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.

#dayofpink

This year, our positive school council committee planned an excited pink day event in our gym for our whole school. Student leaders in grade seven and eight set up, helped lead the stations and cleaned up at the end of the day. Students created posters and made announcements, informing the school during the week about our commitment as a school to stand up against bullying and discrimination. Our school board’s official statement about pink day is as follows:

On April 13, HWDSB students, staff, and community members raised awareness and affirmed their commitments to combat homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying through Day of Pink. The event celebrates allyship and those who take a stand against discrimination and hate.

Students wore their pink/rainbow colours and participated in excited pink day activities. Our activities were:

  •  Bracelet making
  • Colouring pages of the 2SLGBTQ+ leaders from the day of pink website
  • Photoshoot with green screen with the day of pink background
  • Kindness rainbow with sticky notes of positive messages (pictured below)
  • Nail painting
  • DJ station with positive songs
  • Runway with props

Classes came down for thirty minutes at a time and the student leaders facilitated their stations all day long. The excitement amounts the intermediate leaders was so great to see! They have all been looking forward to these leadership opportunities for so long and it was so fun to see how engaged they were all day long. They even swept up their stations without being asked! Not only that, the staff and students were abuzz with excitement as they chatted about how fun the day was. Teachers were talking about it the next day, thrilled that we were doing something exciting for the whole school community once again. Something with a message that we can all stand behind! 

I think it was such a great day and we look forward to planning another whole school event. I know the grade eights are excited to show their leadership schools again, especially with grad so close and grad awards on the horizon! Pink day was a success and it was our first one since 2019. Can’t wait to do it again next year, but with less feather boas!

How did your school celebrate international day of pink? 

The Power of Groups

It has been a full two years without student desk groupings and I had completely forgotten about all the benefits it brings to the classroom. Not only does it brighten student morale, but it provides so many rich learning opportunities. I wanted to dedicate this post to the celebration of being back in groups!

Last year as we all know, (even though we did group work) students had to sit on their own due to COVID regulations. Since I taught online last year, I did not get to witness many group work settings as my students who worked in breakout rooms chose to keep their microphones and cameras off. I was able to witness group chats but nothing is better than in-person group work.

As restrictions are lifting, students are able to get back to some of the simple things they could enjoy pre-COVID, one of them physically sitting beside their peers. ** I created groups in my classroom last week and I cannot express how much of a change it has brought into the classroom. Just having a peer nearby has brought so many students to life, some who have been putting their head down and not participating this year. Now that they are sitting directly beside a group of people, they have no other choice but to become involved in the conversations and the learning around them. They do not seem frustrated at this, rather they are thankful for this new opportunity. This peer support has really helped a lot of my students. I was starting to think that some of my students would never regain the ability to socialize with others but the proximity of their peers has really helped them grow out of that discomfort. About six students decided they wanted to continue sitting on their own, but after a few days of seeing how exciting the prospect of sitting in a group was, they merged groups with nearby friends. These group settings have created new friendships that couldn’t have started without the new group settings.

Having students working nearby each other has also allowed for many group work activities. Some of the ones we have enjoyed in the past two weeks have been:

  • Solving complex math problems, drawing off the ideas of their peers to contribute to their answer
  • Brainstorming about topics such as the forms of bullying, landforms and types of mixtures
  • Solving hands on tasks that involve building structures or mechanisms
  • Students getting help from a friend with spelling (before they had to travel out of their seat to ask for this assistance which wasn’t allowed)
  • Confidence when solving independent problems by comparing end solutions
  • Sharing devices to research as we only have two iPads in our classroom
  • Being involved in conversations which otherwise would have had to take place across the room
  • Continuing to improve collaboration skills which have been on pause
  • Allowing for differentiated instruction opportunities that have been on pause since 2020

I know that groups can pose a classroom management issue such as breaking up group conversations. I am actually thankful for these conversations as before, it was challenging to get anyone to speak to each other. Attempting to chat with someone across the room was actually more disruptive than it is with the group settings. I continue to work on classroom management techniques as I have not had the practice with managing physical groupings since 2020.

I look forward to continuing to look at new and exciting group work activities as we are able to provide these for our students again. We are currently learning about hydraulics in our grade eight science unit so I am looking forward to students creating their own hydraulic machines together. I am also extremely thankful for the new friendships that have formed, especially with it being so close to the end of the year.

I know these successes are small and it may seem silly, but the power of physically grouping students has really changed things in my classroom and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

If you have any exciting new group work activities you have tried, I would love to hear them as it has been a while since I have done some fun team building activities. 

**Note: All of my students that sit in groups wear masks (their personal and preferred choice).**

ETFO’s recent media release related to masking can be found here.

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.

 

…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.

Mindfulness in the Classroom

Are mindfulness activities a part of your program? 

Each day more than the last, it feels like mindfulness activities are being promoted for classroom use as part of a solution to what we are currently experiencing as humans on planet earth. 

I am not a mindfulness or meditation expert, nor am I trained in yoga instruction. 

I am however, a curious participant and reflective user of daily mindfulness opportunities in the classroom.

In a blog post for The MEHRIT Centre titled ‘The Self-Reg View of Mindfulness (Part 1)’, Dr. Stuart Shanker, an expert and leader in the field of self-regulation discusses mindfulness through the lens of self-regulation. He states the goal of mindfulness activities is not “developing techniques to suppress or flee from unpleasant thoughts and emotions” but rather to “pay close attention to them with the hope that, over time, you’ll be able to tolerate things that you have hitherto tried to repress or avoid”. 

Shanker highlights that one’s ability to engage in mindfulness and meditation experiences are not instinctive, for neither adults nor children. He acknowledges that for some people, the “act of concentrating on their breath or their emotions” while attempting to sit still or quietly can bring great amounts of stress or anxiety. 

Shanker cites the work of Dr. Ellen Langer and emphasizes the importance she places on understanding “mindlessness” in order to create an understanding of the term mindfulness. 

 

This resonated with me. 

 

If I am not achieving mindfulness am I engaging in “mindlessness”?

It had never crossed my mind how dangerous this dichotomization could be.

 

Mindfulness or mindlessness?

 

Thinking about those who do not find success or find stress in widely used mindfulness activities… are they still being viewed through a positive lens? How can I expose my students to meaningful mindfulness activities that are positive while maintaining a sensitive and trauma informed approach?

As Shanker points out, a state of mindfulness is unique to every individual person and should be achieved as such. Additionally, what calms you “may change from day to day, even moment-to-moment”. Mindfulness must be differentiated and unique: Like any new concept introduced, students need time, patience, space and practice in order to discover what helps them feel calm and under what circumstances. Contrary to this statement, students also need time, patience, space and practice while they discover what does not work for them in order to feel calm. 

Accordingly, the act of differentiating these completely personal moments of mindfulness feels to me like in order to be genuine, they need to be voluntary. To allow for students to discover their own state of calm: Mindfulness opportunities must be optional. Although necessary, offering students a choice of participation in mindfulness activities feels confusing or worrisome. What if they choose not to participate? Can they match the calm state of their classmates in different ways to avoid disrupting the calm state of others? Should mindfulness be practiced as a whole group? What are the benefits to whole group mindfulness instruction? What are the disadvantages to a ‘one size fits all’ approach to mindfulness?

Have I perfected the use of mindfulness in my classroom? No.

Does this exist? Likely not.

Nevertheless, I continue to reflect on the polarization of mindfulness and “mindlessness” and what this means to me.

What does mindfulness mean to you? How does this influence your teaching practice?

Questions that Matter

My 7/8 students have been learning about data and how it connects to the world around them. Data is more important than ever as it relates to the way our province will go forward during these challenging times. Students were able to comment on how important data is when making decisions that impact our world. As always, I am grateful when math concepts are so easy to relate to the world around them.

I usually end the data unit each year with a survey project that would directly impact their learning. Students come up with some questions that they can ask their classmates and then we use the collected data to start something in the school. Times are challenging right now and it seemed like there was no question to pose to the student body. So, I let my students come up with some questions that matter. Here is what they came up with:

  1. What low contact sports would you like to play? (Options: dodgeball, soccer skills, badminton and volleyball)
  2. What time of day would you prefer to play? (Options: first break, second break or after school)
  3. What days of the week would you like to play? (Options: Monday to Friday)
  4. Who would you like to play with? (Options: mixed classes or class vs. class)
  5. What would you like to eat at graduation?
  6. What trips would you like to go on this year?

Of the six questions, students determined that four of them related to something we could start immediately while the other two were not necessarily good questions for this point in the school year. We started this planning period before the government announced that there could be a return to high contact sports should they be offered in schools. Provision of extra curricular activities is voluntary and a number are offered in my school.

Students got to work with this survey project. They were excited to ask their classmates sport related questions and predicted that volleyball, which has always been the favourite, would still be the favourite. A grade eight made a comment that even though they assume it will be volleyball, it would still make sense to complete the survey to see if their classmates were interested in more than one sport. Although the students in my class know that not everyone enjoys playing sports, they could not think of any survey questions relating to other topics. They noted that since these activities would be played “for fun”, that many students may come out.

Here is how the rest of the project played out:

  • Three students created an online survey differentiating between check boxes and multiple choice questions. They came to the conclusion that students should be allowed to select more than one sport and more than one day of the week but should have to chose between the time of day they preferred the most and the style of play they would most prefer.
  • My class helped me write an email to the six classes we would survey as they acknowledged you cannot just walk into a class without first planning a good time to survey.
  • Students came up with a contact-free way to survey where they had a sanitizer bottle near both devices and had students get called up row by row by their teacher to come complete the survey. They made sure that students who did not intend on participating in these activities should not complete the survey as it would skew the results.
  • We read the results and drew some conclusions.Here were our results:
    87 students completed the survey

Sports:

  • 58 students want to play volleyball
  • 24 students want to play badminton
  • 33 students want to try some soccer skills
  • 32 students want to play dodgeball.

Time of Day:

  • 38 students prefer to play after school
  • 33 students prefer to play at first break
  • 16 prefer to play at second break.

Style of Play:

  • 60 students want to play with mixed classes
  • 25 students want to play class vs. class.

Day of the Week:

  • 32 students would play Monday
  • 24 students would play Tuesday
  • 32 students would play Wednesday
  • 26 students would play Thursday
  • 30 students would play Friday
  • 37 students said it wouldn’t matter to them

Conclusions we drew about the data:

My students were not surprised that volleyball came out on top. They did however share that they did not know that many students would be interested in dodgeball and badminton as they had never been offered before. My students knew that after school would be popular but were shocked it was so close to the first break results. They knew second break would not be popular as most students go home for lunch during that time. They thought class vs. class would be the most popular as we had done a trial survey in our class and it was the most popular vote by far. The last question shocked them the most as they thought nobody would pick Monday. They were confused about the low numbers for Tuesday as it was a random day to have the lowest number of votes.

We then discussed next steps regarding our results. My students thought we would need to:

  1. Meet in their groups to discuss the results of each questions
  2. Write a small paragraph explaining the results of their question
  3. Have a meeting with the principal and vice principal to share the results
  4. Ask permission to run mixed intramurals as previously cohorts could not mix

After completing steps 1-4, the five students who shared the results with admin mentioned that at this time, we cannot mix cohorts. So we will have to run with the less popular result and explain that it could change in the future (class vs. class). Since basketball is running right now as the announcement of changing COVID guidelines allowed high contact sports, we will only have a few time slots to run these sports. As long as students see that their voice matters and their selections inspired programs in our school, then that is what counts!

Something that I did not expect to happen occurred during this survey project. One of my students made a realization that 87 students are interested in these intramurals but only 30- 40 students tried out of the team sports offered at our school. We discussed why this could be and my students came up with many great reasons. To summarize, the pressure of being on a school team may be too much for some and they prefer the smaller commitment of a fun intramural. My students assume that the time commitment of being on a team could have been too large or the pressure of a whole team depending on you being too much. I love competitive sports and I think they are great for students as it teaches them so much when being part of a team. However, I see how beneficial it is to have options for students that may not enjoy that competitive setting.

Our project has come to an end and we are excited to see how students enjoy these new activities at our school. My students will hopefully see that their questions mattered and that they will enrich the lives of students in the school. I think we will even be able to find ways to run most of these programs during DPA time (during the regular day’s schedule).

Provision of extra curricular activities is a voluntary part the work we do. It is important that they remain voluntary. Additionally, it is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic that if they are offered, they are only provided if all health and safety protocols can be observed to protect students and staff.  

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.

Restorative Circle Activities

Students come to school with many issues on their minds and in their hearts. As educators, we can help them process their thoughts and feelings so they can better handle their situations and be more present in class. Restorative circles are a useful practice to do just that. While frequently used to replace punitive forms of discipline, restorative circles are equally important in proactively building the relationships and skills students need to support one another and collectively address the challenges they face, especially during these unsettling and uncertain times for many of our students. Restorative circles are most effective when they’re an integral part of school culture and are embedded in your daily classroom routines. After all, you can’t “restore” a community that you haven’t built or sustained.

Below are some steps and questions I have researched and used that can support you in initiating a Restorative Circles program in your classroom.

7 STEPS FOR FACILITATING MEANINGFUL CIRCLES

  1. Co-create a safe and supportive space: Circles work best if teachers invest time up front to build relationships, develop skills and design a bank of tools to draw upon throughout the school year.

Early in the process teachers and students together explore values—like empathy, patience, kindness, courage and open-mindedness—that are essential to understand and agree upon when sharing openly and honestly in a circle. These include honoring the talking piece, which goes around the circle as an invitation to share while everyone else listens (participants may pass if they don’t wish to talk). Participants are encouraged to speak and listen from the heart with an equitable and inclusive lens. It is important that educators inform participants at the outset that we are mandated by law to report when a student threatens to harm themselves or others, or when students divulge abuse.

  1. Be prepared: Make sure that you, the facilitator, are well rested, calm and focused.

To hold the circle space effectively, it’s important to be fully present and able to manage other people’s stories and feelings as well as your own. If you’re exploring sensitive issues that may require follow up, consider alerting support staff.

  1. Plan ahead: Decide together on a topic or theme that sustains students’ interest.

Find a relevant activity to open the circle space such as a poem, quote or piece of music. A mindfulness activity can also be used to bring students into the space after a particularly stressful event. Look for information to ground the conversation and develop questions and prompts to invite student perspectives into the circle. Keep in mind that the larger the circle the more time you’ll need for the talking piece to go around. Think about how things might unfold and be ready to adapt and adjust accordingly. Make sure to leave time for a closing activity, giving students a chance to transition into spaces that may be less conducive to being vulnerable. A closing activity can be a commitment to safeguarding the stories shared in a circle or a breathing exercise in which we provide students with prompts and time to put themselves back together again.

  1. Invite student experiences into the space: Encourage students to connect with the circle content by sharing stories from their own lived experiences.

Include storytelling rounds by asking students to talk about “a person in your life who…” or “a time when….” Share authentically with yourself. This gives others permission to do the same. Model good listening skills as the talking piece goes around the circle. Be fully present as others speak. True active listening can create the kind of welcoming space that encourages even the quietest voices to speak.

  1. Acknowledge, paraphrase, summarize and practice empathy: Listen closely to what students share so that you can build on their experiences.

When the talking piece comes back to you, touch on what you felt, noticed or heard. If you sense that there was limited substance in the first round, send the talking piece around a second or third time, asking students for deeper, more meaningful connections, reflections, or additions. If challenging or painful issues come up, model agreed-upon circle practices for students to follow. Listening mindfully and being present with other people’s ordeals and lived experiences can create supportive, healing experiences that strengthen community connections and build empathy. If needed, let students know you’re available to check in with them later in the day or week. You might also have them consider speaking with other supportive adults or students to find solace if they’re in need.

  1. Explore what it means to be an effective ally: Beyond creating a supportive listening environment, ask what else, if anything, students need from you and from each other.

Explore how to be better allies in a circle so that students know they don’t need to face their challenges alone. Invite them to talk about a person in their lives who is a good friend or ally, or a person they’d like to have as a better friend or ally. Discuss the qualities these people have (or lack) and how they make us feel. Invite students to talk about a time they’ve been a good friend or ally themselves, and what gets in the way of being our best with one another.

  1. Zoom out to promote understanding on the systems level: Explore whether there are larger systemic forces that underlie the challenges students have touched on (such as racism, sexism, homophobia or lack of access to resources). 

Introduce information, resources and voices that might shed light on how these systems operate. Look for examples of people who took action to interrupt these and other oppressive systems. Invite students to connect to this information by sharing their thoughts, feelings and related experiences. Studying larger, systemic forces in society can help students better understand their situation and can be a useful starting point for students to become more active themselves. Action and activism can inspire hope, connection and healing.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjVI-1XDX_Y

Circle time questions – Exemplars

Getting Acquainted

– What is your favourite…?

– If you had $1000 what would you do with it and why?

– How would your friend describe you, or how would you describe yourself to someone new?

– What do you like (or dislike) most about yourself?

 

Values

– Give me an example of when someone has been kind to you in your life (or when you have been kind to someone)? How did that feel?

– What do you want to contribute to the world; How do you want to be remembered?

– Share an example of when you did the right thing when others were doing the wrong thing, or when no one else was watching

 

Story Telling

– A time when you were scared to do something good/important, but you did it anyway

– A time when you laughed a lot

– What (silly/funny/crazy/weird) thing did you used to do when you were little?

 

Achievement

– One thing I couldn’t do a year ago… 

– One of my goals this year is…

– Something I can’t do but want to be able to do by the end of the year is…

 

Behaviour / Conflict

– Share one thing that makes you annoyed.

– Share a time when you were upset but then someone made you feel better.

– How can you show respect to others?

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. 

Saying you care is not enough…

This month, students in our board completed a survey where they answered 60 questions related to their feelings in school. They answered questions about many topics which I assume will give a detailed account of how students view our board. Some of the questions were:

  1. How often are you taught about women, people of colour, Indigenous People and the LGBTQ community? (Often, sometimes, not at all)
  2. How often do you see posters around your school that you feel reflects an image of someone that looks like you?
  3. Do you feel safe when you come to school?
  4. Do you feel you had at least one caring adult in the building?
  5. Do you feel people would miss you if you were not at school?
  6. Do you have a friend/friend group at school?
  7. Do you feel that you have a purpose in your school?

As a grade 7/8 teacher, I know from experience what the answer to most of the above questions would be. Intermediate students often feel that they are never represented, that they are unsafe at school, that they can’t relate to any adults, that they are not relevant and that they do not belong. That is often the case in the intermediate grades because students start to reflect on the “perceived unfairness” of the world around them. But how do we as educators address these issues and the lack of sense of belonging that these teens feel?

These surveys were anonymous. So, unfortunately, I will not be able to see how my students answered the survey. Our board will share the results eventually which I am sure will create a need for new learning. However, our student success teacher created a similar survey last month and I was able to view the results to that survey. The answers shocked me. The students who I speak to the most during the day (since they often approach me for help with their relationships) shared that they felt they did not have a caring adult to speak to in the building. The students who appear to have the most friends shared that they feel that they have no friend group and that no one would miss them if they were absent from school.

I knew I had to have some private conversations to address these concerns, especially about the fact that they cannot connect with any adult in the building. The conversations that followed were very interesting. They knew that the staff would listen to what they had to say but they felt that they just pretended to care. They felt that they would only listen because it was their job, but that they didn’t actually care. It was very hard to convince my twelve and thirteen year old students that I would truly care about something that they were going through. Whatever had happened to these students in the past had led them to believe that adults would say one thing and mean another. I have a long road ahead to show these students that the teachers in their life will always be a positive support system.

I think it all comes back to instilling a positive class community. Taking time to have those conversations with your class about holidays that they celebrate, starting every Monday off with conversations about their weekend, taking time for fun activities are just a few things that can be done to show your students that you care. Also, remembering that at all times, the curriculum comes second to your students well-being and self-worth. I recognize once again the importance of creating that classroom community in September and remembering to take the time to listen to a student’s needs, even if it is when you are about to run out of the classroom at break. Actions speak louder than words and especially after that long period of online learning, students need to be reminded that we are there for them and that we care. Not because we have to but because we want to. I will continue to remind my students of that throughout the rest of this year, because saying that you care is not enough, you have to prove it.