“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.

 

Rejuvenation Through Creation

For me as a kid, there was no better feeling than opening up a new box of 64 Crayola crayons.  The big box with the flip top lid and the sharpener on the side.  I can remember agonizing over which colour to pick first and being so thrilled by the perfection of the colour palette in neat rows in that box.  I loved to draw and colour. I could do it for hours never lifting my attention from the page.  In adulthood, I abandoned doing art for pleasure.  It seemed silly for me to sit around and draw or paint for no real reason.  I felt I should be doing something productive.  A few years ago I began to create art again and realized how much I had missed it and how much joy it brought to my life. I create digital art now, which isn’t quite the same rush as opening a box of crayons but it is easier to share with others-like the picture above.  I have recently learned about the health and wellness benefits of creating. Creating is rejuvenating, it is rest and it is soul food.

Dan Tricarico, in his book “Sanctuaries: Self-Care Secrets for Stressed-Out Teachers”, he talks about how people get lost in an activity that you love so much that the rest of the world seems to fade away.  He calls it a state of “flow”.  I find myself getting into that state of flow when I draw, create music, write, cook or do jigsaw puzzles.  It isn’t that passive state of binge watching something on Netflix.  However, sometimes life’s answer is just that.  The state of flow is active and when I emerge from that state of flow, I feel rested and invigorated.  In Jessie Scholl’s article, “Go With the Flow: How States of Blissful Concentration Can Boost Your Overall Health and Well-Being” she states that, “Flow triggers the opposite of a fight-or-flight response.  Breathing becomes more relaxed, muscles loosen, and heart rate slows.  The specific biochemistry associated with flow varies depending on the activity, but the overall benefits to health and well-being are the same. ”  In fact, a 2018 Forbes article, “Here’s How Creativity Actually Improves Your Health” written by Ashley Stahl, claims that creativity increases happiness, reduces dementia, improves mental health, boosts your immune system and makes you smarter. Well, who doesn’t want all of those things?

You don’t have to be a professional musician, writer, artist or athlete to practice flow.  You can do it with any activity with some level of skill that requires you to pay attention.  It is really a type of active meditation.  Flow can be found with exercise, writing, dancing, baking, gardening, robotics or whatever activity brings you joy.

Don’t have the “time” for a creative pursuit?  It definitely requires some intentional effort to ensure that you take some time each day to pursue what you enjoy doing. It doesn’t have to be for hours but make it a specific small goal. In building anything into a routine or ritual, micro habits are key.  These are tiny steps towards implementation that grow into longer lasting habits. When I started creating art again, I just started with doing 5 minutes a day.  I just drew something.  I wasn’t worried about perfection or even completion.  I started getting lost in the flow and those minutes eventually became hours over time.  I continued to build my time until I created the habit to attempt to do something creative at least twice a week.  Beware of your inner perfectionism critic if you have one, like I do.  Give yourself some self compassion if you get out of the habit.  No one is keeping score and it is meant to be for you and your health and wellness.  When I get lost in stress and the life’s duties I often think, I should probably create something and get into that flow state-it has been a while.  Ultimately, I never regret taking that time away from the rush and hustle.

If your activity is just one more thing on your to-do list, it isn’t going to bring you joy and happiness.  In order for something to really feed your soul, it has to be something you value, something authentically you and something that you want to do because it brings you a sense of flow, peace, focus and energy.  Hopefully you will find something that gives you that “new box of crayons feeling,” whatever that means for you.

 

 

June Tired

Is anyone else June tired in March?

 

The loss of March break has clearly impacted everyone involved in education – students included. The rumours of shut downs coming our way and whisperings of the government cancelling the April break are lurking everywhere I go. The thought of either of these things happening is devastating to me personally for many reasons. 

 

Though we continue to battle a pandemic everyday while committing ourselves to our students, their families and the community – we are tired. We are here. We are doing our best. We are rocking it. But.. we are tired. 

In response to this, I want to get a conversation going. 

What things are you doing for yourself right now? 

Of course, there are many things we are doing for our students to keep learning exciting as we all feel in desperate need of a break. But what are you doing for you? How are you practicing self-care?

Please feel free to comment on this post as a space to share what you are doing for YOU. If you have not done anything for yourself, this is your reminder! 

Take care everyone, secure your own oxygen mask before helping others. 

 

“Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love” – Brenè Brown

Staff Relationships: COVID Edition

Everyone wants to feel welcomed, liked and seen at their place of work.

To me, this sense of belonging provides me with the confidence and the resources to have conversations with fellow staff, ask questions when I need help and create new connections.

As an OT, creating meaningful relationships with staff you don’t see daily can be difficult. 

Add in a pandemic with a side of cohorting, social distancing and a dash of remote learning and, like many other things this year, you’ve got yourself a challenge.

This school year, I started Occasional Teaching for a new school board in late September. For me, more connections equals more work and more valuable experience.

Using social media, I have been able to reach out and connect with educators who are seeking Occasional Teachers that are comfortable working in their classrooms. Social media has been a wonderful space to both talk and listen to other people like me. Together, we support each other through the many transitions happening this year, answer each other’s questions and lift each other’s spirits. 

As we approach nearly a year of connecting this way, it feels like the new normal. Will our days soon return where we can attend PD sessions with dozens or hundreds of others? Connecting, talking, listening? 

As our methods of supporting each other constantly evolve, we must continue to place importance on creating and maintaining relationships – no matter how great of a task this may feel. 

As grateful as I am for these online connections, they don’t feel the same. They don’t completely and totally measure up to sharing a coffee with someone or looking them in the eye across the table.

Human connection cannot be replaced.

How have you been creating relationships with fellow staff this year?

No Tired, Like Online Covid Teaching Tired – Rest, Sleep, Restore

ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students. ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

It’s been 6 weeks since I started teaching synchronously online and it’s draining me. Before the winter break, I was teaching synchronously online and in class. As a few of my students are solely online, I tried to make them feel included in all our lessons. Being physically in school gave me the opportunity to interact with people, from a distance. I enjoyed my days teaching physically present in school.

But teaching online all day is different. Interacting all day in a virtual class forum drains me.

Teaching online is also lonely. Yes, I get to spend my day talking to students through my online meeting platform. But in this lockdown, I am isolated as my partner is often away working for the Red Cross. It’s just me and my 19-year-old cat, Whitney.

When I was teaching in class, I had a chance to go for a walk, stretch my legs, visit with colleagues (via social distancing) and get outside during my recess duty. While teaching solely online, I am stuck in my home office at my desk.

For me, teaching is more than just explaining and guiding via lessons. Teaching is all about reading how students are feeling about their work and figuring out how to help them understand content and the ideas within the content. When I teach exclusively online, I feel blind as I cannot use my senses to read students’ moods and body language. This means I need to focus solely on students voices and asking questions to promote clarifications within students’ work.

One day, it was particularly challenging as I was dealing with a student who was having challenges attending online. I dealt with constant interruptions while teaching. I told the student that I would help them separately on a one-on-one basis. Their mother was also calling me on my cell phone about this student’s behaviour/mood. I heard the student state that “My mom wants to talk to you right now!” I informed the student that I would help them later and that I would call their mother after school was over. When I did go to help the student, they had left the online meeting. Mom did not pick up when I called.

I usually have a solid attention span, but this situation threw me off. While teaching about the surface area of 3D solids, I made a mistake forgetting that the formula for the area of a triangle is base times height divided by two. It was embarrassing but I turned it into a learning opportunity by explaining that I learned about math by making many mistakes.

I find being online all the time, exhausting. It’s pushed me towards burn out were I sit wanting to do nothing. I am also dealing with ongoing insomnia. My mood is leaning towards more being cranky than experiencing anxiety.

Being online sucks my “social” energy until it is gone.

As I try to write about issues that are informative and helpful to teachers, I’ve included some things that I’ve found helpful being isolated during this lockdown.

Acknowledge Yourself

Taking steps to care for yourself is not a selfish act as it is critical to your happiness and wellbeing. Without self care and setting limits with work, your physical and mental health will be impacted. Your effectiveness in your work will deteriorate. Work less to be more effective.

Restore Yourself

Image

Take time to do something you love.

This could be taking up a hobby you’ve  done in the past or reading books you’ve wanted to read. I’ve learned if I work too much, I become less effective. Taking time to restore myself with non work activities makes me more effective as a teacher in my practice. My hobby? I’ve returned to my cross-stitch, focusing on making “Really Cross Stitch” by @haleykscissors which has been fun and cathartic!

Calling Friends and Colleagues

Talking to friends and colleagues connects me to others and gives me joy to hear their voices. I have not seen some of my friends and colleagues, face-to-face, in over a year now. I miss the regular collegial conversations we once had at work. Reaching out to others also supports them in this time of isolation. It keeps us connected, even though we are apart.

Sleep Hygiene

Getting to sleep is an ongoing issue for me. Waking up is worse as I feel like “molasses flowing in February.”

When I am overworked, I find it hard to relax enough to fall asleep. Being relaxed before sleep means sleep comes quicker. I takes steps to make sure that I do not take any stimulants past 1 pm, drinking only decaffeinated teas at night. I even refrain from chocolate.

My need to fall asleep challenges me as my partner virtually falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow. I end up listening to him and my cat softly snore while I toss and turn, flipping like a fish in bed. The worse thing I can do is look at the clock, noting how long it has taken me to get to sleep. Some nights one, two, and three hours pass before sleep finds me.

When reading up on how to get a better sleep, I’ve found some tips that might promote sleep and establish an improved sleep hygiene :

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day (even on weekends!)
  • Set an alarm to go to bed, as well as to wake up
  • Take a bath with bath salts
  • Hydrate with warm caffeine-free drinks
  • Skip alcohol before bed
  • Try to let go of your daily “drama” related to work and/or family
  • Big one for me – stay off social media (I’m known for my late-night Twitter posts)

Readers, if you have any other tips to pass on, please note them in the comment section.

Wishing you more rest, sleep, & restoration,

Collaboratively Yours,

Deborah Weston, PhD

Per / Con / In / Re – form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Hindsight is…

Please don’t make me finish the title until the last second has ticked off the clock. I may have developed a defensive outlook about this trip around the sun. While I know this Gregorian Calender measurement of time will soon be in the rearview mirror of our lives, it is still a battle avoiding the queasiness and wincing that come when I think about all we have been through in 2020. Can resolutions be far behind?

Dang! I just wrote 2020

My understanding, perhaps acceptance, of this year is coming into clearer focus. It has been an extraordinary year on so many levels, and thus a great opportunity for personal growth. It has also been an educational year because, dang, I learnt a lot. 

Dang! I just wrote ‘dang’ again. 

I also taught a lot, and despite it feeling like a roller coaster ride from hell along the way, it meant that there were many lessons for me as an educator in 2020 too. Which made me happy to find this quote below after thinking I made it up myself. 

“If you are not learning, then you are not teaching.” Vernon L Smith*

A wise and gentle reminder that there was always something new to learn about ourselves, the students we teach, and the world around us during periods of unexpected loss, labour strife, professional uncertainty, and a global crisis. Smith’s words echoing loudly as I type. Here’s my version of it à la René Descartes. 

I learn, therefore I am a teacher.

So here is what I learnt from hindsight/2020:

  1. Take time to grieve and offer comfort first when students/families are hurting. The lessons can wait. It hurts to lose a student to senseless violence. Our school felt this very deeply last January
  2. Sometimes governments do not have the best interests of the population in their actions. Standing up to malfeasance and legislated tyranny is the right and a responsibility of all educators. 
  3. Mental health matters more than marks. Students/educators who struggle will not miraculously get better after a call to a helpline or a conversation with a social worker/psychologist. It is a process that takes time and patience before progress. I learned that there is much more to learn in this area to better support students, colleagues, and myself. 
    Remember that no matter how many times people tell you to take care of yourself first, there have to be reasonable boundaries and supports to make that happen. An encouraging message from admin, a Board Director’s email blast, or the Minister of Ed is not going to suffice. Set your boundaries. Do what you can do within them. Take time to be still. The work can and will wait. 
  4. Equity in schools needs to go way beyond a single day in the classroom, Orange/Pink/Purple shirt days are great starting points, but most not become performative events, but rather actionable beginnings to build on everyday in classrooms. There are so many amazing inclusion and equity resources being shared via school boards and social media for educators committed to allyship and activism in areas of Truth and Reconciliation, anti-black racism, LGBTQ2+, and culturally responsive relevant pedagogy. I learned that words in a classroom mean very little if they are not accompanied by opportunities to critically engage learners to become agents of change. 
  5. I learned not all educators are ready to confront their privilege and unearned advantage. I also learned that acknowledging my own privilege comes with the responsibility to examine my pedagogy and practice. It is a chance to unlearn, learn, and then teach. 
  6. If you are going to move into emergency distance learning within a short period of time, take it slow and make sure you have an ergonomic work space for those extended hours of screen time ahead. I learned that not all students have the same amounts of available space or bandwidth required for virtual school. I also had to accept that some students checked out the moment learning became asynchronous. 
  7. Rethink, question, iterate, bend, blend, and break everything you have done in the past to teach. Say goodbye to “we’ve always done it this way thinking”. Reimagine your reading lists, your math instruction, your use of worksheets, your classroom management, and your assessment approaches. This will not be easy, but it will be worth it. Embrace the discomfort. Learn from it, and then teach forward knowing 2020 taught us all so much. 

Thank you for a wonderful year at the speed of education. Please feel free to add what 2020 taught you in the comments below. Cheers to you all, and to a safe trip around the sun in 2021. 

*  There is comfort in the knowledge that the quote above is attributed to a Nobel Prize winning thinker because before checking, I thought the words above were mined straight out of my mind. Needless to say, I am happy to share a common thought in esteemed company. Searching out the source of the quote also allowed me to discover some of Smith’s other vast body of work in economics.

 

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.