surviving and thriving - view on the road

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School Community, Teaching, Well at Work, Well-being

Surviving and Thriving

Navigating wellness in northern and rural school communities

Teaching in northern and remote communities can be an intense, even overwhelming experience – and the result can be exhausted, struggling teachers. The authors present seven dimensions of wellness as a framework for nurturing both personal and collective wellness in the context of rural and remote schools.

Dawn’s story

My first year of teaching was an emotional rollercoaster. I cried. I laughed. I cry-laughed. In the span of one academic year, there were suicide attempts, deaths, high rates of teacher attrition, and school closures. These traumas were compounded by the poverty, lack of food security, and unsafe drinking water in the community. I was a brand-new teacher teaching high school in an isolated First Nation community in Northern Ontario and I was filled with both excitement and doubt. I was drowning in student debt, completely removed from my family and support network, and working harder than ever to be the best teacher I could. What I know now, that I didn’t know then, was that you can’t out-teach trauma or grief, and you can’t out-teach a complete lack of well-being. I tried to, but I couldn’t.

I didn’t know about wellness in the same way I do now.

I realize now that my wellness was deeply compromised – financially, socially, physically, environmentally, and intellectually – and I didn’t even know it. I thought I needed to toughen up; I just needed to get through the day, the week, the month. But at the end of each day, each week, and each month, I was depleted and drained. I had so little left to offer my students. They were resilient, supportive, and strong, not me. I didn’t know about wellness in the same way I do now. I knew about physical health and why it was important. I knew I needed to exercise and eat well (neither of which I did) and I knew mental health mattered, so I talked to colleagues and tried to offer and gain support when needed. But that was the limit of my understanding about wellness and the limit of my embodiment of it. I never thought to access counselling support from someone like my co-author Elaine, or to seek help from veteran teachers, family, or administration. I just white-knuckled it through three full years of teaching. In the end I left my teaching position to pursue a PhD and, quickly thereafter, I crashed. I was riddled with anxiety, battling weight gain, taking on more student debt, and attempting to fend off looming health concerns. I was forced to begin a long journey in learning about wellness and how to prioritize my own.

That journey has led me here, to writing this article that you are reading today. It also led me to the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge, where I’m an associate professor and where I met Dr. Elaine Greidanus. When I met Elaine, we shared stories of the North: the long drives, the intense cold weather, the amazing people, and the communities and cultures we were privileged to learn from and with. Whether in Alberta or Ontario, our experiences merged and as a result we have pursued a research agenda and teaching opportunities that have centralized the wellness of educators.

Panoramic landscape of snowy mountain with the sun rising in the horizon.

Elaine’s story

Every two weeks I would leave my home in Edmonton at five in the morning and make the five- or six-hour drive to the community I was to work in. I marked the time of the year by which town I drove through as the sun came up. In the summer, the sun was just rising as I left Edmonton; in the spring, I would witness the sun rise over the farming fields around Westlock; and in winter, the sun might just be rising as I got to the community for that day. Often, I would not see anyone else on the road, except the moose, coyotes, deer, bear, and lynx.

I made myself available to help in any way that I could.

Some school days, I would complete one or two psychoeducational assessments with students who were struggling to meet the educational goals that were set for them. On days when there were no assessments to complete, or the students were not able to attend that day, I made myself available to help in any way that I could. Each school had their own ideas about the best use of my time. On occasion, I was asked to meet with students who were feeling upset, coach inclusive education teachers on how to design or implement individualized plans for students, or speak with principals about the ways to approach mental health challenges that arose in the school.

Whenever possible, I made it a priority to be in classrooms with teachers who invited me to provide feedback on their students or their own teaching approaches, and at the end of the day I stayed as long as possible to talk with those teachers who wanted to talk. Every teacher I met was open to talking about their experiences in the school, and many shared their own personal struggles with working and living in a remote community. Because I was not directly employed by the school, they felt I was far enough removed to be impartial. Because I was a psychologist, I was “professional” enough to hold their confidences, and because I worked in the communities, I understood enough for them to share their stories with me – stories just like Dawn’s.

Finding occupational wellness

You can’t pour from an empty cup! As a teacher, you have heard this said several times, and perhaps even said it yourself. The statement resonates with us; it reminds us to take the time we need to be our best selves, so we can best support our students. However, research shows that the wellness of educators is much more complicated than this. As educators, we are part of a greater community and even if we have a full cup individually, the collective cup (the school community, the families, and students) may not be full. This impacts the day-to-day experiences in every classroom. So, how can educators situate themselves and their understanding of wellness both individually and collectively in order to thrive and not just survive?

Wellness can generally be defined as an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.1 The “7 Dimensions” model of wellness (below) is a strong fit with the practice of educators because it highlights the diversity of wellness needs and provides a practical framework to develop wellness both individually and collectively.2

Figure 1: 7 Dimensions of Wellness

Dimensions of Wellness

In Northern and remote locations, the dimensions of wellness are often more deeply intertwined. Colleagues are friends, parents and students are neighbours, and social interactions take place in school settings with colleagues and the greater school community. Living, working, and socially interacting with the same pool of people in common places compound and intensify all seven dimensions. The occupational dimension of wellness is of vital importance and relevance for those educators who find themselves part of small school communities where the borders between school and home are blurred. A concerted focus on the occupation dimension can be very useful for educators in Northern, remote, and rural school settings as a means of developing collective wellness.

Consider these “3 P’s” for developing a collective occupational wellness: 

1. Pedagogical Alignment: To increase your satisfaction and challenge yourself, seek out and explore various pedagogical approaches that align with your philosophy of teaching and learning.

2. Professional Networks: Reach out and develop networks of peers within and beyond the school to expand your connections and contribute to a healthy and productive dynamic.

3. Positive Perspective: Contribute to a positive, growth-oriented working environment by seeking solutions, thinking forward, seeing challenges as opportunities, and expressing gratitude. Adopting a growth mindset can help to actively challenge limiting frameworks such as black-and-white thinking, overgeneralizing, jumping to conclusions, personalizing, catastrophizing, and blaming.

Not only can the seven dimensions of wellness serve as a framework to support collective wellness; they can also generate a strong foundation for addressing and developing wellness at an individual level.

The “3 S’s” can guide you in developing individual wellness:

1. Self-Assessment: Identify the wellness dimensions that are already strengths for you and those areas that you want to learn more about. To assist you in identifying these areas, consider using a self-assessment tool that attends to different aspects of wellness, such as the one provided online by Simon Fraser University.3

2. Strategic Wellness Planning: Based on the wellness priorities you have identified in your self-assessment, be strategic and choose just a few to focus on during one timeframe. Design a plan to address those specific dimensions, using a SMART goals approach.4 If possible, find an accountability partner to check in with periodically to see how you are both doing in terms of addressing your wellness. As time progresses, revisit your plan and adjust according to what your needs and current realities or limitation are.

3. Seek Support: Reach out through your networks, such as an employee assistance program, community programs, or social networks. Meet with a counsellor, try a meditation class, join a walking group or a book club, or download (and use!) a mindfulness app. As you work through a self-assessment process and develop a strategic wellness plan you will, more clearly, be able to identify what types of support to seek.

 

The wellness of educators in all school settings is a vitally important aspect of the teaching profession. Research indicates that when educators address both individual and collective wellness needs, rates of teacher attrition decrease, school dynamics improve, and ultimately students benefit. Addressing and developing a culture of wellness for teachers and in schools is no easy task. Working on the three P’s and the three S’s will help develop a strong culture of individual and collective wellness and will ultimately serve to improve school environments for both teachers and students. This is especially important for those Northern, rural, and isolated school communities where the spaces between individual and collective are narrowed.

It’s been more than ten years since Dawn started her teaching career in Northern Ontario. She says, “Since then I have devoted much of my time both professionally and personally to wellness. I have never felt better, more motivated or more passionate about teaching. I exercise, eat well, seek support, and develop wellness plans that I share with my accountability partner. That being said, I have days, and even semesters, when I am exhausted, stressed out, and feel hopeless at times. But when those days or semesters come, I revisit the 3 P’s and 3 S’s and I work at my wellness, the same way I work at my lesson plans and assessments with students.”

After all, teachers who are well will be our best teachers.

 

Photo: iStock and Adobe Stock

First published in Education Canada, December 2019


2 Adapted from Alberta’s Strategic Approach to Wellness: Health for all… wellness for life (Government of Alberta, Alberta Health: 2014).

4 SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. https://alis.alberta.ca/plan-your-career/set-smart-goals

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Elaine Greidanus_headshot

Dr. Elaine Greidanus

Assistant Professor, University of Lethbridge

Dr. Dawn Burleigh is a former high school teacher in an isolated First Nation community and an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the Univers...

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Dr. Dawn Burleigh_ headshot

Dr. Dawn Burleigh

Associate Professor, The University of Lethbridge

Dr. Elaine Greidanus is a registered psychologist who has worked in schools and health centres in a number of First Nations communities i...

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