3 things

It’s  the start of week 3 in most public schools, and it feels like we are in for some long months ahead. I have 3 things to share to start the year:
1. Hybrid teaching sucks
2. Your students have something to tell you
3. Did I mention that hybrid still sucks?

1. Despite the social, emotional, and physical toll of teaching and learning during a pandemic, I can’t shake the optimism I have when spending time with my students. Bar none, they are the only source of inspiration strong enough to power me past some medieval level system decisions made by our current government and local school boards.

The hybrid learning option is a stunted and thoughtless response to the educational needs of students and their families. It is an institutional cop out that is replete with a debilitating amount of sadism to demean the well-being of educators charged with making magic with little more than cheap tech, a perfunctory kudo, and a “Your wellness matters” memo. Countless educators have shared how this method of education does little to serve student or teacher yet it was still chosen as the “viable option”. #hybridhurtskids #hybridharmseducators

2. Have you checked in with students to see how they’re doing yet? I know it has been a hella couple of weeks already, but have you asked this year’s class how they feel, how they like to learn or what challenges they are facing being back in the classroom? If you did, were there any surprises? If you didn’t, no worries, it’s never too late.

My experiences with dedicating class time to conversations, Google forms, or free writing tasks to asking these questions are very insightful. Students have voices. They are honest and opinionated. Best of all, students will speak their truths as long as they have a safe, judgement free place to do so.

I have found this beginning of the year check-in to be a powerful way to build relationships of caring and understanding from the start. This comes by establishing the conditions from which they are safe to do so. That usually happens by listening first, holding back the urge to solve or fix or give unsolicited advice or admonishment. Trust me. It’s worth it in order to build trust with learners from the earliest days. This year, more than ever before, students whether in class, EVS or in syncronous hybrid pergatory need to know their teachers are there listening to them, seeing them, and willing to support them.

Here are a few things shared over the past couple of weeks

“I am stressed about getting good marks by my family.”

“I feel anxious when we do math and I get called on.”

“I do not like presenting in front of others.”

“I am bad at; math, art, french, english, science” etc.

“I don’t have any friends who understand the way I feel.”

“My parents are fighting at home and it bothers me and my sister.”

“Someone close to me or my family died, and I am sad.”

“My pronouns are he/him, she/her, they/them,”

Hearing and reading such honesty from students can evoke strong emotions. Their words speak truth into the role we all have in the lives of not only the academic learner, but the whole child. In short, relationship, mental health, trust, and wellbeing need to happen first before any lessons are shared.

Thankfully, these beginning of year conversations and questionnaires also yield a lot of optimism and hope from students too. They are thrilled to be back with their peers, in their school, and with their teachers. Student voice is often the only fuel I need to fuel my emotional fire to teach somedays. We all need something to get us through tough times when the system is designed counter-intuitively to the needs of the community it is tasked to serve.

3. As you read through the 2nd thing, I hope you did not forget that #hybridhurtskids and #harmseducators. As I start my 3rd week with a mic on my head, a mask over my face, and webcam on, I fear for the disconnect that is happening with my OGs(online guys). Now instead of devoting both ears to 26 students in class, I have one ear for 24 and the other for 2 hybrid learners. As age continues to take away my ability to hear, this concerns me. It’s exhausting and many times I am only able to hear a fraction of what I could when not divided and encumbered by tech.

First, how is this fair to any one child when I can only devote half of my auditory function to a room filled with students? How can students be expected to hear me clearly when I articulate a particular pronunciation to practice in reading or vocabulary when I can barely hear myself with a headset on? And then there are the visual content issues?

Not everyone has a document camera to share texts or show how to share thinking spontaneously or good lighting for hybrid kids to see what is being shared on the board. How are students expected to see what I am sharing when the camera does not focus or adjust? Anything projected to the whole class becomes washed in the worst possible lighting fluorescent bulbs can provide.

Then there is the whole OT and prep teacher transition piece. Connecting is not easy, especially when the tech does not always come with the proper cords from class to class. I now have an HDMI, USB-C, and VGA adapter, but know many educators do not. There are significant gaps starting to happen already and coupled with the emotionally taxing work that is happening, something is going to give. Does this seem familiar?

And yet, this is what is going to happen next…

I am going to teach like I am on a reality show tomorrow. I am going to give the performance of the day. I am going to go home defeated, drained, and desperate to believe that the next time back in class will go without a hitch. I will continue to listen to my students first, honour their voices and fight against the derogation of education by people who have not been in a classroom in decades.

 

 

 

Some days I don’t like teaching

The above title is not a lie, but it hasn’t always been like this. I have no intentions on adding on more unlikeable days either, even while there are forces beyond my control always at work. I am seeking to understand how and why it feels this way?

Prior to January 2020, it would have been easy to count the number of bad days I have had  over 11 years of teaching on one hand – that includes the Laurel Broten years as MOE. Okay, 2 hands #FireLecce. Sadly, a year and a third later, I am using the segments of my fingers too.* I am sure that this admission probably mirrors what many in our profession are feeling whether in class or in virtual school settings. For the sake of this post, I will stay in my lane and write for myself with the knowledge that this is common ground. 

Not that my students would ever notice, but there are numerous days when I find it hard to like what it takes to facilitate instruction of any sort. I am struggling to find any of the profound and prevalent joy that naturally occurs in the in-person classrooms in which I am privileged to teach. While emergency online education has occasional moments of brilliance, they seem more like faded flashes of light than beacons of lasting inspiration lighting the way forward. I perish the thought that this becomes acceptable in education beyond these “extreme and exceptional” circumstances. 

These moments pass through our cold screens as quickly as posts on a social media feed. Lately, it seems as if students have become conditioned to seeking out fleeting moments of happiness/joy while on-line – something akin to the addictive need for instant gratification. They need to know the answers now, and don’t want to wait for them. Are you noticing this happening in your lockdown learning spaces?

At a time when most answers are available to learners by simply opening another tab or pointing an app at a screen, it is hard for students to get excited about “the learning” when it comes without a healthy struggle or a need to problem solve. By being able to get what they need without any demand on their intellect other than Google skills, students are missing out on some deeply foundational learning right now. The issue comes when they are asked to apply some of this instant knowledge to something different that can’t be searched. 

At first, I wondered whether it was the type of questions I was asking. Were the answers googleable? Teachers can fall into that trap really easily, but it can also be avoided by asking students to evaluate and infer as part of their responses rather than to regurgitate the who, what, when, and where answers. I am a why and how guy when it comes to asking questions so most of the literal variables in questioning are out. I suggest reframing questions to help students respond to content in ways that ask for their opinions while using the lesson or text to reference and support their own ideas.

Then I wondered whether the pace of instruction was too rapid? Was I assigning too much? I teach a combined class and try to provide enough time built in for much shorter lessons with considerably more digital supports for students to reference when they are working independently. Providing time in-class, re-negotiating due dates, reminders, and check-ins are all part of the process.

Despite multiple hours of availability on and off line, students have still been struggling to complete work in a timely manner. With so much pressure to keep everyone engaged more content/lessons/assignments get shared over the course of a the instructional week, more check-ins for understanding happen, and the cycle of lockdown learnig online repeats itself. Adding more work was not the answer. Maybe variety is the answer?

So I mixed it up with TED talks, TED Ed lessons, discussions, visual Math, digital manipulatives, assessments with links to prompt and remind students, and some extra time be silly and do Just Dance. That moved the excitement and engagement needle in the right direction and then in the last little while, the cameras began staying off. 

Cue the dots

This is what teaching looks like during a pandemic yet this is the reality of virtual instruction right now. Despite the differentiation it is still hard to find joy or connection in these spaces. At least the sounds of voices and the occasional witty remark in the chat lighten things in the moment. I can only imagine how hard it must be on the students who have been thrust into this virtual maelstrom and expected to perform as if nothing has changed in their lives or the world around them. I am still working on making it better for all of us in the spaces we are forced to occupy right now. In the meantime I am want to make sure that our time is meaningful, fun, and mentally healthy in advance of a return to in-person instruction in the future. Maybe then I can stop counting the unlikeable days and resume counting the amazing ones again. 

Further reading
The Twitter Generation: https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/1182

https://medium.com/launch-school/the-dangers-of-instant-gratification-learning-d8c230eed203

“How can I help?”

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

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

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

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

Attitude of Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

Per / Con / In / Re – form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“I’m Sorry”

“I’m Sorry” 

A combination of words we are all familiar with.

We’ve said them, we’ve received them, we’ve wished for them, we’ve accepted them and we’ve rejected them. 

Humans make mistakes.

Mistakes are the way we grow and learn.

Consequently, this learning process involves others whom our mistakes can directly impact in negative ways. 

 

Professor, author, and researcher Dr. Brenè Brown hosts a wonderful podcast called Unlocking Us which can be found on Spotify or by clicking here (https://brenebrown.com/podcasts/). In a two part podcast from May 6, 2020 titled  “I’m Sorry: How To Apologize & Why It Matters”, Psychologist Dr. Harriet Lerner discusses the power of apologizing and how to apologize. 

Dr. Lerner goes beyond the limits of “I’m sorry” and dissects the anatomy of a true and meaningful apology. Attached are her “Nine Essential Ingredients of a True Apology”. These nine crucial points are simplified for reference but are explained in great user friendly detail throughout the podcast. 

 

How can we use “True” apologies in the classroom? 

Although this podcast is not specific to education, here are my takeaways through the lens of a teacher:  

Apologize to children

  • Dr. Harriet Lerner pleads that apologizing warrants respect. Teachers are human too and we make mistakes. Displaying vulnerability and owning up to the mistakes we make creates a safe space for students to talk about their mistakes and feel encouraged to take risks in their learning. 
  • Getting frustrated is okay – but  Dr. Lerner says, “don’t frame it as an apology”. Sometimes we can get frustrated (again, not robots here) but apologizing for frustrations is not meaningful if the blame is placed back on the student. Example: “I am sorry I was upset but you kept interrupting me”.
  • If we can’t apologize to our students, how can we expect them to understand or feel motivated to apologize to us

Model effective apologies for children

    • Improper apologies can weaken connections and therefore damage relationships 
    • We can keep in mind that apologies are not an end to a conversation but allow for the foundation of further conversations to be had. Dr. Lerner advises that the apologizer does not tack “but” or “I’m sorry you feel that way” to the end of an apology as it “cancels” out the meaning. Add ons do not attempt to comfort the hurt party but rather attempt to justify the hurtful behaviour. 
    • Other unnecessary add ons include: “stand up straight”, “look me in the eye”, “say it like you mean it”, “you should think about it more”. Dr. Lerner says those types of conversations can be had later, but to focus on what is really important between the two people – their relationship and the connection they want to maintain
    • We can teach our students that apologies do not solve everything. One is not required to respond with “That’s okay” when someone apologizes because sometimes it is not okay. Instead we can teach students to thank the other party for expressing their apology by saying, “Thank you for the apology” or “I appreciate the apology”. 
    • When apologizing we should empathize to understand what the other person needs at that moment. We can do this by providing people with the time and space they need until they are ready to talk. 

 

 

Link to part 1 and 2 of Dr. Brenè Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us with guest star Dr. Harriet Lerner titled “I’m Sorry: How To Apologize & Why It Matters” published on May 6, 2020 –

https://brenebrown.com/podcast/harriet-lerner-and-brene-im-sorry-how-to-apologize-why-it-matters/

Compassion Fatigue and Teacher Burnout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toxic Positivity in a Brave New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Engaging with Indigenous Knowledge as a Non-Indigenous Educator

Over my teaching career I have been fortunate to teach in schools with high populations of Indigenous students and to learn from the knowledge keepers and elders in the communities that our schools served.  Admittedly, I haven’t always said or done the right things but I have learned from those mistakes.  As a non-Indigenous educator, I know that I will continuously be on a professional and personal learning journey.  I acknowledge that it is my responsibility to do this learning.  There are resources that I have used along the way and I hope that by drawing attention to the following resources, I can assist others in their learning journey.

In order to avoid cultural appropriation, to honour and respect Indigenous culture and history as a non-Indigenous teacher, it is important to have the appropriate resources. We can’t avoid teaching about residential schools because we don’t feel comfortable.  It is a part of the Ontario Curriculum.  It isn’t just about “history” either.  Current events draw attention to the pervasive issues faced by Indigenous peoples.  These are teachable moments that are authentic and relevant to students.  Students will be asking questions and forming opinions. As educators we have a responsibility to assist students to find accurate and culturally respectful information.

If you are looking for a place to begin in your learning journey, visit ETFO’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education website.  It is filled with cultural protocols, resources and Ministry Documents.  It is a treasure trove of information on treaties, land acknowledgements and avoiding cultural appropriation.  Throughout the literature are hyperlinks for explanations of concepts and lexicon.  Through ShopETFO you can purchase the FNMI Engaging Learners Through Play  resource created for elementary educators which provides play based activities that engage all students.

A quick resource can be found on code.on.ca (The Council of Ontario Drama and Dance Educators). This resource provides a quick chart of protocols on what to do, what to avoid, why to avoid and what to try in order to bring learning about Indigenous culture and history into your classroom.  This document also provides links to videos about Indigenous Arts Protocols, and a quick reference guide for what to think about before engaging with Indigenous Knowledge.

The website helpingourmotherearth.com is filled with tools and resources for educators including videos of Indigenous Knowledge Keepers telling their stories.  There are free educational resource kits with lesson plans for primary, junior and intermediate students.  In addition, you could sign up for professional learning or a workshop on the site.

Like me, you might make mistakes.  However, my Indigenous educator friends have coached me that the worst mistake that non-Indigenous educators can make is to do nothing.  I hope that highlighting these resources will help you along your professional learning journey.

What is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Meeting the Social and Emotional Needs of All Students - MDR

When I started reading Ontario’s 2020 Mathematic Curriculum, I came across “Overall Expectations A. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Skills in Mathematics and the Mathematical Processes.”

According to the ministry document

“This (Math) strand focuses on students’ development and application of social-emotional learning skills to support their learning of math concepts and skills, foster their overall well-being and ability to learn, and help them build resilience and thrive as math learners. As they develop SEL skills, students demonstrate a greater ability to understand and apply the mathematical processes, which are critical to supporting learning in mathematics. In all grades of the mathematics program, the learning related to this strand takes place in the context of learning related to all other strands, and it should be assessed and evaluated within these contexts.”

Social-Emotional Learning will go beyond teaching just Math

“As of the 2019-20 school year, learning about mental health in Ontario schools will take place:

  • through the newly enhanced elementary Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum
  • across the curriculum, as well as in Kindergarten, and
  • as a part of students’ everyday experience at school

Source: https://www.dcp.edu.gov.on.ca/en/curriculum/elementary-mathematics/context/the-strands-in-the-mathematics-curriculum

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) skills

  • “Throughout the curriculum, students also learn to apply SEL skills.
  • Because these skills are so important to students’ mental health and healthy development, SEL is now also a distinct section of the updated curriculum. This new section builds on Living Skills learning from the previous curriculum to help students foster their own overall health and well-being, positive mental health, resilience and ability to learn and thrive. The table below shows what students learn about and why.
Students learn about: So they can:
identifying and managing emotions express their feelings and understand the feelings of others
coping with stress develop resilience
positive motivation build a sense of hope and the will to keep trying for their goals
building relationships support healthy relationships and respect diversity
deepening their sense of self build an understanding of their own identity and feel that they belong
thinking critically and creatively support decision-making and problem solving

Students apply these everyday skills as part of their learning across the other three parts of the curriculum, and in their experiences at school, at home and in the community.

A few examples of how these skills could be integrated with the other three parts of the curriculum (Active Living, Movement Competence and Healthy Living) are outlined below.

  • Grade 1: To learn about positive motivation, students practise showing willingness to try out new skills and keep practising. (Movement Competence)
  • Grade 2: To practise identifying and managing emotions, students try taking a moment to breathe deeply and refocus if they are feeling anxious or upset before starting a physical activity. (Active Living)
  • Grade 3: To build relationships, students working in small groups practise welcoming everyone and being willing to be a partner with anyone in the group. (Active Living)
  • Grade 4: As they learn about coping with stress, students explain how knowing about physical and emotional changes that come with puberty can help them handle those changes when they occur. (Healthy Living)
  • Grade 5: To practise thinking critically and creatively, students make connections between being active, working towards personal fitness goals and mental health. (Active Living)
  • Grade 6: To deepen their sense of self, students think about how stereotypes affect how they feel about themselves and identify other factors, including acceptance by others, that influence their sense of themselves. (Healthy Living)
  • Grade 7: As they learn about coping with stress, students explain how to access various sources of support (for example, school staff, family, counselling and medical professionals) when dealing with mental health challenges or issues related to substance use. (Healthy Living)
  • Grade 8: To practise identifying and managing emotions, students explain how social media can create feelings of stress and describe strategies, such as connecting thoughts, feelings, and actions, that can help maintain balance and perspective. (Healthy Living)”

Supporting students

  • “There is strong evidence that developing social-emotional learning skills at school contributes to student well-being and successful academic performance. Learning about mental health can also help to reduce the stigma around problems in this area. When students understand that many people experience mental health difficulties from time to time, and that there is support available when needed, they are more likely to seek help early when problems arise.
  • As they develop SEL skills, students will also gain “transferable skills” (for example, self-directed learning, collaboration, critical thinking, communication and innovation) and develop “learning skills and work habits” as they learn to set goals, follow through and overcome challenges. These interconnected skills taken together, help foster overall health and well-being, and the ability to learn, build resilience and thrive. Helping students make connections among these skills is key to enhancing their learning experience in school and throughout their lives.”

Source: https://www.ontario.ca/document/health-and-physical-education-grades-1-8/social-emotional-learning-sel-skills#section-1

My first question was where did this initiative originate from?

Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

The concept was first published in 1997 Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators (Elias, Zins, Weissberg et. al., 1997) by the Association for Supervision of Curriculum Development (ASCD). It was coauthored by members of the Research and Guidelines Committee of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). According to CASEL it is a “trusted source for knowledge about high-quality, evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL). CASEL supports educators and policy leaders and enhances the experiences and outcomes for all PreK-12 students.”

CASEL’s “mission is to help make evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) an integral part of education from preschool through high school. Our work is critical at a time when educators, parents, students, and employers increasingly recognize the value of SEL. Together, we are united in our call for schools to educate the whole child, equipping students for success in school and in life.”

CASEL provides training and resources for programs that support social-emotional learning such as:

Second Step “provides instruction in social and emotional learning with units on skills for learning, empathy, emotion management, friendship skills, and problem solving. The program contains separate sets of lessons for use in prekindergarten through eighth grade implemented in 22 to 28 weeks each year.”

Steps to Respect is a school-wide program designed for use in third through sixth grade. Implementation occurs in three phases:  school administrators take stock of their school environment and bullying issues; then all adults in the building are trained; and finally classroom-based lessons are taught.”

In a meta study The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions endorsed by CASEL and written by Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger (2011) universal social and emotional skills (SEL) participants demonstrated improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behaviour, and academic performance where school teaching staff successfully conducted SEL programs.

The use of four recommended practices for developing skills and the presence of implementation problems moderated program outcomes (Durlak et. al, 2011.) The practices used the SAFE acronym (Sequenced, Active, Focus, Explicit).

“New behaviors and more complicated skills usually need to be broken down into smaller steps and sequentially mastered, suggesting the benefit of a coordinated sequence of activities that links the learning steps and provides youth with opportunities to connect these steps (Sequenced).”

“Gresham (1995) has noted that it is ‘‘important to help children learn how to combine, chain and sequence behaviors that make up various social skills’’ (p. 1023). Lesson plans and program manuals are often used for this purpose. An effective teaching strategy for many youth emphasizes the importance of active forms of learning that require youth to act on the material (Active).”

“’ ‘It is well documented that practice is a necessary condition for skill acquisition’ (Salas & Cannon-Bowers, 2001, p. 480). Sufficient time and attention must also be devoted to any task for learning to occur (Focus). Therefore, some time should be set aside primarily for skill development.”

“Clear and specific learning objectives over general ones are preferred because it is important that youth know what they are expected to learn (Explicit). “

In other words, SEL programs must follow the SAFE practices and be well-executed in order to be effective. The meta study noted that only a small percentage of the meta research investigated did follow-up assessments to determine long term efficacy of SEL practices.

The meta study also noted that classroom teachers were the most effective in implementing SEL practices which usually included a specific curriculum and set of instructions such as behavioural rehearsals and cooperative learning. It noted that SEL programs were successful at all education levels.

The meta study included books/articles/reports that ranged in dates between 1955 to 2007 (e.g. 1955 to 1989 work = 25% of research included) and published/unpublished articles/books (e.g. unpublished reports = 19% of research included). The meta study excluded studies targeting students with behavioural, emotional, or academic issues. In addition, the meta study did not note effects on students with special education needs or the impact on students from lowers socioeconomic backgrounds.

Economic Value to Social and Emotional Learning

In The Economic Value to Social and Emotional Learning, the paper noted most SEL interventions had multiple goals and benefits and this contrasted with interventions to improve cognitive test results in a particular subject. The SEL interventions reduced aggression which “may also improve impulse control and later juvenile crime and/or may raise academic achievement”. The “measures of benefits are based upon a limited set of dimensions … actual benefits may be considerably higher if we were able to identify all effects” (Belfield et. al., 2015.) The paper examined the costs of Second Step at $440 per student including instructional time.

What does this mean to teachers?

In my opinion, I am sure that SEL programs do have an impact on students’ academic and emotional success. I also agree that learning should be social, in the context of a classroom, in collaborative groups and through discussions. What concerns me is that in order to be effectively implemented, SEL programs require a great deal of classroom teacher training and program costs.

Ontario’s Mathematics Curriculum includes SEL as a strand within the Mathematics curriculum. The ministry of education states that SEL “should be assessed and evaluated within these contexts.” Does this mean that for each subject like Mathematics, teachers will be assessing SEL skills as a strand of the subject?

I do not agree with Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Skills being included as a strand in the Ontario’s Mathematics curriculum for 2020. I see SEL skills as being incorporated into the learning skills elementary teachers already report upon three times an academic year in the Elementary Report Cards.

I wonder when the SEL resources and teacher training will be provided to Ontario’s elementary teachers. As the The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions paper reports, in order to be effective, teachers must be trained in SEL SAFE instructional strategies. In a time when education budgets are being cut, this sounds like an expensive initiative.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston, PhD

References

Belfield, C., Bowden, A. B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (2015). The economic value of social and emotional learning. Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis6(3), 508-544.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions. Child development82(1), 405-432.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions. Child development82(1), 405-432.

Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M., … & Shriver, T. P. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Ascd.

Zins, J. E. (Ed.) (2004) Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say?. Teachers College Press.

Zins, J. E., Bloodworth, M. R., Weissberg, R. P., & Walberg, H. J. (2007). The scientific base linking social and emotional learning to school success. Journal of educational and psychological consultation17(2-3), 191-210.

Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., & Walberg, H. J. (2004). Building school success through social and emotional learning.