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Opinion, Pathways, School Community, Teaching, Well-being

Creating an Ethos of Care in our Secondary Schools

Relationships, relationships, relationships! It sounds cliché but in fact this is the heart of the matter. Every student has a story and the story is crucial to his or her sense of well-being. It seems easier, more manageable to know the “stories” of our students in the earlier grades. One teacher and one group of classmates equal a family. Where we seem to have more difficulty navigating the storyline is in our secondary schools. Students have many teachers, many sets of classmates, changes throughout the year and from year to year.

Our school is the hub of the community. It is a safe place for students to reveal their story. There are professionals who care. Our teachers want to make a positive difference in the lives of students. However, teachers cannot do this work in isolation. It is crucial to develop practical systems that support their work. They want to impact society and prepare the minds of the future. Where the tension exists is when dealing with matters of the heart, the emotions? This was previously the responsibility of the parents. These were discussions that lived privately within the confines of the family. This has evolved and these conversations are presenting in our schools.

How do we foster an ethos of care in our school that extends beyond the confines of academics? As a school community we have been compelled to answer some hard and challenging questions. How we effectively equip our teachers to deal with students who are struggling? Do we know the true reasons why students are not succeeding? Is it intellect, effort, a lack of support or is it our systems and school culture that need transforming? Do we believe that all students deserve to experience success? How do we define success for our students? Are we just committed to preparing students for the future, for their “real life”? Can we agree that their real life is right now and are we able to assist our students in building their own positive futures? Are we willing to listen to the “stories” of our students and respond appropriately?

Where the tension exists is when dealing with matters of the heart, the emotions? This was previously the responsibility of the parents. These were discussions that lived privately within the confines of the family. This has evolved and these conversations are presenting in our schools.

These challenging questions are at the heart of many robust conversations amongst our staff. The discussions take time and do not happen overnight. There are implications for scheduling, teacher assignments, and the allocation of resources. Most importantly, what success indicators we will accept that we are moving in the right direction as a school and how we will celebrate the successes.

We agree that the most vulnerable times for students are when they experience transition. We have decided to get to know our students prior to them arriving at our door. We begin to work with our feeder schools as early as possible. We identify students who might be experiencing difficulties in their school and family lives. We put our energy into transitioning all students and do not just make room for the “good” ones.

We endeavor to ensure that there is one adult who knows the story of every child in our school community. Each teacher chooses a student to put some extra energy into, to find out his or her story. Teachers agree to document what works and even more importantly what fails. They agree to share this information with their colleagues on a consistent basis.

We have established a Mental Health program in our school. We have 4 youth support workers who act as mentors to students with mental health challenges. We discovered we were losing Grade 10s in their first semester of high school. We have our youth workers spend time in our feeder schools getting to know the Grade 9s. Their purpose is to build relationships and begin the conversations about successfully transitioning to high school.

We invite all of our Grade 9 students who present as having challenges to join us in summer programming prior to their Grade 10 year. We offer two courses that are required for a high school diploma. We staff these courses with “rock star” teachers. These students earn credits for two courses, they get to know us with a smaller student body, they become familiar with the school and our culture of high expectations and they don’t spend the summer worrying about the transition.

We want to debunk the myth that students will be “on their own” once they get to high school. We have built support systems for our teachers and their charges. Getting to know the stories of our students is the only way to begin to deal with the “health” of our school!


This blog post is part of CEA’s focus on student mental health, which is also connected to Education Canada Magazine’s student mental health theme issue and Facts on Education fact sheet on what the research says about effective approaches to improving students’ mental well-being. Please contact info@cea-ace.ca if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.