In recent years, because of globalization, the world has become increasingly small and interdependent. No longer confined by place of birth or residence, citizens have a collective responsibility to participate in a globalized society.
In 2015, the UN General Assembly recognized this responsibility by adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The resolution includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that seek to promote far-reaching social, health, environmental, and political change.
At the same time, several Canadian ministries of education have stressed the importance of integrating the UN SDGs and contemporary world issues into the curriculum as part of a field of study known as global citizenship education (GCE). As a discipline, GCE aims to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and values to address critical global challenges. These include the alarming spread of misinformation, a global health crisis, climate change, and a growing threat to the liberal international order. While some provinces have incorporated GCE into their curricula, most do not offer it as a stand-alone course.
More Canadian ministries of education should adopt a required half-year course at the secondary level on responsible global citizenship. They should seek to equip students with critical thinking skills, including media and information literacy (the ability to find and evaluate information), health literacy (the ability to make informed health decisions), ecological literacy (the ability to identify and take action on environmental issues), and democratic literacy (the ability to understand and participate in civic affairs). Various stakeholders have a vested interest, including school administrators, teachers, curriculum writers, policymakers, scholars, and professors.
The conceptual framework below (Figure 1) ties responsible global citizenship to critical thinking through four literacies:
As the framework reflects, critical thinking is a necessary skill to achieve responsible global citizenship. The UNESCO International Bureau of Education (IBE) (2013) defines critical thinking as a “process that involves asking appropriate questions, gathering and creatively sorting through relevant information, relating new information to existing knowledge, re-examining beliefs and assumptions, reasoning logically, and drawing reliable and trustworthy conclusions” (p. 15). Critical thinking skills help global citizens make responsible choices when consuming information about the media, health, environment, and democracy. These skills are necessary to evaluate the abundance of information (and misinformation) in the digital age. They also play a central role in making evidence-based health decisions, provide a foundation for exploring today’s complex and interdependent ecosystem, and encourage the kind of civic engagement and participation needed to preserve a functioning democracy.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians have spent more time on the internet and their smartphones. A recent survey found that 98 percent of Canadians aged 15 to 24 years old use the internet (Statistics Canada, 2021). The survey also noted that 71 percent also check their smartphone, at a minimum, every half hour (Statistics Canada, 2021).
While Canadian youth have unprecedented access to knowledge and information, they are at the same time exposed to more misinformation and disinformation than at any other time in history. This makes it even more critical that students receive media and information literacy training at an early age.
Several organizations, including UNESCO, have taken notice. A decade after publishing the first edition of its media and information literacy curriculum, UNESCO (2021) released Think Critically, Click Wisely: Media and information literate citizens. The more-than-400-page document provides a curriculum and competency framework, along with modules divided into separate units. It also includes useful pedagogical approaches and strategies for teachers.
Meanwhile, in Canada, other organizations (e.g. the Association for Media Literacy, the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations, and MediaSmarts) have promoted media and information literacy instruction. And for more than three decades, Canadian provinces and territories have incorporated such content into their curriculum. However, as the only Western nation without a federal department of education, Canada has a media and information literacy curriculum that varies by province and territory.
This moment requires increased focus and attention to help Canadian students learn how to think critically when evaluating the media and its information sources and distinguishing between fact and fiction while using information tools. As such, ministries of education should consider adding the following topics in the proposed media and information literacy unit:
The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on the importance of health literacy. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines it as the “ability to access, understand, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course” (Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety, 2008, p. 11). This form of literacy requires both knowledge and competence in health-related disciplines.
It should come as no surprise that Canadians lacking health literacy skills are less likely to retrieve reliable information or make informed choices. In fact, limited health literacy (or health illiteracy) can directly impact whether individuals comply with data-driven public health guidance. What’s more, the rapid dissemination of COVID-19 misinformation has placed them at an even greater health risk.
At an organizational level, public health agencies have struggled to manage the current “infodemic” (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2021). In a Public Policy Forum report, University of Toronto professors Eric Merkley and Peter Loewen (2021) provide five recommendations, including to:
Additionally, medical professionals should provide up-to-date, credible information to large audiences through a strong social media presence.
At the school and board level, teachers and administrators should promote more health literacy instruction. While the concept of health-promoting schools dates back nearly three decades, there is an even greater imperative for students today. In fact, the World Health Organization and UNESCO (2021) recently proposed a whole-school approach to encourage student health and well-being, ranging from school policies and resources to a greater focus on community partnerships and a positive social-emotional environment.
Adopting these standards will help to facilitate cooperation among ministries of education, schools, and civil society organizations. Accordingly, a health literacy unit should include:
Being a responsible global citizen also requires ecological literacy – defined as “a way of thinking about the world in terms of its interdependent natural and human systems, including a consideration of the consequences of human actions and interactions within the natural context” (Manitoba Education and Training, 2017, p. 15). On top of the combined infodemic-pandemic, an ecological crisis continues to deteriorate. Earlier this year, the federal government released a 768-page document (Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate: Advancing our knowledge for action) that examines the serious threat climate change poses to Canadians’ health (Berry & Schnitter, 2022). The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021) report, in particular, details the negative impact of greenhouse gas emissions, which is causing increasing temperatures and frequent natural disasters. Additionally, more than half of the world’s key biodiversity areas remain unprotected while pollution levels keep rising (UN, 2021).
A recent poll conducted by Ipsos (2021), in collaboration with the Canadian Youth Alliance for Climate Action (CYACA), examined the views of young Canadians 18 to 29 years old on climate change. The study found that Canadian youth consider climate change to be a top-five issue of concern after housing, COVID-19, health care, and unemployment. Upon reviewing each province’s secondary school science curriculum, sustainability researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas (2019) conclude that there is insufficient focus on scientific consensus, impacts, or solutions to climate change. Government leaders may be more likely to fulfill their climate action promises if Canada does more to develop responsible environmental citizens through climate change education.
Ecological literacy, however, is not limited to climate change education and will require students to acquire skills and competencies in other areas. In addition to climate change, this unit should include:
The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the Canadian way of life has contributed to the discontent many feel. According to a Pew Research Center survey, while only 29 percent of Canadians at the beginning of the pandemic believed the country was more divided than before the outbreak, 61 percent held that view by the following year (Wike & Fetterolf, 2021).
Pandemic fatigue, however, should not serve as an excuse for undermining democratic institutions and norms. Indeed, in the latest edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (2022) Democracy Index (global democracy rankings), Canada dropped seven spots (5th to 12th place). The report highlights a troubling trend – one in which Canadian citizens express an increasing level of support for non-democratic ideas and values.
Civically literate citizens are more likely to understand the inner workings of the democracy and participate through voting, peaceful assembly, or other forms of engagement (The Samara Centre for Democracy, 2019). The Samara Centre for Democracy (2019) report explains that civic literacy can be developed during the Canadian citizenship process, at home, in schools, and outside the classroom. Schools are a particularly important forum through which Canadian youth can learn about civic participation and engagement.
In a civics unit, students should have the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives, make informed opinions, and actively participate in the community. Democratic literacy content should include a discussion on:
As teachers prepare students for a post-pandemic world, a one-size-fits-all approach cannot address the needs of every student. Yet, there should be a common framework.
The responsible global citizenship framework can serve to guide ministries of education seeking to implement practical and relevant GCE-related courses and content. To develop responsible global citizens and critical thinkers requires the advancement of media and information, health, ecological, and democratic literacies. These four literacies are critical for Canada’s future success and relevance in a global society.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Berry, P., & Schnitter, R. (Eds.). (2022). Health of Canadians in a changing climate: Advancing our knowledge for action. Health Canada. https://changingclimate.ca/site/assets/uploads/sites/5/2022/02/CCHA-REPORT-EN.pdf
The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2022). Democracy index 2021: The China challenge. www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2021
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2021). Climate change 2021: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the sixth assessment report of the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University. www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/
Ipsos. (2021). Young Canadians’ attitudes on climate change. www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2021-10/CYACA%20Report%2020211004_0.pdf
Manitoba Education and Training. (2017). Grade 12 Global Issues: Citizenship and Sustainability.
Public Health Agency of Canada. (2021). A vision to transform Canada’s public health system. Government of Canada. www.canada.ca/content/dam/phac-aspc/documents/corporate/publications/chief-public-health-officer-reports-state-public-health-canada/state-public-health-canada-2021/cpho-report-eng.pdf
Rootman, I., & Gordon-El-Bihbety, D. (2008). A vision for a health literate Canada: Report of the expert panel on health literacy. Canadian Public Health Association. https://swselfmanagement.ca/uploads/ResourceDocuments/CPHA%20(2008)%20A%20Vision%20for%20a%20Health%20Literate%20Canada.pdf
The Samara Centre for Democracy. (2019). Investing in Canadians’ civic literacy: An answer to fake news and disinformation. www.samaracanada.com/docs/default-source/reports/investing-in-canadians-civic-literacy-by-the-samara-centre-for-democracy.pdf?sfvrsn=66f2072f_4
Statistics Canada. (2021). Canadian Internet use survey, 2020. www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/daily-quotidien/210622/dq210622b-eng.pdf?st=O5mYsIgz
United Nations. (2021). The sustainable development goals report 2021. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2021/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2021.pdf
UNESCO. (2021). Think critically, click wisely: Media and information literate citizens. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377068
UNESCO-IBE. (2013). IBE glossary of curriculum terminology. www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/IBE_GlossaryCurriculumTerminology2013_eng.pdf
Wike, R., & Fetterolf, J. (2021). Global public opinion in an era of democratic anxiety. Pew Research Center. www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/12/07/global-public-opinion-in-an-era-of-democratic-anxiety
World Health Organization & UNESCO. (2021). Making every school a health-promoting school: Implementation guidance. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377941
Wynes, S., & Nicholas, K. A. (2019). Climate science curricula in Canadian secondary schools focus on human warming, not scientific consensus, impacts or solutions. PLoS ONE, 14(7), e0218305. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218305
“Let us define ‘ethical intention’ as aiming at the ‘good life’ with and for others, in just institutions.” –Paul Ricoeur (1990/1992, p.172)
What ethical responsibilities do educational organizations have to create the conditions that foster employee well-being? Is the strategy of self-care promotion sufficient or should educational organizations consider what other obligations exist in order to encourage the “good life?” If we are aiming at the good life as Ricoeur (1990/1992) suggests, and if our intention is to create well-being in the education workplace, then reminding people to take care of themselves and focusing on the health practices of individuals is not enough. People exist in relationships and work in complex systems, so addressing these things is also necessary in order to create and support well-being. If the relationships or systems are not well, then focusing on the individual “fixing” themselves becomes both ineffective and frustrating.
Making the “right” health decisions and doing self-care activities tend to be framed as a competence or character issue of an individual (Wang, Pollock, & Hauseman, 2018), but this idea falls apart when one considers that an employee only has control over one part of the situation. For example, employees can do all of the things they know are good for them – they can eat well, get the requisite hours of sleep each night, exercise, meditate, have great social support, and so on – but if they are in a toxic workplace environment or work with others who don’t care about them, then they will not be well. Many education leaders who are promoting and supporting self-care are trying to do the right thing for their employees, their employers, or both, but are, unintentionally, losing the substance for the shadow and doing more harm than good.
More and more ministries of education and school districts are recognizing the need to address staff well-being as an important step toward increasing student well-being. They are also acknowledging the importance of staff well-being in relation to students’ learning outcomes. In the province of B.C., the newly published Mental Health in Schools Strategy (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2020) recognizes the need for adult well-being for the very first time. “Not only does adult stress impact students directly, it can also lead to increased sick days taken by staff, increased disability claims and challenges with retention and recruitment, all of which cost the school system as a whole” (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2020, p. 5).
The Mental Health in Schools Strategy document correctly points out that there is also a business case to be made for addressing staff well-being. Education leaders are looking at well-being as a way to save money through lower absenteeism, increased staff retention, and other human resources considerations. Having a safe and caring workplace creates value for the institution, as it increases productivity and makes financial sense from the human resources perspective – but employee well-being has value beyond just what it can provide in a linear and measurable cost/benefit analysis. Organizations have a moral responsibility for the well-being of their employees. There is also intrinsic value that exists in the relationships between people that we cannot reduce to numbers and statistical analysis; this benefit exists in the connection itself and is experienced in the most successful and creative teams (Waterhouse, 2019).
As individual employees, we exist within organizations that are in relationships within the larger system. The system is not a separate entity that exists outside of the individuals who are part of it. The organization itself is made up of, developed, and shaped by people in relationship. This explanation fits with the idea that “the moral life of organizations is reducible neither to individual morality, nor to institutional structures. Rather it is usually the interplay of individual moral agency on the one hand, and organizational structures on the other that determines outcomes” (Herzog, 2018, p. 2). This interplay doesn’t take away the responsibility that each person has for their own decisions and actions, nor does it waive organizations’ responsibilities to attend to their employees’ well-being. But instead, it acknowledges that those decisions and actions, whether they are individual or organizational, occur within and are impacted and shaped by the individual’s relationships and interactions with the organizational contexts. Organizations need to change the way they work, co-develop well-being strategies and practices with their employees, and wholeheartedly integrate them into their daily lives.
It is valuable to look at what an organization is doing to promote health and well-being and whether these strategies and practices are having the intended impact. The use of self-care as a well-being strategy puts the responsibility on the individual to take care of their own health, ignoring the systemic inequities that create an unequal playing field. It also ignores the responsibility of organizational leaders to create and support policies and practices that bring well-being into the culture and structure of their organizations. In the education workplace, the role of the employers in supporting well-being is often seen as simply providing information – via newsletters, blog posts, or “wellness days” – for employees to learn about self-care they can do on their own. Such a view is patronizing, as it places the burden on individuals and neglects organizations’ impact on and responsibility for their employees. Recently, an education colleague spoke about a staff wellness day at their school: “Our administrator was praising the day and publicly people were praising the day too, but privately no one saw the point.” The idea that work-related stress can be relieved with health promotion materials is problematic because it ignores the organizational, social, and systemic patterns that have contributed to the stress in the first place (Bressi & Vaden, 2017). As illustrated from the above example, it also runs the risk of appearing inauthentic or becoming a “Band-Aid” solution that could damage the very relationships that it aims to support.
The other workplace strategy around self-care practices is to encourage or reinforce better health practices. Some districts are promoting the use of apps that record fitness and other health goals. These apps are often part of the employee assistance program offerings and tend to reward individuals or teams for meeting their goals with virtual awards or gift cards. There are mixed opinions on the effectiveness of these types of behaviour modification programs, but it is generally agreed that how these programs are structured matters. A study by Gneezy et al. (2011) found that this is particularly true for initiatives designed for the public good, as incentive programs can have “adverse effects in social norms, image concerns or trust” (p. 206). The same study also found that using incentives to make lifestyle changes sometimes works in the short term but is usually not sustainable. These are often great tools, but alone they are just not enough.
So, if we want to increase staff well-being and experience all the benefits this provides, what do we do?
One of the more promising strategies in workplace well-being is the idea of moving to a joint responsibility model of health promotion (Joyce et al., 2016). A white paper put out by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and Morneau Shepell (2018), a human resources company, promotes this joint responsibility model that includes recommendations like creating a caring culture and supporting the employee-manager relationship. We would like to suggest a three-part model that includes looking after self, supporting and caring about each other, and considering the policies and practices in the system that either promote or get in the way of well-being.
Having a well-being plan that has all three components acknowledges the shared responsibility and makes this something people at all levels of the organization are working on together. For example, it is still the individual’s responsibility to take care of their own health, so information or programs that encourage self-care are great – but only if that is just one part of a more comprehensive well-being support plan. The plan should also include ways to support each other like team building, opportunities to contribute, plans to address conflict, and anything that supports connection, collaboration, and belonging on teams. The third part is looking at policies and practices through the lens of equity and well-being. Which of your practices/policies are supporting well-being and which are getting in the way of it? There are many examples and opportunities to look at established practices with a new well-being lens, such as: whose voices are included in decision making processes? Do our onboard practices create equity and belonging? How do people advance in our district? Do we provide opportunities for ideas and feedback to be heard and shared? Do we need an email policy to support boundaries around work time? The answers to these and so many more questions will vary, but they are definitely worth asking and reflecting on together.
The education system’s ethical responsibility is to work together on creating well-being in the K–12 workplace; it is then that Paul Ricoeur’s (1990/1992) ethical aim for “the ‘good life’ with and for others, in just institutions” (p. 172) can be truly be achieved.
Bressi, S., & Vaden, E. R. (2017). Reconsidering self-care. Clinical Social Work Journal, 45(1), 33–38.
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2020). Mental health in schools strategy. Government of British Columbia.
Gneezy, U., Meier, S., & Rey-Biel, P. (2011). When and why incentives (don’t) work to modify behavior. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(4), 191–209.
Herzog, L. (2018). Reclaiming the system: Moral responsibility, divided labour, and the role of organizations in society. Oxford University Press. DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198830405.001.0001
Joyce, S., Modini, M., et al. (2016). Workplace interventions for common mental disorders: A systematic meta-review. Psychological Medicine, 46(4), 683–697. doi:10.1017/S0033291715002408
Mental Health Commission of Canada & Morneau Shepell (2018). Understanding mental health, mental illness, and their impacts in the workplace. Health Canada.
Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as another (Kathleen Blamey, Trans.). University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1990.)
Wang, F., Pollock, K., & Hauseman, D. C. (2018). Ontario principals’ and vice-principals’ well-being and coping strategies in the context of work intensification. In S. Cherkowski & K. Walker (Eds.), Perspectives on flourishing in schools (pp. 287–303). Lexington Books.
Waterhouse, A. (2019). Positive relationships in school: Supporting emotional health and well-being. Routledge.
On January 11, 2020, a 61-year-old man in the central Chinese city of Wuhan succumbed to a new virus that had sickened at least 41 people. “There is no evidence that the virus can be spread between humans,” the New York Times reported at the time (Quin & Hernandez, 2020). By April 2, the COVID-19 coronavirus had sickened more than one million people in 171 countries across six continents and had killed more than 51,000. In a recent report for the Royal Society of Canada, my colleague Michelle Hagerman and I noted that nearly two years later, the pandemic had not only claimed the lives of millions but also upended nearly every public, private, and non-governmental institution around the globe (Westheimer & Hagerman, 2021).
Crises have a way of making us ask big questions. They focus our attention on what matters most – to us, our loved ones, our fellow citizens, and the planet. For educators, prioritizing what is important became fundamental as teachers grappled with the new realities of online learning, spotty attendance, and the immense inequalities the pandemic revealed about the lives of students and their families. These new realities offer an opportunity to reshape our thinking about what matters in education. But opportunity is not the same as destiny. For lasting change to occur, we must focus our attention on using what we have learned.
Can you name any of the fourteen plant phyla? What’s the difference between sine and cosine? When did the Assyrian empire’s reign over Mesopotamia begin and end? What roles do chloroplasts, vacuole, or mitochondria play in the basic functioning of cells? If you don’t know the answers, you’re not alone. The truth is that few adults (whose professions do not require such specialized knowledge) know the answers to these questions. And even fewer face social, civic, or career setbacks as a result.
If I could ban any two words from education talk for the next year or so, I would choose these: learning loss. The past two years of interrupted schooling has meant that countless children missed lessons in math, history, geography, science, and literature. Every day we read about children falling behind, but the curriculum is bursting at the seams. Falling behind what? Behind whom? Estimates are that nearly 90 percent of the world’s 1.7 billion students have missed a significant amount of school these past two years. So we shouldn’t be surprised if testing experts tell us that, on balance, the COVID generation is not performing as well on standardized assessments of progress as previous cohorts of children at the same stage in their schooling. We probably didn’t need the tests to tell us that predictable fact. But what if that model of teaching and learning is outdated and there are more important things for teachers to think about than whether they’ve “covered” the curriculum?
For certain basic skills such as numeracy and literacy, the language of learning loss is an understandable way of expressing concern over an achievement gap between high- and low- achieving students. But for more than three decades, the school curriculum has become increasingly consumed with all the things students should know before they graduate. That has resulted in an unprecedented global obsession with micro-managing teachers’ work to ensure the right information is taught, and with standardized testing to find out if they’re succeeding. Yet those who seek to demonstrate the importance of coverage in the curriculum mostly use standardized measures of knowledge attainment to prove their point. This tautological approach should be easily dismissed, pandemic or no pandemic, when making the case that we need to move our priorities away from a mile-wide-inch-deep approach to teaching and learning.
Research in teaching and child development tells us that learning how to think analytically is much more important than cramming in material that students won’t remember weeks or years later. We live in an age of instantly accessible information in an infinite number of domains. Living well in the 21st century does not require more information, but rather the knowledge and skills needed to sift, understand, and assess the quality of information. Teaching content matters, but covering every possible historical event and scientific or mathematical concept does not.
I would be thrilled if my child had the opportunity to read and discuss with her teacher and classmates the brilliant allegorical novel, The Alchemist. After all, many students learn valuable ways of thinking about the world from reading it. But I’d be OK if they had to miss that one and read only Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Yann Martel’s Life of Pi instead. What matters is finding topics of interest to both teachers and students, having the time to explore those topics in depth, and facilitating connections between subject matter and the outside world. A deep-dive into topics of interest is worth more than a stress-filled endurance swim in the shallows.
This is not a new idea. “Less is more” has been a common aphorism in curriculum development for more than 30 years. The harms wrought by trying to meet curricular standards bursting at the seams were well documented before the pandemic (see for example Kempf, 2016), but during the past two years, as teachers and school boards across the country were forced to recognize the impossibility of covering the entire prescribed curriculum, the very idea of breadth versus depth came under increased scrutiny. It has become clearer than ever that endlessly expanding content goals reduce teachers’ control over the curriculum, undermine their professional judgment, and limit student engagement.
The COVID-19 pandemic functioned like an X-ray, revealing already existing fault lines in our nation and the world: poverty and economic inequality, hunger and homelessness, racial and ethnic bias, unequal access to high-speed internet and computers, and inadequate resources for those most in need. None of these are new challenges, but they are newly spotlighted for all of us to see – “pinned” in the vernacular of the now-ubiquitous video conferencing platforms. Online learning meant that educators were transported into students’ homes, making inequality difficult to ignore.
What bothers me about a focus on learning loss and “falling behind” is that it will increase these already existing gaps. Calls for economically disadvantaged students to keep up with their wealthier peers will not diminish the achievement gap between children from poorer and wealthier households. The problem is not that some kids will learn more than others as much as it is the consequences we tie to arbitrary benchmarks of learning in the first place. Since students are likely to be evaluated in the future using assessments of how much of the curriculum was covered, and since those evaluations continue to be used to sort students in ways that will affect their futures, we are, at least in part, creating the very problem we hope to eliminate by emphasizing the achievement gap. The more we value the acquisition of information over the development of intellectual, emotional, and relational capacities, the more we contribute to rather than ameliorate inequality.
I do not want to minimize the added supports some children need to make up for lost schooling in basic skills. A child entering Grade 3 after having missed much of the previous two years may not be able to read. Some children will have missed the opportunity to learn or solidify basic mathematical literacy. These are significant liabilities, not really comparable to missing stories about some explorers in Canadian history. It is a significant handicap to be lacking these “basic skills,” and for most children, it would be difficult to acquire these skills on their own. To be sure, we should support additional funding for more teachers, smaller classes, and additional programming so that these gaps can be addressed.
But there is much more to schooling than basic skills alone, and we must be careful not to create arbitrary barriers to those students who, beyond common-sense basic skills, have not acquired the same level of curriculum coverage as their more well-resourced peers.
Schools have been stuck in the wrong paradigm for success, one in which individualized knowledge and skills are the end-goal instead of a means to develop students’ best selves within the community of their teachers and peers, and, by extension, improve society for all of us.
If we agree to move beyond an outdated paradigm of education centred around curriculum coverage, what kind of vision for post-pandemic education can take its place? Two decades ago, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that education either functions to inculcate conformity in the younger generation or it becomes “the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (2000, p. 34). To Freire, the sense of pedagogical meaning-making that derives from curriculum is inseparable from the goal of improving society. In other words, improving society requires not only teaching basic skills and knowledge, but also engaging young and old alike in a process of collective meaning-making and community-building.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the ways people treat one another, learn from one another, and live together in local, national, and global communities – in short, how people see themselves as members of a community. Education has always seemed important to me, not because of the debates about passing fads and strategies (phonics versus whole language, new math versus old math, small classes versus big classes), but rather because choices about how we teach our children are choices about the kind of society we believe in and the kind of people we hope will emerge from our schoolhouse doors. Will they be concerned only with their own individual success and ambitions without regard to the welfare of others? Will they form healthy and happy relationships with others? Will they value democratic values such as self-governance and social justice? Will they learn how to develop convictions and the courage to stand up for those convictions if and when it becomes necessary to do so? Will they be able to engage in work and community activities they find meaningful? These values are manifestations of a sense of both personal and civic identity and form the basis of community life.
You can see, then, that I think about schools not only or even primarily as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge, but also as places where children learn about the society in which they are growing up: how they might engage productively, how they can fight for change when change is warranted, and how to know when it is warranted. Schools have always taught lessons in areas such as citizenship, moral values, good behaviour, and “character.” Schools teach children to follow rules, to wait their turn, and (ideally) to cooperate with others. Schools (again, ideally) also teach children how to acquire and process information and how to articulate their ideas to others – all necessary skills for democratic community life. Some schools also help students consider whether being a “good” citizen or member of the community ever requires questioning rules, or what might be the proper balance between rule following and thinking about the origins and purpose of rules.
Schools teach these lessons regardless of whether or not they aim to do so explicitly. How classrooms are set up, who gets to talk when, how adults conduct themselves, how decisions are made, how lessons are enacted – all these inevitably serve as lessons in how to live together. Whether teachers explicitly “teach” these subjects or not, students learn about community organization, the distribution of power and resources, rights, responsibilities, and of course, justice and injustice. These same lessons are mirrored in students’ online interactions. Curricular choices and the relative importance we put on covering all the content standards contain both overt and hidden lessons as well.
When policy-makers focus obsessively on learning metrics, teachers are forced to reduce their teaching to endless lists of facts and skills, unmoored from their social meaning. But when we consider what a successful education might look like more broadly and we think about the impact our curricular choices have on the people we hope students will become, we create new ways of seeing the complex work of teaching and we form new expectations for the purposes of a public education.
Schools should teach subject matter content. There, I said it. I do not want to entertain strawman arguments about progressive educators who don’t care whether children learn to read and write, add and subtract numbers, or learn facts about things. As far as I know, there is not a group anyone can join called “Parents and Educators Against Children Learning How to Read.”
What I am suggesting is that schools should teach content without becoming overly concerned with teaching all content. The need for such a shift in thinking is not new but was made newly possible by the disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eliminating the need for each and every student to cover the exact same material at the same time would free teachers to help their students create meaning, develop a sense of purpose, belonging, well-being, and the chance to learn more deeply about things that excite their curiosity. A paradigm for education that embraces these kinds of goals encourages teachers and students to develop content knowledge and skills by drawing on the local passions, interests, and resources of the school and community. As high school history teacher Michael Berkowitz likes to say: content matters more than coverage.
Most importantly, a successful education should be one that allows each child to become the best version of themselves, and to envision a future for their communities and the planet that isn’t yet realized – but that they can help bring about.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.
Kempf, A. (2016). The pedagogy of standardized testing: The radical impacts of educational standardization in the US and Canada. Palgrave.
Qin, A. & Hernández, J. C. (2020, January 10). China reports first death from new virus. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/world/asia/china-virus-wuhan-death.html. Para 4
Westheimer, J., & Hagerman, M. (2021). After COVID: Lessons from a pandemic for K-12 education. In T. Vaillancourt (Ed.), Children and schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and connection through opportunity. Royal Society of Canada. https://education.uottawa.ca/en/news/royal-society-canada-policy-briefing-children-and-schools-during-covid-19-and-beyond
Shanna (eight) has always been a sensitive child. She feels nervous about many things, and these feelings have only increased during the pandemic. It is becoming increasingly difficult for her caregiver to get her to school in the mornings.
Yasmin (11) has struggled with her adjustment to Canada and gets frustrated that school is so difficult when she was a strong student in her home country. Her worries about her family that are still back at home can feel overwhelming, and often distract her from her classes.
Jesse (14) is finding it really difficult to navigate their queer identity in different spaces, including different levels of acceptance at the home of each of their parents. They are feeling increasingly isolated and have thoughts of harming themselves.
What do these seemingly diverse students have in common? They have different strengths and different challenges, but are all struggling with the everyday expectations placed on them, including at school. Further, they could all benefit from opportunities to improve their mental health. For many students, mental health can be promoted through creating welcoming environments and teaching skills such as self-regulation, communication, and healthy relationships. For others, additional opportunities to learn coping strategies might be required. Still others may need more specialized services. As a major piece of children’s ecosystems, schools must be intentional in how they support positive mental health. We need to look beyond academic rankings for schools and recognize that successful schools support mental health, both for compassionate reasons and because strong mental health underlies future success.
Canada is often identified as a great place to live on international lists and rankings. However, our performance on children’s mental health is not a source of national pride. Even prior to the pandemic, the last UN report card ranked us 31st out of 38 rich countries on children’s mental health and happiness. We also have one of the highest rates of adolescent suicide. We would not accept such a ranking for our math scores; to score this low in mental health is cause for a significant call to action.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives and routines. Not surprisingly, children and youth are paying the price with decreased well-being. Data collected by SickKids looking at impacts during the second wave found that more than half of 750 kids aged 8–12 reported significant symptoms of depression; 70 percent of adolescents reported significant depression. Furthermore, the pandemic has exposed and amplified the inequities that were there all along. Equity-seeking groups have been harder hit by pandemic impacts, and this includes worse mental health for youth who belong to marginalized groups. The jury is still out on long-term impacts of disruptions related to the pandemic, but there is no question many of the negative impacts will linger.
Before we talk about the central role schools can play in promoting student well-being, I want to clarify what is meant by mental health. All too often, mental health is considered synonymous with mental illness, as if it only exists when there is a problem. Of course, we all have mental health the same way we all have physical health. Thinking about mental health in a deficit-based manner is analogous to saying we only have physical health when we are sick. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines positive mental health as, “the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face.” Within that definition, we can see there is significant overlap with the role of schools. We need to expand our ideas around what makes a school successful and recognize that one indicator of a successful school or school system is that proper mental-health supports are in place and education is seen as truly being about the development of the whole person.
There are many pragmatic reasons to think about an expanded notion of school mental health. Many skills that underlie positive mental health can be taught, often within a social-emotional learning framework. Promoting facets of mental health, such as self-regulation and optimism, improve learning outcomes. Most children and youth attend school, thus minimizing access barriers. Educators see children daily and are familiar with a wide range of what might be considered normal and healthy in a particular age group; as such, they are well positioned to notice changes.
Obviously, teachers are not social workers, nor should they be expected to take on that role. The answer lies in a tiered school mental-health approach, with role clarity at each tier. This tiered approach is often conceptualized as a triangle, and although different names are given to the tiers in different models, the notion of three tiers that represent universal, selected, and targeted intervention is widely understood in any comprehensive public health approach.
TIER 1 is where universal prevention or promotion happens. It can include everyday practices that create welcoming spaces for all students. At Tier 1, educators can introduce social-emotional learning concepts in short activities and reinforce them during teachable moments. There are also excellent programs that are effective in promoting well-being and align well with curricular expectations.
Over the past five years, my team has partnered with the London District Catholic School Board to implement and evaluate a program called MindUP. In our research with students with 580 students in 42 kindergarten classrooms, we found that students in MindUP classrooms experienced significant benefits. Problematic behaviours were reduced (Crooks, Bax et al., 2020). Their prosocial behaviours and executive functioning showed gains, suggesting that new and mental-health promoting skills were being developed. This project shows how mental health promotion can lead to much wider benefits than simply less depressed children. Improvements in executive functioning could be expected to translate to improved academic performance – a contention we were in the process of investigating when COVID hit and ended our research!
Furthermore, educators reported decreased burnout and an increased sense of personal efficacy (Kim et al., 2021). They talked about creating calmer classrooms that in turn led to a greater sense of personal well-being. By implementing a program that was aligned with curriculum and board priorities, this initiative reduced educator stress rather than leading to work intensification.
“I’ve become a lot more mindful as a teacher. You always recognize those kids who have difficulty, but there’s a whole different perspective now… as to how we look at children and how we deal with them.” – MindUP educator
TIER 2 is where students who may be considered vulnerable can be offered additional support. The source of this vulnerability may not be the individual child at all; effective programming at this level for identified equity-seeking groups might help buffer against experiences of discrimination or past trauma. Tier 2 work is often implemented by mental-health professionals, but educators still have an important role in identifying students who would benefit and supporting their involvement. We have developed or evaluated several programs through our intervention research over the past 15 years.
For example, our Uniting Our Nations mentoring program for Indigenous students promotes healthy relationship skills and coping, within a cultural framework. In the elementary school version, students meet weekly in groups with an adult mentor. The secondary school version uses student mentors and mentees who are also guided by an adult mentor. Our longitudinal evaluation found that students who were involved for two years had increased positive mental health, were more culturally connected, and achieved better credit accumulation than their peers (Crooks et al., 2017). This is an important study because it counters the prevailing notion that focusing on social and emotional well-being and cultural connectedness somehow competes with academic achievement. In this study, the opposite was true. By focusing on social and emotional well-being with an identity-affirming approach, students were able to shine with their academics.
Mentors are showing other kids that you can succeed and still be First Nations. That’s the key; it’s showing kids they don’t have to lose who they are in order to be successful. We are not asking you to assimilate or give up everything to succeed. We know that you can keep connected to your culture and succeed. – Indigenous educator
Supporting Transition Resilience of Newcomer Groups (STRONG) is a small-group resiliency-enhancing intervention for newcomer students who are struggling with some aspect of their adjustment. STRONG brings together groups of six to ten students with a clinician (and often a co-facilitator, who may be an educator) to teach youth resilience skills such as relaxation, coping, problem-solving skills, and goal setting. In addition to the individual skill development, youth benefit from the relationships they develop with other participants, and a decreased sense of being alone. Preliminary evidence suggests that STRONG increases coping strategies, connectedness, and resilience (Crooks, Kubyshin, et al., 2020).
HRP for 2SLGBTQA+ Youth is a group-based intervention for secondary school students who identify as gender, romantic, and sexual minority youth (and their allies). It was designed to be facilitated by educators in schools in the context of gender sexuality alliances (GSAs). The program includes key relationship skills and coping strategies appropriate for all youth, but has an expanded focus on being identity affirming and addressing stressors that are more specific to 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. Our focus groups with youth and educators suggest that students enjoy the program and benefit from the skills they learn, as well as the connections they make to others (Lapointe & Crooks, 2018).
Clearly, having effective programs for equity-seeking groups does not reduce the need to fight racism, colonialism, and homophobia on a larger societal level, but these strengths-based programs can help students develop important skills and strategies while also developing a sense of community.
TIER 3 refers to the domain where students’ mental health needs are of sufficient severity and complexity to require specialized services. Within a comprehensive school mental health model, the vision is for schools to hand over the care of students to qualified mental health professionals in the community at this point, while staying involved as part of the circle of supports for the student. In reality, there is a significant shortage of mental health resources in the community and schools are often left trying to support students with Tier 3 needs. Some boards are even exploring taking on this work more intentionally, in the face of the shortage of referral options.
The three tiers of a comprehensive school mental health approach are not isolated, and students may need different levels of support at different times. Also, referring to this integrated and comprehensive approach as school mental health does not let those beyond the school setting off the hook – we all have a role to play in promoting well-being for children and youth.
So, what do we need to advance the vision of comprehensive school mental health in every school in Canada? We need to move beyond piecemeal initiatives and create a comprehensive and coordinated strategy. Organizations such as the pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health (www.jcsh-cces.ca) can facilitate the sharing of effective practices across jurisdictions. This work cannot be achieved on the backs of individual educator and administrator champions. We need all the implicated government ministries to commit to this work and provide the appropriate resources.
What would a co-ordinated, comprehensive approach include?
Finally, we need to remember that schools are embedded in and reflect larger societal values and dynamics. As Canada continues to navigate reconciliation and attend to systemic racism, we need to think critically about how school mental health initiatives can be aligned with these movements and not reinforce negative systemic influences.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
For two-page summaries of the research mentioned in this article, see “Research Snapshots” at: www.csmh.uwo.ca/research
Crooks, C. V, Bax, K., et al. (2020). Impact of MindUP among young children: Improvements in behavioral problems, adaptive skills, and executive functioning. Mindfulness, 11(10), 2433–2444. doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01460-0.
Crooks, C. V., Exner-Cortens, D., et al. (2017). Two years of relationship-focused mentoring for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit adolescents: Promoting positive mental health. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 38. doi.org/10.1007/s10935-016-0457-0.
Crooks, C. V., Kubishyn, N., et al. (2020). The STRONG Resiliency program for newcomer youth: A mixed-methods exploration of youth experiences and impacts. International Journal of School Social Work, 5(2). doi.org/10.4148/2161-4148.1059.
Kim, S., Crooks, C. V., Bax, K., & Shokoohi, M. (2021). Impact of trauma-informed training and mindfulness-based social–emotional learning program on teacher attitudes and burnout: A mixed-methods study. School Mental Health, 13(1), 55-68.
Lapointe, A., & Crooks, C. (2018). GSA members’ experiences with a structured program to promote well-being. Journal of LGBT Youth, 15(4), 300–318. doi.org/10.1080/19361653.2018.1479672.
Have we lost the purpose of education during the pandemic? Or did the pandemic exacerbate a lost purpose for education? These are the questions I have asked myself since schooling for almost six million children and youth was disrupted in Canada due to COVID-19.
There were many poignant moments of this sense of loss. One stark moment was last June when my children’s elementary school report cards were delivered. Although it was challenging, my children were able to engage in the mandated five hours of daily online instruction for more than half the school year in Ontario. This was possible because we had technology and stable Wi-Fi, a house with quiet spaces, at least one parent with flexible employment, and so much more. What grades were schools giving to the one in five children or one in two First Nations children living in poverty (Canada Without Poverty, 2021), who were struggling to access school supplies and services from books and computers to food security programs? How were the 10 to 20 percent of students with special education needs graded when they did not have access to differentiated online instruction or social and therapeutic services (Vaillancourt et al., 2021)? The report cards were a grade of our privilege.
Faced with an unprecedented lifetime crisis in education, school officials rarely chose to depart from typical assessment measures and other standard policies. The irony is that the pandemic ushered in urgent public conversations about the need for a “new normal” based on collective well-being. From forced physical distancing and social disconnection with family and friends to relying on strangers to get the vaccine and flatten the curve, we learned about the fundamental importance of relationships for us to be well. Yet our humanity or the need for relationships for human flourishing – a purpose for education – seemed lost in the crisis. Perhaps more accurate is that the relational foundations of education have been further lost.
Gert Biesta describes a lost purpose as a decades-long process of “learnification.” Learnification refers to a language of learning that has “shifted attention away from the importance of relationships in educational processes” (Biesta, 2016, p. 15) and toward individual sense-making of an abstract something (Biesta, 2009, pp. 36–9). Learning asks “for a student to get it, comprehend it, be ‘conscious’ of it; even if [they] didn’t want to get it, didn’t enjoy it, or does not intend to use it” (Ellsworth, 1997, p. 46). Steeped in neoliberal policies, learning has become an individual’s responsibility to respond to market-driven demands of employability.
Who is harmed when the fundamentality of relationships is undermined in education? The answer is all of us. One illustrative example is reconciliation education. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) made it ever more apparent that current curricula exclude Indigenous knowledges. Cree educator Dwayne Donald reminds us that “the tipis and costumes approach has been applied to classrooms for years leaving teachers and students with the unfortunate impression that Indians have not done much since the buffalo were killed off and the West was settled” (2009, p. 5). While there have been curricular advancements, too often schools do not address settler responsibility for colonial unjust relations. This is evident from the long tradition of naming schools after residential school architects and underscored by the recent reprimand of an Indigenous student who refused to stand for O Canada (Coubrough, 2021). Schools perpetuate what Donald refers to as the mythology of the fort – a deeply embedded colonial frontier logic that characterizes Indigenous and non-Indigenous lives as walled, separate realities (i.e. “civilization” on the inside and authentic “Indians” outside) (2009, pp. 1–3). What would it mean for reconciliation if we rejected “denial of historic, social and curricular relationality” (Donald, 2009, p. 5)? What would it mean for education if relationality, fundamental to Indigenous worldviews, was a driving purpose?
Who is harmed when the fundamentality of relationships is undermined in education? The answer is all of us.
If relationships had been the purpose for education pre-pandemic, school officials’ responses to the crisis might well have been different. Governments across the country closed schools while often keeping bars, restaurants, and gyms open – prioritizing the economy over in-person learning. The rationale was that learning would seamlessly continue thanks to technology for remote instruction and private resource partnerships. A recent report from the Royal Society of Canada on pandemic education outlines the inequities of digital learning access and outcomes. Experts cited higher rates of disengagement, absenteeism, and thus “learning loss” for the most vulnerable students. Less often acknowledged is that “learning loss” – far different than measures of numeracy and literacy – is, simply put, a loss of relationships. Students reported worsening mental health, including higher rates of depression and anxiety, and a withdrawal from virtual classes, in large part because of the loss of social interactions with peers, teachers, and other education staff (Vaillancourt et al., 2021).
Education stands in contrast to learnification. Biesta contends that education is the creation of spaces where students may practise together their “grown-up-ness.” He defines grown-up-ness as an educational value by which students may respond to the challenges of human living – democracy, ecology, and care – without positioning themselves in the centre of the world (Biesta, 2015, pp. 8–10). Education is about a concern for humanity and not “survival of the fittest.” The school classroom then, rather than a controlled space for individual achievement, must be envisioned as being comprised of human beings seeking to understand what it means to be in relation with another. Likewise, political problems in education, like violence in schools, rather than being reduced to problems with individual learners, must be taken on as a collective responsibility that requires interconnected social systems of care and justice (Campbell, 2019).
What does it mean then to have a relational approach to education?
1) It means acknowledging that relationships are a fact, but the kinds of relationships we foster in education are a choice.
As humans we are constituted in and through relationships with others (Llewellyn & Llewellyn, 2015). We have a range of social relationships – some healthy and some unhealthy – but connections are essential determinants of our identities and well-being. We cannot choose the fact of relationships, but we can choose to be attentive to relationships for human flourishing. One resource for evidence-based methods of developing healthy relationships is the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet). This network offers a range of resources, on a range of topics from healthy dating relationships to bullying, that support youth development. For more information, visit www.prevnet.ca.
2) It means that the relationships at stake within schools and broader communities must determine what we do in education.
Who is education for? What is it for? A relational approach asks who before what. The absence of asking who enables the continued privilege of normative identities (Llewellyn & Parker, 2018). The identities of those most marginalized are excluded when education is about individualized learner objectives and ignores the power relations within communities. A relational approach is not one-size-fits-all training. Instead, it requires attention to the context of relationships and the facilitation of dialogue to understand and act upon the diverse histories, experiences, and perspectives of students. An example of such an approach is Relationships First, which encourages relational education policies in Newfoundland and Labrador. For more information, visit www.relationshipsfirstnl.com.
3) It means that social systems, including but not limited to education, must work relationally toward a better future.
A relational approach requires a move from siloed and fragmented systems and services to integrated efforts that address complex challenges for humanity. It requires school officials to recognize the interdependence of education with other systems, from health and finance to justice and labour. The health of relationships cannot be borne by individual teachers or individual schools that rely solely on social and emotional learning objectives. Instead, collective action is needed to prioritize just relations for the future of policy, curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and school culture (Butterfield, 2019). An exemplar of this work is Nova Scotia’s Restorative Approaches in Schools Project, which is a crime-prevention partnership between the departments of justice and education and with communities. For more information, visit https://novascotia.ca/just/prevention/restorative_approaches_in_schools.asp.
4) It means that the past stands in relationship with a collective reimagining of our future.
A relational approach requires that those involved in the educational project look back, not to simply blame, but to determine how we can move forward together. It calls for us to be guided by Sankofa – a symbol that was taught to me by the African Nova Scotian community in my current research. Sankofa is a West African term that means it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot in order to go forward. The term is represented by the image of a bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg – symbolizing rebirth – in its mouth. To learn more about Sankofa in action you can read about the Restorative Inquiry for the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, inclusive of a Canadian History curriculum Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation (DOHR) at www.restorativeinquiry.ca or www.dohr.ca.
While many of these resources speak to the principles of a relational approach, the question remains: What does that look like for post-pandemic teaching? The answer is: It depends. This is an unsatisfactory answer for some people who may be seeking easier solutions. It depends does not mean, however, that it depends on nothing. It depends on being steadfastly attentive to human flourishing and the relationships at stake in each educational context. To illustrate in more concrete terms, it means healing harms and not punishing non-compliance in schools. It means moving away from standardized testing and empowering teachers to work with families for authentic assessment. It means rejecting hybrid/fractured teaching, which is technology for technology’s sake, and embracing technology for human needs. It means not cramming content into the classroom but seeking to introduce knowledge that is responsive to urgent problems in communities. It means ending attacks on teachers and instead offering greater care for those who do the most care work. Overall, drawing from black feminist theorist bell hooks (1984), it means bringing what lies at the margins into the centre and struggling together for a brighter future.
The good news is that students are leading the way. Just listen to the news and you will see that students are not only thinking and acting relationally, but demanding their schools follow. Hundreds of students at Waterdown District High School in Waterdown, Ont., walked out early in October, after their principal reinforced dress codes for female students only days after the launch of a sexual assault investigation at the school. Sophie Vivian, who helped to organize the walkout, told the media, “It’s harmful for so many victims and even girls in general” (Pope, 2021). And, last fall, hundreds of students at Bishop McNally High School in Calgary protested outside the Calgary Police Headquarters over anti-Black racism in schools, including racial slurs by white teachers. Winnie Osunde, a Black student at Bishop McNally, publicly called for schools to teach more about Black history and Black Lives Matter movements (Ferguson, 2020). These and other similar news stories during the pandemic demonstrate that students are demanding an education that prioritizes relationships of belonging, equity, and justice. Students are modelling for all of us what it means to practise grown-up-ness – to respond to the challenges of humanity and seek human flourishing for each other. My hope for a post-pandemic Canada is that we will choose to restore or make new a relational purpose for education.
Photo credit: Adobe Stock
This is part of the first edition of Education Canada, powered by voicEd radio, a cross-platform professional learning experience.
This article draws upon earlier publications by Dr. Llewellyn.
Llewellyn, K. R., & Llewellyn, J. (2015). A restorative approach to learning: Relational theory as feminist pedagogy in universities. In T. P. Light, J. Nicholas, & R. Bondy (Eds.), Feminist pedagogy in higher education: Critical theory and practice (pp. 11−31). Wilfrid Laurier Press.
Llewellyn, K. R., & Parker, C. (2018). Asking the ‘who’: A restorative purpose for education based on relational pedagogy and conflict dialogue. The International Journal of Restorative Justice, 30(1), 399−412.
Llewellyn, K. R., & Llewellyn, J. (2020, June 15). A restorative approach is key for a new normal after COVID-19. Policy Options.
Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 33−46.
Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50(1), 75−87.
Biesta, G. (2016). The beautiful risk of education. Routledge.
Butterfield, K. (2019). Restorative approach to education. Equity Knowledge Network. https://rsekn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Restorative_Approach_to_Education.pdf
Campbell, C. (2019, February). Learnification and the attack on education. Epoché Magazine, 20. https://epochemagazine.org/20/learnification-and-the-attack-on-education
Canada Without Poverty. (2021). Just the facts. https://cwp-csp.ca/poverty/just-the-facts/
Coubrough, J. (2021, September 22). First Nations student reprimanded after not standing for O Canada. CBC News. www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/winnipeg-student-reprimanded-o-canada-wfpcbc-cbc-1.6179258
Ferguson, E. (2020, October 8). Hundreds of high school students join walkout in support of anti-racism. Calgary Herald. https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/hundreds-of-high-school-students-join-walkout-in-support-of-anti-racism
Donald, D. (2009). Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts. First Nations Perspectives, 2(1), 1−24.
Ellsworth, E. (1997). Teaching positions: Difference, pedagogy, and the power of address. Teachers College Press.
hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist theory: from margin to center. South End Press.
Pope., A. (2021, October 8). Waterdown students protest dress code reminder amid sexual assault investigation. CHCH News. www.chch.com/waterdown-students-protest-dress-code-reminder-amid-sexual-assault-investigation
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. https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.800288/publication.html
Vaillancourt, T. et al. (2021). Children and schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and connection through opportunity. Royal Society of Canada. https://rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/C%26S%20PB_EN_0.pdf
The close coupling of content standards with standardized testing brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s U.K. government in the late 1980s ushered in a new form of school accountability that has become the dominant education reform model used by industrialized governments around the world (Volante, 2012). Student performance on large-scale assessment measures are intended to hold school administrators and teachers accountable while also providing the “data” to spur system and school-level improvements. Indeed, every single Canadian province and territory administers and reports achievement in relation to these external provincial measures and also participates in varying degrees in prominent international tests such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA).
The OECD, and PISA in particular, has increasingly exerted a pronounced influence in the governance of education systems both nationally and internationally and forced policymakers to grapple with consistent and recurring challenges, such as achievement gaps between different segments of their national and provincial student populations (Volante et al., 2018). One key achievement gap that is often reported is the difference between high and low socio-economic status (SES) groups. The OECD provides national profiles – which can also be disaggregated at the provincial level – to indicate the differences in student achievement that exist between the most and least socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Countries that possess a higher relative share of low SES students who achieve well are said to have a more academically resilient population.
As previously suggested, academic resilience is the notion that there are some students who achieve favourable achievement outcomes despite coming from lower SES backgrounds. Yet, to the average person, the word “resilient” means something quite different. Indeed, the Oxford dictionary defines resilience as “the ability of people or things to recover quickly after something unpleasant, such as shock, injury, etc.” Clearly, the general notion of resilience is much broader than what is typically captured and often widely reported when discussing students and education systems. At the same time, the unprecedented and generational challenges presented by COVID-19 have provided an important impetus to reconsider how we support students in contemporary schools. It is highly likely that the pandemic has created even greater inequities with respect to students’ access to learning resources and supports due to socio-economic factors. Further, the impact of these inequities will impact more than just academic outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the growing necessity of broader notions of academic resilience that recognize important mental health as well as physical well-being concerns in children and adolescent populations – elements of resilience that are typically not captured by large-scale assessment measures. Rarely does a day go by without public recognition of the daily struggles students, particularly those from poorer households, are facing given the upheaval caused by school closures, social isolation, and familial economic losses – to name but a few factors. Certainly, federal resources such as the recently released Guide to Student Mental Health During COVID-19 (Health Canada, 2020) underscores some of the growing challenges students are facing during the pandemic.
Canadian children may be facing an impending epidemic of mental health and general wellness struggles when the virus eventually subsides. For example, a pan-Canadian survey of the impact of the COVID pandemic on physical activity found less than 5 percent of children 5–11 years old and 0.6 percent of youth 12–17 years old were meeting required guidelines (Moore et al., 2020). Similarly, a recent study by the Hospital for Sick Children in Ontario found a staggering 67–70 percent of children/adolescents experienced deterioration in at least one of six mental health domains during the COVID-19 pandemic: depression, anxiety, irritability, attention, hyperactivity, and obsessions/compulsions (Cost et al., 2021). What steps should be taken by policymakers, district leaders and educators, and teacher education institutions to help alleviate these challenges, both in the short and long term?
There are scant examples within Canada where policymakers report on the overall mental health and/or physical well-being of their student populations. Although international and provincial metrics of student proficiency in such content areas as reading, mathematics, and science abound, measures of health and wellness are typically not reported in a consistent manner or given the same status in policy communities.
Perhaps the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) survey can serve as a model for provincial/territorial education systems. The HBSC is a cross-national survey conducted in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) that is administered every four years and focuses on the health and well-being of young people (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2020). This survey is administered in Canada to 11-, 13-, and 15-year-olds, and includes much broader aspects of health than those reported by large-scale assessments such as PISA. Provincial governments could develop a similar annual survey to provide more timely comparative data to inform policy directions during and after the pandemic. Ultimately, we need to provide and recognize markers of mental health and physical well-being with the same reverence that has been traditionally ascribed to student achievement measures.
In addition to policy reform considerations, building capacity for more healthy schools will ultimately depend on effective leadership and teaching practices. On a national level, we see Physical and Health Education Canada’s 2021–2024 strategic plan outline the organization’s aim to emerge from COVID-19 with clearly defined intentions targeting pan-Canadian education efforts to improve the well-being of children and youth (Physical and Health Education Canada, 2021). The proposed efforts are wide-ranging and build on current (e.g. Schonert-Reichel & Williams, 2020) and former (e.g. Ontario Ministry of Education, 2017) provincial-territorial healthy schools policy and practice priorities targeting student well-being (i.e. development of national competencies, innovations, testing, sharing of best practices, and professional development). For their part, school districts across Canada will need to devote the necessary resources and provide appropriate professional development opportunities so that teachers are equipped to better identify and intervene in the worsening physical and mental health crisis that is facing Canadian education systems.
Now more than ever, congruent efforts to expand universal screening measures will need to be deployed to address these worrisome trends. Screening in elementary and secondary schools would primarily involve the completion of student questionnaires (American Psychological Association, 2020) – albeit with notable adaptations to account for the unique challenges encountered during distance learning and social isolation. Emerging from this pandemic era of education, measures considerate of academic, personal, physical, cultural, and social circumstances should be considered to promote greater understanding of the relationships between student success and student well-being. Such surveys in provincial and territorial education systems could complement the school climate surveys that many schools and districts already use, but with the necessary specificity to provide more granular data for specific student interventions. Just as governments around the world have echoed the importance of contact tracing to tackle the pandemic, district leaders and teachers will need timely data to help direct their resources and efforts to where they are needed most.
Lastly, any discussion on addressing mental health and physical well-being issues must include considerations for the education of future teachers. Pre-service education programs across Canada will need to continually evolve to ensure aspiring teachers are equipped with the latest pedagogical approaches in both face-to-face and distance learning environments. In addition to instructional time devoted to traditional subject-areas (i.e. language arts, mathematics, science, etc.) is a greater recognition of health and physical literacy, which are regarded as desired outcomes of health and physical education teaching, and important system and school health promotion goals to be achieved (Physical and Health Education Canada, 2021).
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated with brute force that our traditional hierarchy of subjects, content knowledge, and associated skills are insufficient to “measure” the effectiveness of schools if we expect our students to thrive in a post-COVID world. Collectively, capacity building efforts geared at provincial policy reforms, districts and schools, and teacher education institutions represent a viable multi-level approach to strengthening the resilience of student populations. As one interesting example of a response to this growing need, New Zealand is developing a well-being curriculum that will be integrated across other curriculum streams.
Given the novelty of the current circumstances facing teachers and school-aged children across Canada, there will be a need to research and document the relative impact of different school structures and pedagogical approaches being utilized in online, blended, and socially distanced classroom learning environments. Understanding how these different structures and strategies interact and impact the most at-risk student populations will require an iterative process where recent research findings inform teaching and teaching informs subsequent research. This cyclical process is essential to establish a “best-practice” literature that policymakers and school leaders can draw upon to support their students in rapidly evolving school environments.
The effectiveness of these structures and approaches, and the impact of policies and programs utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic, must be rigorously researched and judged against a broader range of success criteria. Unfortunately, most of the current research in many international contexts appears to be focused on “learning loss” – which is essentially the examination of average drops in standardized test scores in different education systems during the pandemic (Kaffenberger, 2021). Yet virtually every school-based practitioner would acknowledge and echo the significant mental health and physical well-being “losses” that students are also experiencing. Certainly, it is possible for our education systems to attend to both the academic and mental health and physical wellness issues of Canadian youth to help build resilient schools.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
American Psychological Association (2020, September 22). Student mental health during and after COVID-19: How can schools identify youth who need support? www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/student-mental-health
Caldwell et al. (2020). Physical literacy, physical activity, and health indicators in school-aged children. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17. www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/15/5367
Cost et al. (2021). Mostly worse, occasionally better: Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of Canadian children and adolescents. European Child Adolescent Psychiatry. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33638005/
Ministry of Education. (2017). What we heard: Well-being in our schools, strength in our society. Government of Ontario. www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/about/wb_what_we_heard_en.pdf
Health Canada (2020). Guide to Student Mental Health During COVID-19. Government of Canada. www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/sites/default/files/2020-09/covid_19_tip_sheet_student_mental_health_eng.pdf
Kaffenberger, M. (2021). Modelling the long-run learning impact of the Covid-19 learning shock: Actions to (more than) mitigate loss. International Journal of Development, 81. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0738059320304855#
Moore et al. (2020). Impact of the COVID-19 virus outbreak on movement and play behaviours of Canadian children and youth: A national survey. International Journal of Behaviour Nutrition and Physical Activity, 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-020-00987-8
Physical and Health Education Canada. (2021). 2021-2024 PHE Canada Strategic Plan: A clear path forward. https://phecanada.ca/about/strategic-plan
Public Health Agency of Canada. (2020, November). Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children. Government of Canada. www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/childhood-adolescence/programs-initiatives/school-health/health-behaviour-school-aged-children.html
Schonert-Reichel, K., & Williams, J. (2020). Assessment of Schoolwide Well-Being & Social-Emotional Learning. Well-Being BC. www.wellbeingbc.ca/images/school-toolkit/Well-Being-BC—Assesment-Tool—FULL-Workbook.pdf
Volante, L. (2012). Educational reform, standards, and school leadership. In L. Volante (Ed.), School Leadership in the Context of Standards-Based Reform: International Perspectives (pp. 3–20). Springer.
Volante, L. (Ed.). (2018). The PISA Effect on Global Educational Governance. Routledge.
Spring of 2020, mid-COVID lockdown and Canadian youth were planted at their computers for remote learning. Stores were closed, sports on hold, families isolated in their homes, and friends unable to hang out. Most middle- and high-school students spent part of their days creating ways to be interpersonal. Students from a high school in Alberta found an ingenious way to interact: they circled their wagons. Imitating ancestors who moved West almost two centuries ago, the students drove to the empty high-school parking lot and backed up to form a circle with their trunks and hatches open. They sat individually in the back of their own vehicles. Facing one another, between three and five metres apart, they sat, talked, and played music; they were kids doing what kids do. They had a space to be. Administrators still working daily in the school gave a thumbs-up to their creative pupils. I asked one of the Grade 11 students to send me a short video. In it, I observed 12 cars backed into the wagon wheel: one kid per vehicle, all legs dangling from the back and each teen engaged. During the most terrifying global time in a century, there was hope and initiative displayed by the clever youth who figured out how to safely be together, and with the approval from the school leadership team who were glad to create a space for their students to be, and to be well. I was impressed by the good intent and action all around and pitched an idea to make a short film with them. I would interview each participant remotely and ask them to shoot some of their sessions. The youth were thrilled that I was inspired by their collaborative genius, and I began to organize the logistics.
The local police shut it down. With no explanations, one day they came to the parking lot and told the youth to cease and desist. Overruling the school administrators, law enforcement made sure that no wagons would circle.
Having a place “to be,” a public space, creates healthy and positive ways of being. An ad hoc social community emerges in public spaces, where senses are stimulated and the similarities and diversity of those involved are displayed (Mean & Tims, 2005). Wellness is associated with the benefits of public space, which is claimed equally by everyone. The space reinvents itself daily: inhabitants change, the ability to seek an area for body and mind is created and recreated. Public space is not only the product of a developer, city planner, school board, or museum, it is often an unofficial collaboration between those who determine the space is valuable.
Urban public space is often conceived in parks, yet many areas have ceased mapping out new parks. While some public urban spaces for warm weather have been introduced, with shared public gardening, exercise space, meditation paths, biking and roller blading trails, and skateboard ramps and tubes, little consideration or initiative has been established to create winter-friendly public spaces. Canadian youth are left out in the cold.
Public space is often unattainable for youth; indeed many towns and cities have no designated space for youth. The last pre-pandemic public space I saw was in a parking lot. Between 25 and 40 high-school kids were hanging out in small groups in front of a Cineplex at the south end of an enormous mall, an early spring day, they were enjoying the weather. As I parked, four police cars pulled up and ordered them to leave. Canadian malls are often a gathering spot for youth. Avoiding inclement weather, Canadian youth visit malls for restrooms, food facilities, and stores, they also contribute to the economy by shopping. Claiming crime instances and theft, many malls have instituted bans for under-18 shoppers unless they are accompanied by a parent. Yet according to a 2016 Government of Quebec report, while youth are accused of shoplifting and vandalism over three times more often than adults, they are less likely to shoplift and vandalize (Lowrie, 2018).
Public space is democratic – not corporately or politically democratic. It is a space where one can feel safe. A place that allows movement, sound, art, quiet, the ability to congregate, the ability for a group of people to make known something important to them. But public space creates a difference between children and youth regarding access. Public space for children, of course, is chaperoned, shepherded. Children are with a teacher or an adult of some sort: a babysitter, a youth, someone who’s helping facilitate their enjoyment of the space. They interact in a place where they can climb on toys, wade, walk; someone is there to ensure little children are safe and nurtured. Adults and caregivers support children to enjoy public space, to run, to feel, to experiment. How important that experimentation becomes. Successes can happen for children in public spaces. The first time a child walks, runs, throws a ball, or rides a bike speaks to enormous growth and success. Public space is special for children, allowing socialization, physical activity, environmental awareness, fresh air, and wellness.
For youth, it can be a different scenario. North American youth are often seen as a population to be feared. My work has focused on the notion that many adults just don’t like youth (Steinberg, 2018). According to many adults, they are a revolutionary group, nonconformists. Along with their clothing, music, art, their way, the fact that they are youth, they become something to fear. Youth are often not allowed to be in a public space without adult supervision. There are dramatic differences in parental attitudes between a baby’s space and the space for a youth to be. With new babies, an obsession with advanced and appropriate development ensues. We watch for babies to roll over at four months, sit up at six months, and walk at one year. Potty training tends to be a milestone, with parents and family applauding as they stand around the toilet. Talking is an enormous concern for parents; expectations for the first word, then sentences haunt most parental minds. From preschool through Grade 1, expectations and hope surround the development of a child. Tying shoes is a stressful hurdle and the first playdate and friendship is a celebration. Riding the first trike and then a two-wheeler become kidhood capstones. Parents wait for their young children to become self-sufficient, independent, and able to entertain themselves. Up until nine or ten, each success is heralded and compared to other children of the same age.
By the time a child is a tween, parents reverse course and fear their child’s independence. No longer do parents push for their progeny to make their own decisions, pick out the day’s clothing, be creative. Parental complaints often barrage teens: their hair is wrong, their clothing is inappropriate, and their language is appalling. North American parents go from finding success in children to finding failure in teens. The same parents who pushed their little ones to make decisions, talk, choose clothes, and ride bikes are now fearful of skateboarding, rollerblading, pink hair, and midriff tops. Such irony in our childrearing. Adding to the nixing comes suspicion, doubt, fear and distrust… for both the teen and the parents. I contend that most adults just don’t understand or like teens; consequently, the rules pile on, adult/youth discord and tumultuous years commence. Along with this discord comes the restriction of places where teens are free “to be” and an adult need to control and surveil youth. To have healthy youth, we must find ways to have healthy public spaces available throughout the year for teens to create communities, hang out, and dangle their legs. Social distancing isn’t the problem; finding a place to safely socially distance is. Safe, public spaces must become a priority for our Canadian youth.
Dislike and fear of youth is uncovered regarding where the youth are, where they hang out, and who they are with. With limited safe spaces to be, our youth seek refuge in social media, online gaming, and smartphone addiction, all resulting in loss of socialization, healthy spaces, and shared communities. Space for youth to gather is limited: cars, homes with oft-gone parents, basements, and barns can become evening spaces to act out, kick back, and engage in exactly the activities the parents are so worried about. Without healthy special alternatives for youth, safe places to be, our teens resort to whatever they can find.
I was recently on a committee with city planners, university professors, and architects. Our charge was to discuss ways to turn a downtown walking mall into a viable and energetic public space. The area is known to be a haven for runaway youth and people who sleep rough, somewhat itinerant in nature, and many citizens avoid the area. I suggested creating a public space to serve youth, both the vulnerable teens who populate the mall and after-school kids in general. I noted that little ones run free in public spaces and are urged to experiment and climb, yet youth are often stopped or given signals that “you can’t be here, this space isn’t for you.” The same public space changes depending on the age of the occupant. I proposed a public theatre space – one that would allow crevices and climbing spots to serve both little ones and teens in physical movement and exercise, with the space also being used for impromptu performances, slam poetry, and improvisational theatre. Using the notion of theatre as public space, participants could mould the area to suit their visions. Possibly this area could offer some sort of wall in the same area that could be designated to create changeable graffiti where youth organizations could sponsor a space for artistic expression in a city where graffiti is completely illegal and has a full-time quasi police force patrolling for it. A small bit of interest was generated, but most of the group was anxious to turn back to exploring pop-up stores, picnic tables, and museum space.
I once found a place in the Highlands of Scotland by following an old sign, “Stone Circle” written with crayon or old paint, it had an arrow pointing to the left. I remember driving up there, just another pretty road. It led me to an enormous meadow of soft, green green moss, in the moss was a stone circle – a sort of Stonehenge, but not really. It didn’t have a name. There was a sense of mystery that I loved. One could walk all over…. there were no ropes, no signs, no poster that told us where we could take a picture. It was just a free space where anyone could run and touch the stones, chase around, or sit, as I chose to, in the very middle of the middle. I was in a space that was private and public at the same time. Low mountains were all around me, magical mountains with moors and the pillow softness of the Earth in all directions.
I’m not a meditator but I was able to do my way of meditating while I was there. Years later, when I want to put myself in a space that gives me peace, I still think of that free, unencumbered public space: a stone circle with no one in charge, no rules or cameras… it was free to the universe, free to the rain, the snow, and the people who touched it. I want our youth to know that they can go to a space, be safe, breathe fresh air, and just be. They need that. They deserve that.
Photo: courtesy Shirley R. Steinberg
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
Lowrie, M. (2018, May 2). Quebec shopping mall bans unaccompanied children and teens. The Canadian Press.
Means, M. & Tims, C. (2005). People make places: Growing the public life of cities. Demos.
Steinberg, S. R. (Ed). (2018). Activists Under 30: Global Youth, Social Justice & Good work. Brill/Sense Publishing.
At east city high, a large high school in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, the gymnasium was located in an outbuilding. There were two entrances, one on the east side for girls and one on the west side for boys. These entrances led to gendered washrooms and changerooms and then flowed into the main gymnasium, where all classes met at the start of the period to rendezvous with their teachers. This setup required students to select a binary gender just to get into class.
At the start of the year, Mr. Gonzalez,1 a Physical Education (PE) teacher at East City High, gave Raeyun,2 one of his Grade 10 students, special permission to use the boys’ changeroom. However, Raeyun did not want to use the boys’ changeroom. He was worried that being surrounded by other boys would only serve to underscore the ways he was different from them. Not only did Raeyun never use the boys’ changeroom, but he also never once got changed for PE at school. Instead, Raeyun came to school already in his PE clothes and stayed in them all day, no matter how sweaty he got during class. Raeyun cleverly figured out that he could sneak into the gymnasium through the back entrance by taking a staircase up from the staff parking lot. This tactic allowed Raeyun to avoid choosing a gender at the start of class.
I spent a year at East City High, moving alongside several gender-nonconforming3 youth as they went to class, attended extracurricular activities, fanned out across the campus for lunch, participated in artistic and musical performances, and just generally lived their lives. The youth who participated in the study all had different relationships with gender nonconformity, like Raeyun, whose relationship was complicated. He was a Filipino trans guy and aspired to pass; however, he experienced the world of East City High as a gender-nonconforming person most of the time. Even though he wanted to pass, Raeyun’s gender was not easily understood at East City High. Often people struggled to see Raeyun as he saw himself. Raeyun once described this complexity to me, saying: “I’m not like completely [gender nonconforming], but I’m also not like a cis guy, so, kind of like midway. Like I’m part of the binary but I’m also like part of the binary in a weird way.” Though few adults at the school understood Raeyun’s gender, many people noticed that Raeyun did not “fit in” and responded to his presence in accordance with the accommodation approaches laid out by the district’s trans-inclusive policy. Throughout Raeyun’s time at East City High, teachers pulled him aside and offered individualized workarounds and alternatives, ways for Raeyun to still participate in gendered activities without feeling left out.
As accommodation approaches become more popular in North American schools, it is important to consider which students are welcomed by it (or not), and how a reliance on accommodation neglects to challenge cisheteronormativity. While the current emphasis on inclusive washrooms and changerooms is important, this focus does not address the larger issue of rethinking how pervasively schooling is organized around a system of visible, binary gender. Accommodation as a primary approach relies on gender nonconformity as a visible identity – an identity that sticks out and can be easily categorized as not fitting in at school. Visibility, as scholars have examined, relies on racialized, ableist, and settler colonial norms (Beauchamp, 2018; Gill-Peterson, 2018). For instance, popular ideas about gender nonconformity privilege white, thin, andro-masculine forms of expression. Since people at East City High frequently struggled to understand the complexities of youths’ genders when they did not fit into these normative expectations, most of the youth that I worked with were not seen as gender nonconforming by others at the school.
How do schools’ accommodation practices privilege binary enactments of trans identities? What might it mean for all youth if we, as educators, did not rely on the presumption that we can see our students’ genders? What types of relationships with gender beyond the binary might we be able to welcome into our classrooms and schools if we let go of the need to know youths’ genders? I aim to open up these questions through highlighting the experiences of two of the gender-nonconforming youth I moved alongside during my research.
Schools across North America have responded to the growing awareness of trans and gender-nonconforming students by implementing trans-inclusive policies and procedures. These policies often rely on creating and providing accommodations. The concept of accommodations has a long history in North America, from race politics to disability law. Currently, educators, activists, and legislators are using the language of accommodations as a framework for including trans students in schools. The basic intention of offering accommodations is to create greater equity of access. One of the main criticisms of accommodation approaches is that they focus on the individuals who encounter obstacles, rather than the systems and institutions that create those obstacles.
At East City High there was a hard-fought trans-inclusive policy that instructed teachers, counsellors, and administrators in responding to trans and gender-nonconforming students. This policy directly named possible accommodations that students could receive at school: the right to access the washroom or changeroom that matched their gender identity, to be addressed by the name and pronoun they “prefer,” to dress in clothing that aligned with their gender expression, and to join athletic activities that corresponded with their gender identity. Though these rights were written for all trans students, including gender-nonconforming and non-binary youth, the material conditions and knowledge of staff largely limited the policy’s reach to binary trans students. For instance, there were only gendered sports teams and gendered changerooms, so a gender-nonconforming student who was not a boy or a girl had no sport team to join or changeroom that matched their gender identity. Also, few teachers at the school were familiar or comfortable with gender-neutral pronouns. As a result, students rarely felt invited into sharing “they/them” pronouns with anyone but close friends. The policy facilitated the experiences of students who knew they wanted to transition from one binary gender to another, but there was little space or understanding for youth who related to their genders as fluid, flexible, and changing.
In listing out specific accommodations, the policy also indicated the presumed points of conflict, concern, and/or challenges for trans students in schools. The policy attempted to highlight when and where trans students would encounter difficulties moving through their days in the same manner as cisgender students, and then offered possible workarounds. There are two main issues with this approach. First, this framework singles out trans students as problems in need of a solution in school. This issue has been covered extensively elsewhere in critiques of accommodation practices generally and specifically in relation to trans youth (Airton, 2013; Loutzenheiser, 2015; Travers, 2018). Second, this approach hinges on the intertwined ideas that trans students are visible to educators and that only visibly gender-nonconforming students will benefit from gender-inclusive schooling. Let’s examine this idea further.
Each term, Mr. Gonzalez led his Grade 10 PE class through fitness testing. Fitness testing is not required by the province and not all PE teachers at East City High incorporated this activity into their curriculum. However, it was a main feature of Mr. Gonzalez’s class. To pass a fitness test, Mr. Gonzalez instructed students that they had to perform according to an index of gendered standards that he maintained at the front of his binder. Though Mr. Gonzalez had elected to use these tests in his classes as forms of assessment, he still worried about how they excluded Raeyun. “What am I supposed to do with my trans students?” Mr. Gonzalez once asked, pointing at his page of gendered standards. Mr. Gonzalez was worried about fairness and safety, and he wanted to protect Raeyun. Therefore, he worked to create modifications for what he viewed as Raeyun’s “unique” situation. The assumption was that Raeyun, as a visibly gender-nonconforming student, was the only one who would benefit from a less binary alternative in class.
However, many of the trans youth that I worked with over my year at East City High were never seen by their teachers, counsellors, or the administrators as gender nonconforming. Since they were not visibly gender nonconforming, like Raeyun, these students were never presented with any options for workarounds at school. For instance, almost no one read Scarecrow Jones, a Grade 9 non-binary student, as gender nonconforming. “In terms of other people, no, I think that they probably do not see me [as gender nonconforming],” Scarecrow Jones explained. “Since I’m not out to many people, I don’t want to give anyone any reason to think that I am not what I appear to be.” Scarecrow Jones’ gender nonconformity did not align with others’ expectations, so they were not offered any special permissions. To others, Scarecrow Jones did not look as if they needed them. Therefore, Scarecrow Jones got ready for PE in the girls’ changeroom, was counted as a girl during activities, and was judged based upon the standards for girls. Even if Scarecrow Jones’ teacher had noticed that they were non-binary, there was nowhere else for Scarecrow Jones to get changed, no other team for them to join, and no other standards by which they could be evaluated. Scarecrow Jones described PE as “this weird heteronormative culture, like heteronormative, cisgender ingrained into everyone’s brain that’s just making it so much more difficult, and so much weirder for everyone every day.” Scarecrow Jones understood the gendered dynamics in PE class as affecting “everyone every day,” not just gender-nonconforming students. Furthermore, they believed that teachers’ strategies of offering individualized alternatives for visibly nonconforming students did not address, let alone disrupt, the cisheteronormative culture and curriculum of PE class that they found so difficult and weird. Scarecrow Jones did not want a third option; they wanted a less gendered experience of PE in general.
While PE class is perhaps more easily understood as a gendered space, these issues transcend subject areas. Though East City High had a reputation for being progressive, diverse, and inclusive, I was never in a class in which an adult created space for the possibility of gender nonconformity without either being asked to by a young person or in response to the presence of a known trans youth. Both Raeyun and Scarecrow Jones were enrolled in French Immersion at East City High. At the start of the year, Madame Blanchet took Raeyun aside and asked him what pronouns he wanted to use in French. His visible gender nonconformity compelled Madame Blanchet to reach out and initiate this conversation. While this act was helpful for Raeyun, it also singled him out as not fitting in and in need of an alternative in class.
The first time I went to Mr. Gallagher’s French drama class, he conducted a mini-lesson on French gender-neutral pronouns. I did not attend his class until the beginning of October, which meant that Mr. Gallagher had not believed it necessary to broach the existence of these pronouns until compelled to do so by the presence of my visibly gender-nonconforming body. However, Scarecrow Jones was in that class. We spoke about this situation months later. Scarecrow Jones told me, “The only time anything (related to trans topics) has ever happened is when you were in Mr. Gallagher’s class and he explained the gender-neutral pronoun.” Mr. Gallagher only brought up pronouns the first time I attended, though he always used them for me. Since he was not able to see Scarecrow Jones as gender nonconforming, Mr. Gallagher never pulled them aside, as Madame Blanchet had with Raeyun. Mr. Gallagher understood accommodating trans people as important, but by waiting until I arrived to tell students about these pronouns, Mr. Gallagher communicated both his belief that knowing this information was only pertinent if it directly affected someone, and that he would be able to tell if that were the case.
Accommodation approaches rely on the assumption that gender nonconformity is a visible identity. There is a presumption that we as educators will be able to tell if our students are trans, which allows us to respond by creating alternatives in our classrooms and schools. I argue that instead of understanding trans-inclusive policies as providing resolutions for gender-nonconforming youth in schools, we look beyond accommodation strategies to our pedagogies. For instance, rather than require our students to make their genders visible to us in ways that we can understand, we can always teach for the possibility of gender nonconformity. Educators do not need policies to create classrooms that reimagine normative expectations about gender; we can cultivate this shift by not only teaching trans topics but also through actively challenging gender roles and heteronormative assumptions in our own teaching and among students. This move means no longer categorizing students by gender, abandoning gendered assumptions that inform how we teach and interact with our students, and integrating material throughout all subjects that likewise invites these complexities.
Welcoming gender nonconformity into our classrooms means we do not need to pull students aside to ask about their pronoun preferences, because those pronouns already exist as possibilities in the classroom. Furthermore, if we approach our classrooms with the idea that students may be gender nonconforming, we no longer have to be on the lookout for signs a youth may be trans and thus in need of an accommodation. What harm would it cause to tell all students about gender-neutral pronouns and use them in our teaching? What relationships with gender might we invite into our schools if we let go of the belief that gender is binary, visible, and that we have a right to know how our students identify on any given day? Instead of asking students to make their genders known to us, we can let go of the idea that knowing students’ genders is the same as knowing them.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
1All names are pseudonyms.
2The youth participants chose their own names and pronouns.
3 “Gender nonconforming” is an expansive term that encompasses a multiplicity of gender identities. It underscores how a person either intentionally challenges or is perceived to disrupt normative gender constructions, including not conforming to expectations connected to their gender designated at birth.
Airton, L. (2013). Leave “those kids” alone: On the conflation of school homophobia and suffering queers. Curriculum Inquiry, 43(5), 532–562.
Beauchamp, T. (2018). Going stealth: Transgender politics and U.S. surveillance practices. Duke University Press.
Gill-Peterson, J. (2018). Histories of the transgender child. University of Minnesota Press.
Loutzenheiser, L. W. (2015). “Who are you calling a problem?”: Addressing transphobia and homophobia through school policy. Critical Studies in Education, 56(1), 99–115.
Travers, A. (2018). The trans generation: How trans kids (and their parents) are creating a gender revolution. University of Regina Press.
If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, one could argue that it demonstrated the critical role schools play in a functioning society, the interdependence of education and health, and the importance of a whole-school approach to health and well-being. We witnessed schools everywhere do their part in the crisis, going to great lengths to limit viral transmission. Imagine that! Every school in Canada took steps to protect public health that involved home, school, and community, while addressing social and physical environments, policies, teaching and learning, and partnerships and services. This, in essence, is Comprehensive School Health.
Physical health – mask-wearing, sanitizing, and distance between desks – was a dominant educational point for months, but perhaps the school health imperative we now face is the mental well-being of students, teachers, and staff. Can we learn from and leverage the education system’s pandemic response as a template for how to address health in other ways, and not only heal from the impacts of the pandemic, but also promote mental well-being in schools for all stakeholders?
If we ask the right questions now – with intention, compassion, and courage – we can reprioritize the value we place on well-being in school settings. Now more than ever, Comprehensive School Health needs to be on the national education agenda.
Courtesy of the Pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health
Wellness is a balance of mind, body, and spirit that results in a feeling of well-being. As part of their social purpose, schools have a fundamental role to play in the well-being of children and youth. It is important to consider the systemic influences and environments in which children and adolescents emerge into adulthood. Young people spend a lot of time in educational contexts. When schools provide health-promoting environments, it creates capacity and opportunity for students to reach their full potential.
Comprehensive School Health (CSH) is gaining recognition among school districts across the globe, and across educational tiers in Canada, for its value in promoting wellness for students, teachers, and other members of the school community (staff, parents, community partners, etc.; Russell-Mayhew & Ireland et al., 2017). The CSH framework, which is based upon the knowledge that health and wellness enhance children’s ability to learn, provides a multifaceted structure for improving wellness within the school community.
Comprehensive School Health is an approach that includes:
It is an internationally recognized framework that places students as primary beneficiaries of improved health and learning outcomes through coordinated action with all members of the school community (Koenig & Rodger et al., 2018; Langford & Bonell et al., 2015). This framework is based on evidence that healthy students have increased capacity for learning and that well-being has a positive effect on academic achievement throughout their lifespan (Byrne & Pickett et al., 2016, 2018). Health and education are interdependent. In other words, healthy students are better learners, and better-educated students are healthier (Squires, 2019; Viner & Russell et al., 2020).
A whole-school approach like Comprehensive School Health considers the well-being of the whole student and the whole community. It is not a program or curriculum, it is a process that integrates health promotion into the daily life of the school. The CSH framework takes advantage of a community development approach to enable customization to each unique site and the local context of a school.
The CSH framework seeks to harmonize actions across four components:
• teaching and learning
• social and physical environments
• policy and partnerships
These components guide actions in schools, such as: Ensuring high-quality health education, addressing teacher and staff well-being, revising school development plans to include well-being, and/or increasing social engagement opportunities for students. Ultimately, the CSH framework is intended to foster local autonomy to shift the culture to embrace well-being practices.
Increasingly, teachers are recognized as key agents of socialization, as they occupy positions that allow them to positively influence school wellness and student well-being. Teachers are our most important resource for the well-being of school communities; there is no profession with such profound influence. They influence people, places, and spaces in education. We know that health and education are deeply interconnected and intertwined, so if we want to influence outcomes, we need to focus on the whole person – not just academic outcomes – whether that is faculty, teachers, staff, or students. This includes post-secondary teacher preparation programs, which both serve as a feeder system for, and are an active part of, the education system. Supporting the well-being of pre-service teachers prior to their involvement in K–12 schools is an innovative way to promote transformational systemic change.
The potential cumulative effects of widespread, comprehensive wellness action across educational contexts are exciting to imagine. How might the world be different if every educational space was a place where each student, staff, teacher, and faculty felt a sense of belonging and was able to reach their full potential? What if every school was a healthy school? What if every BEd program was offered in a health-promoting post-secondary context?
We urgently need coordinated strategies that support action at all levels of school governance to address mental health, safety, belonging, and other psychosocial outcomes in schools.
Recasting educational spaces as health-promoting spaces is a systemic change that requires societal support and commitment from across the health and education sectors, as we have recently experienced with the pandemic response. Now we know it is possible, and on a dramatically large scale, too. Comprehensive School Health gives us the framework, and the pandemic gave us the experience. In Figure 2, we explore how schools can leverage their experience of a system-wide approach to health through their pandemic practices into an opportunity for action that supports the mental health and well-being of students, staff, and teachers.
This may seem like a daunting task that is beyond any one individual, and it is. Still, there are small steps we can all take to do our part from both within and outside of the education system to drive change. A good first step is to educate ourselves and others about Comprehensive School Health (see Learn More).
Real and sustainable change is possible if the education system is structured, and supported, to embrace its role in creating health-promoting environments. At their best, education systems can support all children, youth, and young adults to reach their full potential, while ensuring teachers first learn and then work in health-promoting environments to facilitate learning and nurture the well-being of future generations. This type of system-wide embrace of well-being in Canadian education is not just the imaginings of idealists, but was proven possible in the context of the pandemic response.
Education is a human endeavour. In the context of CSH, this means attending to all the ways of wellness – physical, social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, environmental, and occupational – across educational contexts. The well-being of students, staff, teachers, and faculty is at stake, and we can now better imagine the difference it will make.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
For some excellent self-paced learning, check out:
Byrne, J., Pickett, K., et al. (2016). A longitudinal study to explore the impact of preservice teacher health training on early career teachers’ roles as health promoters. Pedagogy in Health Promotion, 2(3), 170–183. doi.org/10.1177/2373379916644449
Byrne, J., Pickett, K., & Rietdijk, W. (2018). Teachers as health promoters: Factors that influence early career teachers to engage with health and wellbeing education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 69(1), 289–299. doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2017.10.020
Koenig, A., Rodger, S., & Specht, J. (2018). Educator burnout and compassion fatigue: A pilot study. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 33(4), 259–278. doi.org/10.1177/0829573516685017
Kolbe, L. J. (2019). School health as a strategy to improve both public health and education. Annual Review of Public Health, 40(1), 443–463. doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040218- 043727
Langford, R., Bonell, C., et al. (2015). The World Health Organization’s Health Promoting Schools framework: a Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health, 15(1), 130–130. doi.org/10.1186/s12889-015-1360-y
Russell-Mayhew, S., Ireland, A., et al. (2017). Reflecting and informing a culture of wellness: The development of a comprehensive school health course in a bachelor of education program. Journal of Educational Thought, 50(2&3), 156-181. www.jstor.org/stable/26372402?seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents
Squires, V. (2019). The well-being of the early career teacher: A review of the literature on the pivotal role of mentoring. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 8(4), 255-267. doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-02-2019-0025
Viner, R. M., Russell, S. J., et al. (2020). School closure and management practices during coronavirus outbreaks including COVID-19: a rapid systematic review. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. doi.org/10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30095-X
LIKE SO MANY FAMILIES and children around the world, Canadians are looking with relief to a more open, carefree summer and normal return to school later this year. But after 18 months of profound disruption, will “normal” be good enough? Are we on track to set all children up for success in a world that often seems more uncertain – and unequal – than ever before?
This article begins by examining how Canadian schools have fared during COVID-19 compared to those in other jurisdictions. We then turn to evidence-based ways that educators can ensure a better, stronger, and more equitable start in September 2021.
While students are less likely to contract or die from COVID, around the world their lives have been deeply disrupted by the pandemic. At its peak, schools serving 1.6 billion students were closed. Today, UNESCO’s global tracker shows that, a year into the crisis, “partial opening” is the norm. Overall, North American schools were closed in whole or in part for online learning for longer durations than experienced in most other parts of the world.
A sobering reality of the COVID-19 schooling experience is that even the best-resourced and highest-performing education systems in the world have heightened their tendency to privilege better-off children (UN Secretary General, 2020; OECD, 2020). Students from households with greater levels of connectivity, higher levels of parental education, greater availability of parental time for engagement, and in-home availability of books and materials have much better ability to access and benefit from distance learning.
In Canada as elsewhere, responses to COVID-19 have led to a patchwork of educational offerings. While students in Atlantic Canada and British Columbia have largely enjoyed face-to-face instruction, in other parts of Canada, students continue to experience periods of full-time or blended online learning from home. “Virtual schools” – intended as an emergency response – are a new feature of the landscape in Ontario and Alberta. Across the country, sports and extracurricular activities that build engagement and keep kids active have been paused.
Connectivity has not saved us. Access to broadband is not considered an essential service in Canada; coverage is both expensive and sometimes unavailable, especially in rural areas. Schools in some jurisdictions are still struggling to deliver appropriate devices to students. Stories abound of Canadian children who, one year into the pandemic, have limited bandwidth, are using old technologies, and are functioning without microphones or earphones. It is common to hear of kids whose attendance has dropped, who are disengaged, or who are missing from school altogether.
A growing body of large-scale international evidence shows that educational disruptions today and during other periods have caused impacts both on students’ academic achievement, and on their social and emotional well-being. Virtually all large-scale studies in OECD countries during COVID-19 (including from Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and the U.S.), have shown that students’ learning has fallen behind where it would have been for their age and grade levels in previous years. Overall, math scores have declined more than scores in literacy-related assessments and the youngest learners seem to have lost the most ground (Bailey, 2021; Education Endowment Foundation, n.d.).
For example, one U.S. study of over 400,000 students showed that the proportion of students starting Grade 1 two years or more behind grade level had risen from 27 percent to 40 percent. “As a result, a hypothetical school that needed to offer intensive intervention to 100 students in the fall of 2019 is faced with making up for the lost instruction for 148 students in 2020.”(mClass/Amplify, 2020).
Other studies from past crises and disruptions are even more concerning. These show that learning gaps can continue to grow even after schools return to normal (Andrabi et al., 2020). Further, school disruptions can have harsh cumulative effects, lowering chances of secondary completion and reducing labour market earnings of affected children many years later (Jaume & Willlen, 2019).
Perhaps most importantly, COVID-19 will not impact students equally. Recent studies show larger average gaps for relatively disadvantaged students, such as those living in low-income households or where parents have less education, or additional language learners. In the U.S., which tracks measures of racial inequality, Black and Hispanic students are also, on average, further behind. When surveyed during COVID-19, these are the same populations of learners who report facing a larger number of barriers and disruptions to their learning; who have lower access to technology; and who report fewer opportunities to get support from an adult at home or in the school (Chu & Lake, 2021).
In Canada, we know that all our kids are under strain. But we have little empirical evidence, beyond immediate experience, to tell us how our kids are doing overall, much less to spotlight where equity gaps are most severe. For the most part, large-scale provincial assessments and high-quality comparable surveys of student well-being are not available. Small-scale studies – such as one conducted recently in Alberta, and a recent report from the Toronto District School Board – show significant year-on-year gaps in early reading proficiency (Johnson, 2021; Alphonso, 2021). Education budgets and plans for the 2021 school year are being settled now, before school boards and higher educational institutions have begun to release data on school attendance, graduation, and applications to post-secondary education. Already, we can see that this lack of data on equity and other vulnerabilities is leading to a limited focus on educational recovery in planning and budget processes for 2021/2022. In this sense, Canadian educational systems may be flying blind.
Yet even before COVID-19, we knew that Canadian students from households in the bottom income quintile across Canada achieved the equivalent of one year less of schooling than students from households in the top income quintile. A recent study suggests that in many Canadian jurisdictions, the average student from a low-income household does not leave compulsory school with the skills needed to proceed to post-secondary education (Haek & Lefebvre, 2020).
In summary: International evidence and recent trends in Canada suggest that harms from COVID-19 will almost certainly exacerbate educational inequality. COVID-19 has disrupted learning and wellbeing for most students in Canada – but its impacts are unlikely to be evenly distributed.
Around the world, countries have responded to the educational needs created by COVID-19-related disruptions with programs and initiatives that aim to jump-start learning and support social and emotional well-being for those students most disadvantaged by the pandemic. For example:
These examples suggest a strong focus internationally on academic catch-up programs. We know less about what governments are doing to ensure that schools adjust to meet the social and emotional needs of kids, an area that research suggests is of great importance after the widespread trauma of the past year (Hough & Witte, 2021).
Apart from a few small or failed initiatives, it appears that Canadian policymakers are just beginning to think about how to redress the impacts of COVID-19 on student learning and well-being. Quebec recently announced a program to hire online tutors to support struggling students; while B.C. has announced a $23-million supplement for vulnerable learners that could cover tutoring, mental health support, or additional staff hiring.
In many parts of the country, community organizations have stepped in with academic and other kinds of support. But a federal program that promised to provide funding for university-level volunteers, with enormous potential for serving the needs of disadvantaged students, fell apart in the shadow of scandal, leaving the energies of tens of thousands of registered volunteers untapped.
It will take a whole-of-society effort to ensure Canadian students make a successful return to school in September 2021. We already know that the economic challenges faced by some households are intensifying, and that national and provincial budgets are likely to contract. Policymakers will need to focus on a few cost-effective ideas to guide their actions. Research points us in three main directions:
Summer learning programs – especially those that utilize trained teachers, structured pedagogy, enrichment experiences, and high levels of teacher-student engagement – have been shown to provide strong gains in learning (Alexander et al., 2016). Even modest efforts to promote learning over the summer months can be effective. For example, Harvard’s summer learning program mailed ten books to students over the summer, matched to students’ reading interests, with email/texts to parents. This simple program was shown to promote more than one month of gains in reading skills.
Tutoring – through one to one or small group instruction – is also highly effective, especially when based on sustained relationships between a tutor and student, and when using good-quality materials aligned to classroom instruction. Even programs offered by volunteers, peers, or family members, when trained, produce surprisingly strong outcomes for kids ranging from stronger academic performance to increased confidence and self-efficacy. Such programs need to be designed with equity in mind – but can also benefit from inclusion of all students in a grade level to reduce any negative stigma and ensure broader organizational commitment (Robinson et al., 2021).
Much more can be done to tilt our education systems toward greater equity post-COVID. We need our education leaders to plan beyond a return to the normal in September 2021. Promising strategies include: starting where kids are, rather than where they are supposed to be; leveraging the engagement of parents and communities; and providing new opportunities for kids to get up to grade level. Each of these holds a key to a successful return to school for Canadian students, regardless of social advantage.
Watch the full webinar related to this article:
Alexander, K., Pitcock, S., & Boulay, M. (Eds.). (2016). The summer slide: What we know and can do about summer learning loss. Teachers College Press.
Alphonso, C. (2021, March 26). Early years literacy has suffered: Signs of pandemic consequences from Canada’s largest school board. Globe and Mail. www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-early-years-literacy-has-suffered-signs-of-pandemic-consequences-from/
Andrabi, T., Daniels, B., & Das, J. (2020). Human capital accumulation and disasters: Evidence from the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. RISE Working Paper Series 20/039.
Bailey, J. (2021). Is it safe to re-open schools? An extensive review of the research. Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Chu, L., & Lake, R. (2021). The kids are really (not) alright: A synthesis of COVID-19 student surveys. Center on Reinventing Public Education. www.crpe.org/sites/default/files/final_ep_student_survey_synthesis.pdf
Education Endowment Foundation. (n.d.). Best evidence on the impact of COVID on learning.
Jaume, D., & Willén, A. (2019, October). The long-run effects of teacher strikes: Evidence from Argentina. Journal of Labor Economics, 37(4), 1097–1139.
Haeck, C., & Lefebvre, P. (2020). Trends in cognitive skill inequalities by socioeconomic status across Canada.
Hough, H., & Witte, J. (2021). Evidence-based practices for assessing students’ social and emotional well-being. EdResearch for Recovery Brief No. 13. https://annenberg.brown.edu/sites/default/files/EdResearch_for_Recovery_Brief_13.pdf
Johnson, L. (2021, March 12.) Alberta Education research aims to track learning loss during COVID-19. Edmonton Journal.
Murray, V., Jacobson, R., & Gross, B. (2021). Leveraging community partnerships for integrated student support, Ed Research for Recovery Brief 14. Brown University Annenberg Center.
mClass/Amplify. (2020). Instructional loss due to COVID-19 disruptions. Amplify Education.
OECD. (2020). Lessons for education from COVID-19.
OECD. (2021). Canada coronavirus education country note.
Robinson, C., Kraft, M., & Loeb, S. (2021). Accelerating student learning with high-dosage tutoring. EdResearch for Recovery, Brown University Annenberg Center. https://annenberg.brown.edu/sites/default/files/EdResearch_for_Recovery_Design_Principles_1.pdf
Srivastava, P., Cardini, A. et al. (2020). COVID-19 and the global education emergency: Planning systems for recovery and resilience [Policy brief] G-20 Insights.
UN Secretary General. (2020). Policy brief: Education during COVID-19 and beyond [Policy brief]. United Nations.
Winthrop, R. (2020). Can new forms of parent engagement be an education game changer post-COVID-19? The Brookings Institution.
Winthrop, R. (2020). COVID-19 and school closures: What can countries learn from past emergencies? The Brookings Institution.
COVID-19 shook up our ingrained ways of “doing education” and has pushed educators, students, and parents to their limits. It opened up new possibilities and revealed deep inequities. Now it’s time to get “back on track.” But which track? We asked two prominent Canadian educational thinkers to share their vision, both immediate and longer-term, for education in the post-pandemic. Read also “Shore Up the Foundations for Future-Proof Education,” by Paul W. Bennett.
Two recurring public pronouncements still ring out from the early days of the pandemic: “We’re all in this together,” and “Can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” Simply put, there is no way we should revert to the old normal. More people than ever now know what some already knew before COVID-19. There are deeply embedded obstacles in the way for far too many to participate equitably in what society has to offer. All in this together should be an aspiration, not a false claim of where we’ve been and where we are now. Getting back to normal? Really? When it comes to education, the curtain has been pulled back to clearly reveal that chronic challenges for too many students mean that a vastly new normal is necessary.
Any discussion about the future of education should begin with the end game, a conversation about its ultimate purpose(s). Any input that I offer is informed by my view that education should ensure that the future is healthier, safer, more just, and prosperous for the many rather than the elite few. We need to start with imagining that better future. How about this superb example:1
“Imagine it’s 2041 and a group of publicly educated 20-year-olds from across Ontario have been asked how they feel about the years they spent in school. The conversation is animated and positive. They say school made them feel like they belonged. It nurtured their compassion for themselves and others. It helped them grow from their mistakes. It welcomed their contributions. And it prepared them for a world of constant change. They say these things regardless of the school they attended, the colour of their skin, their sexual identity, the faith they practice, their physical or intellectual abilities, the teachers they had or the home they grew up in. Though they came from different places, their shared experience of education was one of caring, inclusion and excellence.”
When it comes to most of the complex issues of the day – climate change, health and well-being, racism, our democratic processes, and public communications that seem to divide rather than bring about consensus – education is always noted as the force for improvement. Former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Murray Sinclair, regarding the devastating and recurring consequences of residential schools, noted that “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out of it.” Let’s make sure it does!
At this point, we need widespread, diverse, and transparent conversations regarding the future of education. As suggested, people and organizations should start with their view of the end game. What follows is informed by mine.
Given my overarching aspiration for education as the driver for that better future, what should receive priority attention?
A big problem with government policymaking, including processes that have an impact on education, is that the lens for change is microscopic rather than telescopic. Put differently, policymaking too often suffers from what I call hardening of the categories. We will not be able to reach the promises of a new normal in education unless we ensure that critical issues such as income distribution and wage policies, sick leave, affordable housing, child care, and parental leave are part of a holistic and integrative approach by governments. We need governments to think and act horizontally when it comes to policy development and program development. Regarding child care, for example, many have advocated for decades that high-quality, developmentally enriching, non-profit and universal child care should be seen, developed, and implemented as an extension of our education systems.
The pandemic, by necessity, has loosened the constitutionally driven ownership of educational responsibilities by the provinces and territories with short-term cash infusions by the federal government to assist their local “partners” with COVID-related school health and safety issues. Unfortunately, Canada continues its lonely global existence as a country without a federal department of education. Naturally, education needs to serve local cultural and environmental differences, but shouldn’t it mean the same to be a student in Melville, Sask., St. John’s, Nfld., or Toronto? How is it possible that we do not have federal leadership when it comes to the most important nation-building lever for our better future? It’s time for a Canadian Royal Commission on Learning!
It is an understatement to acknowledge that educators, and all those who support them, are treasured essential servant leaders who can take us to that better place for the many. Leadership matters. And to all those who have responsibilities in and around our education systems, I will let Alfred Lord Tennyson have the last word:
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Leading from the Inside Out
Hard-earned lessons from education, government and… baseball
By Charles Pascal
Onyx Publishing, December 2020
Photo: Adobe Stock
1Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board Bullying Prevention and Intervention Review Panel. (2021).
COVID-19 shook up our ingrained ways of “doing education” and has pushed educators, students, and parents to their limits. It opened up new possibilities and revealed deep inequities. Now it’s time to get “back on track.” But which track? We asked two prominent Canadian educational thinkers to share their vision, both immediate and longer-term, for education in the post-pandemic. Read also “With Education’s Better Future in Mind,” by Charles E. Pascal.
The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic turned the K–12 education world upside down and then unleashed a succession of school disruptions. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking in August 2020, predicted that the effects of the pandemic were destined to become a “generational catastrophe” in education (UNESCO, 2020). Since then, the full extent of the learning slide affecting all students, and particularly the most disadvantaged, became more visible. Much like earlier studies generated in the Netherlands, the U.K., and the U.S., the first wave of Canadian research reports and surveys testify to the combined academic and psycho-social impacts on children and families (Bennett, 2021).
Seeing the impact of school disruptions first-hand in her home, Nancy Small, a Vancouver mother of two increasingly tuned-out school-age children, cut to the heart of the matter: “Our kids are falling behind.” While the educational damage varies along regional, economic, and racial lines, there has been – until recently— little evidence of a coherent or coordinated plan to close the gaping “learning gap” and get today’s students back on track (Alphonso, 2021).
The COVID-19 pandemic shocks have exposed the fragility of the modern, centralized, top-down bureaucratic education state, identified and analyzed in my book, The State of the System. The massive disruption has also revealed the limitations of system-bound school change theories, conceived as hybrid “pedagogical and political projects,”(Fullan, 2009, 2021), ill-equipped to address the immediate crisis in K–12 education.
Education visionaries, school change theorists, and their academic allies were quick to offer up familiar ideas dipped in COVID-19 and accompanied by a beguiling “build back better” narrative (Chapman & Bell, 2020). The post-pandemic future, in their imagined world, will be a clash of two mutually-exclusive visions: social equality and student well-being versus austerity and academic standards – good versus bad. This is, as you will begin to see, a false dichotomy and a misreading of our current educational predicament.
A far better point of departure is provided in the World Bank’s report, COVID-19 Pandemic Shocks to Education (World Bank, 2020), surveying the collateral damage affecting school systems around the world. The immediate impacts were easier to spot, such as the economic and social costs, greater inequalities in access, and school-level health and safety concerns. Less so is the longer-term impact of “learning loss” and its worst-case mutation, “learning poverty,” marked by the inability to read and understand a simple text by ten years of age.
Shoring up the foundations has become a matter of urgent necessity. If we are facing a “generational catastrophe,” it’s time to reframe the challenges facing K–12 education. Teaching children how to read and to be functional in mathematics are now fundamental to social justice in pandemic times. Well-intentioned trauma-informed educational interventions, such as relaxing grading standards, suspending provincial tests, or reverting to pass-fail summative assessments, run the risk of perpetuating the cycle of diminished expectations, falling unevenly on learning-challenged or marginalized students.
Critical thinking remains the holy grail of K–12 education, but it’s hard to envision without a grounding in domain-specific knowledge. Equipping students with the content knowledge to think critically about a full range of important issues (Willingham, 2019) does not exemplify an “academic obsession” but rather a commitment to seeking deeper understanding. Nor are student well-being and academic success necessarily in conflict. At their best, and in the vast majority of today’s classroom, they are rather mutually reinforcing.
Educators looking for a more effective catch-up strategy would be well advised to challenge the prevailing narrative for two vitally-important reasons: 1) the mistaken assumption that an academic focus and student well-being are somehow incompatible; and 2) the gross underestimation of the realities of the “COVID slide” and learning loss compromising the future success of today’s pandemic generation of students (Engzell et al., 2020).
Confronting the magnitude of the crisis and solving the puzzle of what to do next can be daunting, so it is better to focus on a few more immediate, practical strategies. Establishing a clear and consistent focus on closing the learning gap does yield a few quick and proven learning recovery strategies. Most of the initial recovery strategies originated in the U.S., driven largely by independent research institutes such as the North West Education Association, Brookings Institution, and McKinsey & Company (Bennett, 2021). Countries with more experience coping with periodic disruptions are faring better and most of the lessons are coming from their school systems (Alphonso, 2021), most notably the Netherlands and Central European nations.
Academically-focused, supportive school environments and strong teacher-student relationships speed recovery from learning loss. Three strategies that have proven more effective (McKinsey & Company, 2021) are:
Top-down educational leadership has run its course and system-bound solutions will not work. The pandemic shutdown and continuing disruptions exposed what German sociologist Max Weber aptly termed the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in an invisible web of order, rationality, conformity, and control (Bennett, 2020). We came to see how dependent students, teachers, and families were on provincial and school district directives. School shutdowns, delayed starts, shifting schedules, and unclear teacher expectations left students and teachers on their own to work out radically different home learning terms of engagement.
Building back the shaken and damaged system will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K–12 education. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families, and communities. Challenging the technocratic ethos and language of “learnification” (Biesta, 2019) will be liberating for teachers and reduce the language barrier separating educators from parents. “Learners” will, once again, be students, “learning environments” will be classrooms, and “facilitating learning” recognized as the practice of teaching. Systemic reform will involve undertaking two fundamental structural changes: 1) the restoration of teaching-centred classrooms, and 2) the transition to community-focused, family-centric schools (Bennett, 2020).
Futuristic visions of technology-driven whole-system reform have always evoked skepticism among regular classroom teachers. Sitting around their kitchen tables helping their children with pandemic home learning has opened the eyes of thousands of parents to the everyday realities of technology-driven “21st century learning” and laid bare student skill deficits in mathematics and literacy. That may well explain why Big Ed Tech, exemplified by Google, Microsoft, and Pearson International, is finally attracting more critical scrutiny (Reich, 2020).
Imagining a better educational future may be inspirational, but what students, teachers, and families really need is “future proof” learning (Kirschner & Stoyanov, 2018). That term, coined by leading cognitive science expert Paul A. Kirschner, provides a viable and much-needed alternative to pursuing holistic, ill-defined “21st century skills” or embracing competency-based student graduation standards. The best way forward in pandemic times is deceptively simple: set aside the “21st century skills” panaceas in favour of “the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to continue to learn in a stable and enduring way in a rapidly changing world.”
Future-proof education is soundly based upon the science of learning and evidence-based research rather than sociological change theories. Redesigning schools and professionalizing teachers in 21st century learning strategies look attractive, but they are unlikely to make much difference and may produce heavier teaching workloads without really addressing our current educational crisis.
Cognitive learning specialists provide us with a far more reliable guide to how learning happens and the critical importance of working memory in the whole process. What Kirschner proposes is a three-stage approach:
The COVID-19 shocks to education will continue to reverberate in Canada’s K–12 schools in the near future. It’s a rescue mission and one that needs to begin by shoring up the foundations and putting the pandemic generation back on the path to sound education in purposeful schools, and better prepared to lead meaningful, productive lives.
The State of the System
A reality check on Canada’s schools
By Paul W. Bennett
MQUP, September 2020
Photo: Adobe Stock
Alphonso, C. (2021, Feb. 16). The COVID-19 grading curve: Schools rethink expectations for students who have lost time. The Globe and Mail.
Bennett, P. W. (2021, Feb. 1). How will the education system help students to recover from
learning loss? IRPP Policy Options.
Biesta, G. (2019). Should Teaching be (Re)discovered? Studies in Philosophy and Education, 38,549–553.
Chapman, C., & Bell, I. (2020). Building back better education systems: Equity and COVID-19, Journal of Educational Capital and Community, 5(3/4), 227–236.
Engzell, P., Frey, A. & Verhagen, M. (2020, Aug. 28). Pre-analysis plan for: Learning inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic. https://osf.io/download/5f995b4687b7df03233b06fe/
Fullan, M. (2021). The right drivers for whole system success. Centre for Strategic Education.
Hargreaves, A. (2020). Austerity and inequality; or prosperity for all? Educational policy directions beyond the pandemic. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 20, 3–10.
Kirschner, P. A. & Stoyanov, S. (2018). Educating youth for nonexistent/not yet existing professions. Education Policy, 34(3).
Reich, J. (2020). Failure to disrupt: Why technology alone can’t transform education. Harvard University Press.
Willingham, D. T. (2020). How to teach critical thinking. NSW Department of Education.
World Bank. (2020). The COVID-19 pandemic: Shocks to education and policy responses. World Bank.
UNESCO. (2020, August 5). UN Secretary-General warns of education catastrophe, pointing to UNESCO estimate of 24 million learners at risk of dropping out. Press release No 2020–73.
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, pandemic emergency response plans embraced a singular education strategy – close all K–12 schools and default to hastily assembled, and largely untested, “home learning” programs. Nine months into the pandemic, public health authorities, ministries of education, and school superintendents are singing a different tune: keeping students in school is the first priority as we prepare to ride out the second wave of viral infections.
All of us are far more acutely aware of the accumulating academic, human, and social costs of shutting down schools, which fall unevenly upon children and teens in the most disadvantaged communities. Combating the relentless virus and keeping regional economies intact will not likely be greatly advanced through system-wide shutdowns.
With COVID-19 infection rates spiking again, school closures are becoming a distinct possibility, if only as a temporary respite for shaken-up students, fatigued teachers, and bewildered parents. Setting a relatively low infection positivity number, such as the three percent figure applied in closing New York City schools, is unwise because, by that standard, all schools will ultimately close at some point this school year.
What’s emerging is a “flexible response” doctrine that embraces a fuller arsenal of strategies and borrows the phrase popularized by former U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara in the early 1960s. Banishing the devastating pandemic requires a carefully considered set of options and a calibrated range of responses.
Let’s review some of the far more effective, targeted strategies:
A case-by-case isolation strategy in provinces and districts with lower transmission rates has proven reasonably effective, as long as the public health system can sustain contact tracing and isolate children and staff who have COVID-19 exposures. It was working, up until now, in most provinces covered by the Atlantic Bubble. Implementation challenges are compromising its effectiveness in Ontario, where the numbers of infections exceed the current capacity for contact tracing.
Extending school holidays is emerging as the most expedient way of applying an education “circuit breaker.” Starting the Christmas holidays early, as in Quebec and Alberta, and extending the break into January 2021, as in Manitoba, are the latest “quick fixes” gaining traction right across Canada. It’s much easier to extend school holiday time because that policy response resonates with teachers and education support workers, and is more minimally disruptive for working parents. Policymakers often opt for the path of least resistance.
Giving students and families the choice of completing courses in-person or online was implemented in Ontario and it caused an array of unanticipated, disruptive, and unpredictable consequences. Students and parents in more affluent school districts in the TDSB chose in-person schooling, while online enrolment was highest in the district’s poorest and most racialized communities. School schedules were constantly changing as students bailed out of in-person classes, generating unexpected demand for online courses. Hundreds of thousands of students in Toronto, Peel, and York Region have shifted online, rendering the two-track strategy essentially unsustainable over the longer term.
Moving to a hybrid blended learning model on a so-called “rotation system” is a response full of implementation bugs. Some Ontario school districts have resorted to dual track delivery models with classes combining in-person and video-streamed classes. That’s far from ideal because effective online teaching requires its own approach, not just televising in-class lessons. Since September 2020, New Brunswick has implemented a Hybrid Blended Learning Model with alternating days in all high schools, with decidedly mixed results. Curriculum coverage suffers, with losses estimated at up to 30 percent of learning outcomes, and student participation rates are reportedly low during the hybrid off days in the checkerboard high-school schedule.
Suspending in-person schooling and reverting to virtual or online home learning is an implementable option, only if it applies to all classes in Grades 7 to 12. Splitting larger classes in urban or suburban school zones is prohibitively expensive without significant hikes in provincial spending. That explains why so many school districts resort to shifting everyone to online classes. Younger children benefit more from teacher-guided instruction and do not spread the virus as readily, judging from K–6 in-person classes in Denmark and British Columbia.
Closing all schools should be the last resort this time around. That’s the consensus among leading British, Canadian, and American pediatricians and epidemiologists. Sending kids home should only be considered if positivity rates spike in schools. It’s an easy decision if and when transmission rates turn schools into vectors and staff infection rates make it impossible to provide a reasonable quality of education.
Resurgent rates of infection and community transmission in October and November have called into question some of the previous assumptions about the limited COVID-19 risks in schools. One recent research summary in Science Magazine painted “a more complex picture” of the very real risks and of the critical need to be flexible and responsive in the face of a rapidly changing, unpredictable public health crisis. There’s no perfect solution, but adopting a “flexible response” strategy, attuned to regional and local pandemic conditions, still makes the most sense.
Photo: Adobe Stock
This webinar is primarily for governments, education professional organizations, school and school district leaders, teachers and education support workers, and anyone interested in understanding current issues for changes to K-12 schooling for the education sector across Canada in the COVID-19 era.
This webinar broadcasted on October 7th, 2020 explores what has been learned so far about leading schools through COVID-19 as we prepare to enter into our second month of school reopening across the country.
Topics explored include:
how our understandings of the work of school leaders is evolving;
the ways in which educators and their professional organizations are navigating ever-changing expectations of schooling during the present time; and
how schools can maintain a focus on the social justice and equity issues that have been laid bare as a result of COVID-19 and its impact on marginalized and racialized communities.
Note: EdCan is a neutral third-party intermediary organization. Live presentations do not constitute an endorsement by the EdCan Network/CEA of information or opinions expressed.
This webinar is primarily for governments, education professional organizations, school and school district leaders, teachers and education support workers, and anyone interested in understanding current issues for changes to K-12 schooling for the education sector across Canada in the COVID-19 era.
This webinar explores what has been learned so far about leading schools through COVID-19 as we prepare to enter into our second month of school reopening across the country.
Topics to be explored include:
how our understandings of the work of school leaders is evolving;
the ways in which educators and their professional organizations are navigating ever-changing expectations of schooling during the present time; and
how schools can maintain a focus on the social justice and equity issues that have been laid bare as a result of COVID-19 and its impact on marginalized and racialized communities.
Note: EdCan is a neutral third-party intermediary organization. Live presentations do not constitute an endorsement by the EdCan Network/CEA of information or opinions expressed.
I still live with hurtful memories of being a timid and apprehensive gay boy who was bullied mercilessly and suffered immense mental anguish during junior and senior high school. I was subjected to incessant name calling and targeted by packs of boys on school buses and school grounds. Later, as a teacher, I was perpetually in fear of being outed as gay and losing my job. I dealt with unrelenting stressors, like finding pictures of naked men left under wiper blades on my car windshield in the school parking lot. These indelible memories are my impetus for wanting to make life better now for sexual and gender minorities (SGMs or LGBTQ2+ persons) in our schools. In Canada today, there is an established basis for doing this, bolstered by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Since the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Vriend v. Alberta in 1998, which granted equality rights to sexual minority Canadians, there have been continuous changes in law, legislation, and educational policy that have abetted recognizing and accommodating SGMs in school culture and curriculum. More recently, Bill C-16, An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, which became law in 2017, provided gender minorities with protection against discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and expression.
With such movement forward, what is it like for SGMs to have SGM-specific policy in place in our schools as social spaces where students learn and teachers work? I took up this question in research1 I conducted in a large urban school district in western Canada that had had a standalone SGM policy, rather than merely an umbrella or general equity policy, in place for five years. Having SGM-specific policy is far from the norm in school districts in our country, so I interviewed key interest groups that included students and teachers to learn about their experiences. Students were asked to discuss everyday stressors and supports as they talked about school culture, climate, curriculum, principals, and teachers. Teachers were asked to discuss the importance of having SGM policy and practice that impact the recognition, accommodation, and well-being of SGMs. Here, I share some of their perspectives.
Students’ perspectives: What teachers do matters
The high-school students I interviewed commonly spoke about the need to educate others about SGMs and our issues and concerns. One student who was president of his high-school GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance or Gender-Sexuality Alliance) spoke pragmatically about this:
“I think having more education would be helpful because when people are uneducated, they don’t like what they don’t understand or what they don’t perceive to be normal. I think having education is a really big aspect. Incorporating LGBTQ+ case studies into courses would be really helpful.”
Another high-school student spoke about her former faith-based school where sexual orientation was still a taboo topic. She related, “It was never spoken about. There were no comments on it, and anything you did to try to bring it up, they’d put you down.” She spoke positively about the SGM-inclusive culture in her current school, stating, “I find it very welcoming. You see same-sex couples in the hallway, and there’s nothing – nobody blinks an eye.” She spoke about the teachers, saying, “One of my friends had a teacher who used their preferred pronouns and names. So that’s one teacher I know who’s very accepting. I’m pretty sure there are multiple other teachers who would as well. On the first day, they read off the attendance list and, of course, that’s your legal name. But if you ask, there are multiple teachers who will use the student’s preferred name and pronouns.” Another high school student also spoke about the naming issue, using an example to indicate how students can be negatively impacted in a public way: “One thing that sucks is for Valentine’s Day, they do the hearts. They write everyone’s name on a heart and put them in the lunchroom downstairs. But because they use the attendance list to do it, it’s birth names and legal names. So that can cause anxiety.” One trans-identified student who uses he/him pronouns provided this particular concern regarding naming and roll call. He recounted, “A big issue that you need to work with is substitute teachers. My legal name and the name that I go by are not the same, so I always need to talk to the substitutes ahead of time. That’s a bit stressful. Sometimes they forget. They always try, but you can’t remember everything.” Regarding his teachers in general, this student pondered, “I wish there was some way for the teachers to understand how significant it is to respect pronouns and labels and titles because I feel like some of them don’t understand some of the consequences. The first few times don’t bother you that much, but the more it happens, the more it bothers you. Most of my teachers don’t seem to understand how much it affects me. It makes me feel crappy.” Like other students I interviewed, this student spoke about the need to educate teachers:
“I feel because teachers are directly interacting with and impacting queer youth, it should be part of training them on a PD day or something, just to take a crash course on understanding. I don’t know if those things do happen or what the situation is with that. I just wish in general that people knew more about us and just the facts and less of the perceptions. I don’t know specifically what would be available to them, though. I do wish there was more information that was commonly known. Overall, I think our teachers are pretty supportive – some more than others – just because they’re more educated on everything. And some really try to learn with you, which is helpful. They want you to tell them stuff that they don’t know. There’s still a lot of improvements that can be made, a lot more information that can be shared. With more knowledge, there’s less misunderstanding, there’s less judgment, and everybody can just live together more peacefully and not be angry at each other or confused.”
Teachers’ perspectives: Knowing school culture, being an advocate
Supportive teachers I interviewed saw schools as social spaces where they engaged in strategic actions to advance SGM inclusion. One high-school teacher provided this perspective on what constituted an SGM-inclusive culture in her school:
“The school is very welcoming and comprehensive in terms of how staff accept students and how students themselves are perceived around the school. There isn’t a lot of discussion that we have to do because the SGM policy dictates behaviour. It’s more about creating a culture: We’ll do it because that’s what people do. This results in fewer students seeking out the GSA on a regular basis because the culture of the school itself is so open and accepting that everywhere is a safe place. The school encounters zero parent resistance to pink shirt day and other GSA events. The administration is very vocally supportive of the students wherever they are in their identity journey. They want to put those students first, ahead of any reservations of parents or complaints from community members. Everyone realizes that comfort is not covered under our provincial human rights legislation, but lack of discrimination and the ability to exist in your identity are covered.”
Of course, creating a genuinely accepting SGM-inclusive school culture takes time. Another high school teacher spoke about his GSA work to help non-heterosexual boys become more comfortable with their sexual identities: “In the GSA, it’s always more girls than guys – substantially. It’s probably 80 percent girls and 20 percent boys, if not lower. I’ve talked to other GSA teachers, and they’ve seen the same thing. Many times, I’ve heard girls say that they felt safe. I haven’t really heard a boy commenting either way. Maybe that’s why fewer boys come to the GSA meeting. There generally is more of a stigma for them, especially in high schools.” Paralleling this perspective on non-heterosexual boys’ discomfort, another high school teacher provided this observation: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen any boys holding hands, but I’ve seen lots more girls holding hands – girlfriends. That’s now just as okay as heterosexual couples walking down the hallway.” A junior high school teacher offered a similar perspective, indicating it is not just a high-school issue: “The girls seem to be far more comfortable at the junior high age for sure compared to the boys. Absolutely, I don’t think boys are quite there yet at this stage, which is sad. It’s unfortunate.”
Many teachers spoke to the importance of having a standalone school district policy on sexual orientation and gender identity to fortify the work to create an SGM-inclusive school culture. In this regard, one teacher working in an all-grades setting provided her perspective on living out this policy in word and action:
“It’s about a district level of support that starts with leadership. It’s about letting all staff know that it’s about not having prejudice and discrimination based on a student’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s about being appropriate with our responses as a staff if we encounter that, whether it’s in behaviours, comments, or the actions of other students. But it goes so much deeper. It’s in the way you would group students, in washroom use and locker use, in language use in the classroom, and in resources and approaches. So, it’s really helpful in building on safe and caring schools. It gives us something to work toward so we’re all consistent. We have a policy and we have the support of our district to continue to do that.”
In sum, teachers provided an array of reasons why a standalone SGM policy is a good thing. One high-school teacher saw it as assurance enabling SGM inclusion when teachers couldn’t rely on the school principal. He concluded, “Putting a policy on this was a good thing because you’re not always going to have an understanding administrator, a forward-thinking administrator.” A junior high school teacher felt the policy enabled him to start a GSA, which subsequently contributed to more SGM inclusion in his school. He said, “I’ve had students say how much better it is in the school since we started the GSA. I used to hear students say, ‘That’s so gay’ – constantly. I can’t even remember the last time I had to say something to a student about that. It’s just known that that’s not acceptable to do anymore. Those sorts of things to do with language and what’s acceptable in schools – I think a lot of that has to do with the policy.”
A standalone SGM policy that is consistently implemented… is a clear indicator that a school district has the backs of SGM teachers and allied teachers.
Considering whether the standalone policy made a difference for teachers in her district, a teacher working in a K-12 school responded, “I think by our surety that we’ve got our backs covered, that makes us stronger in what we’re trying to achieve.” She also saw the policy as effective in assisting SGM students who require basic accommodation that includes having their physical needs met: “I know last year, one student would go home to go to the bathroom. Of course, they wouldn’t come back. Washroom access is something so simple and so painful at the same time.”
Supporting SGM teachers, creating an SGM-inclusive school
Increasingly today, young SGM teachers choose to be vocal and visible at work, which is enabled when there is policy in place to protect them. However, many SGM teachers in our country still navigate homophobia and transphobia in their schools. Their challenges and concerns are well documented in The Every Teacher Project on LGBTQ Inclusive Education in Canada’s K-12 Schools.2
Importantly, a gay junior high school teacher spoke about the significance of having the policy in ter