no cape required

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading and for sharing your superpowers. 

Please note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

Teachers’ Mental Health – We Need Care Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ants and hot coffee

It’s October’s end and everything is happening at an accelerated pace in education and in nature. As the trees offer their final gifts of colour to cherish before winter, I have been as busy as one of Aesop’s ants in my classrooms (real and digital). This is because I am doing much more work this year even though my assignment is basically the same as last year. Last year nearly broke me and I chalk it up to many decisions which were made on my behalf and all educators by people in places that resemble boardrooms more than classrooms. 

If you reread this cautionary fable, you might get the idea that many of our leaders did a lot of fiddling and fussing over the summer because it certainly doesn’t appear that they prepared for the season we are now experiencing in education. To make it even worse, not a single grasshopper asked whether any of the hard working ants wanted to hear the song they were playing over and over again at full volume. 

For all teachers, regardless of years of experience, the start of school this year might be best described as chaotic and work filled; much like an ant colony preparing to survive a cold winter ahead. Now, a bit of chaos is fine and can be expected each September. It is such an exciting time for students and staff. This year was no different. I actually prepared myself for a little more leeway in my planning to help students transition back to classes in the hopes of creating a safe space for them to land from the year and half before. This meant a lot of reviewing and scaffolding rather than brewing up fresh batches of new learning. 

This approach made a lot of sense for me especially as we are now entering our 3rd year of learning in a global pandemic. In any ‘normal’ school year, routines and rhythms are usually set in place by the first 20 days. Reviews are done and it’s grade level lessons until June the following year.  However, it’s been 2 months and although some normalcy exists, I feel that more time is needed to get students back to pre-pandemic learning. That extra work I mentioned at the start is a direct result. With students online and in-class prepping materials for both groups is adding an extra hour to each day to ensure continuity. Organizing assessments also comes with its share of work. Add in the difficulties students have with tech, WiFi, and their own burnout and you quickly arrive at the conclusion that that all of this is tiring and trying. It is also a bit traumatizing. Kind of like having hot coffee spilled on your hand the moment you pick up a cup.  

Imagine going to your favourite coffee shop and when your order arrives it is filled to the brim so fully that any movement spills that precious elixir over the sides and burns your hands. As a reflective practitioner, I wonder what I did wrong? How come after hundreds of cups of coffee they filled mine to the point where there was no room to move without being burnt? Upon further reflection though, comes the realization that this is not my fault and that I was given a situation which was nearly impossible to handle without a mess or suffering. Each time this has happened to me though, I have never let go or dropped the cup. I see this same commitment, determination, and strength mirrored in educators who choose to persist and hold on despite being handed impossible circumstances. 

Next Monday, me and all the other ants are lined up at that coffee shop hoping that today we don’t get burned, and that there will be enough room left for a little sugar and cream to stir in to suit our taste. It’s November, Spring is around the corner and there’s work to do before the leaves wither and the snow flies. 

This is not my first blog about the currently dissonant state of learning right now, nor is it my first blog about ants. In 2014 I shared this one after Deborah Gordon’s inspiring 2014 TED Talk.

And in case you missed it in my post last month.
Please note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

Reminders to Myself

We have entered into more new territory this year as educators. In the 2019-2020 school year, we moved to emergency virtual learning. In the 2020-2021 school year, we navigated teaching in a pandemic. 

For the 2021-2022 school year, I like to call this new territory ‘still’ teaching in a pandemic. 

 

S    t   i   l    l.  Teaching in a pandemic. 

 

Our students feel this, their families feel this, and we feel this. 

Educators work hard every single day to create safe spaces for learning while supporting students mental health and well-being.

Students are exhausted. We are exhausted. We continue to listen and learn from students in order to be responsive, proactive and available to meet their needs.

If you’re anything like me, you’re constantly giving your students reminders.

Reminders to be brave, to take risks, to be kind. 

Reminders to be themselves, to take breaks, to breathe. 

Reminders that it is okay not to be okay, to feel sad, to cry. 

 

Are you giving these same reminders to yourself?

 

I decided to create a short, easy-to-remember list of reminders for myself. Here are my personal ‘words to live by’ for this school year: 

 

  1. I am enough. I often compare myself to others and feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. For me, this can feel like I am not doing enough to support my students, their families or involve myself in my school community. I will remind myself that I’m doing all that I can, with all that I have, and all that I know – I am on my own journey. 
  2. I deserve self-care. It is easy to spend each evening and weekend – working. I will remind myself it is okay to take breaks and enjoy the things I love (and that enjoying my weekend doesn’t mean I love my students any less). 
  3. I am human. I will make mistakes – and I will learn from them. I will allow myself to feel and give myself time to process strong emotions. 

 

You are enough, you deserve self-care and you are human.

 

What will you remind yourself of this year?

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

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.

 

A world at our fingertips

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

Anyone else miss yard and bus duty?

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

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

What’s keeping you connected?

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

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

Sometimes the supporting cast gets into the main shot.

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

But seriously folx.

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

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

“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

Nothing changes but the day

Vernal Equinox

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

For better or worse? 

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

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

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

Gorilla in a sport coat

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

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

Is it me or are things getting heavier?

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

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

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

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