Photo caption: Chief Mi’sel Joe facilitates the final Elders’ sharing circle for 2-Eared Listening.
During a 2018 National Restorative Justice Week event in Newfoundland and Labrador, panellist Chief Mi’sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation concluded his remarks with, “If you want to know about restorative justice, just ask.”
dorothy vaandering, Co-Chair of the Restorative Justice Education Consortium-NL, which hosted the event (and co-author of this article), took up the invitation. This developed into a collaboration with the Chief, a group of Memorial University colleagues, and an Indigenous community advisory committee to plan a gathering that contributed to decolonizing the way many participants thought about justice. The collaboration resulted in Two-Eared Listening for Deeper Understanding: Restorative Justice in NL, a community-wide event that hosted 170 people with diverse roles in government, education, community, and justice contexts. This event came to be called The Gathering (influenced by Hager & Miwopiyane, 2021). It reflected Mi’kmaw scholar Marie Battiste’s (2002) description of decolonizing education, in that it was an opportunity to raise the collective voices of Indigenous peoples, expose the injustices of colonial history, and contribute to deconstructing the social, political, economic, and emotional reasons for the silencing of Indigenous voices (p. 20).
Chief Joe stated that the primary responsibility of The Gathering would be to create space for truth-telling about settler colonialism’s past and ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples. He said, “Never have Indigenous peoples in this province had an opportunity to tell their stories.” Such truth-telling is an act of decolonization (Waziyatawin, 2005).
From the start of the planning, Chief Joe guided the group to focus on how the work we were engaged in was and would be truth-telling. “Before you can restore justice, you need to listen to the stories of injustice. At the heart of justice is listening,” he said. As such, the Gathering grew into an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to listen and learn about Indigenous history in the province from the lived experience of Indigenous Peoples. The role of listening was accentuated by fact that non-Indigenous leaders, whose voices are typically privileged, were not given roles as speakers but, instead, were explicitly tasked as listeners.
The shared stories reflected the impact of colonization both pre and post Newfoundland and Labrador joining the Confederation of Canada in 1949, amplifying the explicit choices made by various governments to “write Indigenous people out of existence.” Elders Emma Reelis and Ellen Ford spoke about their experiences in residential schools and their lives as Inuit women. Chief Mi’sel Joe and Chief Brendan Mitchell (Qalipu First Nation) spoke about their respective communities’ complex histories and the impact of uninformed decisions made by provincial governments, and Elder Calvin White described the impact of imposed hunting and fishing regulations on the social fabric of his community. Elder Elizabeth Penashue shared the catastrophic impact on the Innu Nation of NATO’s decision to practise low-level flying over their living and hunting territory, disrupting every aspect of their lives. The current Indigenous communities’ realities were also shared and illustrated how colonial attitudes persist, as their successes and needs continue to be supplanted by the dominant population’s more “pressing” demands. These stories are not commonly known, as demonstrated by their absence from courses and learning resources at all levels of formal education in the province.
Indigenous culture was woven into The Gathering through daily smudging, a Mide-wiigwas, music, and on-site meals that reflected the cultural importance of sharing food. People gathered in a unique environment purposefully set up for truth-telling and for deep listening to Indigenous stories of injustice that would challenge many participants in ways not ordinarily experienced.
Listening with two ears
A Two-Eared Listening protocol was shared with participants. It read:
Elders tell us that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen more than we talk.
At the Two-Eared Listening Gathering, we invite participants to listen deeply with the intention of learning and understanding. Deep listening requires the listener to receive new information through an open mind and to suspend judgment with an open heart.
Two-eared listening is an act of conciliation by promoting respectful relationships through building trust and nurturing understanding.
As you participate in this Gathering, please:
Such listening is an important component of decolonization work as all sectors of Canadian society strive to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action (2015a). To practically support participants in engaging fully with these five elements, the Gathering space was designated as “technology-free” from the start.
Elements of two-eared listening
Listen with two ears: Listening to stories of injustice involves more than hearing the sounds of words being spoken; it involves more than listening with our ears. Two-eared listening involves listening with our emotions as well. Stó:lō educator and researcher Jo-Ann Archibald (2008) describes listening with “three ears: two on the sides of our head and the one that is in our heart” (p. 8). Chief Joe explains that listening in this way communicates a sense of caring to the speaker:
“Injustice is about hurt and pain so that brings in parts of our body, including the heart and soul. [This talking] includes body language [and] knowing someone is listening and caring. If you are listening from your core, you will understand the telling of these stories of justice and injustice.” (Joe, vaandering, et al., 2022)
According to Métis scholar Jo-Ann Episkenew (2009), Indigenous stories generate empathy, enabling settlers “… to understand Indigenous people as fellow human beings. Empathy, in turn, has the potential to create a groundswell of support for social-justice initiatives to improve the lot of Indigenous people” (pp. 190–191).
Be open to receiving new learning: Deep listening involves listening to and understanding stories that have come from different life experiences and through different lenses that challenge the dominant narrative. For example, assumptions that land is “empty” and thus open for resource extraction or military exercises shifts to realizations that land is teeming with life. Taking in new learning may require adjusting the frame of reference through which the world is understood. Mezirow (1997) explains that “frames of reference are the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences” (p.5) and “We transform our frames of reference through critical reflection on the assumptions upon which our interpretations, beliefs, and habits of mind or points of view are based” (p. 7). In this way, decolonizing requires a transformation of our frames of reference.
Suspend judgment: Two-eared listening requires that we listen without judgment. In responding to questions about residential school records, Father Ken Thorson (Findlay, 2022), a Canadian Oblate priest, speaks to the importance of how we listen:
“… too often the institutions… have led the conversation, have set the narrative. And we’re in a time now when, rightly, Indigenous Peoples are setting the narrative and are full partners in the conversation… our primary role at this time is to humbly listen to our Indigenous brothers and sisters, their experience, their pain and not to judge, but to listen.”
Suspending judgment allows the listener to take in what is being said and hold it with an open mind. Reactions are replaced with opportunities for change and understanding.
Listen with intention: Cree scholar Dwayne Donald describes colonization as the “extended process of learning to deny relationships” (2022). At the core of this, there is an “intentional imposition of a particular way of understanding life and living, understanding human beings, understanding knowledge and knowing… a gridwork of understanding knowledge and knowing” (2022). Listening deeply and learning from the stories of others, particularly stories that are counter narratives, challenges this gridwork way of understanding the world. Two-eared listening is listening with a willingness to hear what is said with the possibility that what I hear will change me. Two-eared listening becomes part of the extended process to nurture relationships.
Purposefully engage in (re)conciliation: The act of two-eared listening has the potential for leading people into authentic engagement with (re)conciliation. “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015b, p. 15). This reciprocal act of listening to the truth leads to contemplation, meditation, and internal deliberation (Augustine in Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015b, p. 13). However, given that harm was inflicted by societies of people promoting colonizing ways of being, the act of reconciliation will be embodied when non-Indigenous people of privilege move beyond tokenizing and consulting with Indigenous peoples and embrace being led by Indigenous people.
BEFORE THE FINAL MEAL together, Chief Joe concluded the Gathering symbolically by inviting everyone to stand in a large circle holding hands for a final prayer. His closing words, “Go in peace, be friends, enjoy,” encapsulated the common feeling in the room. The deeper understanding gained through two-eared listening to injustices experienced by Indigenous Peoples was palpable. Two-eared listening had shown itself to be a universal skill across the diversity of those present for respectfully engaging in an active process that is traditionally understood as passive. As truths of injustice were shared, participants listened with intention, opened their minds to new learning, and suspended judgment. They slowed down in order to truly witness the truths, focused on being present, and did not rush toward desired predefined outcomes. The challenge of listening (and not talking) permeated every aspect of The Gathering. Those who planned the event, and those who responded to the invitations to share or to listen, caught a glimpse over three days together of what is possible in establishing a context for the stories and truths of members of multiple Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador to be heard.
Drawing on Palmer (1980), we must listen our way into a new kind of thinking. And this, in turn, can become the basis of reconciled relationships.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with colleagues
Present the term, along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk, to the group you are working with in a staff or committee meeting.
Explain the five components of two-eared listening, then invite them to think about what this will mean for:
Use a talking circle with one round for each topic for colleagues to share their ideas. Finish with a 4th round for each to summarize their key learning from hearing each other’s ideas.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with K–6 students
Present the term two-eared listening along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with 7–12 students
Present the term two-eared listening along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk.
 Traditional Mi’kmaw giveaway.
Acknowledgement: Event funded by SSHRC and Memorial University.
Photo: Bob Brink
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Archibald, J. (2008). Indigenous storywork. UBC Press.
Battiste, M. (2002). Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy in First Nations education: A literature review with recommendations. Apamuwek Institute. www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/pr/pub/krw/ikp_e.pdf
Donald, D. (2022). Personal communication with the author.
Donald, D. (2020). Homo economicus and forgetful curriculum: Remembering other ways to be a human being. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VM1J3evcEyQ
Episkenew, J. (2009). Taking back our spirits: Indigenous literature, public policy, and healing. University of Manitoba Press.
Findlay, G. (2022, March 23). Rome Indigenous archive to open [Radio broadcast transcript]. CBC Radio. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/march-23-2022-episode-transcript-1.6396755
Hager, S. N. & Mawopiyane. (2021). The gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler relations. University of Toronto Press.
Joe, M., vaandering, d., Ricciardelli , R. et al. (2022, July 8). Two-eared listening is essential for understanding restorative justice in Canada. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/two-eared-listening-is-essential-for-understanding-restorative-justice-in-canada-185466
Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative Learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education, (74), 5–12.
Palmer, P. J. (1980). The Promise of Paradox. Ave Maria Press.
Findlay, G. (2022, March 23). As It Happens [Radio broadcast transcript]. CBC Radio. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/march-23-2022-episode-transcript-1.6396755
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015a). Calls to Action. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015b). Canada’s residential schools: Reconciliation. Final Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Waziyatawin. (2005). Relieving our suffering. In W. A. Wilson & M. Y. Bird (Eds.), For Indigenous eyes only (pp. 189–205). School of American Research Press.
A GROUP OF ABOUT 30 scholars, school administrators, graduate students, and educators gathered for three days in St. John’s, N.L., in August 2022 to engage in conversations about what it means to “decolonize professional learning.” For many of us, this was the first in-person gathering since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and it was food for the heart and soul.
Decolonize-ing is an action verb that seeks to alter existing inequities and disparities in outcomes for equity-deserving groups. As a process, a pedagogy toward decoloniality works to change unequal relations of power and notions of “professionalism,” which are often taken for granted without examining who they privilege and exclude and in what ways. Decolonizing your mind, heart, and soul translates to identifying the roots of why things are the way they are and working toward transformative possibilities that centre the experiences, voices, and perspectives of historically minoritized peoples, particularly Indigeneity.
What can be a starting point for educators grappling with where to begin? It starts with investing in pedagogical approaches that support students who have in the past or currently are experiencing trauma, including intergenerational trauma such as the impact of residential schools. This involves creating spaces for healing where students have opportunities to share their lived experiences as embodied curriculum, including who they are and how they are impacted socially and emotionally by societal issues and systemic barriers in education. As a whole, this constitutes a trauma-informed approach to critical pedagogy where engaging with pain and suffering is encouraged, as it has the potential for empowerment and liberation (Eizadirad et al., 2022). We must operate from a harm reduction stance, aiming to reduce systemic barriers for equity-deserving groups while advocating for new policies, practices, and processes that are more equitable and just. This needs to be an all-hands-on deck effort involving ideas and voices of different students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders, particularly minoritized groups.
Hegemony was coined by Antonio Gramsci as a theoretical concept describing how the ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – established and maintained control of power through the combination of force and consent. Hegemony is socio-culturally constructed through a dynamic process that influences social relations through legitimization of a narrow set of ideologies as “commonsense,” often told and perpetuated by those in positions of power and authority. Through this process, ideas are taken for granted without questioning.
We can apply the concept of hegemony to the rhetoric of “professionalism” in education. Teacher “professionalism” has become a tool for exclusion and deficit thinking in such areas as how we are expected to dress, speak, and interact with others. This applies to students, educators, and administrators. As Weiner (2014) reminds us,
“The subtle cruelty of hegemony is that over time it becomes deeply embedded, part of the natural air we breathe. One cannot peel back the layers of oppression and identify a group or groups of people as the instigators of a conscious conspiracy to keep people silent and disenfranchised. Instead, the ideas and practices of hegemony become part and parcel of everyday life – the stock opinions, conventional wisdom, or commonsense ways of seeing and ordering the world that people take for granted.” (p. 40)
The central feature of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is that it operates without force as “it becomes our worldview and through hegemony we are in complicity with our own subordination” (Madison, 2012, p. 65).
Part of decolonizing and unlearning is engaging with critical questions, rather than accepting simplified or distorted answers. For example, we must question processes or lack of them that contribute to the limited teacher diversity in the workforce. When it comes to the existing lack of teacher diversity from coast to coast to coast in Canada, which does not reflect the demographics of students and communities we serve, we must ask: What are the barriers for racialized and minoritized educators to secure permanent teaching positions? What has become hegemonic within educational policies and practices, functioning as gatekeeping mechanisms, and what needs disruption and dismantling? How can processes be improved to value diverse identities for who they are and their contributions and experiences, instead of pressuring them to fit the hegemonic notion of how they are supposed to look and how they are supposed to show up to do the job? What data is being collected (e.g. race-based data) and shared with the public to ensure transparency and accountability and to improve diversity over time? This is the struggle to decolonize education and to meet the needs of equity-deserving students and educators who face more systemic barriers in the education system.
“Small fires” were used as the main pedagogical approach at the gathering to facilitate interactions amongst participants. Participants gathered in small groups based on a topic of interest where a leader facilitated a discussion. The intention was to encourage unlearning and challenge each other through a lens that valued each participant’s unique identities, lived and professional experiences, and complex intersections with privilege and oppression. The objective was to build relationships, value spirituality, and create networks across the country for those who advocate for and engage in decolonizing education at various levels from K to 12 and in higher education.
Below are reflections from three of the small fire leaders.
The theme for my small fire circle was “Resistance, Subversion, and Non-Hegemonic Approaches” in education. As a small group we engaged in discussions about what decolonization means and looks like in action in our various roles. I used an interactive activity with sticky notes to promote reflection. I proposed that participants reflect on four major questions:
Discussing the purpose of research in response to the question posed, I shared my conviction that research should be a tool for advocacy and activism. As a collective, we agreed that research should not only critique but also facilitate ways of doing things differently to support the needs of all students. This prompt led to further discussions about how and in what ways we can disrupt “professionalism” in educational settings in our various roles and relative access to power. As part of their responses, participants emphasized the importance of “actions over appearance,” “seeing students of colour,” “different ways of knowing being valued,” and “rejecting the expectations of the status quo.” We all agreed that we must take risks, at times be subversive, and challenge the status quo internally and externally.
During my small fire session, I discussed the theme of “deconstructing systemic anti-Black racism within la francophonie.” I highlighted how the first step to combating systemic anti-Black racism is transformative leadership. In particular, I focused on the following questions:
The discussions aligned with what I have learned from my research with educational system leaders in la francophonie (see my article in this issue: www.edcan.ca/articles/critical-incidents-in-educational-leadership/) about the importance of examining critical incidents (experiences that confirm, modify, or fragment leadership) that arise to identify areas for change (Sider et al., 2017). Principals and other system leaders are called upon to review critical incidents as valuable data. Examples of critical incidents that can be examined together include how a school board’s administration delayed removal of a white school principal after two interrelated situations involving anti-Black racism, and more specifically what it took for the Black student to finally be heard two years later via the Black Lives Matter London Twitter account (CBC News, 2021).
As a collective, we discussed how essential conversations that de-centre whiteness and traditional educational leadership discourse are central to transformative change to create more equitable spaces for belonging (Cranston & Jean-Michel, 2021). Participants felt it is necessary to couple prevention with concrete and continual interventions. The discussions within the group indicated that it is not about one-off activities, training sessions, or reacting in a way that reduces students, families, and community members from equity-deserving groups to anecdotal evidence or experiences. Rather, transformative leadership is about listening and creating conditions for inclusion. Instead of being fixated on what is impossible, we can continually explore how as educational leaders we can embrace diversity and work toward creating conditions, policies, and processes that advocate for equitable inclusion for all. This work has to be done at the individual and institutional levels for it to be sustainable in society.
Borrowing from the title of Tuck and Yang’s (2012) much read and discussed provocation “decolonization is not a metaphor” and some of its underlying ideas, participants were invited to consider how they might shift from seeing themselves as “allies” to becoming engaged “co-conspirators” to dismantle the Eurocentric, white supremacist system of higher education, including the discourse and rhetoric associated with professionalism.
In offering my own experiences as a racialized, immigrant, first-generation university student who is also a cis-gendered, heterosexual male and holds a senior administrative role in a Canadian university, I framed the conversation to consider:
The discussions in the group focused on key characteristics of decoloniality (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018), particularly how we can work together to uncover the social and ideological hierarchies embedded in the education system from kindergarten through post-secondary that are designed and sustained to disconnect, displace, and dispossess Indigenous and racialized peoples. As part of enacting decoloniality, participants identified the importance of creating learning opportunities for students to connect to traditional lands and their histories, various languages and cultures, and family ancestry. As a collective we agreed that we require decolonizing at the ideological and ontological level.
PART OF DECOLONIZING is asking critical questions – with consideration for where we raise such questions, how we raise them, with whom, and for what purposes. This is the spirituality of decolonizing work to undo and reduce the harm caused by the intersections of colonial logic, white supremacy, and imperialism. Decolonizing work can occur in different settings. At the micro level, it can involve creating mentorship opportunities and support networks to ensure minoritized identities do not leave educational spaces due to lack of inclusion, belonging, or being on the receiving end of constant microaggressions. At the institutional level, it translates into not only creating access to opportunities for equity-deserving groups but also ensuring they are supported and valued for who they are, how they show up, and what they contribute to the teaching and learning community once they arrive within educational spaces, even if that differs or goes against the status quo.
Photos: Nicholas Ng-A-Fook, Ardavan Eizadirad
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
CBC News, (2021, May 29). Ontario principal removed after twice wearing hair of Black student like a wig. CBC News.
Cranston, J., & Jean-Paul, M. (2021). Braiding Indigenous and racialized knowledges into an educational leadership for justice. In F. English (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Educational Leadership and Management Discourse, (pp. 1–27). Palgrave Macmillan.
Eizadirad, A., Campbell, A., & Sider, S. (2022). Counternarratives of pain and suffering as critical pedagogy: Disrupting oppression in educational contexts. Routledge.
Hayes, A., Luckett, K., & Misiaszek, G. (2021). Possibilities and complexities of decolonising higher education: Critical perspectives on praxis. Teaching in Higher Education, 26(7-8), 887–901.
Hernandez, J., & Khadem, M. (2017). Transformative leadership: Mastering the hidden dimension. Harmony Equity Press.
Madison, D. (2012). Critical ethnography: Methods, ethics, and performance. SAGE Publications, Inc.
Mignolo W., & Walsh C. E. (2018). On decoloniality: Concepts analytics praxis. Duke University Press.
IN 2019, THREE of us (Leyton, Joelle, and Carol) attended a conference in San Diego that focused on professional learning networks (PLNs), with a specific emphasis on how they enable educators to “tear down boundaries” to connect and learn with colleagues beyond our own schools. It was a productive meeting of scholars from North America and multiple European countries. The group focused on professional learning, collaborative inquiry, and educational change, sharing varied perspectives. But as we reflected on our learning, we began talking about what wasn’t part of this conversation: the ways in which PLNs can reproduce colonial ways of knowing and being, by:
In fact, little attention has been paid to the colonizing practices and assumptions embedded in the vast majority of professional learning (PL) initiatives (Washington & O’Connor, 2020). Donald (2012) describes the colonial project as one of division, excluding ways of being and knowing as well as value systems that are different from a Eurocentric point of view. Present-day education systems are implicated in this colonial project, where curriculum (a focus on constructing subject areas that privilege a particular type of knowledge), pedagogy (approaches to teaching and instruction), and classroom routines (e.g. grading, grouping) contribute to institutional structures that privilege some students to the expense of others who are often racialized and minoritized within this system (Yee, 2020).
Alas, from these observations, the idea for the Decolonizing Professional Learning event, held in St. John’s, N.L., in August 2022, was born. The 30 participants were educators and researchers from across the country who were already working to develop decolonizing education practices. They were focused on cultivating culturally sustaining, relational pedagogies in ethical relationship with equity deserving communities (Donald et al., 2011; Ermine, 2007). The central goals of the gathering were two-fold:
Ultimately, our goal is to rethink and reconstitute professional learning as a collaboratively constructed, transformative, and decolonial practice.
At the centre of the gathering was the concept of decolonization. Decolonizing professional learning is about decentring settler colonial practices and their curricular and pedagogical Eurocentricities. All levels of education in Canada are working to implement initiatives that respond to the 94 Calls to Action put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015). In turn, terms such as decolonization, reconciliation, and Indigenization are now being taken up in higher education and the K–12 schooling systems.
The scholars and practitioners who attended the gathering came together to discuss their understanding of decolonizing and how they promote this concept in research and professional learning. Some drew on the concept of decolonizing education as intentionally identifying, challenging, and dismantling colonial practices and policies (Lopez, 2021), while others focused on interrogating and unlearning colonial ideologies (Donald, 2022).
The intent of the gathering was not to agree on a single definition of decolonization, but rather to share ideas and create a network for learning in which we move forward together. We came together guided by our “learning spirits” (Battiste, 2013, p. 18), sharing the stories of our collective work to disrupt colonial school systems in our local settings.
There is an assumption of neutrality in professional development approaches; therefore, we sought to disrupt the “typical” conference format when designing this event. We wanted a less hierarchical approach – so instead of having a few presenters deliver an address to a largely passive audience, we offered a series of collaborative experiences. Across the three days, we worked to create space for all participants to share their work within small groups of interested teachers, administrators, and researchers.
The gathering was guided by a series of questions, for example:
Coming together: The event began at a small gathering place at a local park. Mi’kmaw knowledge keepers Sheila O’Neill and Marie Eastman welcomed participants to the traditional territory of the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq. Following introductions, they shared some of the history of the land, discussed the ongoing struggle for the recognition of Indigenous Peoples in the province, and talked about their work with Mi’kmaw communities to strengthen the language and culture.
Small fires: Each day, participants could choose from among three to five “small fires,” each hosted by one of the attendees. In these small groups, the hosts shared their research and practice related to decolonizing professional learning. Each SSHRC-funded participant served as a small fire host on one day of the program.
Sharing circles: Once each day we came together in Sharing Circles. Participants chose one of three different circles – such as mindfulness practice, nature walks, and talking circles – to participate in. Attendees reflected on what they were noticing or wondering, and connections they were making to their own practice. These sharing circles invited deeper conversations about what we heard in the small fires and our experiences in different contexts (K–12 schools, post-secondary institutions, communities).
Writing activities: To support the building of connections within this emerging community, we embedded daily opportunities for collaborative writing. We began by inviting everyone to write about their own decolonizing work. Next we invited people to explore the connections and intersections between their work and the work of others. We hoped that discovering these relationships would encourage continued collaboration and sharing once everyone returned to their communities.
VoicEd panels: Two live-streamed panel discussions were hosted by Stephen Hurley from VoicEd Radio. Colleagues discussed colonization and placelessness, disrupting deficit thinking, inclusion and exclusion, educational change networks, and more. Online participants were encouraged to submit questions to the panel. Recordings of the Decolonizing Professional Learning panels are available on VoicEd Radio.
Final sharing circle: To end the gathering, we all joined in a final circle to share our thoughts about our time together and how we might move forward together. Each person had a turn to share what they thought were key themes, next steps, and opportunities missed. Attendees spoke of forming a network, meeting together virtually and/or in person, writing an edited collection of chapters, presenting together at conferences, and this Education Canada issue.
What was evident to us all was that we had not collectively defined decolonization, and that future collaborations between us need to both honour the diversity of our approaches and include opportunities to define key terms and expectations. In this debrief, participants also surfaced the different aspects of power and privilege we carry and/or do not have in our various roles and contexts. Our identities, roles, and educational change efforts can and must be returned to as part of decolonizing work, and trying to move too quickly to consensus and definitions is counterproductive. This work takes patience and time.
The Decolonizing Professional Learning gathering that took place in Newfoundland was a starting point for what we hope will become a larger conversation and impetus for collaborative action across Canada. There is already some pan-Canadian work that genuinely connects researchers and practitioners with a commitment to educational change and improvement. We know from previous research that a considerable number of professional learning activities are happening across Canada, but there are inequities in access to quality professional learning for people who work in education (Campbell et al., 2017). There is also a need to consider the purpose and content of such professional learning. If educators are to care for all students and support them in developing to their fullest potential, it is essential that professional learning activities for educators are critically examined to ensure that structural inequities are not un/intentionally reproduced.
We are at a moment in time when valuing Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, fulfilling the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and addressing and undoing systemic racism from generations of colonialism and genocide are urgent and essential. This is the call to move forward with conversations to understand and share approaches to decolonizing professional learning and to act together – researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers – for educational equity and improvement in Canada.
An important starting point is for further discussion about the concept of “decolonizing professional learning” itself and the linked work of “unlearning” historically embedded assumptions. As educators, it is our job to continuously learn, but that can be challenging when confronting ingrained colonial ways of seeing and living in the world. We also need to consider what this work looks like in practice. Bringing together practitioners with applied researchers was a beginning, but it is important to share our stories, our evidence, our ideas, and our examples widely. Deprivatizing individual or isolated practices and mobilizing knowledge by sharing in conversations and communications are powerful strategies.
This collection of articles for Education Canada is a way to reach out and call on people across Canada (and beyond) to join in connecting, collaborating, and sharing to advance decolonizing professional learning in and through education.
Photo: Nicholas Ng-A-Fook
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
It is important to share the understandings that guide and frame decolonization work. Below we offer working definitions of some key terms, recognizing that these terms can have different meanings in different contexts.
Decolonization: Decolonization is about decentring Eurocentric, colonial knowledge and practices, and recentring knowledge and world views of those who have been placed on the margins by colonization.
Decolonization involves active resistance to colonial practices and policies, getting rid of colonial structures, and centring and restoring the world view of Indigenous peoples. It demands an Indigenous starting point; Indigenous people will determine appropriate approaches and acts of decolonization. It also involves recognizing the importance of land – in particular, how colonized peoples were cut off from their land and traditions – and the return of land to Indigenous peoples.
Indigenization: Indigenization calls on educational institutions and stakeholders to establish policies, processes, and practices that are led by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples toward ensuring their particular ways of knowing, being and doing are nourished and flourish.
This includes creating opportunities for K–12 school leaders and teachers to learn how to develop and enact curriculum that honours First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples’ histories, perspectives, and contemporary issues. It also calls on school leaders and teachers to embed relational and responsive culturally nourishing pedagogies and curricula as part of the values of their K–12 school community.
Positionality: Positionality refers to one’s identity – how we position ourselves within our society. To identify your own positionality, you need to consider your own power and privilege by thinking about issues of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, educational background, citizenship, and so on.
As educators, our positionality impacts how we make sense of the world and how we engage in it. It takes self-assessment and reflection to identity the ways in which our assumptions and beliefs, as well as our own expressions of power, influence how we (co-)create learning environments in our classrooms and schools.
Systemic racism: Systemic racism refers to the aspects of a society’s structures that produce inequalities and inequities among its citizens and specifically, the institutional processes rooted in White supremacy that restrict opportunities and outcomes for racialized and minoritized peoples.
Systemic racism includes institutional and social structures, individual mental schemas, and everyday ways of being in the world. Schools and school systems must engage in anti-racist education practice to address the systemic issues particular to racialized students.
Unlearning: Unlearning involves removing ideas, practices, and values grounded in coloniality and colonialism from everyday practice.
It is rethinking and reframing what we thought we knew about many aspects of everyday life, including traditions grounded in Eurocentric ways of knowing, and replacing it with decolonized knowledge.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER LEARNING
Culturally Nourishing Schooling for Indigenous Education, University of New South Wales. www.unsw.edu.au/content/dam/pdfs/unsw-adobe-websites/arts-design-architecture/education/research/project-briefs/2022-07-27-ada-culturally-nourishing-schooling-cns-for-Indigenous-education.pdf
Decolonizing and Indigenizing Education in Canada, Eds. Sheila Cote-Meek and Taima Moeke-Pickering. https://canadianscholars.ca/book/decolonizing-and-indigenizing-education-in-canada
Indigenization, Decolonization and Reconciliation (chapter in Pulling Together: A guide for curriculum developers). https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationcurriculumdevelopers/chapter/indigenization-decolonization-and-reconciliation
The UnLeading Project with Dr. Vidya Shah, York University. www.yorku.ca/edu/unleading
Truth and Reconciliation Commission. https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf
Universities and teachers’ associations provide myriad resources to support the development of anti-racist practices in schools. See, for example: www.ualberta.ca/centre-for-teaching-and-learning/teaching-support/indigenization/index.html
Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing education: Nourishing the learning spirit. Purich Publishing Limited.
Campbell, C., Osmond-Johnson, P., et al. (2017). The state of educators’ professional learning in Canada: Final research report. Learning Forward.
Donald, D. (2022, September 19). A curriculum for educating differently: Unlearning colonialism and renewing kinship relations. Education Canada, 62(2). www.edcan.ca/articles/a-curriculum-for-educating-differently/
Donald, D. (2012). Forts, colonial frontier logics, and Aboriginal-Canadian relations: Imagining decolonizing educational philosophies in Canadian contexts. In A. A. Abdi (Ed.), Decolonizing philosophies of education (pp. 91–111). SensePublishers. doi:10.1007/978-94-6091-687-8_7
Donald, D., Glanfield, F., & Sterenberg, G. (2011). Culturally relational education in and with an Indigenous community. Indigenous Education, 17(3), 72–83.
Ermine, W. (2007). The ethical space of engagement. Indigenous Law Journal, 6(1), 193–203.
Lopez, A. E. (2021). Decolonizing educational leadership: Exploring alternative approaches to leading schools. Springer International Publishing AG, ProQuest Ebook Central. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mun/detail.action?docID=6450991
Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education and society,1(1), 1–40. https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/issue/view/1234
Washington, S., & O’Connor, M. (2020). Collaborative professionalism across cultures and contexts: Cases of professional learning networks enhancing teaching and learning in Canada and Colombia. In Schnellert, L. (Ed.), Professional learning networks: Facilitating transformation in diverse contexts with equity-seeking communities. Emerald Publishing Limited.
Yee, N. L. (2020). Collaborating across communities to co-construct supports for Indigenous (and all) students. [Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia.] UBC Library Open Collections. https://open.library.ubc.ca/soa/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0392533
ON FEBRUARY 14, 2012, the section of Wellington Street directly in front of Parliament Hill was filled with yellow school buses that stopped to let off the children and teachers who were aboard. As the bus doors opened, children of all ages and backgrounds hopped off onto the snowy sidewalks, carrying colourful homemade signs and wearing buttons and fabric hearts pinned to their jackets. They excitedly walked toward the steps of Parliament to join the hundreds of other students, teachers, and community members who had come to participate in the first annual Have a Heart Day event, one of many First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (Caring Society) reconciliation-based education campaigns. Many of the children chanted, “Equal education for First Nations!” and read speeches they’d written. Others sang songs they’d penned, and hundreds mailed letters they’d written to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, calling on him to treat all children in Canada with love and fairness. The children’s many hand-crafted signs expressed how they felt: “Respect First Nations Children”; “Fight for Equal Rights!”; “Treat First Nations Children Fairly, Please!” Another of the signs that the children held that day stated: “Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t stand tall!”
These children and youth, and their teachers, had been called to action by Shannen Koostachin, who was a youth from Attawapiskat First Nation, a Cree community at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River, on the shores of James Bay in Treaty 9. These lands have been home to the Mushkegowuk Cree for thousands of years, where generations of Mushkegowuk children were educated on the land by their kin prior to the forced removal of their children by the Canadian state to the Indian Residential Schooling system for nearly 90 years (General, 2012). For years, Shannen and her schoolmates had been forced to attend school in temporary portables, after the demolition of the community’s school due to a massive diesel leak. The portables soon became decrepit, with intermittent heat, warped doors, mice infestations, and frozen pipes during the winter. After nine years of waiting for their new school, Shannen and the other children were upset by the federal government’s failure to act. Shannen documented the condition of the school in Attawapiskat and invited other students and their teachers across Canada to write letters to the federal government to get action. Shannen’s leadership resulted in thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children and non-Indigenous children writing letters to elected officials to demand proper schools and education for First Nations students.
When Shannen tragically died in a car accident in 2010, a group of students from Attawapiskat, with support from the Caring Society and Shannen’s family, created the “Shannen’s Dream” campaign, vowing to continue her work so that all First Nations children receive a proper education. On June 22, 2012 – the day Shannen would have graduated from high school – construction began for a new school in Attawapiskat. The school opened in 2014; however, many other First Nations are without proper schools, so Shannen’s Dream continues (Blackstock 2019). Shannen remains an important role model for all children and young people, as she taught us to “get up, pick up your books and keep walking in your moccasins” (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, 2020).
Shannen’s Dream, which has been described as “the largest youth-driven movement in Canadian history” (Angus 2015, p. 2), has grown to include other social justice campaigns put forth by the Caring Society. As a national non-profit organization, the Caring Society aims to ensure First Nations children and their families have culturally based and equitable opportunities to grow up safely at home, be healthy, get a good education, and be proud of who they are. A recognized leader in child and youth activism and reconciliation education, the Caring Society supports the learning of educators and students through three main social justice-based reconciliation campaigns: Shannen’s Dream (equity for First Nations education), Jordan’s Principle (equitable access to government services), and I am a witness (equitable First Nations child welfare). Thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis and non-Indigenous children and youth have participated in these campaigns, and their activism has offered a unique opportunity to advance knowledge about the impacts of reconciliation-based education and provide evidence-based research about how we can best move forward to support professional learning (Blackstock et al., 2018).
Across Canada, teachers and students are doing the work of truth, and then reconciliation, through their learning and actions. While this is significant, our research with teachers tells us that there continues to be hesitation, avoidance, and fear for many educators when approaching this work and a tendency to relegate learning to such days as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, rather than a year-long commitment. Our research project, “Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t stand tall,” seeks to understand how teachers use Caring Society campaigns, such as Shannen’s Dream, in their classrooms, and what the impacts are on their teaching and student learning. Based on our findings, we developed a curriculum and resources that were piloted with a group of teachers. We believe that co-creating professional (un)learning communities that are grounded in sustained relationships over time provides opportunities for teachers to engage with their heads, hearts, and spirits in truth and reconciliation and thus address some of the tensions that teachers often explain as reasons for not doing the work.
Our research project began in 2018 and involves a team of researchers, teachers, community members, activists, and experts in law, medicine, and child rights from around the globe. This team contributes to a reconciliation framework that respects First Nations epistemology and relational ethicality, emphasizes collaboration, and takes a collective inquiry approach to a shared responsibility (Blackstock, 2011). Our research team endeavoured to uphold an ethic of relationality throughout the study, by forming trusting relationships with the members of the teacher pilot group over the year we worked with them. We did this by reaching out several times throughout the year, and offering support at all stages. We invited them to events within the university community, including talks, workshops, and sharing circles. Thus, in seeking to address the TRC Calls to Action in the transformational spirit that they were intended, our research team endeavoured to work with teachers toward “[b]uilding student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect” while “[i]dentifying teacher training needs” and “[s]haring information and best practices” on reconciliation education (TRC, 2015, pp. 238–239). The group of teacher participants who piloted these resources in their classrooms and shared their experiences informed the development of future resources, and have become “Spirit Bear” teacher leaders.
By creating, supporting, and sustaining professional communities of (un)learning with teachers, we hope that our research provides examples of how it is possible, and beneficial, to unsettle teacher professional learning from a one-day workshop-based model toward a sustainable ecosystem of relationships as we unlearn and learn together. Our relationships with teachers have resulted in the upcoming launch of the Spirit Bear Virtual School for Teachers, which will be hosted on the Caring Society’s website. The Spirit Bear Virtual School will be a space where teachers from across Canada can access curriculum and learning guides co-created with teachers; listen to talks by educators experienced in working with the Caring Society’s campaigns; and learn about additional resources that will help them on their journey towards enacting truth and then reconcilia(c)tion education in their classrooms.
Barbara Giroux is a Grade 1 teacher at Holy Family School in Ottawa, Ontario. After taking part in our virtual Spirit Bear Retreat for Teacher Professional Learning in August 2021, Barbara decided to join our pilot group during the 2021–2022 school year. She was hoping to unlearn some of the history she’d learned in school, and by extension, had taught to her students. Through our partnership with the Caring Society, Barbara received a Reconciliation Ambearister to help teach herself and her learners about the ongoing legacies of colonialism, including Residential schools, the Indian Act, and current inequities such as the lack of clean water, education, and services in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. Barbara writes:
“My Grade 1 class embarked on an incredible learning journey with a black and cream bear who came to us as a Reconciliation Ambearister from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. He arrived in a box with the word “puzzles” on it. We took it to mean that he was puzzled to find out about his Algonquin heritage and we would learn along with him, with the help of an Elder for as much time as she could give to us. She gifted our bear the name Makoonse, which means “bear cub” in Algonquin. The Reconciliation Ambearister Program is perfect for us because it could meet us where the children were at, and expected only a willingness for us to learn about the territory and peoples on whose unceded land we reside, to make connections with, and learn from, our partners, and to demonstrate meaningful work for Reconciliation. The Reconciliation Ambearister Program also encourages us to continue our own group learning, particularly as it relates to the local Algonquin First Nation. We have learned that the third moon of the year is the Sugar Moon or ZIISSBAAKDOKE GIIZAS, and represents the Anishinaabe New Year, when the maple sap begins to run. The children enjoyed learning about maple sap as a medicine, and that Nanabush, an Anishinaabe cultural hero, taught us, through stories, that the greatest gift is in the giving. We also learned that the back of a turtle represents the number of lunar cycles in a year, and the length of time in each lunar cycle.”
In the sharing sessions we held over the year with the pilot group, Barbara shared the challenges and struggles she experiences while doing this work. The sharing sessions supported her questions, thinking, and growth as not only a teacher, but as a human being. Although the sessions were virtual due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the teachers who participated remarked how they felt a strong sense of solidarity, friendship, accountability, and mentorship. By connecting with other teachers doing the work of unlearning and truth and then reconcilia(c)tions, teachers received and offered support in sustained and meaningful ways. Barbara shares:
“I had a lot to learn and a lot to teach, and I am humbled and proud to say that this year has been the most rewarding experience of my teaching career, as well as the most challenging. It has been a year of humility; admitting to the children that I am learning along with them; realizing there is no end to how much I have yet to learn; being an actively reflective practitioner and acknowledging where past practice requires a new mindset.”
Barbara recently was awarded the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in teaching for her work with Spirit Bear and her Reconciliation Ambearrister, Makoonse kindergarten curriculum and program. Her example demonstrates that transformational approaches to professional (un)learning and teaching gives life to the head, heart, and spirit. Furthermore, opportunities to engage in (un)learning teacher communities with researchers supports the work of community partners such as the Caring Society, and the thousands of children and youth who are leading the way forward.
An Invitation to Join Us
The work of unlearning colonialism cannot be facilitated in a one-day workshop based on a slideshow presentation or discussion. Teachers must be invited into a community of relations where they feel a sense of belonging, the space to question and wonder, and the opportunity to pose questions and ideas. In the words of Shannen Koostachin, who said, “School is a time for hopes and dreams of the future” (Angus, 2012), we welcome more teachers to join us as we hope and dream for the future of professional (un)learning. We invite you to visit www.fncaringsociety.com/spiritbear to learn more about Spirit Bear, and for updates about the launch of the Spirit Bear Virtual School!
Photo: Barbara Giroux
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Angus, C. (2012, January 10). Shannen Koostachin “Really believed that kids could change the world.” HuffPost Canada. www.huffpost.com/archive/ca/entry/shannen-koostachin-really-believed-that-kids-could-change-the-w_b_1197267
Angus, C. (2015). Children of the broken treaty: Canada’s lost promise and one girl’s dream. University of Regina Press.
Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1–16. https://jswve.org/download/2011-1/spr11-blackstock-Emergence-breath-of-life-theory.pdf
Blackstock, C. (2019, July 16). When will Ottawa end its willful neglect of First Nations children? The Globe and Mail.
General, Z. (2012). Akimiski Island, Nunavut, Canada: An island in dispute [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Waterloo. https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/handle/10012/7022
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
We live and teach in a society that for the most part ignores the brain. For many of us, when we hear the term “wellness” we think about our physical, emotional, and mental health, yet few of us apply the term wellness to our brains. Research into the brain has increased in leaps and bounds over the last forty years. It is time for us to include it in our wellness repertoire.
It’s common knowledge that our sleep, diet, and activity level impact both body and brain health. What’s less commonly understood is how chronic or toxic stress can cause harm to both body and brain. And while we may seek out medical insights when our body manifests symptoms of toxic stress, we are less likely to do so when our brain shows signs of suffering. After all, neurological scars, anatomical changes, and the dismantling of brain architecture cannot be seen with the naked eye. Scientists, in contrast, can see these physical changes on brain scans. Non-invasive technology has revealed that toxic stress can do serious and lasting damage to the brain.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is scientists also have learned, and documented in extensive research, that our brains are innately wired to repair and recover. That said, it is not a quick fix and it is not easy. Returning a brain that has felt trapped in a toxic stress environment to organic brain health requires daily work at evidence-based practices. Reducing and eliminating the destructive effect of chronic stress demands the same kind of activation energy needed to get up off the couch and begin an exercise regime. You need to start slowly or risk injury. You need to believe in yourself in order to muster up the day-in, day-out work of deliberate practice. With commitment, over time you will find your lungs gasping less, your heart pounding less, your muscles strengthening, your resilience increasing, and your stress levels dropping.
Aerobic exercise is not only good for the body, it is immensely curative for a stressed-out brain. It fuels the brain with BDNF, brain-derived neurotropic factor, which neuroscientists see as comparable to fertilizer needed to encourage the birth of new brain cells, grow healthy brain structures, and fuel neural networks. A notable distinction between the body and brain, when it comes to exercise, is that the former can happily run on either a treadmill or a wooded path and still get strong and fit. In contrast, the brain does far better on the wooded path. Brains are hungry for learning on multiple levels. Along with the documented stress reduction of “forest bathing,” the path out in nature feeds the brain’s craving for challenges, surprises, and changes. There are few things better for the brain’s balance system than being thrown a rock or root on the path that requires it to do a rapid adjustment. Comparably, playing a sport combines aerobic exercise with further brain challenges. Competition that revolves around exercise is ideal for a brain that needs to train social-emotional connections, expand peripheral vision, hone focus, work the memory, and make split-second decisions.
Targeted brain training can also provide a boost to an educator’s overall wellness. A role model for what can be attained in terms of brain fitness is American quarterback Tom Brady. At 45 years old, he’s competing with 22-year-old professional athletes and outperforming them. Not only does he do daily physical fitness training, but he also does the BrainHQ online program designed by neuroscientists. While the market has many programs, I am highlighting this one because it is backed by extensive independent research from top-level institutions and individuals. Many programs promise to increase brain performance, but they lack research to back up their claims.
Other high performers who put the brain front and centre of their wellness program are basketball players Michael Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant. However, rather than targeted brain training, they practiced mindfulness with their team. The goal of their former coach, Phil Jackson, was to build a team that was so mindfully and empathically connected they could go into a flow state when playing regardless of the pressure they were under. They were trained by mindfulness expert George Mumford, and they went on to earn 11 NBA championships.
As documented in extensive research, mindfulness effectively calms the stress that triggers the sympathetic nervous system. The slow, purposeful breathing signals to the brain that it is safe and activates the parasympathetic response known as “rest and digest.” This lowers the stress hormone cortisol, which can become very harmful to brain and body health if it is being frequently released by the many stressors faced by educators and students. Despite a busy schedule, carving out time to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is an evidence-based investment that comes with multiple rewards. Mindfulness practitioners are responsive, not reactive; they’re more calm and creative; they feel more grounded and happier; they have better physical and mental health.
In our stressed lives we feel we cannot add another thing, but creating time for exercise, brain training, and mindfulness is a game-changer in terms of wellness that includes the brain. As educators, we are in the privileged position of being able to role model wellness for students and share with them what we practice. Imagine how much healthier, happier, better regulated, calmer, and less reactive students would be if they too had time each day for aerobic fitness, targeted brain training, and mindfulness. According to leading neuroscientists, these lessons in wellness are arguably the most important ones we need our students to learn. Prioritizing teacher and student wellness that includes the brain creates a foundation from which great learning can occur. Without it, lessons can be quickly lost to toxic stress.
The ability of scientists to see the brain via non-invasive technology needs to change the way educators understand threats to their own wellness and safety, as well as student wellness and safety. Schools are well-prepared and assessed regularly by experts when it comes to the risk of fire, but we have more work to do to ensure that teachers and students are not suffering from activated stress response systems and the damage caused by high cortisol levels. Chronically stressed educators and students not only suffer harm, they can also pass on their stress to others. As seen on brain scans, frequently released cortisol can turn a plush healthy hippocampus into a shrivelled lump. The hippocampus is an area of the brain engaged in learning, memory, tagging memories with emotion, and storing memories. If it is being bathed in cortisol, an educator may struggle to teach and a student may struggle to learn. Wellness is compromised for both adults and children. According to leading researchers Martin Teicher, Tracy Vaillancourt, and Bessel van der Kolk, harm to the brain from bullying and abuse creates much too high levels of cortisol and can leave neurological scars on the brain.
Shining a spotlight on harm to the brain from adversity and trauma supports a holistic understanding of wellness and encourages daily practices to enhance brain recovery and health. Having informed discussions as educators and sharing this knowledge with students enhances social-emotional relations, self-regulation, and overall learning. It is especially valuable since neuroscientists are well-informed about ways to return brains back to organic health after adversity. Evidence-based practices such as aerobic exercise, targeted brain training, and mindfulness can repair and restore brains so even students who have adversity in their past or present can be empowered to care for their brain.
The greatest way to share this important knowledge is by engaging in it personally, role-modelling it, and embodying it. This is where teachers can be allies in bringing about a brain-fitness revolution. Teachers who prioritize wellness that includes their brain can do a great deal to support student wellness.
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 reference to the article Staff Well-Being in Schools: Some B.C. ideas and approaches
Originally published in September 2019
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.
Does your group still have burning questions or comments? Encourage them to send their questions to Dr. Charlie Naylor, lead author for this article.
Or, send us your message and we’ll make sure one of our experts gets in touch.
As podcasters ourselves, we have learned a lot and see a lot of value in podcasting for the classroom. That said, for those not in podcasting, the idea of creating one with students can seem daunting; there are so many tools, and the starting point isn’t always that clear. That’s where we step in! Podcasting really isn’t that scary, and can be simple to do in the classroom.
We will help you to understand why podcasts are great for the classroom, and how you can get started.
Believe it or not, podcasting is a fantastic way to get students talking, and is a natural scaffold to the writing process. Here are some of our top reasons to introduce podcasting with your students:
As a bonus, it’s easy to get started. Podcasts don’t require much in the way of equipment. These days, almost all students have access to a cell phone or a device that can be used to capture audio.
Podcasting isn’t as complicated as you might think. There are four main phases in the podcasting process: Identify, plan, record, and share.
Here are some simple and free recording tools to consider:
The above tools are a great starting point for any skill level. They are simple to use and only require a student to click on record, and then click stop when they are done. The web-based tools will then give you the option to download the mp3 file.
If you have access, here are some additional tools to consider:
4. Share This doesn’t have to be public; it can be as simple as curating each student’s work on a collaborative slide deck (think PowerPoint or Google Slides), or simply sharing a folder that houses all of the audio files (Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, etc.) with the class.
That being said, you may want to build toward creating a podcast that can be shared with a wider audience, such as your school community. Building in an authentic audience can help to create buy-in and motivation for students.
Podcasting is likely a new concept for your students, so it is important to scaffold the process as much as possible so that students can experience success with this new modality.
As a teacher, your first step should be to expose your students to the podcasting format. There are so many student-friendly podcasts, so a simple search should provide a wealth of options (See Student-Friendly Podcasts for some suggestions). While listening together, you can then identify the different components, such as an intro, an outro, and the different segment structures.
From there, identify what skills you want your students to demonstrate in their podcast. This is a totally new format for most students, so be sure to provide a planner, a template, and a means of brainstorming ideas either independently or as a class. This is also a time to help support students with skills such as pronunciation, language, and communication in general. This may be an uncomfortable format for many students at first, so they will need time to practise and get used to podcasting.
If students want to interview a guest, it is important to go over questioning techniques, question formation, and interview etiquette. You might consider offering a set of question starters or stems to scaffold the question creation process. A quick internet search will help you find lots of ideas to get started.
Podcasting doesn’t have to be an immediate or short-term goal. It is possible to scaffold it in such a way that you help your students to build the skills over a longer period of time, with the end goal of producing their own podcast by the end of the semester or term.
As with all things web-based, it is extremely important to consider the privacy and protection of student data when sharing the podcast. Make sure that you check with your administration, get permission from parents or guardians, and also review Board policies to ensure that you are not potentially putting students at risk.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
The EduGals Podcast E050: Podcasting in the Classroom https://edugals.com/podcasting-in-the-classroom-e050
The EduGals Podcast E083: Leveraging Audio in the Classroom https://edugals.com/leveraging-audio-in-the-classroom-e083
Blog Post: Student-Created Podcasts Made Easy with Screencastify https://edugals.com/student-created-podcasts-made-easy-with-screencastify
Ten-year-old Kate Sergieiva and her mother, Olga, still remember the blasts of Russian bombs dropping on their hometown of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine as they fled on February 24, 2022. It took three months in Moldova, Armenia, and Bulgaria before they arrived in Toronto, where Kate was able to attend school.
Olga, a single mother, worried that Kate’s transition to school in Canada would be traumatic. She says that Kate is still frightened by noises, loudspeakers, and people in uniforms. Kate worries about friends and family in Vinnytsia, where Russian missiles have destroyed their neighborhood and killed dozens of people. She relives the trauma of the bombing.
“We have this scary feeling,” Olga says. “You think every moment that it could happen again.”
But Kate loved her month in Grade 5 in Toronto and can’t wait to return in September. The teacher was very welcoming, she says, and all her classmates wanted to lend her their computers and play with her. She is glad they didn’t ask her about the war. “I am happy not to talk about it… I don’t want to bring the sad news to everyone.”
But Kate says another Ukrainian in her class was lonely because he could not understand English. The language barrier prevented him from integrating, she says. “It was much harder for him, and he mostly ignored the lessons.”
Kate’s story shows that while children arriving from war zones have things in common, each child is different and they can face different barriers to education. Teachers must create learning environments that are not only welcoming, but also equitable and inclusive.
New students with refugee status in Canada have legal access to resources, protection, and funding. Since Russia’s latest invasion, many Ukrainian children have arrived in elementary and secondary classrooms across the country. However, Canada has not granted refugee status to Ukrainians arriving during this recent conflict, instead offering a temporary settlement program, which for some has made their settlement process more precarious and uncertain.
Ukraine has made efforts to prioritize access to education for all children, especially since February’s invasion, yet many who have been forced to flee remain without access to school (Brookings, 2022). Ukrainian children have experienced prolonged exposure to violence and conflict, particularly since 2014 when Russia invaded and occupied the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and large swathes of the oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk (also known as the Donbas). Many children have had to cope with the trauma, and for them close attachments to family, caregivers, and educators are most critical for their psychosocial wellbeing (Bogdanov et al., 2021).
Multilingual learners adapting to a new landscape also need socio-emotional support in their transitions. For instance, traumas suffered by students from conflict zones need to be considered when teaching about topics that could trigger students to feel oppression or exclusion (Parker, 2021). Such social and emotional burdens make learning that much more challenging.
The welcoming process for displaced students has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. E-learning, social distancing, and wearing face masks have taken their toll on students worldwide, leaving many to feel disconnected and disengaged (Zakaria, 2021).
Many teachers across Canada have experience with refugee students joining their classrooms. They are faced with the challenge of differentiating their instruction to meet the needs of each student. However, addressing the needs of refugee and newly arrived students who have experienced the trauma of war is an additional challenge that many teachers may feel ill equipped to handle. The challenge is amplified by a lack of support from varying levels of the education system, including uneven resource distribution across schools, inadequate communication about the needs of these students, and few professional development opportunities.
Identifying and responding involves taking the time to understand the students’ lived experiences. Below, we offer background for supporting newly arrived Ukrainian students and pedagogical support for creating inclusive classrooms.
To address the barriers facing students arriving from conflict zones, we suggest some essential practices teachers can implement.
While these factors highlight what teachers can do to support newly arrived students’ readiness to learn, more resources and training opportunities from the different levels of the Canadian education system are needed (Clark, 2017).
Restorative justice in education (RJE) offers a framework for supporting the inclusion of students who have resettled from a war zone and helping them address their internalized trauma. Used with equity-focused and trauma-informed (see sidebar) approaches (Brummer, 2020), RJE pedagogies (such as intentional relationship building, dialogue exercises, circles, and conferencing) contribute to building the safe and welcoming community that students deserve in Canada. With a restorative approach, students are not passive members of the classroom who follow the social direction of the educator, but instead become responsible, active participants in maintaining harmony with their peer community as they engage in relationship-building.
Many teachers fear speaking about young people’s traumatic experiences. Their fears are amplified by a lack of training and support from administrators, colleagues, and communities. However, research shows that when teachers take the time to get to know their students and help them process traumatic experiences through relational connection and affirmations, their relationships with each other and with the class community deepen (González, 2015; Parker-Shandal, forthcoming). Teaching students about current issues from neutral perspectives is traditionally risky for teachers; however, ignoring or glazing over them could invalidate the experiences of some students. Teachers can use dialogue exercises and circles to help facilitate conflictual conversations, while being attune to students’ feelings and questions as they process this difficult situation.
For students arriving from conflict and war zones, building healthy relationships means creating a container for dialogue and understanding of the experiences that students bring to the classroom. The sooner educators can foster deep listening skills and develop a culture of valuing each other in the classroom, the easier integration and inclusion becomes.
Develop and sustain relational connections and community
Global conflicts have infiltrated classrooms as conversations emerge based on misinformation about the pandemic, white supremacy, and this most recent genocide in Ukraine. Developing strategies to support students’ mental health and wellbeing has become part of an ongoing commitment during the pandemic. These strategies need to continue developing and being applied, especially for students from conflict zones. Focusing on the individual experiences of students, using multilingual pedagogy in teaching strategies, and prioritizing relationships through restorative justice pedagogies are all strategies teachers can use to facilitate the integration of students and contribute to creating space for peace-building in times of conflict.
Refugee Story Bank of Canada provides first-hand accounts of people who sought refuge in Canada, which could be used in lessons about refugees and autoethnographic narrative writing. This site will soon feature lesson plans and educator resources for using these narratives in K–12 classrooms. www.refugeestorybank.ca
Facing History and Ourselves Lesson plans and activities for educators to draw on to teach about the global refugee crisis.
Relationships First This restorative justice in education consortium envisions communities where the inherent worth and wellbeing of all involved are honoured and promoted. It includes lesson plans and resources to support teachers’ integration of restorative justice in their classrooms and schools. www.relationshipsfirstnl.com
INEE: has curated a collection of tools and resources relevant to the crisis in Ukraine to support the provision of education and mental health and wellbeing of practitioners, teachers, students, caregivers, and others. https://inee.org/collections and click on “Ukraine Crisis Resources”
Sesame Street In Communities: Resources in Ukrainian: These playful exercises and inclusive materials can help students feel safe and acknowledged. Activities include videos and games to support children’s emotional wellbeing.
ReliefWeb is a source for general information and news on the conflict in Ukraine.
Bogdanov, S., Girnyk, A., et al. (2021). Developing a culturally relevant measure of resilience for war-affected adolescents in eastern Ukraine. Journal on Education in Emergencies, 7(2), 311.
Brookings. (2022). Ukraine and beyond: Lessons in refugee education. A Brookings-Yidan Prize event on key issues in refugee education.
Brummer, J. (2020). Building a trauma-informed restorative school: Skills and approaches for improving culture and behavior. Jessica Kingsley.
Clark, K. (2017). Are we ready? Examining teachers’ experiences supporting the transition of newly-arrived Syrian refugee students to the Canadian elementary classroom [Research study, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto]. TSpace.
González, T. (2015). Reorienting restorative justice: Initiating a new dialogue of rights consciousness, community empowerment and politicization. Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, 16, 457–477.
Jones, N., Pincock, K., Guglielmi, S., et al. (2022). Barriers to refugee adolescents’ educational access during COVID-19: Exploring the roles of gender, displacement, and social inequalities. Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies, 8(2), 43–72.
Parker, C. and Bickmore, K. (2020). Classroom peace circles: Teachers’ professional learning and implementation of restorative dialogue. Teaching and Teacher Education, 95.
Parker, C. A. (2021). Refugee children in Canadian schools: The role of teachers in supporting integration and inclusion. In G. Melnyk & C. A. Parker (Eds.), Finding refuge in Canada: Narratives of dislocation. Athabasca University Press.
Parker-Shandal, C. A. H. (forthcoming). Restorative justice in the classroom: Liberating students’ voices through relational pedagogy. Palgrave Macmillan.
Zakaria, P. (2021). Education under attack: An examination of education in emergencies and strategies for strengthening education. In I.Fayed & J. Cummings (Eds.), Teaching in the post COVID-19 era (pp. 149–156). Springer.
One of the many things COVID-19 has brought into focus is the classroom – the confined indoor space in which the majority of K–12 learning happens. Faced with the risk of spreading germs in indoor locations, many Canadian educators moved learning outside into schoolyards and local community spaces. In my view, these are steps in the right direction – but not only, or even primarily, because of viral spread. Rather, literally getting outside classroom walls and metaphorically getting outside the entrenched ways in which we tend to think about teaching and learning can offer learners important skills, knowledge, and dispositions.
Learners in Canada today are living the legacy of Western, industrial views of schooling, curriculum design, and humankind’s relationship with nature (Judson, 2010, 2017).
Overwhelmingly, schooling separates learners from the local natural and cultural contexts in which they are situated and divides a richly interconnected living world into disciplinary containers. “Real learning” happens inside, at desks or tables, not in local parks, communities, or schoolyards. Schooling also marginalizes imagination in the learning process. Outcomes or objectives drive curricular decisions rather than the emotional or imaginative significance of topics.
There is no better time than now – amidst the turmoil this pandemic has already caused – to take a critical look at education in Canada, how it may be missing the mark, and what can be improved. In this article I describe two changes that could better equip learners to face the uncertain years ahead: widespread cultivation of imagination and learning outdoors.
A world of complex issues and problems requires a population that has a richly developed ability to envision the possible, the not-yet. It is this imagination that is needed to navigate an unpredictable, wild, “white water world” that is “broadly connected, rapidly changing, and radically contingent” (Pendleton-Jullian & Brown, 2018, p. 7). Pendleton-Jullian and Brown’s (2018) work on the pragmatic imagination challenges misconceptions that imagination is somehow antithetical to real academic learning or reasoning. They show the myriad ways in which imagination contributes to a range of cognitive processes, including perception and reasoning. They insist that the muscle of imagination is the force behind vital processes of speculation, experimentation, and free play that humans must employ when facing wildly complex and interrelated wicked problems.
In addition to needing imagination to deal with the complex world of today, it is imagination-focused pedagogy – teaching that brings into focus the emotional and imaginative core of all topics – that is most aligned with the emotional nature of human beings. We are, as psychologist David Kresh suggests, perfinkers. We perceive and feel and think at the same time. We perfink. And yet, far too often, students don’t feel much of anything about the topics they are learning about. Many educators think of the imagination as something that comes into play when foundational learning has already taken place; it is a kind of frill or supplement that may be valuable and enjoyable, but is not crucial to learning itself. While objectives are undoubtedly important for teaching, when they drive curricular decisions, teaching misses the emotional core of all learning (Egan, 1997).
At the same time, there are calls worldwide to improve schools so that students graduate with strong creative thinking skills. Education is needed, therefore, that feeds this emotional core. Imaginative Education is such a pedagogy that can fill that gap between valuing the imagination on one hand and cultivating it routinely in schooling on the other. It uses practical tools – cognitive tools – to shape lessons into engaging stories and cultivates imagination in the process. If imagination is understood to be the fertile soil out of which all learning, creativity, and innovation grow (Judson, 2021), then schooling should embrace the tools to cultivate it in all contexts and for learners of all ages.
In this Imaginative Education classroom, students are learning about the wonderful world of punctuation. Lisa is a comma, Hendrich, a period, and Paola, a semicolon. Each student has their own super power: Lisa the comma grants breaths and brings things together in a series; Hendrich the period has the power to end ideas, thoughts, and actions; one of Paola the semicolon’s mighty strengths is to connect full ideas. Their teacher is evoking the ingenuity of seemingly insignificant punctuation marks – those tidy little packages of meaning that help convey body language that we physically experience in face-to-face interactions but that is lost in written communication. Yesterday the students played with facial expressions and bodily gestures that may be conveyed with an “!” They giggled when they thought how a “;” can replace a wink (e.g. I got a new car; it is a midnight blue Maserati.) Tomorrow students are exploring the most unusual punctuation marks – have you heard of the interrobang?! – and the stories of those who invented them.
Human beings continually engage with the world in ways that evoke their emotions and imaginations. For example, words cause images to arise in our minds. We universally enjoy stories of all kinds. We identify patterns in the world around us. We enjoy jokes and humour. Extremes of experience and limits of reality – the stuff in the Guinness Book of World Records – intrigue us. We notice and often idolize people, ideas, or institutions. We collect things and obsess over hobbies. Mysteries entice us and we can experience awe in the face of unanswered questions or strange events. Our emotional and imaginative lives manifest themselves in many varied ways. These different forms of engagement are not insignificant; they are ways of thinking that help human beings learn.
In Imaginative Education, a theory and pedagogy developed by Dr. Kieran Egan, these acts of imagination are “cognitive tools.” They are emotional ways or strategies through which human beings make meaning in the world and, when used to shape lessons, can engage and grow imagination (Egan, 1997, 2005). Imaginative Education offers all educators a glimpse into the imaginative and emotional lives of their students and, importantly, describes sets of tools students are using to make emotional sense of the world that any teacher can use to shape curriculum. So rather than being objectives-driven, Imaginative Education is imagination-driven. Because cognitive tools are used to shape curricular decisions (Egan, 1997, 2005) teaching aligns with the emotional core of human beings.
In an Imaginative Education classroom, educators are storytellers. This does not mean they constantly create or integrate fictional stories in their teaching, but, rather, that they use cognitive tools such as revealing the heroic qualities of a topic, evoking powerful images, noticing the unique or novel, and engaging the body, to shape topics in ways that reveal their emotional importance. (See Learn More for resources.)
Focusing on imagination as we teach all curriculum topics is one way we can improve education in Canada post-pandemic. The next step? Literally stepping outside classroom walls.
Research shows that meaningful experiences in nature as children can impact the development of a conservation ethic (e.g. deBrito et al., 2017; Selby, 2017). Emotional connection can move us to action. Unfortunately, many students don’t have an emotional connection to the local natural and cultural contexts. My research has shown an alarming level of emotional disaffection among students. Students may know more about global warming but do not feel connected to any Place; they are not moved to live harmoniously with the natural world. Many students lack a sense of ecological understanding – knowledge of humankind’s interconnection in a living world and an affective relationship with nature that inspires changed action that is required in a world facing massive ecological crises (Judson 2010, 2015, 2018).
Understanding the natural world as a powerful teacher is uncommon in a Western view of schooling. Indeed, Place-based learning is a rich, but small, part of a Western educational tradition that has largely separated human beings and learning from nature. In contrast, the connection of learning with Place forms the heart of Indigenous ways of knowing and being. One of the devastating effects of colonization in Canada has been the virtual dismissal of Indigenous knowledges. Our education system can be improved if we learn from and with Indigenous peoples in Canada about a world view that acknowledges the inseparability of people and Place. I am dedicated to this work.
Unfortunately, not all outdoor learning experiences are created equal. Practices that neglect emotional and imaginative engagement in the learning process do little to cultivate the heart of a conservation ethic (Judson, 2010, 2015). Reconnecting with nature for its intrinsic value – re/membering (with) nature as an extension of our own selves – is a central goal of a cross-curricular approach to learning called Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE).
Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) aims to nurture students’ personal relationships with the natural and cultural contexts in which they live through frequent engagement of the body, emotion, and imagination in learning. By designing pedagogy around the distinctive features of students’ imaginative lives – applying the cognitive tools of Imaginative Education discussed earlier in outdoor learning – IEE more routinely engages the body, emotion, and imagination where students live and learn. Because IEE is a cross-curricular approach to teaching suitable for students in elementary through secondary school in urban, sub-urban, or rural contexts, IEE makes it possible for the development of ecological understanding to take place alongside the fulfillment of curricular requirements.
The Walking Curriculum (Judson, 2018) is an accessible and highly practical set of activities educators can use to move learning outside with inquiry and imagination. Based on principles of IEE, the 60 easy-to-use walking-focused activities in the Walking Curriculum are designed to engage students’ emotions and imaginations with their local natural and cultural communities, to broaden their awareness of the particularities of Place, and to evoke their sense of wonder in learning. In the Walking Curriculum, a walking theme is paired with a cognitive tool to develop understanding and engage imagination. The resource is designed for teachers who don’t necessarily consider themselves “outdoor educators” – as a result, it has been of wide interest and is being widely implemented (Judson, 2021).
While I acknowledge that a radical revisioning of schooling and broad social changes will be required to learn to live within the Earth’s carrying capacities (Blenkinsop & Fettes, 2021), moving learning outside is one step in the right direction.
So, what do I recommend for changing the 130-year legacy that lives in schools today? Literally, we can change the story one step at a time. One tool at a time. We can cultivate learners’ imaginations through teaching as storytelling. We can shape learning opportunities for students of all ages in ways that move them outdoors, into communities and that employ tools that engage their emotions and imaginations in engaging with the natural world. When imagination and outdoor learning become core principles of education in Canada, we will be better equipped to navigate a “white water world” and may begin to form relationships with nature that can support a different ecological future.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Learn more about:
• Imaginative Education, the Walking Curriculum, Imaginative Ecological Education, and how to use cognitive tools on the imagineED website: www.educationthatinspires.ca/imaginative-education
• The Walking Curriculum: www.edcan.ca/articles/a-walking-curriculum
Blenkinsop, S. & Fettes, M. (2021). Living within the earth’s carrying capacity: Towards an education for eco-social-cultural change. Report for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. www.circesfu.ca/practice/ecological-place-based-education/educating-for-living-within-the-earths-carrying-capacity
de Brito Miranda, A.C., Jófili, Z., & dos Anjos Carneiro-Leão, A.M., (2017). Ecological literacy: Preparing children for the twenty-first century. Early Child Development and Care, 187(2), 192–205.
Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding University of Chicago Press.
Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. Jossey-Bass.
Judson, G. (2010). A New approach to ecological education: Engaging students’ imaginations in their world. Peter Lang.
Judson, G. (2015). Engaging imagination in ecological education: Practical strategies for teaching. UBC Press.
Judson, G. (2017). Re-imagining relevance in education. In J. Cummings & M. Blatherwick (Eds.) Creative dimensions of teaching and learning in the 21st century (pp. 47–58). Sense Publishers.
Judson, G. (2018). A walking curriculum: Evoking wonder and developing sense of place (K-12). Kindle Direct Publishing.
Judson, G. (2021). Cultivating leadership imagination with cognitive tools: An imagination focused approach to leadership education. Journal of Research on Leadership Education. doi.org/10.1177/19427751211022028
Judson, G. (2021, June 21). Working with Place: Recommendations for developing imaginative ecological teaching practices. Green Teacher Magazine, 128. https://greenteacher.com/working-with-place/
Pendleton-Jullian, A. & Brown, J. S. (2018). Pragmatic imagination: A new terrain. CreateSpace.
Selby, D. (2017). Education for sustainable development, nature, and vernacular learning. CEPS Journal, 7(1), 9–27.
The past 30 years have been marked by an increased rate of change in societies around the world. In the span of a single generation, new technologies like personal computers, the internet, smartphones, and social media forced us to reconceptualize the way we engage in social interactions, work, and public life. Now artificial intelligence is challenging the boundaries of what it means to be human.
While these technologies have largely been adopted in positive ways, the systems under which they were created have also caused or exacerbated major world crises. The climate change crisis has shown us the consequences of unsustainable exploitation of nature and little regard for our limited resources. The spread of COVID-19 revealed capacity, coordination, and equity issues in our health, government, and education systems. Finally, most modern societies are also facing an economic crisis as a result of late-stage capitalism,1 which will undoubtedly change the face of our cities, work relations, and public life.
With all of these life-changing scenarios, what can the educational community do to equip students to deal with the challenges facing our world? This kind of question is usually confined to conversations about curriculum policy or reform. Many teachers believe their current curriculum does not address these challenges effectively, making it hard to tackle them in the classroom – especially in mathematics.
Specifically in mathematics, why is it so hard to address matters of public life in class? Perhaps the answer has less to do with curriculum policies and more to do with how we understand math education. The solutions to a quadratic equation, for example, can be found through digital technologies with precision and efficiency, so why is it that we still teach the discriminant technique? If we were to pay less attention to procedures and formulas, what could we do in mathematics classes to support our students to navigate the changes in our societies?
Preparing students to respond to the challenges imposed on our lives in the 21st century is a shared responsibility between policymakers (responsible for designing curriculum and approving pedagogical resources) and practitioners (school boards, schools, and teachers). Many readers might argue that the solution is to change the curriculum. While this is true to some extent, most Canadian provinces and territories have recognized that mathematics teaching in the 21st century must look different from the past.
Provinces already incorporate some of these important issues in mathematics classes, and many others are revising their curricula to increase their importance. They do so in three ways:
If many provincial curricula already have space to address our generation’s most pressing problems, what is missing? This is an epistemological problem. We, as mathematics educators, have been trained to see mathematics through its scholarly representation. We understand and appreciate theorems, concepts, algorithms, and formulas. But if we take a step back and look at mathematics as a way of thinking and being in the world, we might be able to see how our classes can contribute to a better tomorrow. Teachers often find themselves confused about the values they promote regarding mathematics. What is the purpose of teaching mathematics in the 21st century?
As it turns out, there are three answers to this question. In my research with mathematics teachers, I have identified three main orientations of mathematics education: disciplinary, professional, and citizenship. Depending on their orientation, teachers understand the value of teaching mathematics in unique ways. Consequently, they will respond to social change and tackle contemporary challenges distinctively. Below, I provide a brief description of these epistemologies, along with suggestions for readings and activities teachers can do with their mathematics classes. These are suggestions I’ve been using in my teacher education courses that have proved relevant to mathematics teachers’ visions and values.
This orientation refers to the most traditional – and most common – approach to teaching mathematics. It approaches the subject as the teaching of a scientific discipline, i.e. as an abstract science that is worth knowing for its own sake.
Most secondary mathematics teachers who pursued a specific degree in the subject enjoy mathematics for its own sake. For these teachers, mathematics – just like fine arts – should not serve immediate economic goals. It should instead be appreciated and celebrated as a common heritage of humankind and a way of developing the mind through problem-solving, logic, and rationality.
Teachers who share the disciplinary orientation of mathematics can respond to contemporary challenges by portraying mathematics problems that have yet to be solved. It is important to show students that mathematics as a discipline is still unfinished. Most students would assume that mathematical knowledge is already established and there’s nothing else to discover or invent. That is the result of the way math is often represented in the curriculum and textbooks, with formulas and concepts that must be memorized. By sharing unsolved mathematical problems, teachers can also show students that mathematical investigations can be done with a variety of technologies, including spreadsheets, coding, software programs, simulators, etc. Unlike what many might think, mathematical work is not isolated, and it certainly uses more than just paper and pencil.
Instead, I would invite teachers to introduce to their students the notion of a conjecture (a proposition that seems to be true but for which we still lack proper proof). Exploring a conjecture provides many opportunities for students to learn about the work of mathematicians and use a variety of technologies to investigate mathematical propositions. Students can also learn about the history of mathematics and how mathematicians pushed the boundary of human knowledge in attempts to prove conjectures.
Suggested book: Fermat’s Last Theorem, by Simon Singh (Fourth Estate, 2017). This book explains the history of more than 300 years of mathematical endeavours to prove a relatively simple proposition. Students can create a book club to discuss the book in parts. They will learn that mathematics is a lively science with lots to explore. The theorem (previously known as a conjecture) was only proved in 1995, 350 years after it was first proposed.
Suggested classroom activity: Explore the Collatz Conjecture2 with students in class. This conjecture can be easily understood by middle and high-school students and can generate many beautiful representations. Use Excel spreadsheets to automatically create a sequence based on a seed number, implement an algorithm (in Python language) that creates the sequence based on the user’s input, and create a concept map (use CmapTools) of multiple sequences.
This orientation is perhaps the most pragmatic of all three; it stems from an economic view of education as training. For teachers (and students) who espouse this perspective, the teaching and learning of mathematics should prepare students for future professional life. Particularly in high school, mathematics classes should develop appropriate skills that students could use in the workplace and/or prepare them for university programs that demand mathematical skills. With the intensification of the use of technology, skills associated with mathematics (counting, estimating, measuring, comparing, reasoning, etc.) have become ubiquitous in virtually all fields of professional life, from life sciences and STEM to literary work and fine arts. Most professionals face some, if not multiple, strands of mathematics daily. These demands intensify as they attempt to get promotions and climb the ranks of their organizations (typically moving toward management positions).
Consequently, mathematics classes should be responsive to these changes and portray the use of mathematics in a range of professions, so that students can see the value of learning mathematics and make informed career decisions in an increasingly precarious job market.
Many teachers see this phenomenon as a way to increase their students’ motivation to study mathematics. However, when faced with the infamous question, “When am I ever gonna use this?” they struggle to bring authentic examples of math in professional life. After all, it is unrealistic to expect mathematics teachers to be aware of how different fields are evolving. Do we expect industrial engineers to solve quadratic equations by hand to optimize costs in a production line? Or do they use software programs to simulate different scenarios under budget and resource constraints?
To tackle this challenge, teachers could provide students with opportunities to explore mathematics in professional life through research and social media. Platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Quora, and others provide a much-needed connection between school settings and real-life professionals. Through these platforms, students can reach out to workers from many fields and ask specific questions about the way they engage with mathematics in their daily tasks. Not only can this practice increase motivation, but it also allows teachers to create a portfolio of examples of math used in real-life workplace settings.
Suggested books: For middle school mathematics, On-The-Job Math Mysteries: Real-life math from exciting careers, by Marya Tyler (Prufrock Press, 2008). This book presents a set of mathematical problems faced by real-life professionals in interesting and unique fields. It provides teachers with explicitly mathematical problems that can be used in a class while also portraying mathematics authentically.
For high-school mathematics, 101 Careers in Mathematics – Fourth Edition, by Andrew Sterrett Jr. (Maa Pr, 2019). This book can be used by students, teachers, or counsellors to explore a wide range of careers for those who enjoy mathematics in high school. The book features real people in different fields and how mathematics was part of their professional trajectory.
Suggested classroom activity: Although most “traditionally mathematical” professions now use software programs for mathematical tasks, there is a lot of value in knowing how particular mathematical concepts were developed within those fields. One good example is geometric instruments and constructions, both of which were developed in the context of architecture. Notable angles, parallel and perpendicular lines, and triangle centres can all be constructed with high precision simply through a compass and a ruler. Students can learn a great deal of math by exploring why such constructions work. Here is a guide for a variety of constructions: www.mathsisfun.com/geometry/constructions.html
This orientation perceives the teaching of mathematics as a way of facilitating active participation in social life. Mathematical knowledge is one lens through which students can understand the world. When we discuss issues of public policies, the planning of our cities, the distribution of resources, or the electoral system, it is important to understand how mathematical information is produced, used, and communicated. It is therefore paramount that our students learn to decode different discourses through mathematics.
Most teachers present this orientation in implicit or explicit ways. They agree that mathematics is required to become a well-rounded individual in our societies, but sometimes struggle to identify proper opportunities to discuss important issues in the classroom. How much time should be spent discussing the context before diving into the “actual” mathematics? How much preparation does a math teacher need to approach sensitive topics? How do we identify the underlying mathematics concepts that can be explored in such topics as city planning or government budgets?
It is true that mathematics teachers need to go above and beyond their original training to make connections between mathematics and citizenship. However, once this connection becomes clear, it can save time in the classroom by interweaving different math strands into one unit. Also, the most recent curriculum revisions have introduced topics that facilitate these connections explicitly. Financial literacy, coding, and data literacy are just some examples of new mathematics strands that can easily be implemented with a citizenship epistemology. These concepts are unequivocally connected to social situations.
Suggested book: How Not to Be Wrong: The power of mathematical thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg (Penguin, 2015). Each chapter of this book explores a different mathematical concept or principle and how it has been used to shape our daily lives. It is a great resource to find deep and authentic connections between mathematics and social life.
Suggested classroom activity: One of the biggest debates in Canada over the last decade has been electoral reform. Currently, Canada uses the so-called first-pass-the-post system: each of 338 districts elects a member of Parliament to represent its interests, and the party with the most seats then forms the government. Through publicly available data,3 students can organize a spreadsheet according to each district and the votes received by each party.
A range of questions can be explored: What is the percentage of votes received by your MP? In which riding does a vote have the most/least percentage impact? Which riding elected an MP with the highest/lowest number of votes? Which riding had the closest race or largest landslide victory? Which non-elected candidate received the greatest number of votes? Has any MP been elected with less than this number? These questions elevate the debate about Canada’s voting system without promoting any specific position about electoral reform.
Similar to art, which can be valued for its aesthetic contribution as well as its depiction of social issues, mathematics is multi-faceted in its contributions to our world. The orientations described above are present in curriculum expectations, textbooks, teaching practices, and students’ rapport with the subject. They are certainly not mutually exclusive and can emerge in the classroom at different moments. Mathematics educators can benefit from a deeper look at their own values related to mathematics in order to recognize the biases and ideas guiding their instructional choices. In doing so, they might also be able to recognize the orientations their own students bring to the classroom and express in mathematics.
Which of these orientations is most closely aligned with your values? How do they inform your practices in the classroom?
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
1 Commodification of housing and health, widespread industry monopolies, precariousness of workers’ rights.
2 See The Simplest Math Problem No One Can Solve – Collatz Conjecture. Veritasium. www.youtube.com/watch?v=094y1Z2wpJg
3 2021 results: www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rep/off/44gedata&document=index&lang=e
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
For students with exceptional learning needs, self-advocacy refers to communicating their needs and securing support. While much of the support that these students receive is managed by the school, the same provisions are not usually made by post-secondary institutions or places of work. It is in every student’s best interest to learn about their specific needs, what they are entitled to, and how to communicate to others what they need. Researchers have linked self-advocacy skills to high school completion rates, and there is broad consensus that developing self-advocacy skills can start as early as possible.
Demystify the Individual Education Plan (IEP) process:
Promote accessible communication:
The most important goal here is for students to be able to explain the support that they need. Without knowledge of their specific challenges and what types of support work best for them, students are not equipped to meaningfully access parts of society that are not built with them in mind. While efforts toward demystification and accessible communication are valuable, so too is consistency in what we are saying and doing to support these students. Parents and teachers must communicate with each other about how they are supporting the development of self-advocacy skills, so they can design a consistent program of support that extends beyond what happens at school.
Konrad, M. (2008). Involve Students in the IEP Process. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43(4), 236–239. doi.org/10.1177/1053451208314910
Lister, Coughlan, T., & Owen, N. (2020). Disability or “Additional study needs”? Identifying students’ language preferences in disability-related communications. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 35(5), 620–635. doi.org/10.1080/08856257.2020.1743409
Mason, McGahee-Kovac, M., & Johnson, L. (2004). How to help students lead their IEP meetings. Teaching Exceptional Children, 36(3), 18–24. doi.org/10.1177/004005990403600302
Roberts, Ju, S., & Zhang, D. (2016). Review of practices that promote self-advocacy for students with disabilities. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 26(4), 209–220. doi.org/10.1177/1044207314540213
Last year, I attended a conference and was chatting with another attendee. I told her about my interest and work in the area of teacher self-care. With a puzzled look on her face, she proceeded to ask me, “Is teacher self-care even a thing?” Before I could say “yes,” I realized that her response was something I myself would’ve asked prior to experiencing burnout back when I was teaching in 2015.
During my 20-year teaching career, I had no idea that the term ‘self-care’ or ‘teacher self-care’ ever existed. Like many teachers, I spent most of my weeks and weekends planning lessons, grading assignments (especially while at my son’s basketball practices and games), responding to emails from students, designing rubrics, and searching for the best learning resources that had the most perfect clipart. It was never-ending, but it was a choice I had made thinking that this was what it took to be a “good” teacher.
I began to show signs of burnout, but at the time I hadn’t realized that this was indeed the term for what I was feeling. My personality had started to change and I was quick to lose my patience with my colleagues and students – I just didn’t care anymore nor did I bother to hide my feelings. My colleagues who had known me for six or seven years didn’t ask if I was alright because they didn’t know the signs of burnout. Burning out for me was a slow burn – like the feeling you get from holding onto a rope in a game of tug-of-war. You know you’re slipping yet you can’t get a grip, it’s painful but you just don’t know what to do in the moment as things unfold. Eventually, the endless cycle of precarious work and the three personal crises I experienced within an 18-month period pushed me over the edge. It was time to walk away from a career that I had loved.
I’m certainly not alone when it comes to experiencing stress as a teacher. The high levels of stress and burnout in the teaching profession are widely documented. It’s the chronic use of empathy and emotional resources in our profession that’s strongly associated with exhaustion and/or professional burnout. There are numerous factors that can contribute to teacher stress including precarious work (especially in higher education), multiple workloads, students’ demands, increased legislative regulations, changing educational standards, few professional development opportunities, and a lack of planning time, support, and resources. As I researched to learn more about the warning signs of burnout, I began to understand more and more about the importance of having a self-care practice.
Self-care is not an indulgence, but rather it’s necessary in the work we do as caring teaching professionals. Self-care is the skills and strategies used to maintain personal, familial, emotional, and spiritual needs while attending to the needs and demands of others. Without self-care, teachers are at risk of emotional exhaustion and/or professional burnout.
Teachers have often told me that they feel self-care is just one more responsibility or one more item to add to their to-do list. However, recent research has shown us that self-care isn’t only an individual responsibility, but it’s also an organizational responsibility. Workplace well-being should be embedded within the K-12 education system and reflected in a school’s culture. Ultimately, working conditions should create an atmosphere where teachers feel supported in their role, feel less stressed, and are equipped with the skills to look after their own well-being.
Last year, I had decided that it was time to share my story of burnout, and so I wrote a book entitled The Teacher Self-care Manual: Simple Strategies for Stressed Teachers. I’ve been fortunate to present at conferences in Canada and the USA and have met teachers from all over the world who have shared their own stories and wisdom about teacher self-care practices. Many of the teachers I’ve spoken with all seem to have a similar definition of what it takes to be a “good” teacher and how this standard is not only unrealistic, but is what prevents or impacts a self-care practice. As one teacher suggested, it’s often a mindset of “self-sacrifice” versus “self-care.”
Upon returning to teaching in 2017, I realized that I needed to adopt self-care strategies if I wanted to prevent professional burnout again. I strongly believe that self-care should be easy to follow, at no cost, and shouldn’t add time to our already busy career. To achieve this, I find incorporating “new tiny habits” such as walking daily, setting reasonable marking expectations, setting boundaries (e.g. no emails at night or weekends), spending time doing things I enjoy, connecting with people important to me, and setting Sunday as a no-work day are self-care practices that are easy to follow. While these practices work for me, self-care practices are unique – there’s no one-size fits all plan and it’s important to find practices that work best for you.
The well-being of everyone within the school community including, students, teachers, and principals/vice-principals is important. Research suggests that learning happens best when both students and teachers are well. What’s more, when teachers are well, their relationships with students, colleagues, and the overall school community become more positive.
In the past year, I’ve noticed an increase in conferences that focus on teacher well-being as well as many excellent resources. There’s a rise in school-level initiatives, too. In Canada, we see examples in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and elsewhere where teachers have formed Staff Wellness Committees in their schools or at the district level. While this is positive news, work still needs to be done to address school cultures that prevent teachers from participating in well-being initiatives. For example, teachers are often reluctant to participate in well-being initiatives for fear of judgement and being seen as not coping well.
First published in June 2020
Photos: Adobe Stock
Acton, R., & Glasgow, P. (2015). Teacher wellbeing in neoliberal contexts: A review of the literature. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 40(8)
Cherkowski, S., & Walker, K. (2018). Teacher Wellbeing. Noticing, Nurturing, Sustaining and Flourishing in Schools. Word & Deed Publishing, ON
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397
Newell, J., & MacNeil, G. (2010). Professional Burnout, Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Traumatic Stress, and Compassion Fatigue: A Review of Theoretical Terms, Risk Factors, and Preventive Methods for Clinicians and Researchers. Best Practices in Mental Health, Vol. 6 (2) Lyccum Books
Skovholt, T. M., & Trotter-Mathison, M. (2011). The resilient practitioner: Burnout prevention and self-care strategies for counselors, therapists, teachers, and health professionals. (2nd Edition ed.) New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.
Spilt, J.L., Koomen, H.M. & Thijs, J.T. (2011). Teacher well-being: The importance of teacher-student relationships. Educational Psychology Review, 23(4)
Stoeber, J., & Rennert, D. (2008). Perfectionism in school teachers: Relations with stress appraisals, coping styles, and burnout. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 21, 37-53.
Spurgeon, J., & Thompson, L. (2018). Rooted in Resilience: A Framework for the Integration of Well-Being in Teacher Education Programs. University of Pennsylvania
Wellahead. (n.d.). Research Brief: Promoting the Wellbeing of Teachers and School Staff What are the most effective approaches in promoting the wellbeing of teachers and school staff? Retrieved fro https://static1.squarespace.com/static/586814ae2e69cfb1676a5c0b/t/5b281bb170a6ad31c89ab315/1529355185939/TSWB_ResearchBrief.pdf
Listen to “Why teacher self-care is not a thing ft. Patrice Palmer” on Spreaker.
Stress and burnout led Patrice Palmer to leave the teaching profession after a 20 year-long career. Although she had attempted to return to part-time teaching, Patrice never regained her passion. Why does teacher self-sacrifice appear to be the norm rather than the exception? In this episode, Patrice Palmer explains why it’s critical to avoid burning out in the first place and to find ways to practice self-care amid the demands of the teaching profession.
First published in April 2020
Teaching in northern and remote communities can be an intense, even overwhelming experience – and the result can be exhausted, struggling teachers. The authors present seven dimensions of wellness as a framework for nurturing both personal and collective wellness in the context of rural and remote schools.
My first year of teaching was an emotional rollercoaster. I cried. I laughed. I cry-laughed. In the span of one academic year, there were suicide attempts, deaths, high rates of teacher attrition, and school closures. These traumas were compounded by the poverty, lack of food security, and unsafe drinking water in the community. I was a brand-new teacher teaching high school in an isolated First Nation community in Northern Ontario and I was filled with both excitement and doubt. I was drowning in student debt, completely removed from my family and support network, and working harder than ever to be the best teacher I could. What I know now, that I didn’t know then, was that you can’t out-teach trauma or grief, and you can’t out-teach a complete lack of well-being. I tried to, but I couldn’t.
I didn’t know about wellness in the same way I do now.
I realize now that my wellness was deeply compromised – financially, socially, physically, environmentally, and intellectually – and I didn’t even know it. I thought I needed to toughen up; I just needed to get through the day, the week, the month. But at the end of each day, each week, and each month, I was depleted and drained. I had so little left to offer my students. They were resilient, supportive, and strong, not me. I didn’t know about wellness in the same way I do now. I knew about physical health and why it was important. I knew I needed to exercise and eat well (neither of which I did) and I knew mental health mattered, so I talked to colleagues and tried to offer and gain support when needed. But that was the limit of my understanding about wellness and the limit of my embodiment of it. I never thought to access counselling support from someone like my co-author Elaine, or to seek help from veteran teachers, family, or administration. I just white-knuckled it through three full years of teaching. In the end I left my teaching position to pursue a PhD and, quickly thereafter, I crashed. I was riddled with anxiety, battling weight gain, taking on more student debt, and attempting to fend off looming health concerns. I was forced to begin a long journey in learning about wellness and how to prioritize my own.
That journey has led me here, to writing this article that you are reading today. It also led me to the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge, where I’m an associate professor and where I met Dr. Elaine Greidanus. When I met Elaine, we shared stories of the North: the long drives, the intense cold weather, the amazing people, and the communities and cultures we were privileged to learn from and with. Whether in Alberta or Ontario, our experiences merged and as a result we have pursued a research agenda and teaching opportunities that have centralized the wellness of educators.
Every two weeks I would leave my home in Edmonton at five in the morning and make the five- or s