OVER TEN YEARS AGO, the Urban Communities Cohort (UCC) was established at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education to ensure teacher candidates were better prepared to work within urban priority schools (UPS’s). We (a group of professors, school administrators, and educators in the field) saw the need for teacher candidates to be ready to challenge inequities that were pervasive across priority schools. In many ways, the initiative grew out of our collective frustration at the resistance to change throughout the system that is linked to institutional and systemic racism. For example, we observed:
The UCC was originally framed as a way of supporting teacher candidates to engage with students and teachers in UPS’s and to advance their own understanding of equity and social justice. In this article, we trace the evolution of this school/university partnership that began with the UCC and a focus on teacher candidates, and led to further spaces for critical conversations that continue to provoke and support our unlearning and learning. What has emerged over the past decade is more multifaceted than we could have first imagined.
Let’s step back and consider the beginning. Linda, a university researcher and lead author of this article, spent three months immersed in one UPS where she spoke with everyone – students, custodial staff, teachers, and administrators – to gain a critical understanding of the culture of the school (Ibrahim et al., 2012). This school, like the other 32 designated as urban priority schools across Ontario, had very low scores on Grade 9 and 10 literacy and mathematics standardized tests, a history of comparatively high suspensions and expulsions, and a public perception of being a “difficult school,” perhaps even a “failing school.”
The in-depth ethnography revealed what the administrators and educators within the building already knew – that the profile failed to capture the calibre of the educators and students; it missed “who and what we were in the school,” as one staff member put it. The EQAO scores measured where the students were at a point in time, taking no account of where they had come from or their future promise and potential. The school population included newcomers to Canada, along with youth displaced by conflict, who may have spent recent years in refugee camps and who might not have had consistent schooling even in their own language, let alone in English or French. For these students the school was a safe haven, a building with walls as opposed to a tent. Yet if the school was to support all of these students in their learning journeys, there was a critical need for a teaching staff who were better equipped to do this work.
So began the partnership through which teacher candidates and university professors became part of the school community. The UCC supported teacher candidates to develop culturally sustaining, relevant, and responsive pedagogy, and immersed them in urban school communities from day one of their teacher education program. University classes were taught within the building and the school administrators were integral to the teacher candidate’s professional learning – speaking to teacher candidates on the first day of school, walking them through the corridors, welcoming them for their required school-based practicum, inviting them to experience and feel what it takes to become a teacher committed to social change.
Hard Conversations was started by Kristin Kopra, Sherwyn Solomon, and Geordie Walker, who are lead partners in the UCC. This initiative brings together school administrators and university researchers to engage in challenging conversations about what is happening in their schools. Over the past four years, this group has worked outside the school board, gathering in their own time to examine the relevant research, understand their own positionality and roles, grapple with systemic biases within their schools, and most importantly commit to actionable strategies they can take back into their daily practice. Their goal is to first understand and then dismantle systemic barriers so they, as school leaders, can better serve Indigenous, Black, and racialized students, families, and communities. Put simply, group members consider their role in perpetuating inequities and what each individual can do to change practices in their own schools. Kristin, a UPS principal who began as a program lead for Indigenous education, explains why the group was started: “We didn’t do it for any other reason than we need things to change for kids in schools.” Many of the topics taken up in this group focus on the power of administrators and teachers and the damaging choices that the Education Act legitimizes.
Now in its fifth year, the group has grown to well over 70 colleagues engaged in these critical conversations. Membership is open to all and includes school and central administrators, senior staff, managers, University of Ottawa professors, and sometimes teacher candidates. Meetings have varied in frequency and in format, ranging from small group pods to larger university-based weekend-long conferences (including guests such as leading researchers in equity and racism and Indigenous leaders).
An example of the work of the Hard Conversations group is challenging the disproportionate numbers of suspensions for Black, racialized, and Indigenous students. Kristin recalls from her own school’s statistics in her first year that “if we were not the highest, we were the second-highest in the district; ridiculous!” This reflects what Sherwyn refers to as “hard-baked” structural obstacles, where our ignorance gets perpetuated as law. In Ontario’s Education Act the suspension of a student is at the discretion of the principal. While administrators might be well-meaning, Sherwyn underlines, “A principal’s perspective on what is acceptable school conduct and what is not is often colonial in nature, as these emerge from the imperialism that has had an impact on what schools look like across the globe.” There is no learning in a suspension, which reaffirms the exclusion of the student and causes harm that may reverberate for generations. The data speaks for itself in Ottawa schools: if you are Black or Middle Eastern, you are two and a half times more likely to be suspended. Hard Conversations provides a forum where administrators can examine critical questions around the discretionary suspensions for which they have authority, such as: How does removing students from what might be one of their few safe spaces serve already vulnerable students? How might race be playing into our suspension decisions? What will you do differently rather than suspend Black youth? The conversations, critical reflection, and transformations in principal practices emerging from Hard Conversations should be celebrated. But we are mindful that they represent a small initial step within some schools, and that colonialism pervades our education systems and guides decisions and practices that retraumatize those who have already been traumatized. As educators we ask the question, how can we avoid the re-traumatization of marginalized individuals and groups?
In our ongoing university/school partnerships to support teacher education, in-service educators, and youth, we are repeatedly made aware of how each of us is unlearning and re-learning in our work with students, student teachers, and in relations with each other (Donald, D. 2022). We recognize that we are all, regardless of ethnicity and positionality, impacted in our work and relations by colonial structures.
Our conversations bring to the surface what we have been taught and raised to believe – certain narratives about society, about other people, about positionality – and the structures that support these narratives. These histories and understandings have been passed from parents and grandparents and transmitted to us in institutions such as schools and universities. They become what we know to be true. But what happens when we start examining these past truths in light of other realities we see around us, and question if our long-held narratives are true? Geordie, former principal and now part of the UCC teaching team, asks, “Why is it so hard for me as a white person who is a dad to believe it is necessary for my Black friend or Indigenous friend to teach their kids to proceed with extreme caution in police interactions and how to survive an arrest, when that was never part my children’s education or learning?” With this question, he underlines that it starts with the individual journey. He shares that his own decolonization process is about “becoming as educated as you can about the past.” Understanding the past and the present context as educators and as teacher educators requires an openness to examine history, to recognize or acknowledge what culture is, whose it is, the backgrounds of the people in our schools, and how they see their own history from different perspectives.
At Le Phare Elementary School, Sherwyn has established an Equity Advisory Committee, a parent group that names and challenges social injustices and advises on things they would like to see going on at the school. As part of the district and school learning plan, Sherwyn encourages his school community to incorporate more Algonquin teaching, learning, and understanding, as well as more knowledge of the school experience of Black and other marginalized groups. Sherwyn argues that such initiatives go part way to addressing racism like that he experienced in his own childhood as a Black newcomer to Canada – such as having to learn to speak without his Caribbean accent, and the colonial violence he and his family faced as immigrants. Across the school district, student groups, such as the LGBTQ2+, Indigenous, and Muslim student groups among others, are being led by people with that lived experience. This school-based change has not come without resistance, and equity coordinators have had to work tirelessly to demand that, after years of being pushed to the margins as “urban problems,” these groups are placed at the centre stage of education.
Since the beginning of the UCC, decisions made at faculty and program levels have presented structural and other challenges. For example, from the start of UCC, cohort leads worked with school principals to create UPS practicum placements for UCC teacher candidates. Recently this has been discontinued by the Faculty, and UCC teacher candidates find themselves with placements across the spectrum of local schools, while other teacher candidates unaccustomed to urban priority schools are posted in the UCC partner schools. Additionally, we have now seen the community service learning component, where all UCC teacher candidates would become part of the school community at the start of the school year, come to an end. Despite these ongoing challenges, we continued to invest in the UCC by gaining research funds to support critical learning possibilities for educators (pre-service and in-service). In particular, we worked with civics teachers in UPS’s to open up spaces for students to find different points of entry into that course. This was done by inviting students to share their lived experiences – either as newcomers to Canada, as long-time settlers, or as First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples – first and foremost in this course. Working within these diverse contexts, we have attempted to contribute to a decolonizing process by breaking down subject silos and enabling interdisciplinary learning through a pedagogy of relationship building within and beyond the classroom.
After 30 years in education, Geordie perhaps conveys best what education and teacher education might look like in practice: “It is about prioritizing relationships over curriculum, being humble, and learning from kids.” When we think about our own work of unlearning through UCC and Hard Conversations, we envision educators (ourselves, teacher candidates, teachers, and school administrators) coming to education not because we are specialists in a subject, but because first and foremost we want to serve students and build relationships. As educators, we need to be able to put aside our biases and prejudice and embrace whoever comes through our door and provide a sense of belonging for every student in the classroom regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, language, or any other false barriers. In the UCC, we are supporting teacher candidates and teacher educators (ourselves) to engage deeply with teacher identities and lived histories, and to examine the truths and untruths we hold on to. Decolonizing teacher education requires providing opportunities for teacher candidates to build relationships based on care and compassion that prioritize students’ potentials and possibilities and reject deficit thinking.
THE UCC PARTNERSHIP has provided a space for multiple and ongoing hard conversations and professional un/learning across university and school contexts. A decade of critical conversations, research, and collaborative action in the service of students in urban priority schools has transformed our own practices in university and school classrooms. In our shared quest to unlearn taken-for-granted assumptions and “truths,” we continue to challenge ourselves and each other with the responsibilities we have in relations to each other and with students, families, and communities.
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Ibrahim, A., Radford, L. et al. (2012). Urban priority program: Challenges, priorities and hope. Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.
Donald, D. (2022, September 19) A curriculum for educating differently: Unlearning colonialism and renewing kinship relations. Educating Canada, 62(2). https://www.edcan.ca/articles/a-curriculum-for-educating-differently/
Many workplace well-being initiatives in Canadian school districts originally developed approaches focusing on the individual, such as mindfulness, improving sleep patterns, doing more exercise, and improving diets. This approach was critiqued as limited by those who felt such a focus ignored systemic factors, like class size and workload, that can impact teacher and staff well-being. As Chelsea Prax, programs director of children’s health and well-being at the American Federation of Teachers, said in an Education Week article:
“You can’t deep-breathe your way out of a pandemic; you cannot stretch your way out of terrible class sizes; you cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems. Those are effective coping measures, but they don’t change the problem”
The notion of systemic change in some literature states or implies system transformation: radical overhauls of K–12 school systems to replace allegedly creaking systems with brand-new models in a brave new world. Well, brave new worlds come and go. Concepts and trends emerge, peak, and falter, yet education systems somehow continue, adapting and evolving. Or not, depending on your perspective.
In the world of workplace well-being, the notion of systems change is gaining greater credibility as an approach to improving staff well-being. Corporate Canada recognizes that organizations need to change and adapt to promote employees’ mental health, yet it can be argued that provincial governments and school districts have been slow to focus on their systems rather than on individuals when addressing workplace well-being in Canadian schools. So how to consider systems change concepts that provide direction for systemic implementation to improve workplace well-being?
Let’s consider what we mean by systemic implementation by looking at three ways to change systems:
This might include allocations for staff with responsibilities for staff well-being within or beyond the domain of district HR departments. It might mean focusing on workplace well-being in strategic plans and budgets, so that well-being is central to planning and funding, moving it away from the periphery to the core business of school districts. A focus on all staff – teachers, administrators, support and exempt staff – also suggests a major structural change in terms of focus.
Changing policies, administrative procedures, and guidelines to address well-being can send both a powerful signal and impact educators’ work and the expectations placed on them. Such policies might be at a provincial or district level, establishing priorities, directions, and values.
This concept is emerging as one possible strategy for creating systemic change. As enablers, school districts fund, support, and disseminate collaborative and facilitated approaches to workplace well-being, which are intended to permeate a system over time rather than mandate one-off approaches that may or may not be implemented or sustained. In some provinces, union grants can also be applied to support collaborative inquiry into workplace well-being, which potentially positions unions as enablers of systemic action. With some co-ordination, district and union actions could combine to systemically address workplace well-being issues.
Enabling systemic action may be considered “slow” systemic change, requiring staff buy-in and participation, but it may be more sustainable than policy mandates over the long term.
Some of these approaches have been documented and are accessible on EdCan’s Well at Work website
We suggest that systemic action is possible through these three channels: structural change, policy initiatives, and school districts/unions acting as enablers of actions that can become systemic.
By combining these three approaches, school districts can include but move beyond a focus on the individual to create a sense of shared responsibility through collaborative actions and systemic change. The combination of approaches might also help to bridge the gap between unions and governments/districts if more ways can be found to introduce systemic change initiatives that address workload issues.
As we expand our scope and focus, we hope to share what we learn, and to learn ourselves from multiple jurisdictions about approaches to improving workplace well-being. Join us!
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
A growing number of school districts in several provinces are participating in a new EdCan Well at Work project (https://k12wellatwork.ca/advisors). This provides advisors to school districts wanting to further their workplace wellbeing efforts with the support of external expertise, acting as advisors and “critical friends.” We have developed a concept that includes individual approaches to wellbeing but goes beyond to propose and attempt new collaborative and systemic approaches to improve wellbeing of all staff in Canada’s K–12 schools.
Developed by the EdCan Network, Well at Work supports education leaders across Canada to develop and implement system-wide strategies to improve K-12 workplace wellbeing for the long term – all while mobilizing a network of passionate educators, researchers, practitioners, and stakeholder groups.
Well at Work offers an advisory service, professional learning, and resources.
Alberta Education. (2018). Superintendent leadership quality standard. Government of Alberta. www.alberta.ca/professional-practice-standards.aspx#jumplinks-3
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (n.d.). Mental health in schools strategy. Government of British Columbia. www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/erase/documents/mental-health-wellness/mhis-strategy.pdf
College of Alberta School Superintendents. (2020). Workplace wellness. https://cass.ab.ca/resources/wellness/
College of Alberta School Superintendents. (2021). Practice profiles. https://cass.ab.ca/resources/practice-profile
Naylor, C. (2020). The Powell River Learning Group: Improving professional relationships. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nSs5ZGmqQkYWCxqio42JehlV473kqm_l/view
Will, M. (2021, Sept. 14). Teachers are not OK, even though we need them to be: Administrators must think about teacher well-being differently. Education Week. www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-not-ok-even-though-we-need-them-to-be/2021/09
In recent years, because of globalization, the world has become increasingly small and interdependent. No longer confined by place of birth or residence, citizens have a collective responsibility to participate in a globalized society.
In 2015, the UN General Assembly recognized this responsibility by adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The resolution includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that seek to promote far-reaching social, health, environmental, and political change.
At the same time, several Canadian ministries of education have stressed the importance of integrating the UN SDGs and contemporary world issues into the curriculum as part of a field of study known as global citizenship education (GCE). As a discipline, GCE aims to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and values to address critical global challenges. These include the alarming spread of misinformation, a global health crisis, climate change, and a growing threat to the liberal international order. While some provinces have incorporated GCE into their curricula, most do not offer it as a stand-alone course.
More Canadian ministries of education should adopt a required half-year course at the secondary level on responsible global citizenship. They should seek to equip students with critical thinking skills, including media and information literacy (the ability to find and evaluate information), health literacy (the ability to make informed health decisions), ecological literacy (the ability to identify and take action on environmental issues), and democratic literacy (the ability to understand and participate in civic affairs). Various stakeholders have a vested interest, including school administrators, teachers, curriculum writers, policymakers, scholars, and professors.
The conceptual framework below (Figure 1) ties responsible global citizenship to critical thinking through four literacies:
As the framework reflects, critical thinking is a necessary skill to achieve responsible global citizenship. The UNESCO International Bureau of Education (IBE) (2013) defines critical thinking as a “process that involves asking appropriate questions, gathering and creatively sorting through relevant information, relating new information to existing knowledge, re-examining beliefs and assumptions, reasoning logically, and drawing reliable and trustworthy conclusions” (p. 15). Critical thinking skills help global citizens make responsible choices when consuming information about the media, health, environment, and democracy. These skills are necessary to evaluate the abundance of information (and misinformation) in the digital age. They also play a central role in making evidence-based health decisions, provide a foundation for exploring today’s complex and interdependent ecosystem, and encourage the kind of civic engagement and participation needed to preserve a functioning democracy.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians have spent more time on the internet and their smartphones. A recent survey found that 98 percent of Canadians aged 15 to 24 years old use the internet (Statistics Canada, 2021). The survey also noted that 71 percent also check their smartphone, at a minimum, every half hour (Statistics Canada, 2021).
While Canadian youth have unprecedented access to knowledge and information, they are at the same time exposed to more misinformation and disinformation than at any other time in history. This makes it even more critical that students receive media and information literacy training at an early age.
Several organizations, including UNESCO, have taken notice. A decade after publishing the first edition of its media and information literacy curriculum, UNESCO (2021) released Think Critically, Click Wisely: Media and information literate citizens. The more-than-400-page document provides a curriculum and competency framework, along with modules divided into separate units. It also includes useful pedagogical approaches and strategies for teachers.
Meanwhile, in Canada, other organizations (e.g. the Association for Media Literacy, the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations, and MediaSmarts) have promoted media and information literacy instruction. And for more than three decades, Canadian provinces and territories have incorporated such content into their curriculum. However, as the only Western nation without a federal department of education, Canada has a media and information literacy curriculum that varies by province and territory.
This moment requires increased focus and attention to help Canadian students learn how to think critically when evaluating the media and its information sources and distinguishing between fact and fiction while using information tools. As such, ministries of education should consider adding the following topics in the proposed media and information literacy unit:
The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on the importance of health literacy. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines it as the “ability to access, understand, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course” (Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety, 2008, p. 11). This form of literacy requires both knowledge and competence in health-related disciplines.
It should come as no surprise that Canadians lacking health literacy skills are less likely to retrieve reliable information or make informed choices. In fact, limited health literacy (or health illiteracy) can directly impact whether individuals comply with data-driven public health guidance. What’s more, the rapid dissemination of COVID-19 misinformation has placed them at an even greater health risk.
At an organizational level, public health agencies have struggled to manage the current “infodemic” (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2021). In a Public Policy Forum report, University of Toronto professors Eric Merkley and Peter Loewen (2021) provide five recommendations, including to:
Additionally, medical professionals should provide up-to-date, credible information to large audiences through a strong social media presence.
At the school and board level, teachers and administrators should promote more health literacy instruction. While the concept of health-promoting schools dates back nearly three decades, there is an even greater imperative for students today. In fact, the World Health Organization and UNESCO (2021) recently proposed a whole-school approach to encourage student health and well-being, ranging from school policies and resources to a greater focus on community partnerships and a positive social-emotional environment.
Adopting these standards will help to facilitate cooperation among ministries of education, schools, and civil society organizations. Accordingly, a health literacy unit should include:
Being a responsible global citizen also requires ecological literacy – defined as “a way of thinking about the world in terms of its interdependent natural and human systems, including a consideration of the consequences of human actions and interactions within the natural context” (Manitoba Education and Training, 2017, p. 15). On top of the combined infodemic-pandemic, an ecological crisis continues to deteriorate. Earlier this year, the federal government released a 768-page document (Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate: Advancing our knowledge for action) that examines the serious threat climate change poses to Canadians’ health (Berry & Schnitter, 2022). The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021) report, in particular, details the negative impact of greenhouse gas emissions, which is causing increasing temperatures and frequent natural disasters. Additionally, more than half of the world’s key biodiversity areas remain unprotected while pollution levels keep rising (UN, 2021).
A recent poll conducted by Ipsos (2021), in collaboration with the Canadian Youth Alliance for Climate Action (CYACA), examined the views of young Canadians 18 to 29 years old on climate change. The study found that Canadian youth consider climate change to be a top-five issue of concern after housing, COVID-19, health care, and unemployment. Upon reviewing each province’s secondary school science curriculum, sustainability researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas (2019) conclude that there is insufficient focus on scientific consensus, impacts, or solutions to climate change. Government leaders may be more likely to fulfill their climate action promises if Canada does more to develop responsible environmental citizens through climate change education.
Ecological literacy, however, is not limited to climate change education and will require students to acquire skills and competencies in other areas. In addition to climate change, this unit should include:
The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the Canadian way of life has contributed to the discontent many feel. According to a Pew Research Center survey, while only 29 percent of Canadians at the beginning of the pandemic believed the country was more divided than before the outbreak, 61 percent held that view by the following year (Wike & Fetterolf, 2021).
Pandemic fatigue, however, should not serve as an excuse for undermining democratic institutions and norms. Indeed, in the latest edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (2022) Democracy Index (global democracy rankings), Canada dropped seven spots (5th to 12th place). The report highlights a troubling trend – one in which Canadian citizens express an increasing level of support for non-democratic ideas and values.
Civically literate citizens are more likely to understand the inner workings of the democracy and participate through voting, peaceful assembly, or other forms of engagement (The Samara Centre for Democracy, 2019). The Samara Centre for Democracy (2019) report explains that civic literacy can be developed during the Canadian citizenship process, at home, in schools, and outside the classroom. Schools are a particularly important forum through which Canadian youth can learn about civic participation and engagement.
In a civics unit, students should have the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives, make informed opinions, and actively participate in the community. Democratic literacy content should include a discussion on:
As teachers prepare students for a post-pandemic world, a one-size-fits-all approach cannot address the needs of every student. Yet, there should be a common framework.
The responsible global citizenship framework can serve to guide ministries of education seeking to implement practical and relevant GCE-related courses and content. To develop responsible global citizens and critical thinkers requires the advancement of media and information, health, ecological, and democratic literacies. These four literacies are critical for Canada’s future success and relevance in a global society.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Berry, P., & Schnitter, R. (Eds.). (2022). Health of Canadians in a changing climate: Advancing our knowledge for action. Health Canada. https://changingclimate.ca/site/assets/uploads/sites/5/2022/02/CCHA-REPORT-EN.pdf
The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2022). Democracy index 2021: The China challenge. www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2021
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2021). Climate change 2021: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the sixth assessment report of the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University. www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/
Ipsos. (2021). Young Canadians’ attitudes on climate change. www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2021-10/CYACA%20Report%2020211004_0.pdf
Manitoba Education and Training. (2017). Grade 12 Global Issues: Citizenship and Sustainability.
Public Health Agency of Canada. (2021). A vision to transform Canada’s public health system. Government of Canada. www.canada.ca/content/dam/phac-aspc/documents/corporate/publications/chief-public-health-officer-reports-state-public-health-canada/state-public-health-canada-2021/cpho-report-eng.pdf
Rootman, I., & Gordon-El-Bihbety, D. (2008). A vision for a health literate Canada: Report of the expert panel on health literacy. Canadian Public Health Association. https://swselfmanagement.ca/uploads/ResourceDocuments/CPHA%20(2008)%20A%20Vision%20for%20a%20Health%20Literate%20Canada.pdf
The Samara Centre for Democracy. (2019). Investing in Canadians’ civic literacy: An answer to fake news and disinformation. www.samaracanada.com/docs/default-source/reports/investing-in-canadians-civic-literacy-by-the-samara-centre-for-democracy.pdf?sfvrsn=66f2072f_4
Statistics Canada. (2021). Canadian Internet use survey, 2020. www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/daily-quotidien/210622/dq210622b-eng.pdf?st=O5mYsIgz
United Nations. (2021). The sustainable development goals report 2021. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2021/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2021.pdf
UNESCO. (2021). Think critically, click wisely: Media and information literate citizens. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377068
UNESCO-IBE. (2013). IBE glossary of curriculum terminology. www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/IBE_GlossaryCurriculumTerminology2013_eng.pdf
Wike, R., & Fetterolf, J. (2021). Global public opinion in an era of democratic anxiety. Pew Research Center. www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/12/07/global-public-opinion-in-an-era-of-democratic-anxiety
World Health Organization & UNESCO. (2021). Making every school a health-promoting school: Implementation guidance. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377941
Wynes, S., & Nicholas, K. A. (2019). Climate science curricula in Canadian secondary schools focus on human warming, not scientific consensus, impacts or solutions. PLoS ONE, 14(7), e0218305. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218305
The handshake depicted on this Treaty 6 medal is understood by nêhiyawak to symbolize asotamâkêwin – a sacred promise to live together in the spirit of good relations.
In September 1874, Treaty Commissioners representing Queen Victoria traveled to Fort Qu’Appelle to negotiate the terms of a sacred promise to live in peace and friendship with nehiyawak (Cree), Anihšināpēk (Saulteaux), Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda peoples of the region that came to be known as Treaty 4. Prior to this meeting, the Indigenous leaders had learned that the Hudson’s Bay Company had sold their lands to the Dominion of Canada without their consultation or consent. Thus, when the Treaty Commissioners sought to initiate negotiations, the leaders declined to discuss the Treaty. Instead, an Anihšināpēk spokesman named Otahaoman explained with the help of a translator that the assembled peoples felt that there was “something in the way” of their ability to discuss the terms of the Treaty in good faith (Morris, 2014, pp. 97–98).
It took several days of discussion for the Queen’s representatives to comprehend the concerns expressed by Otahaoman. The people were questioning the sincerity of these Treaty negotiations because they knew that the Government of Canada had already made a side deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company for the purchase of their lands. The view expressed by Otahaoman was that these side dealings undermined the integrity of the Government’s Treaty intentions. Through the translator, Otahaoman clearly articulated the view that the Hudson’s Bay Company only had the permission of Indigenous peoples to conduct trade. They did not have the right to claim ownership over any land: “The Indians want the Company to keep at their post and nothing beyond. After that is signed they will talk about something else” (Morris, 2014, p. 110). Despite these misunderstandings, as well as notable disagreement among the various Indigenous groups in attendance, the terms of Treaty 4 were eventually ratified.
I begin with this story to draw attention to the persistence of Canadian colonial culture as “something in the way” of efforts to repair Indigenous-Canadian relations. The critical observation that Otahaoman articulated in 1874 is still a very relevant and unsettling problem today. In the wake of the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, educational jurisdictions and institutions across Canada have rushed to respond to the Calls through the implementation of various policies and program initiatives. However, the rush to Reconciliation facilitates an active disregard of the Truth of colonial ideologies and structures that continue to block possibilities for the emergence of healthy and balanced Indigenous-Canadian relations in Canada. Before Reconciliation can even be considered as a possibility, a broad social, cultural, and educational reckoning process must be undertaken that focuses on unlearning colonialism. Colonial ideologies remain mostly uninterrogated in Canadian educational contexts and continue to be “in the way” of meaningful Indigenous-Canadian relational renewal. Such relational renewal is only possible if colonialism is unlearned.
Colonial ideologies have got “in the way” of schooling practices in the sense that prevailing curricular and pedagogical approaches perpetuate colonial worldview. The founding principle of colonialism is relationship denial1 and the centuries-long predominance of this principle has resulted in the creation of educational practices that perpetuate relationship denial in mostly subtle and unquestioned ways. One prominent form of relationship denial is evident in the ways in which the mental aspect of a human being is considered more important than the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects. The possibility for holistic unity and balance is denied when the different aspects of a human being are increasingly fragmented and disassociated as a person becomes educated. The teachings of relationship denial can also be seen in the ways in which human beings are taught to believe that their needs are always more important than the needs of other forms of life. They are also evident in the ways in which students are taught to deny relationships that they have with people who do not look like them, speak like them, or pray like them. When someone is educated to accept relationship denial as a way of being in the world, it becomes part of how they are as a human being – how they live – and this acceptance has a very distinctive bearing on how they understand knowledge and knowing.
Such practices are reflective of the “Western code” – the Enlightenment-based knowledge paradigm that is presented as possessing all the answers to any important questions that could be asked by anyone, anywhere in the world. It is important to state that Western conceptions of knowledge and knowing have provided many benefits. However, belief in the veracity of those understandings becomes a form of violence when they are prescribed as the only way to be a successful human being. Wynter (1992), for example, has argued that the arrival of Christopher Columbus to Turtle Island instigated a centuries-long process wherein a universalized model of the human being was imposed on people around the world. She asserts that this particular advancement of colonial power has served to “absolutize the behavioural norms encoded in our present culture-specific conception of being human, allowing it to be posited as if it were the universal of the human species” (Wynter, 1992, pp. 42-43). The assertion of this colonial power is carried out in the name of Progress.2 Formal schooling eventually became a primary means by which those with power could discipline the citizenry to conform to this model of the human being and this notion of Progress. As I see it, this has resulted in the predominance of curricular and pedagogical approaches that perpetuate these universalized behavioural norms by persistently presenting knowledge and knowing according to the rubric of relationship denial.
The complex task of unlearning colonial forms of relationship denial does require learning more about colonial worldview and the ways in which the cultural assumptions of that worldview deeply inform the structure and character of the common-sense conventions of educational practices. However, it cannot only rely on learning about such things in an informational way. To do so is to assume that relationship denial is really just an intellectual problem and that unlearning can be accomplished via a detailed three-hour lecture with accompanying PowerPoint slides.
The difficult truth is that colonial forms of relationship denial are much more than just intellectual problems. Human beings who accept colonial worldview as natural, normal, and common sense come to embody colonial forms of relationship denial that teach them to divide the world. The field of education has become so fully informed by the assumed correctness of colonial worldview that it has become difficult to take seriously other knowledge systems or ways of being human. However, this struggle to honour other knowledge systems or ways of being is implicated in the deepest difficulties faced today in trying to live in less damaging, divisive, and ecologically destructive ways. It is clear to me that the acceptance of relationship denial as the natural cognitive habit of successful human beings undermines the ability to respond to these complex challenges in dynamic ways. Thus, an urgent educational challenge facing educators today involves:
As a teacher educator struggling to address this challenge, I draw significant guidance and inspiration from Indigenous wisdom teachings of kinship relationality. These wisdom teachings emphasize how human beings are at their best when they recognize themselves as enmeshed in networks of human and more-than-human relationships that enable life and living. For example, in nêhiyawêwin (the Cree language), a foundational wisdom concept that is central to nêhiyaw (Cree) worldview is wâhkôhtowin. Translated into English, wâhkôhtowin is generally understood to refer to kinship. In a practical way, wâhkôhtowin describes ethical guidelines regarding how you are related to your kin and how to conduct yourself as a good relative. Following those guidelines teaches one how to relate to human relatives and interact with them in accordance with traditional kinship teachings. Importantly, however, wâhkôhtowin is also extended to include more-than-human kinship relations. The nêhiyaw worldview emphasizes honouring the ancient kinship relationships that humans have with all other forms of life that inhabit their traditional territories. This emphasis teaches human beings to understand themselves as fully enmeshed in networks of relationships that support and enable their life and living. Métis Elder Maria Campbell (2007) eloquently addresses wâhkôhtowin enmeshment:
“And our teachings taught us that all of creation is related and inter-connected to all things within it.
Wahkotowin meant honoring and respecting those relationships. They are our stories, songs, ceremonies, and dances that taught us from birth to death our responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to each other. Human to human, human to plants, human to animals, to the water and especially to the earth. And in turn all of creation had responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to us” (p. 5).
Thus, following the relational kinship wisdom of wâhkôhtowin, human beings are called to repeatedly acknowledge and honour the sun, the moon, the sky, the land, the wind, the water, the animals, and the trees (just to name a few), as quite literally our kinship relations. Humans are fully reliant on these entities for survival and so the wise person works to ensure that those more-than-human relatives are healthy and consistently honoured. Cradled within this kinship teaching is an understanding that healthy human-to-human relations depend upon and flow from healthy relations with the more-than-human. They cannot be separated out.
These wisdom teachings of wâhkôhtowin enmeshment and kinship relationality are also central to the spirit and intent of the so-called Numbered Treaties negotiated between Indigenous peoples and the British Crown between 1871–1921. Although I cannot claim expertise in the details of each individual Treaty, I can state that Indigenous peoples understand those Treaties as sacred adoption ceremonies through which they agreed to live in peaceful coexistence with their newcomer relatives. This means that Indigenous peoples understand those Treaties as a formal commitment to welcome newcomers into their kinship networks, share land and resources with them, and work together with them as relatives for mutual benefit. In this sense, the Numbered Treaties can be understood as expressions of the wâhkôhtowin imagination – human and more-than-human kinship interconnectivities.
However, such kinship interconnectivities are not a central part of how most Canadians understand the Numbered Treaties. In accordance with the colonial emphasis on relationship denial, Treaties have been a massive curricular omission in Canadian education systems. If Canadians have learned anything of Treaties in their formal schooling experiences, it usually comes in the form of historical background information that characterizes Treaties as business deals through which Indigenous peoples surrendered their lands and received gifts and certain rights in return. So, tragically, the possibility that the Numbered Treaties could actually honour the layered complexities of kinship relationality and its constant renewal is undermined by ongoing institutional and societal dedication to relationship denial.
It is my view that Treaties can be a significant source of inspiration in addressing the two educational challenges mentioned previously: unlearning colonialism and honouring other ways to know and be. The handshake depicted on the Treaty medal guides me to work together with others in ways that bring benefits to all people who live on the land together. Specific to Treaty 6, the shaking of hands is understood to signify ka-miyo-wîcêhtoyahk (for us to get along well), ka-wîtaskîhtoyahk (for us to live as Nations), ka-wîtaskêhtoyahk (for us to share the land and live as good neighbours), and ka-miyo-ohpikihitoyahk (for us to raise each other’s children well). These teachings place emphasis on learning from each other in balanced ways and sharing the wisdom that comes from living together in the spirit of good relations. Indeed, Treaty teachings appear to provide the much-needed antidote to colonial logics of relationship denial and assist in the educational challenge to unlearn. Importantly, however, the wâhkôhtowin imagination also offers a significant opportunity to engage with other ways of knowing and being by consistently reminding us of our enmeshment within more-than-human kinship connectivities.
What expressions of knowledge and knowing flow from an education that emphasizes kinship connectivities and relational renewal? What kind of human being emerges from such educational experiences? These are questions without clear answers. However, they are also questions that educators must begin to carefully consider as part of the much larger struggle to unlearn colonialism. It is clear to me that the human ability to honour other ways to know and be depends on the willingness to return to the ancient wisdom teachings of kinship relationality that are clearly emphasized in Treaty teachings.
Photo: courtesy Dwayne Donald
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Campbell, M. (2007, November). We need to return to the principles of Wahkotowin. Eagle Feather News, 10(11), 5. www.eaglefeathernews.com/quadrant/media//pastIssues/November_2007.pdf
Donald, D. (2019) Homo economicus and forgetful curriculum. In H. Tomlinson-Jahnke, S. Styres, S. Lille, & D. Zinga (Eds.), Indigenous education: New directions in theory and practice (pp. 103–125). University of Alberta Press.
Morris, A. (2014). The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories: Including the negotiations on which they are based, and other information relating thereto. Cambridge University Press.
Nisbet, R. A. (1980). History of the idea of progress. Transaction.
Wynter, S. (1995). 1492: A new world view. In V. L. Hyatt & R. Nettleford (Eds.), Race, discourse, and the origin of the Americas: A new world view (pp. 5–57). Smithsonian.
1 I use this phrase to draw attention to the ways in which the institutional and socio-cultural practice of dividing the world according to colonial worldview has trained Canadians to disregard Indigenous peoples as fellow human beings and thus deny relationships with them. This disregard maintains unethical relationships and promotes the development of cognitive blockages (psychoses) that undermine the possibility for improved Indigenous-Canadian relations. The psychosis of relationship denial results from a decades-long curricular project dedicated to the telling of a Canadian national narrative that has largely excluded the memories and experiences of Indigenous peoples. A major assertion that stems from this relational psychosis is that Indigenous peoples do not belong in Canada and are therefore out of place in their own traditional territories. This relational psychosis is a fundamental characteristic of Canadian colonial culture that must be unlearned.
2 I choose to capitalize this term to denote its mythological prominence within settler colonial societies like Canada. This notion of Progress has grown out of the colonial experience and is predicated on the pursuit of unfettered economic growth and material prosperity stemming from faith in market capitalism. For more on this see Donald (2019) and Nisbet (1980).
Sometimes to move ahead you must look back.
The global COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis in education and thrust educators and students into a period of unprecedented change and uncertainty. Educators were tasked with shifting remote and in-person learning requirements, while also prioritizing issues of safety, equity, and wellbeing. At a time when successful school leadership was more critical than ever, there were “no precedents, no ring-binders, no blueprints to help school leaders” (Harris & Jones, 2020, p. 246). The demands and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a very significant professional and personal toll on education leaders. In our study, The Future of Schooling in the COVID-19 Era, the responses and reflections of education leaders in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) identified impacts on school leaders’ professional roles and identities, and highlighted changing school leadership practices and values. We discuss these below.
Challenging school leaders’ professional roles and identities
School leaders’ roles changed during the pandemic. The importance of fulfilling public health mandates for the health and safety of students and staff placed considerable new demands on school leaders. As an elementary vice-principal commented:
“Most of what we’ve done and most of our attention is sucked up with making sure we know the protocols and the rules and checking this and that. It’s like running a public health unit.”
The priority focus on public health and safety shifted the role of school leaders, resulting in concerns regarding their ability to focus on leading school improvement and supporting teaching, learning, and equity:
“So basically, all of these layers have added to the complexity of our job. It’s actually taken away from the time that as school leaders we have to support staff and students with those school improvement plans, and board priorities that we want to do.” —Secondary school principal
The challenges of sustaining school improvement had a significant impact on education leaders’ professional roles. The priority focus on ensuring student and staff safety also came with a heavy responsibility for education leaders’ professional lives:
“[Parents] needed to know that they could trust us as much as possible to keep their kids safe. And it really got down to the point where I felt like those parents… especially this [past] fall without the vaccine, that they expect me to keep their kid alive. And so that’s a really, really heavy piece to walk around with all the time, but that’s what we’ve been focusing on with the parents.” —Elementary school vice-principal
“Every night she goes to sleep and she just prays that nobody dies either from illness from COVID, or from illnesses related to stress. We are all living in fear and we feel deeply responsible for the people in our care, whether staff or students.” —System leader
Unfortunately, the school leaders that we spoke with felt largely unsupported and undervalued. This affected their sense of competence, confidence, and professional identity:
“I feel kind of like an old piece of bologna. So, like, we’re just sandwiched between everybody above us sending policies and do this and make sure this happens and don’t miss this and a giant email… so many emails.… And then the other piece of the bread is, like, the staff and the students and the families, right… and we are just in the middle sort of feeling like we’re floundering, but doing a really great job. But you don’t feel that way.” —Elementary school vice-principal
Highly experienced educators were faced with unfamiliar emergency situations requiring urgent and ongoing attention. These shifts in professional roles and identities were challenging:
“We’re used to feeling competent… So we take people who have been in this profession for a while, and who think they have some things figured out, and know some things about students, and are used to feeling competent in that role, and we’ve up-ended that for them. So it’s no wonder that that’s how… we’re feeling. Because on good days, I like to think that I’m feeling fairly competent in what I’m doing, and it’s not there.” —Elementary school principal
There were also negative consequences for education leaders’ wellbeing, which was being impacted by increasing work intensification and unsustainable workload. A system leader explained:
“I can’t remember the last time I haven’t worked through an entire weekend. I work 16 hours a day. I don’t know that my principals work less than that. They often call me at 7:00, 8:00, 9:00 at night. The downloading of public health processes on principals to track who’s here, who’s not here, who’s vaccinated, who’s not vaccinated.…”
These findings are consistent with other research identifying the pressure of navigating through the pandemic for school leaders in Canada (People for Education, 2021; Osmond-Johnson & Fuhrmann, 2022), and internationally (Jopling & Harness, 2022).
Changing leadership practices and values
To respond to this time of crisis, educational leaders had to adapt their leadership practices to be more responsive, creative, and flexible:
“That was definitely a part of the strategy for last year; just being very flexible about expectations, very flexible about ways of reaching out.” —Elementary school vice-principal
Rather than instructional leadership, much of the work of school leaders shifted to practical support for the operational management of schools and staff:
“… I can’t get to school improvement as much as I’d like to. My building relationships with students and staff has been impeded because we are managing a facility and trying to keep students safe.” —Secondary school vice-principal
Modes and frequency of communications needed to be adapted and professional collaboration became more important (Thornton, 2021). As an elementary school vice-principal described:
“Just being transparent as much as possible about what we did know because we were all trying to figure it out and we were all trying to learn what was going on. So, just for staff to see us as part of that change, that we didn’t know all the answers, and so I think that, you know, it showed our own humanity and empathy throughout the process.”
Leadership values came to the fore. People needed to be supported with compassion and care through a sense of shared humanity, togetherness, and collaboration. These values informed not only leadership practices, but also leaders’ vision for what matters most in education:
“It was more of a mindset. And I think that worked, which was just being very open and being very compassionate to the challenges that everybody was facing… and being available, on whatever level you could be available, whether it was delivering things or tech solving or, you know, just listening.” —Elementary school vice-principal
Therefore, school leaders’ values became especially important and their leadership practices needed to change to respond flexibly and appropriately to the changing pandemic context.
Arising from our study of education leaders during the pandemic, we offer the following recommendations:
Within a school, the work of school leaders and teachers is crucial for students’ learning and student outcomes. We must demand that this new chapter in education takes into consideration the voices and lessons learned from its leaders to prioritize what is essential for supporting students’ learning, equity, and wellbeing.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Armstrong, P., Rayner, S. M., & Ainscow, M. (2021). Bridging the digital divide: Greater Manchester schools creating pathways to success. In On Digital Inequalities: Analysis and ideas on addressing digital inequalities (pp. 37–41). University of Manchester. https://policyatmanchester.shorthandstories.com/on-digital-inequalities
Campbell, C., Arain, A., & Ceau, M. (2022). Secondary school teachers’ experience of implementing hybrid learning and quadmester schedules in Peel, Ontario. University of Toronto. www.oise.utoronto.ca/preview/lhae/UserFiles/File/Peel_Teachers_Experiences_of_Hybrid_and_Quadmesters_May_2022_Campbell_Arain_Ceau_Final_for_Publication.pdf
Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF/FCE). (2022). But at what cost? Teacher mental health during the pandemic: Pandemic research report. https://acrobat.adobe.com/link/track?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:1cc80bf3-6c8e-4060-81e4-7493f178d1af
Ehren, M. C. M., Madrid, R., Romiti, S. et al. (2021). Teaching in the COVID-19 era: Understanding the opportunities and barriers for teacher agency. Perspectives in Education, 39(1), 61–76. doi.org/10.18820/2519593X/pie.v39.i1.5
Harris, A., & Jones, M. (2020). COVID-19 school leadership in disruptive times. School Leadership and Management, 40(4), 243–247. doi.org/10.1080/13632434.2020.1811479
Jopling, M., & Harness, O. (2022). Embracing vulnerability: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the pressures school leaders in Northern England face and how they deal with them? Journal of Educational Administration and History, 54(1), 69–84. doi.org/10.1080/00220620.2021.1997945
Osmond-Johnson, P. & Fuhrmann, L. (2022). Calm during crisis: Leading Saskatchewan schools through COVID-19. Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. https://www.stf.sk.ca/sites/default/files/stf-001139a_20220412_ec_web.pdf
People for Education. (2022). “A perfect storm of stress” Ontario’s publicly funded schools in year two of the COVID-19 pandemic. https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/People-for-Education_A-Perfect-Storm-of-Stress_May-2022.pdf
Thornton, K. (2021). Learning through COVID-19: New Zealand secondary principals describe their reality. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 49(3), 393–409. doi.org/10.1177/1741143220985110
“I have a general recommendation that I make to people – turn adversity into opportunity.”
– Dr. Aaron T. Beck1
Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, says the current pandemic can offer a unique opportunity for us to reassess our priorities, realign our values, and mine for meaning. During virtual professional learning hosted by Ever Active Schools (a provincial initiative in Alberta initiative supporting healthy school communities), and in casual conversation with educators in our lives, we have heard from teachers who have found inspiring ways to prioritize well-being during this challenging time. These educators have shared well-being success stories and new opportunities that they would like to continue in a transition back to schools. Themes included intentionality, connection, slowing down, and greater flexibility and control over their days.
In considering opportunities to carry forward, one teacher shared, “It would be nice to have time in our school day to just connect with students and start slower.” Others discussed how the pandemic created space to savour their morning coffee, purposefully connect with students and colleagues, spend more time with family, and get outside. These perspectives have been echoed in conversations with educators since the pandemic reshaped our daily lives.
As an education community, how will we reprioritize? What lessons have we learned from the COVID-19 crisis and how will we act upon them with intention, compassion, and courage?
Through the uncertainty of the past several months, there are a few things that remain certain. It’s even more clear that social connection, savouring positive moments, and resilience are key to optimal teaching and learning, and to our capacity to be well through life’s inevitable highs and lows. Staff and student well-being can be mutually reinforcing when well-being is intentionally prioritized. Drawing on research and educators’ experiences2 during the pandemic, we explore opportunities to reconsider well-being in education.
“Our natural tendency is toward the negative, so it takes a concerted effort to wear a different set of glasses.”
– Dr. Judith Beck3
Most studies on “teacher well-being” have focused on the impacts of teacher stress and burnout. We propose that a focus on well-being should be centered on wellness and not illness.
One aspect of our human psychology that may help to explain the pervasive emphasis on stress and burnout in the teaching profession is that we are wired to focus on the negative more than the positive.4 This is a normal reaction to events in our daily lives; we may even owe part of our survival as a species to this negativity bias. As teachers, this is why one defiant student can derail us after an otherwise stellar lesson, or a brief negative interaction with a colleague or parent can send us into a downward spiral (despite several other positive interactions that same day).
The depiction of teaching as a stressful profession, however, is priming new teachers to normalize and expect exhaustion. As early as the first day of their BEd programs, many teacher candidates are warned of high attrition and exhaustion in the profession. New teachers are asking for a more inspiring and balanced view. At the 2019 National Forum on Wellness in Post-Secondary, one teacher candidate shared, “There’s a common narrative of mutually endured suffering going into our practicums, and I was stressed about the stress… both of my practicums were incredible and I didn’t need to be that stressed. Changing up the narrative would be helpful.”
We hope that the lessons learned from the pandemic can serve as an invitation to shift the conversation from being stressed at school to being well at school. While there are several contributing factors to the current narrative, the good news is we are also hard-wired to connect and overcome challenges. We can leverage these innate strengths to redirect our attention.
Below, we share educators’ experiences during the pandemic within three specific categories: cultivating connection, savouring positive moments, and building resilience (CPR).5 These lessons are relevant whether we’re at home, school, or somewhere in between.
“Connecting with kids is the key.” – Elementary teacher on experiencing joy after 20+ years in the profession
The transition from bustling hallways and classrooms to virtual spaces has highlighted in real-time that social connection is foundational to well-being and to learning. We crave it. Teachers and students alike say that what they miss most is each other.
Strong relationships can lead to a longer lifespan and improved creativity, meaning, resilience, and learning outcomes. Positive workplace interactions have the potential to strengthen our immune system, broaden our thinking, enhance self-image, and increase adaptability, cooperation, and job satisfaction.6 Powerful benefits for schools!
Especially during times of difficulty, our social connections need to go beyond chit-chat and honour the full pendulum of emotions.
While it’s not the same as face-to-face, teachers found creative ways to maintain those needed connections even during a global pandemic: sidewalk messages and neighbourhood obstacle courses, driveway charades, celebration car parades, drop-in Google lunches, Instagram live, email check-ins with jokes, and department calls with silly themes and fun games. We have been resourceful in connecting even when we can’t be physically close.
Especially during times of difficulty, these social connections need to go beyond chit-chat and honour the full pendulum of emotions. To cultivate these deeper connections, we can ask meaningful questions:
(Some of the above were adapted from organizational psychologist Dr. Adam Grant. Check out his WorkLife podcast for more ideas to build meaningful connections both in-person and remotely.)
Research on effective teacher well-being initiatives show that increasing experiences of positive emotion is equally or more important to promote well-being than building skills to reduce stress and burnout.7 Capitalizing on small positive moments ignites a “broaden and build” effect – positive emotions broaden our perspectives, actions, and relationships, and build resources like social support and resilience.8 An experienced Grade 1/2 teacher reflected in an email on a small positive moment during the pandemic that improved her well-being and job satisfaction:
“Students can see how hard you’re trying, and will offer their grace to you. This was demonstrated when students offered to meet with me prior to Google Meets to allow me to practice sharing my screen, and other skills I needed for my lessons. They were willing to be my guinea pigs so that I could be successful. Knowing that they wanted me to be successful made me feel amazing. I love my job!”
Balancing our work and personal life is especially vital in the current context. During an online conversation, teachers shared how setting time boundaries and managing expectations helped them to stay positive. Others carved out time for meditation, walks outside with family, Zoom fitness classes with friends, podcasts, or reading for pleasure. Some teachers found joy in starting a gratitude practice and taking time to reflect on what went well in their changed teaching role.
Teachers also shared their successes with colleagues. Emotions are contagious; we can “catch” positive emotions as easily as negative ones.9 Savouring positive experiences and celebrating others when they do the same can boost resilience and cultivate awareness of those meaningful moments in the future. Actively responding to others’ good news offers reciprocal benefits for both parties; it can help decrease loneliness and strengthen self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and our memory of the good event.10
Some teachers found the following daily questions,11 applicable in any context, particularly helpful for cultivating positive moments during the pandemic:
Resilience allows us to manage inevitable challenges and setbacks, and develop skills to move through those experiences and grow as a result. It allows us to experience hope in hardship. Teachers shared during the virtual chat how the pandemic has provided opportunities to build resilience, including managing expectations of productivity and creating space to be vulnerable and name emotions (which, in turn, encourages their colleagues to do the same): “It’s okay not to be okay.”
How can we continue these generative conversations…and interrupt the narrative of burnout and stress?
A powerful skill in developing resilience is the ability to reframe and challenge our rigid thoughts or expectations. It takes practice, but we can learn how to turn unproductive worries, all-or-nothing thinking, and guilt-inducing lists of “shoulds” into more balanced and empowering thoughts. One educator shared how she was able to reframe disappointment in missing a pre-planned trip by connecting to the meaning, or her why, of going on the trip in the first place. Her why was connection, so she found a new opportunity to connect with those same people. Consider these questions to reframe in the moment:
Similarly, self-compassion is a strategy to build our resilience and ability to manage stress. Teachers identify self-compassion as a powerful practice to combat self-criticism while navigating uncertainty. Dr. Kristin Neff explains self-compassion as treating ourselves with kindness. To apply self-compassion, try asking these questions inspired by Neff’s framework:13
Continuing the conversation
Let’s not forget the lessons we’re learning through this difficult situation. How can we continue these generative conversations, implement a reprioritized value for well-being habits, and as a result, interrupt the narrative of burnout and stress? These seemingly simple habits are impactful regardless of the setting; the pandemic simply shone a bright light on their necessity.
To envision an education system that prioritizes well-being at an individual and organizational level, how would we allocate time? For example, how could we restructure the school day to encourage intentional opportunities to connect and savour positive moments, without the usual rush to the next thing? Habits teachers reported during the pandemic are simple, inexpensive ways to build well-being and sustainability in our profession.
Imagine a narrative of teaching that is energizing and empowering to both manage the complexities of education today, and to spark an upward spiral of well-being for teachers and students. Eventually, talking about well-being will become as common as talking about stress.
Illustration: Diana Pham
First published in Education Canada, September 2020
2 For a summary of the In the Round learning chats hosted by Ever Active Schools: https://everactive.org/professional-learning/#online
4 P. Rozin and E. B. Royzman, “Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 5, No. 4 (2001): 296-320; R. F. Baumeister, E. Bratslavsky, et al., “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology 5, No. 4 (2001): 323-370.
5 Referred to as the CPR of happiness by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center: https://blog.edx.org/scientific-self-care-feel-happy-grounded-grateful
6 J. E. Dutton and E. D. Heaphy, “The Power of High-quality Connections,” Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline 3 (2003): 263-278; J. Holt-Lunstad, T. B. Smith, and J. B. Layton, “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A meta-analytic review,” PLOS Medicine 7, No. 7 (2010).
7 WellAhead, Research Brief: Promoting the wellbeing of teachers and school staff (2018). https://static1.squarespace.com/static/586814ae2e69cfb1676a5c0b/t/5b281bb170a6ad31c89ab315/1529355185939/TSWB_ResearchBrief.pdf
8 B. L. Fredrickson, (2001). “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions,” American Psychologist 56, No. 3 (2001): 218-226.
9 S. G. Barsade, C. G. Coutifaris, and J. Pillemer, “Emotional Contagion in Organizational Life,” Research in Organizational Behavior 38 (2018): 137-151; S. G. Barsade, “The Ripple Effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior,” Administrative Science Quarterly 47, No. 4 (2002): 644-675.
10 S. L. Gable et al., “What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87, No. 2 (2004): 228-245.
11 Brooke Anderson, “Six Daily Questions to Ask Yourself in Quarantine,” Greater Good Magazine (March 24, 2020). https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_daily_questions_to_ask_yourself_in_quarantine
12 Visit www.viacharacter.org to take a free character strengths survey and learn about your signature strengths. Using strengths creates a common language, builds resilience skills, and benefits student and staff well-being.
“Let us define ‘ethical intention’ as aiming at the ‘good life’ with and for others, in just institutions.” –Paul Ricoeur (1990/1992, p.172)
What ethical responsibilities do educational organizations have to create the conditions that foster employee well-being? Is the strategy of self-care promotion sufficient or should educational organizations consider what other obligations exist in order to encourage the “good life?” If we are aiming at the good life as Ricoeur (1990/1992) suggests, and if our intention is to create well-being in the education workplace, then reminding people to take care of themselves and focusing on the health practices of individuals is not enough. People exist in relationships and work in complex systems, so addressing these things is also necessary in order to create and support well-being. If the relationships or systems are not well, then focusing on the individual “fixing” themselves becomes both ineffective and frustrating.
Making the “right” health decisions and doing self-care activities tend to be framed as a competence or character issue of an individual (Wang, Pollock, & Hauseman, 2018), but this idea falls apart when one considers that an employee only has control over one part of the situation. For example, employees can do all of the things they know are good for them – they can eat well, get the requisite hours of sleep each night, exercise, meditate, have great social support, and so on – but if they are in a toxic workplace environment or work with others who don’t care about them, then they will not be well. Many education leaders who are promoting and supporting self-care are trying to do the right thing for their employees, their employers, or both, but are, unintentionally, losing the substance for the shadow and doing more harm than good.
More and more ministries of education and school districts are recognizing the need to address staff well-being as an important step toward increasing student well-being. They are also acknowledging the importance of staff well-being in relation to students’ learning outcomes. In the province of B.C., the newly published Mental Health in Schools Strategy (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2020) recognizes the need for adult well-being for the very first time. “Not only does adult stress impact students directly, it can also lead to increased sick days taken by staff, increased disability claims and challenges with retention and recruitment, all of which cost the school system as a whole” (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2020, p. 5).
The Mental Health in Schools Strategy document correctly points out that there is also a business case to be made for addressing staff well-being. Education leaders are looking at well-being as a way to save money through lower absenteeism, increased staff retention, and other human resources considerations. Having a safe and caring workplace creates value for the institution, as it increases productivity and makes financial sense from the human resources perspective – but employee well-being has value beyond just what it can provide in a linear and measurable cost/benefit analysis. Organizations have a moral responsibility for the well-being of their employees. There is also intrinsic value that exists in the relationships between people that we cannot reduce to numbers and statistical analysis; this benefit exists in the connection itself and is experienced in the most successful and creative teams (Waterhouse, 2019).
As individual employees, we exist within organizations that are in relationships within the larger system. The system is not a separate entity that exists outside of the individuals who are part of it. The organization itself is made up of, developed, and shaped by people in relationship. This explanation fits with the idea that “the moral life of organizations is reducible neither to individual morality, nor to institutional structures. Rather it is usually the interplay of individual moral agency on the one hand, and organizational structures on the other that determines outcomes” (Herzog, 2018, p. 2). This interplay doesn’t take away the responsibility that each person has for their own decisions and actions, nor does it waive organizations’ responsibilities to attend to their employees’ well-being. But instead, it acknowledges that those decisions and actions, whether they are individual or organizational, occur within and are impacted and shaped by the individual’s relationships and interactions with the organizational contexts. Organizations need to change the way they work, co-develop well-being strategies and practices with their employees, and wholeheartedly integrate them into their daily lives.
It is valuable to look at what an organization is doing to promote health and well-being and whether these strategies and practices are having the intended impact. The use of self-care as a well-being strategy puts the responsibility on the individual to take care of their own health, ignoring the systemic inequities that create an unequal playing field. It also ignores the responsibility of organizational leaders to create and support policies and practices that bring well-being into the culture and structure of their organizations. In the education workplace, the role of the employers in supporting well-being is often seen as simply providing information – via newsletters, blog posts, or “wellness days” – for employees to learn about self-care they can do on their own. Such a view is patronizing, as it places the burden on individuals and neglects organizations’ impact on and responsibility for their employees. Recently, an education colleague spoke about a staff wellness day at their school: “Our administrator was praising the day and publicly people were praising the day too, but privately no one saw the point.” The idea that work-related stress can be relieved with health promotion materials is problematic because it ignores the organizational, social, and systemic patterns that have contributed to the stress in the first place (Bressi & Vaden, 2017). As illustrated from the above example, it also runs the risk of appearing inauthentic or becoming a “Band-Aid” solution that could damage the very relationships that it aims to support.
The other workplace strategy around self-care practices is to encourage or reinforce better health practices. Some districts are promoting the use of apps that record fitness and other health goals. These apps are often part of the employee assistance program offerings and tend to reward individuals or teams for meeting their goals with virtual awards or gift cards. There are mixed opinions on the effectiveness of these types of behaviour modification programs, but it is generally agreed that how these programs are structured matters. A study by Gneezy et al. (2011) found that this is particularly true for initiatives designed for the public good, as incentive programs can have “adverse effects in social norms, image concerns or trust” (p. 206). The same study also found that using incentives to make lifestyle changes sometimes works in the short term but is usually not sustainable. These are often great tools, but alone they are just not enough.
So, if we want to increase staff well-being and experience all the benefits this provides, what do we do?
One of the more promising strategies in workplace well-being is the idea of moving to a joint responsibility model of health promotion (Joyce et al., 2016). A white paper put out by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and Morneau Shepell (2018), a human resources company, promotes this joint responsibility model that includes recommendations like creating a caring culture and supporting the employee-manager relationship. We would like to suggest a three-part model that includes looking after self, supporting and caring about each other, and considering the policies and practices in the system that either promote or get in the way of well-being.
Having a well-being plan that has all three components acknowledges the shared responsibility and makes this something people at all levels of the organization are working on together. For example, it is still the individual’s responsibility to take care of their own health, so information or programs that encourage self-care are great – but only if that is just one part of a more comprehensive well-being support plan. The plan should also include ways to support each other like team building, opportunities to contribute, plans to address conflict, and anything that supports connection, collaboration, and belonging on teams. The third part is looking at policies and practices through the lens of equity and well-being. Which of your practices/policies are supporting well-being and which are getting in the way of it? There are many examples and opportunities to look at established practices with a new well-being lens, such as: whose voices are included in decision making processes? Do our onboard practices create equity and belonging? How do people advance in our district? Do we provide opportunities for ideas and feedback to be heard and shared? Do we need an email policy to support boundaries around work time? The answers to these and so many more questions will vary, but they are definitely worth asking and reflecting on together.
The education system’s ethical responsibility is to work together on creating well-being in the K–12 workplace; it is then that Paul Ricoeur’s (1990/1992) ethical aim for “the ‘good life’ with and for others, in just institutions” (p. 172) can be truly be achieved.
Bressi, S., & Vaden, E. R. (2017). Reconsidering self-care. Clinical Social Work Journal, 45(1), 33–38.
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2020). Mental health in schools strategy. Government of British Columbia.
Gneezy, U., Meier, S., & Rey-Biel, P. (2011). When and why incentives (don’t) work to modify behavior. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(4), 191–209.
Herzog, L. (2018). Reclaiming the system: Moral responsibility, divided labour, and the role of organizations in society. Oxford University Press. DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198830405.001.0001
Joyce, S., Modini, M., et al. (2016). Workplace interventions for common mental disorders: A systematic meta-review. Psychological Medicine, 46(4), 683–697. doi:10.1017/S0033291715002408
Mental Health Commission of Canada & Morneau Shepell (2018). Understanding mental health, mental illness, and their impacts in the workplace. Health Canada.
Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as another (Kathleen Blamey, Trans.). University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1990.)
Wang, F., Pollock, K., & Hauseman, D. C. (2018). Ontario principals’ and vice-principals’ well-being and coping strategies in the context of work intensification. In S. Cherkowski & K. Walker (Eds.), Perspectives on flourishing in schools (pp. 287–303). Lexington Books.
Waterhouse, A. (2019). Positive relationships in school: Supporting emotional health and well-being. Routledge.
On January 11, 2020, a 61-year-old man in the central Chinese city of Wuhan succumbed to a new virus that had sickened at least 41 people. “There is no evidence that the virus can be spread between humans,” the New York Times reported at the time (Quin & Hernandez, 2020). By April 2, the COVID-19 coronavirus had sickened more than one million people in 171 countries across six continents and had killed more than 51,000. In a recent report for the Royal Society of Canada, my colleague Michelle Hagerman and I noted that nearly two years later, the pandemic had not only claimed the lives of millions but also upended nearly every public, private, and non-governmental institution around the globe (Westheimer & Hagerman, 2021).
Crises have a way of making us ask big questions. They focus our attention on what matters most – to us, our loved ones, our fellow citizens, and the planet. For educators, prioritizing what is important became fundamental as teachers grappled with the new realities of online learning, spotty attendance, and the immense inequalities the pandemic revealed about the lives of students and their families. These new realities offer an opportunity to reshape our thinking about what matters in education. But opportunity is not the same as destiny. For lasting change to occur, we must focus our attention on using what we have learned.
Can you name any of the fourteen plant phyla? What’s the difference between sine and cosine? When did the Assyrian empire’s reign over Mesopotamia begin and end? What roles do chloroplasts, vacuole, or mitochondria play in the basic functioning of cells? If you don’t know the answers, you’re not alone. The truth is that few adults (whose professions do not require such specialized knowledge) know the answers to these questions. And even fewer face social, civic, or career setbacks as a result.
If I could ban any two words from education talk for the next year or so, I would choose these: learning loss. The past two years of interrupted schooling has meant that countless children missed lessons in math, history, geography, science, and literature. Every day we read about children falling behind, but the curriculum is bursting at the seams. Falling behind what? Behind whom? Estimates are that nearly 90 percent of the world’s 1.7 billion students have missed a significant amount of school these past two years. So we shouldn’t be surprised if testing experts tell us that, on balance, the COVID generation is not performing as well on standardized assessments of progress as previous cohorts of children at the same stage in their schooling. We probably didn’t need the tests to tell us that predictable fact. But what if that model of teaching and learning is outdated and there are more important things for teachers to think about than whether they’ve “covered” the curriculum?
For certain basic skills such as numeracy and literacy, the language of learning loss is an understandable way of expressing concern over an achievement gap between high- and low- achieving students. But for more than three decades, the school curriculum has become increasingly consumed with all the things students should know before they graduate. That has resulted in an unprecedented global obsession with micro-managing teachers’ work to ensure the right information is taught, and with standardized testing to find out if they’re succeeding. Yet those who seek to demonstrate the importance of coverage in the curriculum mostly use standardized measures of knowledge attainment to prove their point. This tautological approach should be easily dismissed, pandemic or no pandemic, when making the case that we need to move our priorities away from a mile-wide-inch-deep approach to teaching and learning.
Research in teaching and child development tells us that learning how to think analytically is much more important than cramming in material that students won’t remember weeks or years later. We live in an age of instantly accessible information in an infinite number of domains. Living well in the 21st century does not require more information, but rather the knowledge and skills needed to sift, understand, and assess the quality of information. Teaching content matters, but covering every possible historical event and scientific or mathematical concept does not.
I would be thrilled if my child had the opportunity to read and discuss with her teacher and classmates the brilliant allegorical novel, The Alchemist. After all, many students learn valuable ways of thinking about the world from reading it. But I’d be OK if they had to miss that one and read only Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Yann Martel’s Life of Pi instead. What matters is finding topics of interest to both teachers and students, having the time to explore those topics in depth, and facilitating connections between subject matter and the outside world. A deep-dive into topics of interest is worth more than a stress-filled endurance swim in the shallows.
This is not a new idea. “Less is more” has been a common aphorism in curriculum development for more than 30 years. The harms wrought by trying to meet curricular standards bursting at the seams were well documented before the pandemic (see for example Kempf, 2016), but during the past two years, as teachers and school boards across the country were forced to recognize the impossibility of covering the entire prescribed curriculum, the very idea of breadth versus depth came under increased scrutiny. It has become clearer than ever that endlessly expanding content goals reduce teachers’ control over the curriculum, undermine their professional judgment, and limit student engagement.
The COVID-19 pandemic functioned like an X-ray, revealing already existing fault lines in our nation and the world: poverty and economic inequality, hunger and homelessness, racial and ethnic bias, unequal access to high-speed internet and computers, and inadequate resources for those most in need. None of these are new challenges, but they are newly spotlighted for all of us to see – “pinned” in the vernacular of the now-ubiquitous video conferencing platforms. Online learning meant that educators were transported into students’ homes, making inequality difficult to ignore.
What bothers me about a focus on learning loss and “falling behind” is that it will increase these already existing gaps. Calls for economically disadvantaged students to keep up with their wealthier peers will not diminish the achievement gap between children from poorer and wealthier households. The problem is not that some kids will learn more than others as much as it is the consequences we tie to arbitrary benchmarks of learning in the first place. Since students are likely to be evaluated in the future using assessments of how much of the curriculum was covered, and since those evaluations continue to be used to sort students in ways that will affect their futures, we are, at least in part, creating the very problem we hope to eliminate by emphasizing the achievement gap. The more we value the acquisition of information over the development of intellectual, emotional, and relational capacities, the more we contribute to rather than ameliorate inequality.
I do not want to minimize the added supports some children need to make up for lost schooling in basic skills. A child entering Grade 3 after having missed much of the previous two years may not be able to read. Some children will have missed the opportunity to learn or solidify basic mathematical literacy. These are significant liabilities, not really comparable to missing stories about some explorers in Canadian history. It is a significant handicap to be lacking these “basic skills,” and for most children, it would be difficult to acquire these skills on their own. To be sure, we should support additional funding for more teachers, smaller classes, and additional programming so that these gaps can be addressed.
But there is much more to schooling than basic skills alone, and we must be careful not to create arbitrary barriers to those students who, beyond common-sense basic skills, have not acquired the same level of curriculum coverage as their more well-resourced peers.
Schools have been stuck in the wrong paradigm for success, one in which individualized knowledge and skills are the end-goal instead of a means to develop students’ best selves within the community of their teachers and peers, and, by extension, improve society for all of us.
If we agree to move beyond an outdated paradigm of education centred around curriculum coverage, what kind of vision for post-pandemic education can take its place? Two decades ago, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that education either functions to inculcate conformity in the younger generation or it becomes “the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (2000, p. 34). To Freire, the sense of pedagogical meaning-making that derives from curriculum is inseparable from the goal of improving society. In other words, improving society requires not only teaching basic skills and knowledge, but also engaging young and old alike in a process of collective meaning-making and community-building.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the ways people treat one another, learn from one another, and live together in local, national, and global communities – in short, how people see themselves as members of a community. Education has always seemed important to me, not because of the debates about passing fads and strategies (phonics versus whole language, new math versus old math, small classes versus big classes), but rather because choices about how we teach our children are choices about the kind of society we believe in and the kind of people we hope will emerge from our schoolhouse doors. Will they be concerned only with their own individual success and ambitions without regard to the welfare of others? Will they form healthy and happy relationships with others? Will they value democratic values such as self-governance and social justice? Will they learn how to develop convictions and the courage to stand up for those convictions if and when it becomes necessary to do so? Will they be able to engage in work and community activities they find meaningful? These values are manifestations of a sense of both personal and civic identity and form the basis of community life.
You can see, then, that I think about schools not only or even primarily as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge, but also as places where children learn about the society in which they are growing up: how they might engage productively, how they can fight for change when change is warranted, and how to know when it is warranted. Schools have always taught lessons in areas such as citizenship, moral values, good behaviour, and “character.” Schools teach children to follow rules, to wait their turn, and (ideally) to cooperate with others. Schools (again, ideally) also teach children how to acquire and process information and how to articulate their ideas to others – all necessary skills for democratic community life. Some schools also help students consider whether being a “good” citizen or member of the community ever requires questioning rules, or what might be the proper balance between rule following and thinking about the origins and purpose of rules.
Schools teach these lessons regardless of whether or not they aim to do so explicitly. How classrooms are set up, who gets to talk when, how adults conduct themselves, how decisions are made, how lessons are enacted – all these inevitably serve as lessons in how to live together. Whether teachers explicitly “teach” these subjects or not, students learn about community organization, the distribution of power and resources, rights, responsibilities, and of course, justice and injustice. These same lessons are mirrored in students’ online interactions. Curricular choices and the relative importance we put on covering all the content standards contain both overt and hidden lessons as well.
When policy-makers focus obsessively on learning metrics, teachers are forced to reduce their teaching to endless lists of facts and skills, unmoored from their social meaning. But when we consider what a successful education might look like more broadly and we think about the impact our curricular choices have on the people we hope students will become, we create new ways of seeing the complex work of teaching and we form new expectations for the purposes of a public education.
Schools should teach subject matter content. There, I said it. I do not want to entertain strawman arguments about progressive educators who don’t care whether children learn to read and write, add and subtract numbers, or learn facts about things. As far as I know, there is not a group anyone can join called “Parents and Educators Against Children Learning How to Read.”
What I am suggesting is that schools should teach content without becoming overly concerned with teaching all content. The need for such a shift in thinking is not new but was made newly possible by the disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eliminating the need for each and every student to cover the exact same material at the same time would free teachers to help their students create meaning, develop a sense of purpose, belonging, well-being, and the chance to learn more deeply about things that excite their curiosity. A paradigm for education that embraces these kinds of goals encourages teachers and students to develop content knowledge and skills by drawing on the local passions, interests, and resources of the school and community. As high school history teacher Michael Berkowitz likes to say: content matters more than coverage.
Most importantly, a successful education should be one that allows each child to become the best version of themselves, and to envision a future for their communities and the planet that isn’t yet realized – but that they can help bring about.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.
Kempf, A. (2016). The pedagogy of standardized testing: The radical impacts of educational standardization in the US and Canada. Palgrave.
Qin, A. & Hernández, J. C. (2020, January 10). China reports first death from new virus. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/world/asia/china-virus-wuhan-death.html. Para 4
Westheimer, J., & Hagerman, M. (2021). After COVID: Lessons from a pandemic for K-12 education. In T. Vaillancourt (Ed.), Children and schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and connection through opportunity. Royal Society of Canada. https://education.uottawa.ca/en/news/royal-society-canada-policy-briefing-children-and-schools-during-covid-19-and-beyond
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted life across the globe in every sector of society. As we move toward the third year of the pandemic, educators are examining the impact on student learning, educational outcomes, and well-being. Educators over the past two years have been adjusting practice and reflecting on what lies ahead for education and schooling in a “post-pandemic” world. We all acknowledge that it might be premature to think of “post-pandemic,” as students, parents, educators, policymakers and communities are still experiencing effects of the pandemic.
The pandemic continues to impact Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities in devastating ways, and has exacerbated structural inequities that these communities experience. Research has shown that the pandemic has impacted student learning in significant ways, with many students falling behind, experiencing challenges with persistent and ongoing virtual learning and the safety concerns with in-person learning, and suffering diminished mental health and well-being. There have been challenges for parents: supporting students with online learning, work and life balance, and child care issues, among others. Educators have voiced concerns about ongoing safety measures as many return to in-person learning. The impact and consequences of the pandemic have been experienced differently by members of society depending on status, resources, type of work, racialization, ability, and other aspects of identity. Essential and frontline workers have borne the brunt of the impact and many are experiencing burnout, anxiety, and negative impact on their well-being. As Reyes (2020) argues, our different social identities and the social groups we belong to determine our inclusion within society and, by extension, our vulnerability to epidemics.
As educators and policymakers reimagine education and schooling in a post-pandemic era, there is a growing awareness that the experiences of the pandemic and the lessons learned should serve as motivation for radical new and alternative approaches to teaching, learning, and leading. Calls to “get back to normal” by some ignore challenges and structural inequities across all sectors of society that have been laid bare and exacerbated by the pandemic.
Students, educators, and community members all want teaching and learning to return in fulsome ways; however, those from global majority communities say “getting back to normal” must not include returning to oppressive policies and practices that prevent racialized students from achieving positive educational outcomes. The pandemic widened gaps that already existed for Black, Brown, and Indigenous students. Students and communities are demanding new approaches and policies that centre their lived experiences and will no longer tolerate educational policies and practices that oppress them and negatively impact their futures. The pandemic has magnified historic systemic failures affecting Black students, families, and communities, causing increased racial trauma, issues of mental health and well-being for educators and students, and the erosion of trust in schools and institutions (Horsford et al., 2021). As a result, many children and youth have experienced disengagement, chronic attendance problems, declines in academic achievement, and decreased credit attainment during the pandemic, with the impact far deeper for those already at risk (Whitley et al., 2021). “The pandemic has not only added to the social and educational inequities among young people, it has exacerbated the racial injustice with which racialized and Indigenous youth must contend” (James, 2020, p.1), and this reality cannot be overlooked.
Against this backdrop, educators and policymakers are called on to reimagine education and schooling, to name and challenge the ways in which students are marginalized, and to question practices, policies, and “norms” of a pre-pandemic era that must not return. The lessons of the pandemic must be learned and there must not be a return to business as usual. Instead, those most impacted by the pandemic are calling for inequities to be acknowledged and a commitment made to lasting systemic change.
To this end, critical educators see the pandemic as an opportunity not only to question oppressive educational policies and practices, but to take action and offer new and alternative approaches. One key issue that this article examines is the notion of student success. Measures of student success have traditionally focused on such areas as grades, credit accumulation, engagement in the school environments, and so on. What the pandemic (as well as student and community advocates) has highlighted is that student success is also about well-being, having a sense of belonging, and the ability to survive and thrive academically, emotionally, and spiritually. In this article I argue for rethinking student success through an anti-oppressive and decolonizing lens. To do so means naming systems of oppression and the ways coloniality and colonization continue to be perpetuated in educational practices, policies, and the framing of notions such as student success.
Student success has been a long-standing goal of educators. Nonetheless, the term carries a variety of meanings within education, though it has commonly been identified with various forms of measurable student outcomes. Schools in their school success plans often define and contextualize student success to set organizational goals. In broad terms, student success has been understood in terms of outcomes such as academic achievement, graduation rates, persistence, increase in self-efficacy, increase in engagement, and initiative (Weatherton & Schussler, 2021). Research shows that there are differences in how teachers and students understand student success. Racialized students, for example, tend to define success for themselves, which often aligns with what matters to them and the kinds of supports they need for their educational advancement (Oh & Kim, 2016). Weatherton and Schussier (2021) argue that current discourse around the meaning of student success is maintained in part by social hierarchies that can be examined through the lens of hegemony and critical race theory, and which often hinder the success of certain student populations who may not define success in the same way.
Many have argued that markers of student success have been created to serve a predominantly white student population and do not sufficiently reflect or meet the needs of a diverse student population. Students from global majority communities are no longer willing to be labelled as “unsuccessful,” “disadvantaged,” “at-risk,” and other markers of deficit in school while their educational, mental health, and well-being needs are not met, and racism and other forms of oppression that impact their educational outcomes persist. For example, throughout the pandemic students from low-resourced families could not participate effectively in the shift to online learning, as some did not have adequate access to the internet and computers. The failure of the system to provide adequate resources for students must not be laid at the feet of vulnerable students and used to render them as unsuccessful. Instead, questions must be asked about what success means for students from global majority communities, and what policies and practices need to be put in place in order for them to survive and thrive. Resiliency has emerged in the discourse when discussing success of students, and in particular students from Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. While resilience is a worthy endeavour, students should not be called on to be resilient in the face of ongoing oppression. Oppressive systems, policies, and practices must change, instead of calling on some students to be more resilient.
Anti-oppressive and decolonizing education, which identifies structural inequities and practices grounded in coloniality and the resulting gaps in student outcomes, provides a framework for advancing equity that challenges all forms of oppression. This should be seen as foundational to student success.
Reimagining student success grounded in anti-oppressive and decolonizing approaches must prioritize the following elements:
These suggestions do not operate in an isolated linear fashion, but overlap and are interconnected.
Research shows that students often have different notions of what success means. In addition to grades, students want to feel that they are being heard. As well, students from global majority communities see success as being able to thrive academically and without spirit injury – not having to endure racism and other forms of exclusion that stand in the way of their academic success and well-being. In Canada, we have read story after story of Black students experiencing anti-Black racism in schools and Indigenous students experiencing anti-Indigenous racism in schools. In response to community and parental advocacy, some school boards have put policies in place to address anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, but there is more work to be done.
Student-centred approaches are not new; however a student-centred approach grounded in anti-oppressive and decolonizing education requires educators to examine their relationships with students through the lens of power, whiteness, white supremacy, ways that systemic forms of oppression can be manifested in those relationships, and ways in which practices grounded in colonial thinking and mindset define markers of success. Wells and Cordova-Cobo (2021) argue that it is impossible for educators to be student-centred, to engage in a holistic education focused on students’ social and emotional needs, without also being anti-racist. This approach means that success cannot be seen within paradigms of meritocracy, but instead through supports they need, acknowledging the impact of racism and other forms of oppression on their educational experiences. For educators in classrooms, this might mean examining assessment practices, pedagogical approaches, and curriculum context. For administrators this might mean examining discipline policies that penalize students instead of learning about what else might be happening in students’ lives.
Anti-oppressive and decolonizing education cannot be treated as an add-on to teachers’ and school leaders’ everyday work, but must instead be embedded in everyday practice. It must become the norm. Students must experience curriculum, pedagogy, and school practices that reflect their lived experiences, address their needs holistically, and identify forms of oppression in all aspects of teaching, learning, and leading that stand in the way of their progress. Students’ school experiences must be wholesome and fulfilling, both academically and spiritually. Seeing the impact of COVID-19 on racialized students, educators must commit to this work and be provided ongoing support to make it a reality, not just theory. This will require educators to examine activities that they engage in on a daily basis, including morning greetings, conversations with students in the hallways, meetings with families, resources that are purchased, and knowledge used to frame decision-making. For example, examining the influence of Eurocentric knowledge in relationship to students from global majority communities; and asking questions about the use of deficit narratives to construct students’ experiences and success or lack thereof. Anti-oppressive and decolonizing education also requires the examination of self – for educators to examine their positionality and how this intersects with that of students; and to look for the tensions in the relationship and include student voice and experience as they work through these tensions. Educators must also be committed to ongoing learning, unlearning, and relearning. This is critical for anti-oppressive and decolonizing work to be sustained and create the lasting change needed.
Students’ mental health and well-being has been a consistent conversation throughout the pandemic. For racialized students who are already experiencing racial violence and trauma in schools, the impact has been devastating. In addition to the already heightened challenges on their mental health and well-being, many students from low-resource families and communities work to earn extra family income, and thus shoulder an added layer of stress. These issues, illuminated and exacerbated during the pandemic, must now form part of the discourse, policy and practice as we reconceptualize student success. The impact of these experiences should not be constructed as deficits when examining student success, but instead as a result of embedded structural inequities. I am suggesting here that when discussing student success, questions must be asked about students’ economic well-being and how that impacts their educational outcomes. Students’ economic lives are not separate from their educational lives; they are intertwined. New conceptualizations of success must include providing supports for students to overcome these challenges. These should be envisioned as the “new normal” and markers of success in a “post-pandemic” world.
As we begin to rethink education, schooling, and what student success means through an anti-oppressive and decolonizing lens, relationships with communities must be seen as central to student success. Connection with their community deepens educators’ understanding of students in holistic ways and fosters greater understanding of their needs. This also means building into curriculum and pedagogy knowledge that students bring from their communities, what Gonzalez et al. (2005) refer to as Funds of Knowledge. They suggest that families, especially those who are working class, can be characterized by the practices they have developed and the knowledge they have produced and acquired in the living of their lives. In other words, how is community knowledge part of the conversation about success? How are the formal and informal activities that students engage in at the community level taken into account when discussing student success? Decolonizing approaches to education require educators to examine and disrupt notions about certain communities constructed and maintained through colonized frames, that disregard local knowledge as valued and valuable (Lopez, 2021). This knowledge is valuable to schools in supporting students’ learning and bringing about positive educational outcomes. We also need to support students to engage in cultural border crossing – drawing on knowledge from their own experiences, and getting to know students who are different from themselves – and to see other cultures through an affirming lens. Building positive relationships with community is a cornerstone of anti-oppressive and decolonizing education.
Education in a “post-pandemic” era calls for radical action. Student success can no longer be conceptualized only in terms of measurable outcomes and indicators such as graduation rates and marks. While it is important that students graduate and move to the next level, other markers of student success must be seen as equally important – such as how well students are thriving in teaching and learning spaces free from oppression and marginalization. The relationship between students, community, and school, should become central to student success policies and practice. The moment we are currently in provides educators with a great opportunity to build deep, lasting, and respectful relationships with communities, examine ways that COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated structural inequities, and construct alternative approaches and practices. This will prepare students to be successful in a fast-changing and diverse world.
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
Horsford, S. D. et al. (2021). Black education in the wake of COVID-19 & systemic racism: Toward a theory of change and action. Black Education Research Collective, Teachers College, Columbia University. https://www.tc.columbia.edu/media/centers/berc/Final-BERC-COVID-Report-20July2021.pdf
González, N., Moll, L., Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Lawrence Erlbaum.
James, C. (2021). Racial inequity, COVID-19 and the education of Black and other marginalized students. In F. Henry & C. James (Eds.) Impacts of COVID-19 in Racialized Communities (36–44). Royal Society of Canada. https://rsc-src.ca/en/themes/impact-covid-19-in-racialized-communities
Lopez, A. E. (2021). Decolonizing educational leadership: Exploring alternative approaches to leading schools. Palgrave Macmillan.
Oh, C. J., & Kim, N. Y. (2016). “Success is relative”: Comparative social class and ethnic effects in an academic paradox. Sociological Perspectives, 59(2), 270–295.
Osmond-Johnson, P., Lopez, A. E., & Button, J. (2020, November 20). Centring equity in an era of COVID-19: A new twist on an existing challenge. Education Canada. www.edcan.ca/articles/centring-equity-in-the-covid-19-era
Reyes, N. V. (2020). The disproportional impact of COVID-19 on African Americans. Health and Human Rights, 22(2) 299–307.
Weatherton, M., & Schussler, E. E. (2021). Success for all? A call to re-examine how student success is defined in higher education. CBE – life sciences education, 20(1), es3. doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-09-0223
Wells, A. S., & Cordova-Cobo, D. (2021). The post-pandemic pathway to anti-racist education: Building a coalition across progressive, multicultural, culturally responsive, and ethnic studies advocates. The Century Foundation. https://tcf.org/content/report/post-pandemic-pathway-anti-racist-education-building-coalition-across-progressive-multicultural-culturally-responsive-ethnic-studies-advocates
Whitley, J., Beauchamp, M. H., & Brown C. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on the learning and achievement of vulnerable Canadian children and youth. FACETS 6(1), 1693–1713. doi.org/10.1139/facets-2021-0096
During the pandemic, school closures affected almost all the children on planet Earth, with billions more parents, educators, and school staff impacted as well.
In Canada, schools were closed for between eight weeks (in Québec) and 26 weeks (in Ontario) from March 2020 to June 2021. Many schools closed again in January 2022 because of the Omicron variant. By now, we know the drill. When schools close, classes move online: teachers use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction and activities to help students learn, and parents of younger children pick up their unofficial teachers’ assistant roles.
Schools are where children and youth play, build relationships, create, develop their sense of selves, and need to be active. They are also, fundamentally, a place where students gain academic skills. Those skills include literacy and numeracy, which are the two most often measured. They also include developing scientific foundations, and learning about history, geography, and citizenship. Students’ learning and academic progress is a key determinant of health, income, happiness, and civic participation across the lifetime. Unaddressed gaps in these outcomes are very likely to contribute to the continuation, or deepening, of long-term social inequalities.
The overwhelming weight of international evidence1 suggests that, on average, students made less academic progress during pandemic-related closures than they would have in normal years (e.g. Hammarstein et al., 2021). Research shows that relative to previous years, there were greater gaps for younger children and in math achievement as opposed to English/language arts. Many studies looked at issues of equity. Where data is disaggregated, there have been consistent findings that such groups as low-income students, Black and Latinx students, students with special education needs, and English-language learners have fallen disproportionately far behind (see Gallagher-Mackay, Srivastava, et. al, 2021). Those same groups have also been disproportionately affected by the hardships of the pandemic – a higher burden of illness, household stressors such as unemployment, less access to technology, and so forth.
More recent large-scale studies with data from spring 2021 – 15 months into the pandemic – have showed that students who experienced more time in remote learning did, on average, worse during the pandemic than those who had more time learning in person (Halloran et al., 2021). Further, students who gained ground with a return to in-person learning lost it again during subsequent closures – even with significant support from synchronous learning (Renaissance/Educational Policy Institute, 2021).
In Canada, most large-scale assessments – which might allow us to benchmark progress using comparable data – were suspended from 2020 to 2021. One of the few investigations using standardized measures was led by University of Alberta’s George Georgiou, who compared the reading scores of elementary students captured in an annual September assessment. He found that younger students demonstrated greater learning loss than older students, and those in Grades 1–3 who were already struggling before lockdowns were up to six months behind where they should have been by September 2020.
Though there have been investments in safety measures, Canadian commitments to educational recovery have been far lower than other countries (see Gallagher-Mackay et al., 2021). For example, the federal government in the United States has committed $25 billion (of a total $124 billion for K–12) to education recovery, alongside investments by individual states, which have constitutional responsibility for education.
Where there has been large-scale recovery funding there has also been a profusion of programming, research, and active experimentation into effective ways of helping students catch up. The resources available through Brown University’s Annenberg Institute (https://annenberg.brown.edu/recovery), for example, provide terrific roadmaps to best practices for learning acceleration and to address key challenges faced by educators and school systems. There are a number of specific approaches worth highlighting.
Small group tutoring (one tutor with up to five students) is a complement to – not a replacement for – the more complex work of a classroom teacher. Our recent evidence review (Gallagher-Mackay, Mundy, et al., 2021; see also Nickow et al. 2020) highlights evidence that “high dosage tutoring” – at least three times a week – is one of the most effective educational interventions, especially when it is closely linked to in-school curriculum. For example, in rigorous studies, full-time college graduates in a national service program were able to gain two and a half years of learning in math over the course of one year. School-based tutoring has been a key plank of recovery efforts in the U.K., U.S., and Australia.
There is promising evidence that high-quality voluntary summer programs of at least five weeks duration – programs that include both academic instruction and enrichment activities to promote attendance and pleasure in learning – can boost achievement for participating students (McCombs et al., 2019). Small groups (fewer than 15 students) and specialized supports for students with special education or English language learning needs led to more powerful impacts. This research was conducted on in-person summer schools, and many students – including those with the greatest needs – may not choose to participate.
Large-scale data from France showed a surprising outcome: most of the learning losses found in Grade 1, 2, and 6 tests from 2020 were regained by September 2021. Moreover, achievement gaps based on socio-economic status (SES) initially widened, but by September 2021, the gaps had narrowed (Rosenwald, 2021). One factor that may have played a role in the French case is class size: in 2017, a new policy halved class sizes for Grade 1 and 2 classes in priority (low-SES) areas across the country. During the 2020/2021 school year all priority-area Grade 1 and 2 classrooms served a maximum of 12 (rather than 24) students (OECD, 2020). It is possible that the smaller class sizes in targeted regions across the country helped swiftly mitigate learning losses among particularly vulnerable groups.
Wraparound services to reconnect families and community
COVID-19 has fractured or further damaged relationships between schools, family and community. Safety measures have kept families out of schools, while underscoring the need for broader social supports beyond what schools are set up to provide: from settlement services to social work, mental health supports or opportunities for recreation. Unfortunately, current staffing doesn’t make room to build these enriching connections. There is a long history of research on community schools (see Maier et al., 2017). Canadian research shows that even a 0.5-time position dedicated to strengthening community can be transformative – providing a great return on investment in terms of bringing resources into the school (Lamarre et al., 2020).
There is evidence to suggest certain approaches should be avoided. In particular, having students repeat years of schooling is extremely expensive and has been associated with heightened risk of drop-out in a large volume of studies. Compressed curriculum – without additional supports – has not proved effective (Allensworth & Schwartz, 2021). Narrowing the focus of the curriculum to the purely academic, at the cost of physical activity, social-emotional learning, and opportunities to engage in creativity and citizenship learning would fail to reflect the many aspects of children’s development supported by schools.
Whatever approach we undertake, tracking student outcomes matters. Consistent aggregation of teacher-administered diagnostic assessment data would support this goal, if large-scale assessments aren’t going to be used.
We need this data to identify gaps, to support an appropriate, targeted strategy for deploying resources, and to better understand the effectiveness of whatever recovery measures we finally undertake.
There have been significant learning impacts related to the pandemic, but there are also promising educational interventions and supports that can help students thrive and recover academically, support educators facing enormous challenges, and help address some of the system’s long-term inequities. Canada needs to get moving.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
1 While the overwhelming majority of the studies reviewed show significant losses (e.g. Kuhfeld, Tarasawa, et al., 2020), some studies in Germany and the Netherlands found that many students improved in limited subjects through practice in online environments over the pandemic (e.g. Spitzer & Musslick, 2021). Studies based on general tests of knowledge and skills – either national/state assessments or diagnostic, including in the Netherlands – all point to significant losses.
Allensworth, E., & Schwartz, N. (2020). School practices to address student learning loss.
EdResearch for Recovery Project. https://annenberg.brown.edu/sites/default/files/EdResearch_for_Recovery_Brief_1.pdf
Gallagher-Mackay, K., Srivastava, P., et al. (2021). COVID-19 and education disruption in Ontario: Emerging evidence on impacts. Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. https://covid19-sciencetable.ca/sciencebrief/covid-19-and-education-disruption-in-ontario-emerging-evidence-on-impacts
Gallagher-Mackay, K., Mundy, K., et al. (2021). The evidence for tutoring to accelerate learning and address educational inequities during canada’s pandemic recovery. Diversity Institute at Ryerson University.
Halloran, C., Jack, R., et al. (2021). Pandemic schooling mode and student test scores: Evidence from US states (No. w29497; p. w29497). National Bureau of Economic Research. doi.org/10.3386/w29497
Hammerstein, S., König, C., et al. (2021). Effects of COVID-19-related school closures on student achievement – A systematic review. PsyArXiv. doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/mcnvk
Kuhfeld, M., Tarasawa, B., et al. (2020). Learning during COVID-19: Initial findings on students’ reading and math achievement and growth. NWEA. www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/11/Collaborative-brief-Learning-during-COVID-19.NOV2020.pdf
Lamarre, P., Horrocks, D. & Legault, E. (2020). The community school network in Quebec’s official language minority education sector. Concordia University. https://learnquebec.ca/clc-history
Maier, A., Daniel, J., & Oakes, J. (2017). Community schools as an effective school improvement strategy: A review of the evidence. Learning Policy Insitute/National Education Planning Centre. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Community_Schools_Effective_BRIEF.pdf.
McCombs, J. S., Augustine, C. H., et al. (2019). Investing in successful summer programs: A review of evidence under the Every Student Succeeds Act. RAND Corporation. www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2836.html
Nickow, A., Oreopoulos, P., & Quan, V. (2020). The impressive effects of tutoring on PreK-12 learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. (NBER Working Papers, Vol. 1 – Working Paper 27476). National Bureau of Economic Research.
OECD. (2020). Education policy outlook: France. www.oecd.org/education/policy-outlook/country-profile-France-2020.pdf
Renaissance Learning, Educational Policy Institute. (2021). Understanding progress in the 2020/21 academic year (p. 42). Department of Education. www.gov.uk/government/publications/pupils-progress-in-the-2020-to-2021-academic-year-interim-report
Rosenwald, F. (2021, November 29). The 2020 French school lockdown and its impact on education: What do we know so far? [Forum presentation]. OECD-AERA forum: How education fared during the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns? International evidence, broadcast on Zoom. https://www.aera.net/Events-Meetings/How-Education-Fared-During-the-First-Wave-of-COVID-19-Lockdowns-International-Evidence
Spitzer, M. W . H., Musslick, S. (2021). Academic performance of K-12 students in an online-learning environment for mathematics increased during the shutdown of schools in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. PLOS ONE 16(8): e0255629. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255629
Shanna (eight) has always been a sensitive child. She feels nervous about many things, and these feelings have only increased during the pandemic. It is becoming increasingly difficult for her caregiver to get her to school in the mornings.
Yasmin (11) has struggled with her adjustment to Canada and gets frustrated that school is so difficult when she was a strong student in her home country. Her worries about her family that are still back at home can feel overwhelming, and often distract her from her classes.
Jesse (14) is finding it really difficult to navigate their queer identity in different spaces, including different levels of acceptance at the home of each of their parents. They are feeling increasingly isolated and have thoughts of harming themselves.
What do these seemingly diverse students have in common? They have different strengths and different challenges, but are all struggling with the everyday expectations placed on them, including at school. Further, they could all benefit from opportunities to improve their mental health. For many students, mental health can be promoted through creating welcoming environments and teaching skills such as self-regulation, communication, and healthy relationships. For others, additional opportunities to learn coping strategies might be required. Still others may need more specialized services. As a major piece of children’s ecosystems, schools must be intentional in how they support positive mental health. We need to look beyond academic rankings for schools and recognize that successful schools support mental health, both for compassionate reasons and because strong mental health underlies future success.
Canada is often identified as a great place to live on international lists and rankings. However, our performance on children’s mental health is not a source of national pride. Even prior to the pandemic, the last UN report card ranked us 31st out of 38 rich countries on children’s mental health and happiness. We also have one of the highest rates of adolescent suicide. We would not accept such a ranking for our math scores; to score this low in mental health is cause for a significant call to action.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives and routines. Not surprisingly, children and youth are paying the price with decreased well-being. Data collected by SickKids looking at impacts during the second wave found that more than half of 750 kids aged 8–12 reported significant symptoms of depression; 70 percent of adolescents reported significant depression. Furthermore, the pandemic has exposed and amplified the inequities that were there all along. Equity-seeking groups have been harder hit by pandemic impacts, and this includes worse mental health for youth who belong to marginalized groups. The jury is still out on long-term impacts of disruptions related to the pandemic, but there is no question many of the negative impacts will linger.
Before we talk about the central role schools can play in promoting student well-being, I want to clarify what is meant by mental health. All too often, mental health is considered synonymous with mental illness, as if it only exists when there is a problem. Of course, we all have mental health the same way we all have physical health. Thinking about mental health in a deficit-based manner is analogous to saying we only have physical health when we are sick. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines positive mental health as, “the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face.” Within that definition, we can see there is significant overlap with the role of schools. We need to expand our ideas around what makes a school successful and recognize that one indicator of a successful school or school system is that proper mental-health supports are in place and education is seen as truly being about the development of the whole person.
There are many pragmatic reasons to think about an expanded notion of school mental health. Many skills that underlie positive mental health can be taught, often within a social-emotional learning framework. Promoting facets of mental health, such as self-regulation and optimism, improve learning outcomes. Most children and youth attend school, thus minimizing access barriers. Educators see children daily and are familiar with a wide range of what might be considered normal and healthy in a particular age group; as such, they are well positioned to notice changes.
Obviously, teachers are not social workers, nor should they be expected to take on that role. The answer lies in a tiered school mental-health approach, with role clarity at each tier. This tiered approach is often conceptualized as a triangle, and although different names are given to the tiers in different models, the notion of three tiers that represent universal, selected, and targeted intervention is widely understood in any comprehensive public health approach.
TIER 1 is where universal prevention or promotion happens. It can include everyday practices that create welcoming spaces for all students. At Tier 1, educators can introduce social-emotional learning concepts in short activities and reinforce them during teachable moments. There are also excellent programs that are effective in promoting well-being and align well with curricular expectations.
Over the past five years, my team has partnered with the London District Catholic School Board to implement and evaluate a program called MindUP. In our research with students with 580 students in 42 kindergarten classrooms, we found that students in MindUP classrooms experienced significant benefits. Problematic behaviours were reduced (Crooks, Bax et al., 2020). Their prosocial behaviours and executive functioning showed gains, suggesting that new and mental-health promoting skills were being developed. This project shows how mental health promotion can lead to much wider benefits than simply less depressed children. Improvements in executive functioning could be expected to translate to improved academic performance – a contention we were in the process of investigating when COVID hit and ended our research!
Furthermore, educators reported decreased burnout and an increased sense of personal efficacy (Kim et al., 2021). They talked about creating calmer classrooms that in turn led to a greater sense of personal well-being. By implementing a program that was aligned with curriculum and board priorities, this initiative reduced educator stress rather than leading to work intensification.
“I’ve become a lot more mindful as a teacher. You always recognize those kids who have difficulty, but there’s a whole different perspective now… as to how we look at children and how we deal with them.” – MindUP educator
TIER 2 is where students who may be considered vulnerable can be offered additional support. The source of this vulnerability may not be the individual child at all; effective programming at this level for identified equity-seeking groups might help buffer against experiences of discrimination or past trauma. Tier 2 work is often implemented by mental-health professionals, but educators still have an important role in identifying students who would benefit and supporting their involvement. We have developed or evaluated several programs through our intervention research over the past 15 years.
For example, our Uniting Our Nations mentoring program for Indigenous students promotes healthy relationship skills and coping, within a cultural framework. In the elementary school version, students meet weekly in groups with an adult mentor. The secondary school version uses student mentors and mentees who are also guided by an adult mentor. Our longitudinal evaluation found that students who were involved for two years had increased positive mental health, were more culturally connected, and achieved better credit accumulation than their peers (Crooks et al., 2017). This is an important study because it counters the prevailing notion that focusing on social and emotional well-being and cultural connectedness somehow competes with academic achievement. In this study, the opposite was true. By focusing on social and emotional well-being with an identity-affirming approach, students were able to shine with their academics.
Mentors are showing other kids that you can succeed and still be First Nations. That’s the key; it’s showing kids they don’t have to lose who they are in order to be successful. We are not asking you to assimilate or give up everything to succeed. We know that you can keep connected to your culture and succeed. – Indigenous educator
Supporting Transition Resilience of Newcomer Groups (STRONG) is a small-group resiliency-enhancing intervention for newcomer students who are struggling with some aspect of their adjustment. STRONG brings together groups of six to ten students with a clinician (and often a co-facilitator, who may be an educator) to teach youth resilience skills such as relaxation, coping, problem-solving skills, and goal setting. In addition to the individual skill development, youth benefit from the relationships they develop with other participants, and a decreased sense of being alone. Preliminary evidence suggests that STRONG increases coping strategies, connectedness, and resilience (Crooks, Kubyshin, et al., 2020).
HRP for 2SLGBTQA+ Youth is a group-based intervention for secondary school students who identify as gender, romantic, and sexual minority youth (and their allies). It was designed to be facilitated by educators in schools in the context of gender sexuality alliances (GSAs). The program includes key relationship skills and coping strategies appropriate for all youth, but has an expanded focus on being identity affirming and addressing stressors that are more specific to 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. Our focus groups with youth and educators suggest that students enjoy the program and benefit from the skills they learn, as well as the connections they make to others (Lapointe & Crooks, 2018).
Clearly, having effective programs for equity-seeking groups does not reduce the need to fight racism, colonialism, and homophobia on a larger societal level, but these strengths-based programs can help students develop important skills and strategies while also developing a sense of community.
TIER 3 refers to the domain where students’ mental health needs are of sufficient severity and complexity to require specialized services. Within a comprehensive school mental health model, the vision is for schools to hand over the care of students to qualified mental health professionals in the community at this point, while staying involved as part of the circle of supports for the student. In reality, there is a significant shortage of mental health resources in the community and schools are often left trying to support students with Tier 3 needs. Some boards are even exploring taking on this work more intentionally, in the face of the shortage of referral options.
The three tiers of a comprehensive school mental health approach are not isolated, and students may need different levels of support at different times. Also, referring to this integrated and comprehensive approach as school mental health does not let those beyond the school setting off the hook – we all have a role to play in promoting well-being for children and youth.
So, what do we need to advance the vision of comprehensive school mental health in every school in Canada? We need to move beyond piecemeal initiatives and create a comprehensive and coordinated strategy. Organizations such as the pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health (www.jcsh-cces.ca) can facilitate the sharing of effective practices across jurisdictions. This work cannot be achieved on the backs of individual educator and administrator champions. We need all the implicated government ministries to commit to this work and provide the appropriate resources.
What would a co-ordinated, comprehensive approach include?
Finally, we need to remember that schools are embedded in and reflect larger societal values and dynamics. As Canada continues to navigate reconciliation and attend to systemic racism, we need to think critically about how school mental health initiatives can be aligned with these movements and not reinforce negative systemic influences.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
For two-page summaries of the research mentioned in this article, see “Research Snapshots” at: www.csmh.uwo.ca/research
Crooks, C. V, Bax, K., et al. (2020). Impact of MindUP among young children: Improvements in behavioral problems, adaptive skills, and executive functioning. Mindfulness, 11(10), 2433–2444. doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01460-0.
Crooks, C. V., Exner-Cortens, D., et al. (2017). Two years of relationship-focused mentoring for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit adolescents: Promoting positive mental health. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 38. doi.org/10.1007/s10935-016-0457-0.
Crooks, C. V., Kubishyn, N., et al. (2020). The STRONG Resiliency program for newcomer youth: A mixed-methods exploration of youth experiences and impacts. International Journal of School Social Work, 5(2). doi.org/10.4148/2161-4148.1059.
Kim, S., Crooks, C. V., Bax, K., & Shokoohi, M. (2021). Impact of trauma-informed training and mindfulness-based social–emotional learning program on teacher attitudes and burnout: A mixed-methods study. School Mental Health, 13(1), 55-68.
Lapointe, A., & Crooks, C. (2018). GSA members’ experiences with a structured program to promote well-being. Journal of LGBT Youth, 15(4), 300–318. doi.org/10.1080/19361653.2018.1479672.
Welcome to Flight 2022! We are taking off into this new year with our positive attitude and gratitude secured in the upright position. We have turned off and stowed away all self-destructive devices, like worry and negativity. Our leadership, activated by hope, connections, strategic planning, and grit, will be assisting other passengers in activating their leadership. We will celebrate our efforts and enjoy this flight!
Educational leaders are trying to refuel their well-being and mental health while in full flight. Part of the flight path for Saskatchewan is shared here.
The Ministry of Education in Saskatchewan has established a two-year plan to address mental health and well-being in K–12 education. Led by a committee of senior educational administrators in partnership with the provincial Ministry, the plan includes:
At the school division level, school leaders are working within their local context to support students and staff. School-based well-being plans include local committee initiatives, specific programs, surveys, and community partnerships. Schools are supported by system-level initiatives including professional development, speakers, strategic messaging, system need surveys, and various grants.
The EdCan Network, via its Well at Work staff well-being initiative, has come into Saskatchewan as a welcomed “objective, critical friend” to support our mental health and well-being efforts:
Educational leaders need to support each other to meet the challenges of staff and student well-being with wisdom, strength, and confidence. There is a hunger for economical and proactive supports that educational leaders can readily apply and share. Educational leaders also want to know if their pathways and initiatives are really positively impacting as intended. The exciting part is that there are “beacons of brilliance” that exist across schools, school divisions, and provinces.
The authentic, safe connections and networking of educational leaders onsite and in virtual ways to face these challenges together is a brilliant opportunity in 2022. Our leadership connections will inspire us and help us be that needed steady light for our students, staff, communities and for ourselves as we rebound in 2022–23.
Have a safe landing!
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have increasingly shown the critical role schools play in promoting the health and wellbeing of students and staff. Now more than ever, a coordinated approach that takes action at all levels of the education system is essential to addressing mental health, safety, and belonging in schools. An approach that is gaining recognition among school districts across Canada for its value in promoting the wellbeing of students, teachers, and other members of the school community, is Comprehensive School Health (CSH).
Increasing knowledge, understanding and skills of the school community through formal and informal learning opportunities:
Creating policies, guidelines, and practices that:
Collaborating and engaging with:
When a Comprehensive School Health approach is taken, entire school communities can experience improved wellbeing, healthier educational spaces, and improved student learning outcomes. However, research points to the need for schools to invest time and resources into building a health-promoting environment that supports the wellbeing of students and staff. While this may seem like a daunting task, there are small steps everyone – school leaders, colleagues, parents, and community members – can take to drive change. An important first step is to continue educating ourselves and others about Comprehensive School Health and its benefits.
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Viner, R. M., Russell, S. J., et al. (2020). School closure and management practices during coronavirus outbreaks including COVID-19: a rapid systematic review. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. doi.org/10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30095-X
I believe that reconciliation is an opportunity that has been given to us here in Canada by the Survivors of the Residential School system.
I don’t mean to say that Survivors intended reconciliation to be an opportunity for Canada, or that Survivors owe us anything at all. What I mean to say is that if it hadn’t been for the courage and strength of Survivors in sharing their stories and holding Canada to account for that history through the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), I don’t think we would have come around to talking about reconciliation the way we are today.
It is humbling to me to think about the profound strength and courage it must have taken to share those stories. We know that in many cases, the stories that Survivors shared were never told before. In some instances, their own families had never heard the details of the horrors that were residential schools. Perhaps any of us who have survived trauma in our own lives can appreciate how significant it is to share stories of trauma; to relive the pain, fear, and shame that so often accompanies having survived cultural genocide. As an Indigenous person myself, I am proud. I am grateful. Being able to acknowledge that I come from people of such strength inspires me. I would want all Indigenous young people to know that they come from communities of strength and resilience.
Yes, there are barriers acting against young people. There is intergenerational trauma. There is no excuse for turning a blind eye to the suffering of youth across the country. However, there is also intergenerational strength, and dignity, and courage. That fact is as real as any other. I would hope that every Indigenous young person is able to hold their head high with pride for that fact. Indigenous people and communities are strong.
Where schools in Canada were once used as weapons against Indigenous peoples, they can now become places of healing and empowerment for all students.
When I say that reconciliation is an opportunity, what I mean is that through the 94 Calls to Action of the the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Canada has the opportunity to heal as a nation. A very notable scholar by the name of Tasha Spillett once said on live TV that Canada doesn’t have an Indigenous problem, it has a colonial problem (paraphrasing with deep respect and gratitude). The work of reconciliation is not an act of pity for Indigenous peoples. Rather, it is an opportunity for Canada to get out of the way of the vibrancy and flourishing of Indigenous peoples and communities, while at the same time working to live up to its own values and potential.
Please understand that I am not suggesting that Canada is not a great country; it has been for many people over the past 150 years. I am of mixed ancestry. My father’s family is Ojibway/Métis from Treaty Two area. My grandparents, Mary and E.G., worked tirelessly for the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre here in Winnipeg for many years. There is a street named after them in Winnipeg and I am extremely proud of that. My mother’s family are Ukrainian/Polish from Ukraine. After the First World War, my Baba’s parents fled Ukraine to escape the Soviet Union. I’m told that if they had not they might have faced persecution and death. This was before the Holodomor and the genocide of Ukrainian people at the hands of the Soviet Union. Canada provided my family with an opportunity to survive – and not just survive, but to flourish on land that was made available through the signing of Treaty One. I have to acknowledge that part of my family’s story with gratitude in my heart.
However, as great as this country has been for so many families like my Ukrainian ancestors, Canada hasn’t lived up to its full potential. We are not yet the country that we can be, and I believe we never will be for so long as there are First Nations communities living in Third World conditions. We can never be the country that we want to be for so long as there are people within our own borders living under conditions that other people flee countries to escape from. There are communities in Canada that don’t have clean drinking water. If we consider that statement objectively, I believe the only rational response might be absolute disgust at the injustice. The fact that such conditions are tolerated speaks to just how deep the damage of colonization reaches in our country: into our relationships, our politics, and even our own sense of justice and fairness. Reconciliation is an opportunity to heal and to reach our full potential as a nation.
Reconciliation is an opportunity for all of us to contribute to solutions even though we are not responsible for having created the problems we inherited. That’s the incredible gift that has been given to our generation: to not just be concerned citizens, but to be transformative. We wouldn’t have this opportunity if it had not been for Survivors sharing their truths, and I for one am grateful to them in a way that I can’t fully express through words.
Education is key. I once heard Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, one of the TRC Commissioners, say that in his estimation 72 of the 94 Calls to Action are about education and awareness. If that is true, teachers are crucial to the work that must be done. Schools can become places where students are empowered to be a part of change. Where schools in Canada were once used as weapons against Indigenous peoples, they can now become places of healing and empowerment for all students. The damage created by colonialism and cultural genocide in Canada deeply impacts Indigenous communities, but it doesn’t end there. All Canadians have been impacted by this history. It is visible on our streets, in our schools, in our hospitals, in our justice system. The impact of colonization on thinking, assumptions, and our very identities has caused hatred, injustice, violence, and cruelty. Having watched the rise of populism and extremism globally, I can’t help but think about Canada’s own vulnerability to such threats. Truly, there is much healing work to be done.
Let’s be clear that the education that is needed isn’t just about transferring information from one intellect to another. This work is going to require deeper learning; what Jack Mezirow referred to as Transformative Learning, the pedagogy of allowing individuals to transcend previously held beliefs about the world in favour of a worldview that better serves them moving into the future. The education that is needed would free individuals from ever getting caught up in the callousness and cruelty of statements like, “Why don’t they just get over it?” It would empower young people to transcend apathy. The kind of education that is needed would allow people to see with clarity and compassion the absolute dishonour that exists for Canada in allowing communities to go without clean drinking water.
In order to facilitate that kind of learning, I believe that we will need to return to the basics. I certainly don’t mean reading, writing, and arithmetic (the supposed basics of the holy grail of any school system: academic achievement). I believe we would be better served with the basics of love, kindness, and compassion. I think our children, our economy, and our democratic freedoms would do better with that sort of foundation.
My Ojibway heritage teaches that as human beings we have the sacred responsibility to love and care for children even if they are not our own. The notion that schools should be about something other than this love, kindness, and compassion, is antiquated and rooted in an exploitive understanding of childhood – viewing children as a labour force rather than democratic citizens. The work of reconciliation allows us to reimagine business as usual, such that all children feel safe in schools. We know that school has not been safe for many Indigenous communities; we need to make them safe enough for children to find their voices in challenging the harmful legacies of colonization around them.
There continues to be an abusive discourse in Canada that argues that teachers need to be accountable and that accountability is measured through standardized testing of academics. I’m reminded of the Emperor who parades in front of his subjects, naked in his new clothes. Of course, that cautionary tale tells the story of swindlers who are producing nothing of value on their looms, but who manage to convince the emperor’s subjects to buy into the lie. I don’t believe that standardized tests predict the ability of a nation to navigate an uncertain future. They certainly haven’t served children of colour, Indigenous children, or children surviving poverty. They haven’t served teachers who have had their enthusiasm and passion for teaching handcuffed by the fallacy that we should feel shame for not achieving scores as high as others who were better able to squeeze a couple more points out of their exhausted, terrified, and anxious children. The education system parades through the streets in the fancy clothes of accountability through standardized testing, having been sold empty promises by those who never wanted to see us succeed in the first place.
This article isn’t about the history of such testing, which is grounded in the work of eugenicists and white supremacists who found rationale for their abuse of minorities in those test scores. Nor is it about how such tests, and their philosophic relatives, have been used to justify the forced sterilization of minorities and other “undesirables,” or how many brilliant, vibrant, potentially world-changing minds were cast aside, left believing they were dumb, because they didn’t do well on a test that was never designed to recognize the things that they were good at. No, this article isn’t about that, it is about really getting back to basics. But first we will have to be courageous enough to acknowledge that we have been sold defective goods, and that the Emperor is walking around naked.
During the worst days of pandemic lockdown, I was reminded of how willing so many teachers are to go above and beyond the call of duty for their students. I am not surprised by this, but am certainly inspired. The lengths that many were willing to go to ensure that that their students were engaged and loved was nothing short of heroic. However, we also need to recognize that these sacrifices came with a price. The entire system is exhausted and depleted. Many teachers are struggling with very serious consequences that impact their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Now, more than ever, I think the notion of schools as places of healing is resonating with people. “Business as usual” isn’t going to allow us meet a post-pandemic future with resiliency, but I believe that engaging in reconciliation might.
Through the work of reconciliation, we have the opportunity to engage with teachings, wisdom, and worldviews that can help us reimagine business as usual. Indigenous people know how to survive and meet hardship with resilience; but there is also a deeply rooted cultural belief regarding the sacredness of children that can help us in our work to create places of healing. Canada made its best attempt to erase that teaching from the face of the Earth – but it failed. The Knowledge Keepers, Elders, Grandmothers, and Grandfathers kept teachings alive so that future generations could reconnect to those sacred lifeways that allowed First Peoples to not only survive, but flourish through sustainable relations with Mide Aki – kind-hearted Mother Earth. Thanks to the courage, strength, and dignity of Residential School Survivors, we have the opportunity to re-engage with relationships that might allow us to see a future that is so deeply threatened in our age.
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This is part of the first edition of Education Canada, powered by voicEd radio, a cross-platform professional learning experience.
Have we lost the purpose of education during the pandemic? Or did the pandemic exacerbate a lost purpose for education? These are the questions I have asked myself since schooling for almost six million children and youth was disrupted in Canada due to COVID-19.
There were many poignant moments of this sense of loss. One stark moment was