others? HINT: You do it every day with your students!

CommUNITY:
As I reflect on my own superpowers, I think about how I have been successful at creating community this year: in the classroom, in the school, and in professional learning communities.  During this time of isolation, building relationships and making connections has been the most meaningful work I have done.

In the classroom, I support everyone to feel like a VIP every day. We play together, and celebrate our strengths by giving and receiving Heartprints. In GLOW Club, I actively teach about love, pride and resistance. I organize whole-school events, like the WTF embodied Land Acknowledgment, Gender Splendour Week, sing and dance like a Mummer, and strut my stuff on the runway during our Kiki Ball. I listen and share picture books with staff, and acknowledge the powerful work they are doing with their students.

In the school, I facilitate brave conversations with families through Book Club and Community Core Values discussions, and I share resources with families about Settler Allyship and how to talk to children about anti-Black racism. As the Union Steward, I use our BBSAT (Building Better Schools Action Team) distribution list to share information about ETFO campaigns and actions by Ontario Education Workers United and Ontario Parent Action Network. 

As part of my own professional learning, I will continue to share ETFO’s Women’s Equality Project with locals, and collaborate with members in Ottawa to build relationships of equity and justice. I will continue to attend ETFO webinars and access resources.  I hope to finish my Masters of Education next year.  It has been an honour and a privilege to learn with educators in community.

Gratitude:
After 12 years, I will be leaving The Grove Community School. As one of the founding teachers, I am extremely proud of the learning we have done together to create the first public alternative elementary school with an explicit focus on environmental justice, equity and community activism. I am deeply grateful for all of the students, families, educators, and community members I have worked with at The Grove, ETT and ETFO.  Thank you!

Thank you to “The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning” for the opportunity to document this unusual year with my Grade 2 students. This summer, my partner and I are moving to Peterborough.  I will be teaching in Kawartha Pine Ridge as an Occasional Teacher next year, which will be a humbling experience.  I will be looking for new allies and educator friends, and re-reading posts from this blog for support and inspiration.

Educational Perfection

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

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

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

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

 

Break open…and rise up!

Spring is a good time to reflect and pay attention to growth, change and transformation. After a long year of isolation and stillness, everyone is hopeful about the promise of movement and possibility. Planting seeds is a wonderful metaphor of the learning that we are doing together in our school communities.

Planting Seeds:
Jenny Davis is one of the parents at The Grove Community School who has supported the growth of the Rainbow Garden, by working in consultation with First Nations and Indigenous families and community members. In the fall, Jenny harvested seeds from some of the edible plants, including sunflowers, cornflowers, and marigolds. This Spring, families worked together to deliver a paper bag of soil, seeds and a pot to every student.

Jenny facilitated on-line planting with our classes, and shared what she is learning about important Indigenous protocols, such as the practice of gratitude and reciprocity. We were encouraged to sort and describe our seeds and learn their names before planting, to draw pictures on our popsicle sticks to welcome them, to “pay attention” and give them what they need to grow. During our Land Acknowledgment, I have been honouring our plant relatives, and inviting students to share what they notice about their seeds as they break open and rise up.

Me and White Supremacy:
This winter, as part of my ongoing commitment to the practice of anti-racism, I participated in a community Book Club with a small group of parents and staff. Together, we read “Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor” by Layla F. Saad. I highly recommend this resource to White educators. This is a powerful book that includes journal prompts at the end of every chapter to support deep reflection and action. Layla Saad first wrote the book as a 30 day Instagram challenge, with daily prompts to support readers who have White privilege to recognize and disrupt White supremacy in their lives. Our Book Club met on-line every month, and we discussed one week at a time.

Layla Saad offers a process for engaging in the work called “The Circle Way”, which was developed by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. The Circle Way includes guidelines and a structure for readers to follow, including rotating facilitators and a shared intention and responsibility to stay focused on the work. It was very helpful, and can easily be used to facilitate critical and courageous conversations in other contexts. I recently facilitated a discussion about the final chapters, and I invited everyone to think about their own growth, change and transformation, and how we might invite others into this work.

Root into darkness:
This work is not supposed to be easy. Layla Saad explains that feelings of devastation, anger, and confusion are important parts of the work. She writes, “Without those feelings, nothing changes, because there is no reason to heal what does not feel broken.” (page 199) As White educators who are committed to racial justice, we must recognize how we are complicit in a system that is causing harm to Indigenous, Black and racialized people, and allow the pain “to break your heart open” and work towards creating change.

Maya Angelou wrote: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” After discussing what holds us back from “doing better”, such as fear, loss of privilege, confusion, or insecurity, the Book Club members made commitments to take action and disrupt White supremacy in our different communities. Each member shared “I will….” statements, and we agreed to continue the Book Club next year, and support new families to join the discussion.

Me and My Commitments:
I want to share my own commitments to anti-racism and publish them in this blog, so I can be held accountable. I will also include concrete actions that I will take towards these goals.

*I will….continue with my own on-going learning and professional development.

(I recently started the ETFO MentorCoaching program, and I am learning about intersectional feminism, anti-oppression frameworks, and transforming power. I will continue to use the reflective journaling prompts in the book to challenge my own White silence and fragility.)

*I will….share my learning with others.

(As an ETFO workshop facilitator, I meet with members from all over the province and always position myself as a co-learner. I will always join committees at school and/or in my local, that are doing racial justice and equity work.)

*I will….use my privilege to disrupt White supremacy in my classroom and school community.

(I will meet with my principal to discuss Equity goals for next year, and share recommendations at our last Parent Council meeting, including an on-going process of discussion and reflection to determine how well we are meeting our collective goals.)

*I will….center and celebrate voices of Indigenous, Black and racialized voices in the classroom.

(I have more learning to do about anti-Asian racism, and integrating curriculum to support East/South Asian students. I will dig deeper into the new ETFO resources, and implement Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy. I will teach love and pride always.)

*I will…listen and learn when I am called out and called in. I will allow myself to make mistakes, especially as I break open and rise up!!

Thank you for reading this blog. Writing and learning in community continues to be a transformative practice for me. I am deeply grateful for all of the support and nourishment I have received to keep growing.

Looking Back to Move Forward

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on past practice lately. As part of that process, I’ve been revisiting old lesson plans, activities, report card comments – essentially, everything that goes into being an educator.

Part of this has been borne out of necessity. This is a year unlike any other I’ve experienced and I’ve regularly found myself needing to find new and forgotten ways to keep students engaged, which has led me to look for ideas from previous years.

The larger reason for this, though, is to confront the necessary but harsh truth that I have not always been the most responsive or informed teacher when it comes to equity and creating safe spaces in the classroom.

I have always done what I thought was best for my students. I have never intentionally done something that would cause them harm. But looking back like this, I can see places where my practices weren’t what they are today, and that’s an important thing to acknowledge so that I can remind myself both of how far I’ve come and how much learning I have to do.

For example, at the beginning of my career, I segregated Health classes for units on puberty/sexual health. I thought I was creating a safer space for my students, but in actual fact, this practice is harmful in many ways. I wasn’t educated enough on trans, non-binary, and intersex identities. I know better now.

Another example of past mistakes is my participation in and promotion of spirit days at school. At the beginning of my career, I didn’t understand how problematic most (if not all) spirit days are. I have pictures of me proudly participating in “crazy hair day”. I cringe at them now, but I keep those photos tucked away in a folder on my computer specifically to remind myself that I am not infallible and I am always learning.

I’m writing about this tonight not to dwell on past mistakes, not to overthink or express regret over my earlier ignorance. I’m writing about this to hopefully let you know that many of us – especially white educators – have made and will make missteps in our careers. We will do what we think is right and it will not be right at all. 

When we make missteps, it’s important that we be able to reflect, recognize that we’ve made a mistake, acknowledge what the mistake was, and commit to doing better. If we never look back, if we never acknowledge that we have caused harm, then we won’t be able to do better in the future.

You may feel discomfort and embarrassment as you look back on your past practice. Don’t run from that discomfort. Sit with it, think about it, let yourself feel it. This discomfort is an important part of learning. Recognizing your past mistakes is the only way to truly move forward with your practice.