the eyes tell our stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and in this corner

….weighing in at the size of that giant elephant in each of your classrooms.

Yup, with a sense of timing so impeccably ironic, that it is only achievable by elected officials, we are once again face to face with maskless learners and colleagues.

Oh the freedom!

This all despite numbers related COVID19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths) increasing across the province. Despite a strategic throttling of information from the current government and an ineptly duplicitous media incapable of calling out the “horse hockey” being shovelled at an unwitting public who is either happily oblivious learning how to live with COVID19 or now scrambling to avoid a negative patient outcome for someone in their life who is immuno-compromised.

Another struggle took centre stage the moment the masks were allowed to come off in Ontario. We are once again facing government sanctioned chaos when it comes to public health policy and education in our province and there are signs of  trouble in nearly every public school. #Onted via Twitter reveals numerous schools with growing numbers of COVID19 cases and exposures among their youngest learners. That means more absences (students and staff), more missed learning opportunities, and more uncertainty in schools/homes.

To no one’s surprise who has actually taught in a school over the past 2 years, students, teachers, and support staff  once again find themselves at greater risk of being exposed to COVID19 now that masking has become optional in public schools.*

Thankfully, at the school where I teach, the number of students and staff still choosing to mask up each day remains around 90%. Odd though how that figure corresponds to another public health statistic at 90%. Hint, it rhymes with vaccination rate. Hmm? Yet, that is not the case inside of many other schools and has the potential to be problematic on a number of fronts. I’ve seen this movie before and as I recall, it ain’t a comedy.

The removal of required masking, limited cohorting, mandatory hand sanitizing protocols, and social distancing have not provided me with the peace of mind that the return of such “freedoms” pretends to promise. So what is can a health conscious public educator do while they are now placed on the frontlines of learning to live with germ warfare?

Psst. Running away and hiding are not options.

The safest moves are to continue limiting our own exposure to potential infections by keeping our distance, masking at all times, sanitizing, and limiting our social interactions. Overcoming a global pandemic entering its 6th wave is going to take a little more time. We have gone through so much and have learned an equal amount about ourselves and others.

I can sense that students are still concerned about this too. I have noticed them still sanitizing their hands and trying to maintain their distances with students who have chosen to go maskless in class. Thankfully, I have not observed any social shunning as of yet which makes me hopeful that this will be the case in the general public when ideologies collide as legislated social expectations are gone. It is in this spirit of care and respect that I encourage you all to stay safe and strong as you continue to serve and shine in your classrooms.

* I was going to make a snappy comment about how private schools did not have  to remove their mask mandates while all public schools were ordered to do so, but I could not think of a good way to phrase it without the use of profanity.

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.

2 weeks

Happy December folx,

I’m writing this on a Saturday, and it feels good. I am not sure when it will actually be posted though. It has been a day since wishing my in-class and hybrid learners “happy holidays” and “merry Christmas” so the significance of the next two weeks outside of school coupled with exhaustion, uncertainty, and another COVID19 wave have not hit me, yet.

Did anyone else wake up at their normal time even though the alarm wasn’t set? My body and mind will need some time to sync with the holiday hiatus whether they are ready or not. I am not going to force the issue either. It is important to sleep when you’re tired and wake when you are ready over the next 2 weeks.

I have found it best to spend the first 2 days of any long break keeping regular routines. I do this because of the inevitable let-down that happens once my brain and body realize that it will not be business as usual at school on day 3. I have learned the hard way that not easing into the holidays left me really rundown and often with a cold. As the spread of the recent varient rivals the proliferation of Christmas music everywhere, it is wise not to let your guard down.

The holidays offer freedom that when paired with a built-up desire to cram numerous overdue social activities into a finite amount of time can be very tempting. Self-care over this break needs to be your first priority even when a voice in the back of your head is screaming you forgot something at school. I encourage you to leave your work email alone as much as possible over this time, Being aware of this over extended time away from work has been very helpful to my mind and body.

To admit that this break comes as a relief is the best way to express how it feels today. I am tried, tested, tired, and trying to avoid a tirade from a sensed disappointment in students, their families, and fellow educators all of whom have been left looking for some clarity as to what will happen when we are scheduled to return in January.

At days end on December 17th, there was little evidence of a clear message/acknowledgement from the current minister of education or from many school boards in response to the rapidly changing numbers of new infections in our province. I guess we should be thankful to have made it to the end of this school month, since the numbers of new infections have been increasing so rapidly in and out of schools. This year’s break could not have come at a better time. Speaking of the time, I will continue this post tomorrow. I am off to cook dinner.

Time for a little politics

It’s Sunday morning, coffee pot empty, breakfast cooked and eaten, dishes done, and it’s back to the keyboard. A reread of the previous day’s paragraphs, several phrasing/content changes made, and action. By the way, dinner was delish. Asian inspired pork with a tangerine ginger garlic sauce over rice and stir fry veggies. Yum! It’s go time.

Over the holidays our students will be able to isolate more and monitor their health using the 5 RATs (rapid antigen tests) each was given. Now they can line up with their parents while they get theirs and call it ‘family time’. I am appalled that the citizens of our province have been forced to line up to receive a pack of tests like this will solve the spread of COVID19 and its varients. It did not surprise me either to hear that RATs would be available at some LCBO locations, not all. Now their employees(also unionized) can be run off their feet even more during their busiest time of year.

I think local MPP offices would be a much better location to pick up these tests as it would provide a chance for them to look their constituents in the eye and see what their decisions have wrought. They don’t seem to be doing a lot with their free time out of the legislature other than photo-opping.

Teachers felt the mean spirited message the current government sent them when they were not included in the distribution of RATs. It speaks again to the malicious intent to demoralize a decimated workforce already coping with underfunding,  understaffing, poor public policy, indifference, broken promises, and the visceral contempt of the profession by the current government.

We need to demand better from the people who are elected to serve us. Students, their families, and educators deserve better. We deserve leadership that serves the public and not the profiteers in whose pockets they pander.

Stay safe. Stay strong. In solidarity we stand.

Possibly next time

In my last post parents and guardians, I mentioned wanting to share some further thoughts about communication tips in support of new educators, but that will have to be something for the future.

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.

Tone Policing

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more that it has become easier to vilify the messenger and the way in which the message was delivered, rather than to listen to and reflect on the message. While tone policing has been around forever, the experience of having my words discredited because of “how they were delivered” is something that is relatively new for me. Perhaps this is because I have been speaking up more or simply because others are tired of hearing about their discrimination. 

I remember being in a meeting and after having asked a question about an issue of equity, being yelled at by the meeting organizer because that wasn’t the place or the time for that type of question. Believe me, it’s never the time for a Black woman to ask for equality. I remember another person in the meeting coming up to me after to ask me to share my vision with her, so she could go and deliver my vision to the meeting organizer. They mentioned that I seemed angry when asking the question and that I should have been calmer when speaking. This was highly insulting because, at that moment, I realized that it wasn’t really about the message, it was about who delivered the message. My question, no matter how nicely or calmly asked, would not have been well-received because it highlighted a “problem” in the group. The other person saw my question as being valid in the meeting and rather than in that moment speaking up, they chose to capitalize on my “vision” and consider how they might better be able to communicate my simple question. To this day, years later, this question still has not been answered. To my knowledge, no steps have been taken to implement the much-needed action related to my question. The deflection worked. 

This is just one example of the way in which tone policing works to keep the status quo. It happens in many environments and also happens in schools when issues around changes in practice or policy are brought up. Often those choosing to bring up an issue are racialized and/or marginalized, and it is through our lived experiences that we try to shed light on what is problematic. In these moments we are often perceived as angry, enraged, or upset – which we have every right to be – without actually considering that we already know: that being angry, enraged or upset at work is not permissible for us. We school our words and manage our temperament to ensure we are not perceived negatively and still, any challenge to the status quo, can easily give us these labels. The focus shifts to our perceived behaviour rather than the “problem” at hand. 

In a profession that calls itself a practice, shouldn’t there be room to grow? If we are all on a “learning journey”, why are some so offended at the thought of having something to work on? If ever you find yourself getting defensive by the words of a colleague, someone you work with, or a student, might I suggest you try the following? 

Sit With the Discomfort

Take some time to sit with what you are feeling and consider that perhaps what you are feeling in this moment, might just be a fraction of what the other person might be experiencing on a more frequent basis. If ever I have highlighted a racist or discriminatory practice, know that I have probably experienced this practice many times before – both as a child and an educator. Having to experience it again is uncomfortable for me. No longer can I sit through this discomfort nor will I silently allow for students to sit through the discomfort so that others will be comfortable in their “fun”.

Understand that in education, once we become teachers or administrators, the learning doesn’t stop there. There are always new things to learn and ways to reflect on practices that are harmful and exclusionary. The discomfort that you might be feeling can lead to action and change, if you decide to do something about what was discussed. 

Consider the Message

What is it that the other person wants you to hear? Why or how might this information be valid to your practice and/or growth as an educator? What steps do you need to take in order to bring about change? Consider thinking about where you might be able to do your own learning about this issue. Remember, it’s not up to the person who brought the situation to your attention to relive the experience and teach you how to change. Change comes from doing your own work. 

Act

I can’t tell you how many people have said that they are reading and learning, with little or no action. This reminds me of the James Baldwin quote, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” It’s through action that real change occurs. If there’s all this reading and learning, shouldn’t action accompany it? Shouldn’t there be a shift in practice that is evident? It’s through your actions, that racialized and/or marginalized people will know that you have truly heard the conversations we have been trying to have. 

I do want it to be said that I am not condoning disrespectful dialogue. In no way do I believe that people should be disrespectfully spoken to by others. As someone on the receiving end of some pretty disrespectful and harassing comments, I understand this all too well.  Rather, I’m speaking to the intense need that some have to immediately discredit the words of another when they are called on their discriminatory language and/or actions. It’s easy to say that the person didn’t say what they had to say in a manner that was “nice”. For example, I’m really not sure how you tell someone “nicely” that their words or actions were racist or xenophobic. 

Sadly, tone policing is also often the precursor to campaigns of intense gaslighting in order to make the messenger consider the way in which they delivered their message and to detract from much-needed work to improve workplace conditions for all. When a conversation is one that is uncomfortable, please consider the message, rather than focusing on the messenger. Sit with the discomfort. Do your own learning and act. 

Survival tips

I am not talkative. I will share my voice in writing though. Perhaps it is more a function of selective participation rather than voluntary silence. Writing provides me with some permanence, albeit only in pixels, as much as it does a chance to reflect on the words I do choose to share. Instead of my mouth going off like a cannon. I can chew on my words a bit more before spilling my thoughts on a page. In short, it has been quite a month and if I am going to survive the next 9, I will need to get some things off my mind.

Most of this September felt like driving in the dark of night and every oncoming car had its highbeams on. I found it hard to see where I’m going and it hurts. With so much time staring at a screen now, the additional online professional learning is blurring my vision and I am starting to develop an aversion to screen time. It has me thinking twice about how much I want to integrate tech in my classroom right now too. 

I see your high beams are on, but do you have to drive in my lane?

I have been trying to make sense of the way the government ghosted education, the rising COVID case numbers in schools, and the unconscionable decisions being made by many school boards regarding hybrid learning

This is also what hurts:

Of course it has been completely safe to go back to school this year even though cases are nearly 5 times higher than September 2020.
We have HEPA filters in every classroom. Mine must be hidden somewhere.

Of course the hybrid model will work for families instead of dedicated Elementary Virtual Schools. “Teachers will figure it out.”
We have figured it out by the way. It sucks.

Of course the glaring gaps in equity and decisions made “for all” only benefit the privileged who have the wherewithall and choice as to whether their child stays home or not.
Here’s a terrible camera and headset so you can syncronously miss being present in your physical and digital classrooms. 

It is very clear that the “brain trust” tasked with these decisions declared, “We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas.” I can’t shake these questions: When was the last time any system leaders taught an online class on a daily basis? Where is their compassion, consideration, or consultation with current classroom educators? Why in good conscience would anyone with mental health as a pillar in their foundation allow this to happen? How did they lose their way so completely at the expense of their most valuable resources? It is dizzying. 

How about the feeling of knowing you are going to pass out just before passing out? That’s how it felt when the news of having to teach the hybrid model came down from the folx above. This decisive disconnect was dropped on us without a single consideration of the trauma it would cause in and out of classrooms. It was at that moment when I went into survival mode. I needed to “guard my heart and mind” from diving into dark spaces as it was very clear that no one else was going to do it for me. 

This realization got me thinking about what I needed to do to keep a grasp on my sanity and professionalism in order to do my job in these conditions. Here is what I have come up with so far:
1. Guard your heart and mind. Don’t get caught up in actions and activities that will only stretch you thinner. It’s okay to let someone else lead a meeting or division, run a club (when permitted), or welcome a student teacher. You are allowed to focus on you first. 

2. Resist through rest. I saw this in a tweet from @MsDhillon6A and it really resonated with me. Educators are notorious for taking on too much. We are doers and getters of things done, but we also need to pace ourselves. Teaching is a marathon not a sprint. It takes stamina and determination to maintain a steady pace. The 2021-22 school year is a great time to learn to say no and to let go of extra activities that drain the life out of your practice, body, and spirit.

3. Set boundaries with colleagues, students, admin, and families. There is nothing wrong with having office hours from 8 until 5 pm Monday to Friday. That email reply from the weekend will wait until Monday. You deserve work-life balance not work-work-life imbalance. 

4. Do something for yourself. Take a personal mental health day. Practice good sleep hygiene. Walk, yoga, play pickle ball, or call an old friend who you used to work with to touch base. I like to read, cook, and work on my not so secret goal to be a stand up comedian. As a primary teacher on occasion, I am used to tough crowds so I am half way there. 
And finally, 

5. Don’t silo yourself away. You do not have to go through any of this alone. Share your frustrations, joys, ups, and downs. It is another year unlike any other. Teachers need to know that there are tens of thousands cheering for each other to make it through the day in the service of our students. Tag me anytime via Twitter  if you are having a rough day and need to share. Watch how the #onted family is there to rally and offer kind words of support. 

I’m going to listen to Gloria Gaynor now? Feel free to join me.

 

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.

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. 

 

 

Occasional Teaching Online (part 2 of 3): My Challenges

I will never forget my first supply day for virtual learning. Even though I am early into my teaching career, I believe this experience has changed the way I will reflect on my teaching practice for years to come – dare I say forever?

As I logged onto my first Google Meet with no idea who was greeting me on the other side, so many things raced through my mind and my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. Nerves. Excitement. Fear. 

In my last post I reflected on my realization of the power of connection and children’s drive for relationships. As I continue to venture on with positivity and optimism, I cannot ignore the raw emotions I have felt, the challenges I have faced and the questions I have unanswered. 

 

“I don’t know”. 

 

In my personal and professional life this year, “I don’t know” has been part of my daily conversations with colleagues, friends and family. Last year, saying this out loud would have felt like admitting defeat, accepting failure even. As the uncertainty and the unknown continues, we are being forced to live in a world of “I don’t know”. The challenge is constantly turning the “don’t know” into “let’s try” with a smile on our faces. Of course we want to support our students, their families, and our communities. Of course we want to embrace change, challenge, and even failure. But, the reality is, we are navigating this new path in which there are no correct answers, there is no manual, and there are no instructions.  

Openly admitting what I don’t know feels uncomfortable and scary. But discomfort is required for growth and change. I share my challenges with you as a means of connection. Maybe you don’t know either – and that is okay. Additionally, admitting the unknown provides opportunities to gain insight from those who may know, those who have ideas and those who can say “I have been there, and I know how hard it can be”. 

As an OT I have felt it challenging at times to engage with students who are not turning on their microphone or camera, for whatever reason. I want to get to know them but am also mindful how vulnerable they may feel turning on their video to chat with a complete stranger. How are you supporting student engagement and providing a safe space for all? 

How are you supporting students with special needs, learning challenges and students who are working with limited resources? I once taught in a class where one of the students did not have paper or pencils. 

How are you supporting students through technical difficulties or navigating new online platforms? I have been doing a lot of screen sharing. I often share my own screen and/or ask students to share their screen if they are comfortable. I am finding this method to be extremely time consuming. Although sometimes necessary, it can also be very distracting. When students share their screen, it puts the issue they are having on display for the whole group to see. This can be helpful if someone knows how to solve the problem, or harmful under certain circumstances and can intensify feelings of helplessness for some students. 

 

*Holds breath* 

No correct answers.

No manual. 

No instructions. 

*Exhales*

 

There is beauty in this.

It may be hidden or the view may be obstructed right now. But it is there. Together with our students and our colleagues, we are the creators, we are the inventors, we are the pioneers.