Photo caption: Chief Mi’sel Joe facilitates the final Elders’ sharing circle for 2-Eared Listening.
During a 2018 National Restorative Justice Week event in Newfoundland and Labrador, panellist Chief Mi’sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation concluded his remarks with, “If you want to know about restorative justice, just ask.”
dorothy vaandering, Co-Chair of the Restorative Justice Education Consortium-NL, which hosted the event (and co-author of this article), took up the invitation. This developed into a collaboration with the Chief, a group of Memorial University colleagues, and an Indigenous community advisory committee to plan a gathering that contributed to decolonizing the way many participants thought about justice. The collaboration resulted in Two-Eared Listening for Deeper Understanding: Restorative Justice in NL, a community-wide event that hosted 170 people with diverse roles in government, education, community, and justice contexts. This event came to be called The Gathering (influenced by Hager & Miwopiyane, 2021). It reflected Mi’kmaw scholar Marie Battiste’s (2002) description of decolonizing education, in that it was an opportunity to raise the collective voices of Indigenous peoples, expose the injustices of colonial history, and contribute to deconstructing the social, political, economic, and emotional reasons for the silencing of Indigenous voices (p. 20).
Chief Joe stated that the primary responsibility of The Gathering would be to create space for truth-telling about settler colonialism’s past and ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples. He said, “Never have Indigenous peoples in this province had an opportunity to tell their stories.” Such truth-telling is an act of decolonization (Waziyatawin, 2005).
From the start of the planning, Chief Joe guided the group to focus on how the work we were engaged in was and would be truth-telling. “Before you can restore justice, you need to listen to the stories of injustice. At the heart of justice is listening,” he said. As such, the Gathering grew into an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to listen and learn about Indigenous history in the province from the lived experience of Indigenous Peoples. The role of listening was accentuated by fact that non-Indigenous leaders, whose voices are typically privileged, were not given roles as speakers but, instead, were explicitly tasked as listeners.
The shared stories reflected the impact of colonization both pre and post Newfoundland and Labrador joining the Confederation of Canada in 1949, amplifying the explicit choices made by various governments to “write Indigenous people out of existence.” Elders Emma Reelis and Ellen Ford spoke about their experiences in residential schools and their lives as Inuit women. Chief Mi’sel Joe and Chief Brendan Mitchell (Qalipu First Nation) spoke about their respective communities’ complex histories and the impact of uninformed decisions made by provincial governments, and Elder Calvin White described the impact of imposed hunting and fishing regulations on the social fabric of his community. Elder Elizabeth Penashue shared the catastrophic impact on the Innu Nation of NATO’s decision to practise low-level flying over their living and hunting territory, disrupting every aspect of their lives. The current Indigenous communities’ realities were also shared and illustrated how colonial attitudes persist, as their successes and needs continue to be supplanted by the dominant population’s more “pressing” demands. These stories are not commonly known, as demonstrated by their absence from courses and learning resources at all levels of formal education in the province.
Indigenous culture was woven into The Gathering through daily smudging, a Mide-wiigwas, music, and on-site meals that reflected the cultural importance of sharing food. People gathered in a unique environment purposefully set up for truth-telling and for deep listening to Indigenous stories of injustice that would challenge many participants in ways not ordinarily experienced.
Listening with two ears
A Two-Eared Listening protocol was shared with participants. It read:
Elders tell us that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen more than we talk.
At the Two-Eared Listening Gathering, we invite participants to listen deeply with the intention of learning and understanding. Deep listening requires the listener to receive new information through an open mind and to suspend judgment with an open heart.
Two-eared listening is an act of conciliation by promoting respectful relationships through building trust and nurturing understanding.
As you participate in this Gathering, please:
Such listening is an important component of decolonization work as all sectors of Canadian society strive to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action (2015a). To practically support participants in engaging fully with these five elements, the Gathering space was designated as “technology-free” from the start.
Elements of two-eared listening
Listen with two ears: Listening to stories of injustice involves more than hearing the sounds of words being spoken; it involves more than listening with our ears. Two-eared listening involves listening with our emotions as well. Stó:lō educator and researcher Jo-Ann Archibald (2008) describes listening with “three ears: two on the sides of our head and the one that is in our heart” (p. 8). Chief Joe explains that listening in this way communicates a sense of caring to the speaker:
“Injustice is about hurt and pain so that brings in parts of our body, including the heart and soul. [This talking] includes body language [and] knowing someone is listening and caring. If you are listening from your core, you will understand the telling of these stories of justice and injustice.” (Joe, vaandering, et al., 2022)
According to Métis scholar Jo-Ann Episkenew (2009), Indigenous stories generate empathy, enabling settlers “… to understand Indigenous people as fellow human beings. Empathy, in turn, has the potential to create a groundswell of support for social-justice initiatives to improve the lot of Indigenous people” (pp. 190–191).
Be open to receiving new learning: Deep listening involves listening to and understanding stories that have come from different life experiences and through different lenses that challenge the dominant narrative. For example, assumptions that land is “empty” and thus open for resource extraction or military exercises shifts to realizations that land is teeming with life. Taking in new learning may require adjusting the frame of reference through which the world is understood. Mezirow (1997) explains that “frames of reference are the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences” (p.5) and “We transform our frames of reference through critical reflection on the assumptions upon which our interpretations, beliefs, and habits of mind or points of view are based” (p. 7). In this way, decolonizing requires a transformation of our frames of reference.
Suspend judgment: Two-eared listening requires that we listen without judgment. In responding to questions about residential school records, Father Ken Thorson (Findlay, 2022), a Canadian Oblate priest, speaks to the importance of how we listen:
“… too often the institutions… have led the conversation, have set the narrative. And we’re in a time now when, rightly, Indigenous Peoples are setting the narrative and are full partners in the conversation… our primary role at this time is to humbly listen to our Indigenous brothers and sisters, their experience, their pain and not to judge, but to listen.”
Suspending judgment allows the listener to take in what is being said and hold it with an open mind. Reactions are replaced with opportunities for change and understanding.
Listen with intention: Cree scholar Dwayne Donald describes colonization as the “extended process of learning to deny relationships” (2022). At the core of this, there is an “intentional imposition of a particular way of understanding life and living, understanding human beings, understanding knowledge and knowing… a gridwork of understanding knowledge and knowing” (2022). Listening deeply and learning from the stories of others, particularly stories that are counter narratives, challenges this gridwork way of understanding the world. Two-eared listening is listening with a willingness to hear what is said with the possibility that what I hear will change me. Two-eared listening becomes part of the extended process to nurture relationships.
Purposefully engage in (re)conciliation: The act of two-eared listening has the potential for leading people into authentic engagement with (re)conciliation. “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015b, p. 15). This reciprocal act of listening to the truth leads to contemplation, meditation, and internal deliberation (Augustine in Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015b, p. 13). However, given that harm was inflicted by societies of people promoting colonizing ways of being, the act of reconciliation will be embodied when non-Indigenous people of privilege move beyond tokenizing and consulting with Indigenous peoples and embrace being led by Indigenous people.
BEFORE THE FINAL MEAL together, Chief Joe concluded the Gathering symbolically by inviting everyone to stand in a large circle holding hands for a final prayer. His closing words, “Go in peace, be friends, enjoy,” encapsulated the common feeling in the room. The deeper understanding gained through two-eared listening to injustices experienced by Indigenous Peoples was palpable. Two-eared listening had shown itself to be a universal skill across the diversity of those present for respectfully engaging in an active process that is traditionally understood as passive. As truths of injustice were shared, participants listened with intention, opened their minds to new learning, and suspended judgment. They slowed down in order to truly witness the truths, focused on being present, and did not rush toward desired predefined outcomes. The challenge of listening (and not talking) permeated every aspect of The Gathering. Those who planned the event, and those who responded to the invitations to share or to listen, caught a glimpse over three days together of what is possible in establishing a context for the stories and truths of members of multiple Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador to be heard.
Drawing on Palmer (1980), we must listen our way into a new kind of thinking. And this, in turn, can become the basis of reconciled relationships.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with colleagues
Present the term, along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk, to the group you are working with in a staff or committee meeting.
Explain the five components of two-eared listening, then invite them to think about what this will mean for:
Use a talking circle with one round for each topic for colleagues to share their ideas. Finish with a 4th round for each to summarize their key learning from hearing each other’s ideas.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with K–6 students
Present the term two-eared listening along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with 7–12 students
Present the term two-eared listening along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk.
 Traditional Mi’kmaw giveaway.
Acknowledgement: Event funded by SSHRC and Memorial University.
Photo: Bob Brink
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Archibald, J. (2008). Indigenous storywork. UBC Press.
Battiste, M. (2002). Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy in First Nations education: A literature review with recommendations. Apamuwek Institute. www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/pr/pub/krw/ikp_e.pdf
Donald, D. (2022). Personal communication with the author.
Donald, D. (2020). Homo economicus and forgetful curriculum: Remembering other ways to be a human being. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VM1J3evcEyQ
Episkenew, J. (2009). Taking back our spirits: Indigenous literature, public policy, and healing. University of Manitoba Press.
Findlay, G. (2022, March 23). Rome Indigenous archive to open [Radio broadcast transcript]. CBC Radio. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/march-23-2022-episode-transcript-1.6396755
Hager, S. N. & Mawopiyane. (2021). The gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler relations. University of Toronto Press.
Joe, M., vaandering, d., Ricciardelli , R. et al. (2022, July 8). Two-eared listening is essential for understanding restorative justice in Canada. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/two-eared-listening-is-essential-for-understanding-restorative-justice-in-canada-185466
Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative Learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education, (74), 5–12.
Palmer, P. J. (1980). The Promise of Paradox. Ave Maria Press.
Findlay, G. (2022, March 23). As It Happens [Radio broadcast transcript]. CBC Radio. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/march-23-2022-episode-transcript-1.6396755
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015a). Calls to Action. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015b). Canada’s residential schools: Reconciliation. Final Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Waziyatawin. (2005). Relieving our suffering. In W. A. Wilson & M. Y. Bird (Eds.), For Indigenous eyes only (pp. 189–205). School of American Research Press.
IN 2019, THREE of us (Leyton, Joelle, and Carol) attended a conference in San Diego that focused on professional learning networks (PLNs), with a specific emphasis on how they enable educators to “tear down boundaries” to connect and learn with colleagues beyond our own schools. It was a productive meeting of scholars from North America and multiple European countries. The group focused on professional learning, collaborative inquiry, and educational change, sharing varied perspectives. But as we reflected on our learning, we began talking about what wasn’t part of this conversation: the ways in which PLNs can reproduce colonial ways of knowing and being, by:
In fact, little attention has been paid to the colonizing practices and assumptions embedded in the vast majority of professional learning (PL) initiatives (Washington & O’Connor, 2020). Donald (2012) describes the colonial project as one of division, excluding ways of being and knowing as well as value systems that are different from a Eurocentric point of view. Present-day education systems are implicated in this colonial project, where curriculum (a focus on constructing subject areas that privilege a particular type of knowledge), pedagogy (approaches to teaching and instruction), and classroom routines (e.g. grading, grouping) contribute to institutional structures that privilege some students to the expense of others who are often racialized and minoritized within this system (Yee, 2020).
Alas, from these observations, the idea for the Decolonizing Professional Learning event, held in St. John’s, N.L., in August 2022, was born. The 30 participants were educators and researchers from across the country who were already working to develop decolonizing education practices. They were focused on cultivating culturally sustaining, relational pedagogies in ethical relationship with equity deserving communities (Donald et al., 2011; Ermine, 2007). The central goals of the gathering were two-fold:
Ultimately, our goal is to rethink and reconstitute professional learning as a collaboratively constructed, transformative, and decolonial practice.
At the centre of the gathering was the concept of decolonization. Decolonizing professional learning is about decentring settler colonial practices and their curricular and pedagogical Eurocentricities. All levels of education in Canada are working to implement initiatives that respond to the 94 Calls to Action put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015). In turn, terms such as decolonization, reconciliation, and Indigenization are now being taken up in higher education and the K–12 schooling systems.
The scholars and practitioners who attended the gathering came together to discuss their understanding of decolonizing and how they promote this concept in research and professional learning. Some drew on the concept of decolonizing education as intentionally identifying, challenging, and dismantling colonial practices and policies (Lopez, 2021), while others focused on interrogating and unlearning colonial ideologies (Donald, 2022).
The intent of the gathering was not to agree on a single definition of decolonization, but rather to share ideas and create a network for learning in which we move forward together. We came together guided by our “learning spirits” (Battiste, 2013, p. 18), sharing the stories of our collective work to disrupt colonial school systems in our local settings.
There is an assumption of neutrality in professional development approaches; therefore, we sought to disrupt the “typical” conference format when designing this event. We wanted a less hierarchical approach – so instead of having a few presenters deliver an address to a largely passive audience, we offered a series of collaborative experiences. Across the three days, we worked to create space for all participants to share their work within small groups of interested teachers, administrators, and researchers.
The gathering was guided by a series of questions, for example:
Coming together: The event began at a small gathering place at a local park. Mi’kmaw knowledge keepers Sheila O’Neill and Marie Eastman welcomed participants to the traditional territory of the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq. Following introductions, they shared some of the history of the land, discussed the ongoing struggle for the recognition of Indigenous Peoples in the province, and talked about their work with Mi’kmaw communities to strengthen the language and culture.
Small fires: Each day, participants could choose from among three to five “small fires,” each hosted by one of the attendees. In these small groups, the hosts shared their research and practice related to decolonizing professional learning. Each SSHRC-funded participant served as a small fire host on one day of the program.
Sharing circles: Once each day we came together in Sharing Circles. Participants chose one of three different circles – such as mindfulness practice, nature walks, and talking circles – to participate in. Attendees reflected on what they were noticing or wondering, and connections they were making to their own practice. These sharing circles invited deeper conversations about what we heard in the small fires and our experiences in different contexts (K–12 schools, post-secondary institutions, communities).
Writing activities: To support the building of connections within this emerging community, we embedded daily opportunities for collaborative writing. We began by inviting everyone to write about their own decolonizing work. Next we invited people to explore the connections and intersections between their work and the work of others. We hoped that discovering these relationships would encourage continued collaboration and sharing once everyone returned to their communities.
VoicEd panels: Two live-streamed panel discussions were hosted by Stephen Hurley from VoicEd Radio. Colleagues discussed colonization and placelessness, disrupting deficit thinking, inclusion and exclusion, educational change networks, and more. Online participants were encouraged to submit questions to the panel. Recordings of the Decolonizing Professional Learning panels are available on VoicEd Radio.
Final sharing circle: To end the gathering, we all joined in a final circle to share our thoughts about our time together and how we might move forward together. Each person had a turn to share what they thought were key themes, next steps, and opportunities missed. Attendees spoke of forming a network, meeting together virtually and/or in person, writing an edited collection of chapters, presenting together at conferences, and this Education Canada issue.
What was evident to us all was that we had not collectively defined decolonization, and that future collaborations between us need to both honour the diversity of our approaches and include opportunities to define key terms and expectations. In this debrief, participants also surfaced the different aspects of power and privilege we carry and/or do not have in our various roles and contexts. Our identities, roles, and educational change efforts can and must be returned to as part of decolonizing work, and trying to move too quickly to consensus and definitions is counterproductive. This work takes patience and time.
The Decolonizing Professional Learning gathering that took place in Newfoundland was a starting point for what we hope will become a larger conversation and impetus for collaborative action across Canada. There is already some pan-Canadian work that genuinely connects researchers and practitioners with a commitment to educational change and improvement. We know from previous research that a considerable number of professional learning activities are happening across Canada, but there are inequities in access to quality professional learning for people who work in education (Campbell et al., 2017). There is also a need to consider the purpose and content of such professional learning. If educators are to care for all students and support them in developing to their fullest potential, it is essential that professional learning activities for educators are critically examined to ensure that structural inequities are not un/intentionally reproduced.
We are at a moment in time when valuing Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, fulfilling the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and addressing and undoing systemic racism from generations of colonialism and genocide are urgent and essential. This is the call to move forward with conversations to understand and share approaches to decolonizing professional learning and to act together – researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers – for educational equity and improvement in Canada.
An important starting point is for further discussion about the concept of “decolonizing professional learning” itself and the linked work of “unlearning” historically embedded assumptions. As educators, it is our job to continuously learn, but that can be challenging when confronting ingrained colonial ways of seeing and living in the world. We also need to consider what this work looks like in practice. Bringing together practitioners with applied researchers was a beginning, but it is important to share our stories, our evidence, our ideas, and our examples widely. Deprivatizing individual or isolated practices and mobilizing knowledge by sharing in conversations and communications are powerful strategies.
This collection of articles for Education Canada is a way to reach out and call on people across Canada (and beyond) to join in connecting, collaborating, and sharing to advance decolonizing professional learning in and through education.
Photo: Nicholas Ng-A-Fook
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
It is important to share the understandings that guide and frame decolonization work. Below we offer working definitions of some key terms, recognizing that these terms can have different meanings in different contexts.
Decolonization: Decolonization is about decentring Eurocentric, colonial knowledge and practices, and recentring knowledge and world views of those who have been placed on the margins by colonization.
Decolonization involves active resistance to colonial practices and policies, getting rid of colonial structures, and centring and restoring the world view of Indigenous peoples. It demands an Indigenous starting point; Indigenous people will determine appropriate approaches and acts of decolonization. It also involves recognizing the importance of land – in particular, how colonized peoples were cut off from their land and traditions – and the return of land to Indigenous peoples.
Indigenization: Indigenization calls on educational institutions and stakeholders to establish policies, processes, and practices that are led by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples toward ensuring their particular ways of knowing, being and doing are nourished and flourish.
This includes creating opportunities for K–12 school leaders and teachers to learn how to develop and enact curriculum that honours First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples’ histories, perspectives, and contemporary issues. It also calls on school leaders and teachers to embed relational and responsive culturally nourishing pedagogies and curricula as part of the values of their K–12 school community.
Positionality: Positionality refers to one’s identity – how we position ourselves within our society. To identify your own positionality, you need to consider your own power and privilege by thinking about issues of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, educational background, citizenship, and so on.
As educators, our positionality impacts how we make sense of the world and how we engage in it. It takes self-assessment and reflection to identity the ways in which our assumptions and beliefs, as well as our own expressions of power, influence how we (co-)create learning environments in our classrooms and schools.
Systemic racism: Systemic racism refers to the aspects of a society’s structures that produce inequalities and inequities among its citizens and specifically, the institutional processes rooted in White supremacy that restrict opportunities and outcomes for racialized and minoritized peoples.
Systemic racism includes institutional and social structures, individual mental schemas, and everyday ways of being in the world. Schools and school systems must engage in anti-racist education practice to address the systemic issues particular to racialized students.
Unlearning: Unlearning involves removing ideas, practices, and values grounded in coloniality and colonialism from everyday practice.
It is rethinking and reframing what we thought we knew about many aspects of everyday life, including traditions grounded in Eurocentric ways of knowing, and replacing it with decolonized knowledge.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER LEARNING
Culturally Nourishing Schooling for Indigenous Education, University of New South Wales. www.unsw.edu.au/content/dam/pdfs/unsw-adobe-websites/arts-design-architecture/education/research/project-briefs/2022-07-27-ada-culturally-nourishing-schooling-cns-for-Indigenous-education.pdf
Decolonizing and Indigenizing Education in Canada, Eds. Sheila Cote-Meek and Taima Moeke-Pickering. https://canadianscholars.ca/book/decolonizing-and-indigenizing-education-in-canada
Indigenization, Decolonization and Reconciliation (chapter in Pulling Together: A guide for curriculum developers). https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationcurriculumdevelopers/chapter/indigenization-decolonization-and-reconciliation
The UnLeading Project with Dr. Vidya Shah, York University. www.yorku.ca/edu/unleading
Truth and Reconciliation Commission. https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf
Universities and teachers’ associations provide myriad resources to support the development of anti-racist practices in schools. See, for example: www.ualberta.ca/centre-for-teaching-and-learning/teaching-support/indigenization/index.html
Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing education: Nourishing the learning spirit. Purich Publishing Limited.
Campbell, C., Osmond-Johnson, P., et al. (2017). The state of educators’ professional learning in Canada: Final research report. Learning Forward.
Donald, D. (2022, September 19). A curriculum for educating differently: Unlearning colonialism and renewing kinship relations. Education Canada, 62(2). www.edcan.ca/articles/a-curriculum-for-educating-differently/
Donald, D. (2012). Forts, colonial frontier logics, and Aboriginal-Canadian relations: Imagining decolonizing educational philosophies in Canadian contexts. In A. A. Abdi (Ed.), Decolonizing philosophies of education (pp. 91–111). SensePublishers. doi:10.1007/978-94-6091-687-8_7
Donald, D., Glanfield, F., & Sterenberg, G. (2011). Culturally relational education in and with an Indigenous community. Indigenous Education, 17(3), 72–83.
Ermine, W. (2007). The ethical space of engagement. Indigenous Law Journal, 6(1), 193–203.
Lopez, A. E. (2021). Decolonizing educational leadership: Exploring alternative approaches to leading schools. Springer International Publishing AG, ProQuest Ebook Central. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mun/detail.action?docID=6450991
Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education and society,1(1), 1–40. https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/issue/view/1234
Washington, S., & O’Connor, M. (2020). Collaborative professionalism across cultures and contexts: Cases of professional learning networks enhancing teaching and learning in Canada and Colombia. In Schnellert, L. (Ed.), Professional learning networks: Facilitating transformation in diverse contexts with equity-seeking communities. Emerald Publishing Limited.
Yee, N. L. (2020). Collaborating across communities to co-construct supports for Indigenous (and all) students. [Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia.] UBC Library Open Collections. https://open.library.ubc.ca/soa/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0392533
OVER TEN YEARS AGO, the Urban Communities Cohort (UCC) was established at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education to ensure teacher candidates were better prepared to work within urban priority schools (UPS’s). We (a group of professors, school administrators, and educators in the field) saw the need for teacher candidates to be ready to challenge inequities that were pervasive across priority schools. In many ways, the initiative grew out of our collective frustration at the resistance to change throughout the system that is linked to institutional and systemic racism. For example, we observed:
The UCC was originally framed as a way of supporting teacher candidates to engage with students and teachers in UPS’s and to advance their own understanding of equity and social justice. In this article, we trace the evolution of this school/university partnership that began with the UCC and a focus on teacher candidates, and led to further spaces for critical conversations that continue to provoke and support our unlearning and learning. What has emerged over the past decade is more multifaceted than we could have first imagined.
Let’s step back and consider the beginning. Linda, a university researcher and lead author of this article, spent three months immersed in one UPS where she spoke with everyone – students, custodial staff, teachers, and administrators – to gain a critical understanding of the culture of the school (Ibrahim et al., 2012). This school, like the other 32 designated as urban priority schools across Ontario, had very low scores on Grade 9 and 10 literacy and mathematics standardized tests, a history of comparatively high suspensions and expulsions, and a public perception of being a “difficult school,” perhaps even a “failing school.”
The in-depth ethnography revealed what the administrators and educators within the building already knew – that the profile failed to capture the calibre of the educators and students; it missed “who and what we were in the school,” as one staff member put it. The EQAO scores measured where the students were at a point in time, taking no account of where they had come from or their future promise and potential. The school population included newcomers to Canada, along with youth displaced by conflict, who may have spent recent years in refugee camps and who might not have had consistent schooling even in their own language, let alone in English or French. For these students the school was a safe haven, a building with walls as opposed to a tent. Yet if the school was to support all of these students in their learning journeys, there was a critical need for a teaching staff who were better equipped to do this work.
So began the partnership through which teacher candidates and university professors became part of the school community. The UCC supported teacher candidates to develop culturally sustaining, relevant, and responsive pedagogy, and immersed them in urban school communities from day one of their teacher education program. University classes were taught within the building and the school administrators were integral to the teacher candidate’s professional learning – speaking to teacher candidates on the first day of school, walking them through the corridors, welcoming them for their required school-based practicum, inviting them to experience and feel what it takes to become a teacher committed to social change.
Hard Conversations was started by Kristin Kopra, Sherwyn Solomon, and Geordie Walker, who are lead partners in the UCC. This initiative brings together school administrators and university researchers to engage in challenging conversations about what is happening in their schools. Over the past four years, this group has worked outside the school board, gathering in their own time to examine the relevant research, understand their own positionality and roles, grapple with systemic biases within their schools, and most importantly commit to actionable strategies they can take back into their daily practice. Their goal is to first understand and then dismantle systemic barriers so they, as school leaders, can better serve Indigenous, Black, and racialized students, families, and communities. Put simply, group members consider their role in perpetuating inequities and what each individual can do to change practices in their own schools. Kristin, a UPS principal who began as a program lead for Indigenous education, explains why the group was started: “We didn’t do it for any other reason than we need things to change for kids in schools.” Many of the topics taken up in this group focus on the power of administrators and teachers and the damaging choices that the Education Act legitimizes.
Now in its fifth year, the group has grown to well over 70 colleagues engaged in these critical conversations. Membership is open to all and includes school and central administrators, senior staff, managers, University of Ottawa professors, and sometimes teacher candidates. Meetings have varied in frequency and in format, ranging from small group pods to larger university-based weekend-long conferences (including guests such as leading researchers in equity and racism and Indigenous leaders).
An example of the work of the Hard Conversations group is challenging the disproportionate numbers of suspensions for Black, racialized, and Indigenous students. Kristin recalls from her own school’s statistics in her first year that “if we were not the highest, we were the second-highest in the district; ridiculous!” This reflects what Sherwyn refers to as “hard-baked” structural obstacles, where our ignorance gets perpetuated as law. In Ontario’s Education Act the suspension of a student is at the discretion of the principal. While administrators might be well-meaning, Sherwyn underlines, “A principal’s perspective on what is acceptable school conduct and what is not is often colonial in nature, as these emerge from the imperialism that has had an impact on what schools look like across the globe.” There is no learning in a suspension, which reaffirms the exclusion of the student and causes harm that may reverberate for generations. The data speaks for itself in Ottawa schools: if you are Black or Middle Eastern, you are two and a half times more likely to be suspended. Hard Conversations provides a forum where administrators can examine critical questions around the discretionary suspensions for which they have authority, such as: How does removing students from what might be one of their few safe spaces serve already vulnerable students? How might race be playing into our suspension decisions? What will you do differently rather than suspend Black youth? The conversations, critical reflection, and transformations in principal practices emerging from Hard Conversations should be celebrated. But we are mindful that they represent a small initial step within some schools, and that colonialism pervades our education systems and guides decisions and practices that retraumatize those who have already been traumatized. As educators we ask the question, how can we avoid the re-traumatization of marginalized individuals and groups?
In our ongoing university/school partnerships to support teacher education, in-service educators, and youth, we are repeatedly made aware of how each of us is unlearning and re-learning in our work with students, student teachers, and in relations with each other (Donald, D. 2022). We recognize that we are all, regardless of ethnicity and positionality, impacted in our work and relations by colonial structures.
Our conversations bring to the surface what we have been taught and raised to believe – certain narratives about society, about other people, about positionality – and the structures that support these narratives. These histories and understandings have been passed from parents and grandparents and transmitted to us in institutions such as schools and universities. They become what we know to be true. But what happens when we start examining these past truths in light of other realities we see around us, and question if our long-held narratives are true? Geordie, former principal and now part of the UCC teaching team, asks, “Why is it so hard for me as a white person who is a dad to believe it is necessary for my Black friend or Indigenous friend to teach their kids to proceed with extreme caution in police interactions and how to survive an arrest, when that was never part my children’s education or learning?” With this question, he underlines that it starts with the individual journey. He shares that his own decolonization process is about “becoming as educated as you can about the past.” Understanding the past and the present context as educators and as teacher educators requires an openness to examine history, to recognize or acknowledge what culture is, whose it is, the backgrounds of the people in our schools, and how they see their own history from different perspectives.
At Le Phare Elementary School, Sherwyn has established an Equity Advisory Committee, a parent group that names and challenges social injustices and advises on things they would like to see going on at the school. As part of the district and school learning plan, Sherwyn encourages his school community to incorporate more Algonquin teaching, learning, and understanding, as well as more knowledge of the school experience of Black and other marginalized groups. Sherwyn argues that such initiatives go part way to addressing racism like that he experienced in his own childhood as a Black newcomer to Canada – such as having to learn to speak without his Caribbean accent, and the colonial violence he and his family faced as immigrants. Across the school district, student groups, such as the LGBTQ2+, Indigenous, and Muslim student groups among others, are being led by people with that lived experience. This school-based change has not come without resistance, and equity coordinators have had to work tirelessly to demand that, after years of being pushed to the margins as “urban problems,” these groups are placed at the centre stage of education.
Since the beginning of the UCC, decisions made at faculty and program levels have presented structural and other challenges. For example, from the start of UCC, cohort leads worked with school principals to create UPS practicum placements for UCC teacher candidates. Recently this has been discontinued by the Faculty, and UCC teacher candidates find themselves with placements across the spectrum of local schools, while other teacher candidates unaccustomed to urban priority schools are posted in the UCC partner schools. Additionally, we have now seen the community service learning component, where all UCC teacher candidates would become part of the school community at the start of the school year, come to an end. Despite these ongoing challenges, we continued to invest in the UCC by gaining research funds to support critical learning possibilities for educators (pre-service and in-service). In particular, we worked with civics teachers in UPS’s to open up spaces for students to find different points of entry into that course. This was done by inviting students to share their lived experiences – either as newcomers to Canada, as long-time settlers, or as First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples – first and foremost in this course. Working within these diverse contexts, we have attempted to contribute to a decolonizing process by breaking down subject silos and enabling interdisciplinary learning through a pedagogy of relationship building within and beyond the classroom.
After 30 years in education, Geordie perhaps conveys best what education and teacher education might look like in practice: “It is about prioritizing relationships over curriculum, being humble, and learning from kids.” When we think about our own work of unlearning through UCC and Hard Conversations, we envision educators (ourselves, teacher candidates, teachers, and school administrators) coming to education not because we are specialists in a subject, but because first and foremost we want to serve students and build relationships. As educators, we need to be able to put aside our biases and prejudice and embrace whoever comes through our door and provide a sense of belonging for every student in the classroom regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, language, or any other false barriers. In the UCC, we are supporting teacher candidates and teacher educators (ourselves) to engage deeply with teacher identities and lived histories, and to examine the truths and untruths we hold on to. Decolonizing teacher education requires providing opportunities for teacher candidates to build relationships based on care and compassion that prioritize students’ potentials and possibilities and reject deficit thinking.
THE UCC PARTNERSHIP has provided a space for multiple and ongoing hard conversations and professional un/learning across university and school contexts. A decade of critical conversations, research, and collaborative action in the service of students in urban priority schools has transformed our own practices in university and school classrooms. In our shared quest to unlearn taken-for-granted assumptions and “truths,” we continue to challenge ourselves and each other with the responsibilities we have in relations to each other and with students, families, and communities.
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Ibrahim, A., Radford, L. et al. (2012). Urban priority program: Challenges, priorities and hope. Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.
Donald, D. (2022, September 19) A curriculum for educating differently: Unlearning colonialism and renewing kinship relations. Educating Canada, 62(2). https://www.edcan.ca/articles/a-curriculum-for-educating-differently/
ON FEBRUARY 14, 2012, the section of Wellington Street directly in front of Parliament Hill was filled with yellow school buses that stopped to let off the children and teachers who were aboard. As the bus doors opened, children of all ages and backgrounds hopped off onto the snowy sidewalks, carrying colourful homemade signs and wearing buttons and fabric hearts pinned to their jackets. They excitedly walked toward the steps of Parliament to join the hundreds of other students, teachers, and community members who had come to participate in the first annual Have a Heart Day event, one of many First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (Caring Society) reconciliation-based education campaigns. Many of the children chanted, “Equal education for First Nations!” and read speeches they’d written. Others sang songs they’d penned, and hundreds mailed letters they’d written to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, calling on him to treat all children in Canada with love and fairness. The children’s many hand-crafted signs expressed how they felt: “Respect First Nations Children”; “Fight for Equal Rights!”; “Treat First Nations Children Fairly, Please!” Another of the signs that the children held that day stated: “Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t stand tall!”
These children and youth, and their teachers, had been called to action by Shannen Koostachin, who was a youth from Attawapiskat First Nation, a Cree community at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River, on the shores of James Bay in Treaty 9. These lands have been home to the Mushkegowuk Cree for thousands of years, where generations of Mushkegowuk children were educated on the land by their kin prior to the forced removal of their children by the Canadian state to the Indian Residential Schooling system for nearly 90 years (General, 2012). For years, Shannen and her schoolmates had been forced to attend school in temporary portables, after the demolition of the community’s school due to a massive diesel leak. The portables soon became decrepit, with intermittent heat, warped doors, mice infestations, and frozen pipes during the winter. After nine years of waiting for their new school, Shannen and the other children were upset by the federal government’s failure to act. Shannen documented the condition of the school in Attawapiskat and invited other students and their teachers across Canada to write letters to the federal government to get action. Shannen’s leadership resulted in thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children and non-Indigenous children writing letters to elected officials to demand proper schools and education for First Nations students.
When Shannen tragically died in a car accident in 2010, a group of students from Attawapiskat, with support from the Caring Society and Shannen’s family, created the “Shannen’s Dream” campaign, vowing to continue her work so that all First Nations children receive a proper education. On June 22, 2012 – the day Shannen would have graduated from high school – construction began for a new school in Attawapiskat. The school opened in 2014; however, many other First Nations are without proper schools, so Shannen’s Dream continues (Blackstock 2019). Shannen remains an important role model for all children and young people, as she taught us to “get up, pick up your books and keep walking in your moccasins” (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, 2020).
Shannen’s Dream, which has been described as “the largest youth-driven movement in Canadian history” (Angus 2015, p. 2), has grown to include other social justice campaigns put forth by the Caring Society. As a national non-profit organization, the Caring Society aims to ensure First Nations children and their families have culturally based and equitable opportunities to grow up safely at home, be healthy, get a good education, and be proud of who they are. A recognized leader in child and youth activism and reconciliation education, the Caring Society supports the learning of educators and students through three main social justice-based reconciliation campaigns: Shannen’s Dream (equity for First Nations education), Jordan’s Principle (equitable access to government services), and I am a witness (equitable First Nations child welfare). Thousands of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis and non-Indigenous children and youth have participated in these campaigns, and their activism has offered a unique opportunity to advance knowledge about the impacts of reconciliation-based education and provide evidence-based research about how we can best move forward to support professional learning (Blackstock et al., 2018).
Across Canada, teachers and students are doing the work of truth, and then reconciliation, through their learning and actions. While this is significant, our research with teachers tells us that there continues to be hesitation, avoidance, and fear for many educators when approaching this work and a tendency to relegate learning to such days as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, rather than a year-long commitment. Our research project, “Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t stand tall,” seeks to understand how teachers use Caring Society campaigns, such as Shannen’s Dream, in their classrooms, and what the impacts are on their teaching and student learning. Based on our findings, we developed a curriculum and resources that were piloted with a group of teachers. We believe that co-creating professional (un)learning communities that are grounded in sustained relationships over time provides opportunities for teachers to engage with their heads, hearts, and spirits in truth and reconciliation and thus address some of the tensions that teachers often explain as reasons for not doing the work.
Our research project began in 2018 and involves a team of researchers, teachers, community members, activists, and experts in law, medicine, and child rights from around the globe. This team contributes to a reconciliation framework that respects First Nations epistemology and relational ethicality, emphasizes collaboration, and takes a collective inquiry approach to a shared responsibility (Blackstock, 2011). Our research team endeavoured to uphold an ethic of relationality throughout the study, by forming trusting relationships with the members of the teacher pilot group over the year we worked with them. We did this by reaching out several times throughout the year, and offering support at all stages. We invited them to events within the university community, including talks, workshops, and sharing circles. Thus, in seeking to address the TRC Calls to Action in the transformational spirit that they were intended, our research team endeavoured to work with teachers toward “[b]uilding student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect” while “[i]dentifying teacher training needs” and “[s]haring information and best practices” on reconciliation education (TRC, 2015, pp. 238–239). The group of teacher participants who piloted these resources in their classrooms and shared their experiences informed the development of future resources, and have become “Spirit Bear” teacher leaders.
By creating, supporting, and sustaining professional communities of (un)learning with teachers, we hope that our research provides examples of how it is possible, and beneficial, to unsettle teacher professional learning from a one-day workshop-based model toward a sustainable ecosystem of relationships as we unlearn and learn together. Our relationships with teachers have resulted in the upcoming launch of the Spirit Bear Virtual School for Teachers, which will be hosted on the Caring Society’s website. The Spirit Bear Virtual School will be a space where teachers from across Canada can access curriculum and learning guides co-created with teachers; listen to talks by educators experienced in working with the Caring Society’s campaigns; and learn about additional resources that will help them on their journey towards enacting truth and then reconcilia(c)tion education in their classrooms.
Barbara Giroux is a Grade 1 teacher at Holy Family School in Ottawa, Ontario. After taking part in our virtual Spirit Bear Retreat for Teacher Professional Learning in August 2021, Barbara decided to join our pilot group during the 2021–2022 school year. She was hoping to unlearn some of the history she’d learned in school, and by extension, had taught to her students. Through our partnership with the Caring Society, Barbara received a Reconciliation Ambearister to help teach herself and her learners about the ongoing legacies of colonialism, including Residential schools, the Indian Act, and current inequities such as the lack of clean water, education, and services in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. Barbara writes:
“My Grade 1 class embarked on an incredible learning journey with a black and cream bear who came to us as a Reconciliation Ambearister from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. He arrived in a box with the word “puzzles” on it. We took it to mean that he was puzzled to find out about his Algonquin heritage and we would learn along with him, with the help of an Elder for as much time as she could give to us. She gifted our bear the name Makoonse, which means “bear cub” in Algonquin. The Reconciliation Ambearister Program is perfect for us because it could meet us where the children were at, and expected only a willingness for us to learn about the territory and peoples on whose unceded land we reside, to make connections with, and learn from, our partners, and to demonstrate meaningful work for Reconciliation. The Reconciliation Ambearister Program also encourages us to continue our own group learning, particularly as it relates to the local Algonquin First Nation. We have learned that the third moon of the year is the Sugar Moon or ZIISSBAAKDOKE GIIZAS, and represents the Anishinaabe New Year, when the maple sap begins to run. The children enjoyed learning about maple sap as a medicine, and that Nanabush, an Anishinaabe cultural hero, taught us, through stories, that the greatest gift is in the giving. We also learned that the back of a turtle represents the number of lunar cycles in a year, and the length of time in each lunar cycle.”
In the sharing sessions we held over the year with the pilot group, Barbara shared the challenges and struggles she experiences while doing this work. The sharing sessions supported her questions, thinking, and growth as not only a teacher, but as a human being. Although the sessions were virtual due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the teachers who participated remarked how they felt a strong sense of solidarity, friendship, accountability, and mentorship. By connecting with other teachers doing the work of unlearning and truth and then reconcilia(c)tions, teachers received and offered support in sustained and meaningful ways. Barbara shares:
“I had a lot to learn and a lot to teach, and I am humbled and proud to say that this year has been the most rewarding experience of my teaching career, as well as the most challenging. It has been a year of humility; admitting to the children that I am learning along with them; realizing there is no end to how much I have yet to learn; being an actively reflective practitioner and acknowledging where past practice requires a new mindset.”
Barbara recently was awarded the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in teaching for her work with Spirit Bear and her Reconciliation Ambearrister, Makoonse kindergarten curriculum and program. Her example demonstrates that transformational approaches to professional (un)learning and teaching gives life to the head, heart, and spirit. Furthermore, opportunities to engage in (un)learning teacher communities with researchers supports the work of community partners such as the Caring Society, and the thousands of children and youth who are leading the way forward.
An Invitation to Join Us
The work of unlearning colonialism cannot be facilitated in a one-day workshop based on a slideshow presentation or discussion. Teachers must be invited into a community of relations where they feel a sense of belonging, the space to question and wonder, and the opportunity to pose questions and ideas. In the words of Shannen Koostachin, who said, “School is a time for hopes and dreams of the future” (Angus, 2012), we welcome more teachers to join us as we hope and dream for the future of professional (un)learning. We invite you to visit www.fncaringsociety.com/spiritbear to learn more about Spirit Bear, and for updates about the launch of the Spirit Bear Virtual School!
Photo: Barbara Giroux
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Angus, C. (2012, January 10). Shannen Koostachin “Really believed that kids could change the world.” HuffPost Canada. www.huffpost.com/archive/ca/entry/shannen-koostachin-really-believed-that-kids-could-change-the-w_b_1197267
Angus, C. (2015). Children of the broken treaty: Canada’s lost promise and one girl’s dream. University of Regina Press.
Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1–16. https://jswve.org/download/2011-1/spr11-blackstock-Emergence-breath-of-life-theory.pdf
Blackstock, C. (2019, July 16). When will Ottawa end its willful neglect of First Nations children? The Globe and Mail.
General, Z. (2012). Akimiski Island, Nunavut, Canada: An island in dispute [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Waterloo. https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/handle/10012/7022
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
We live and teach in a society that for the most part ignores the brain. For many of us, when we hear the term “wellness” we think about our physical, emotional, and mental health, yet few of us apply the term wellness to our brains. Research into the brain has increased in leaps and bounds over the last forty years. It is time for us to include it in our wellness repertoire.
It’s common knowledge that our sleep, diet, and activity level impact both body and brain health. What’s less commonly understood is how chronic or toxic stress can cause harm to both body and brain. And while we may seek out medical insights when our body manifests symptoms of toxic stress, we are less likely to do so when our brain shows signs of suffering. After all, neurological scars, anatomical changes, and the dismantling of brain architecture cannot be seen with the naked eye. Scientists, in contrast, can see these physical changes on brain scans. Non-invasive technology has revealed that toxic stress can do serious and lasting damage to the brain.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is scientists also have learned, and documented in extensive research, that our brains are innately wired to repair and recover. That said, it is not a quick fix and it is not easy. Returning a brain that has felt trapped in a toxic stress environment to organic brain health requires daily work at evidence-based practices. Reducing and eliminating the destructive effect of chronic stress demands the same kind of activation energy needed to get up off the couch and begin an exercise regime. You need to start slowly or risk injury. You need to believe in yourself in order to muster up the day-in, day-out work of deliberate practice. With commitment, over time you will find your lungs gasping less, your heart pounding less, your muscles strengthening, your resilience increasing, and your stress levels dropping.
Aerobic exercise is not only good for the body, it is immensely curative for a stressed-out brain. It fuels the brain with BDNF, brain-derived neurotropic factor, which neuroscientists see as comparable to fertilizer needed to encourage the birth of new brain cells, grow healthy brain structures, and fuel neural networks. A notable distinction between the body and brain, when it comes to exercise, is that the former can happily run on either a treadmill or a wooded path and still get strong and fit. In contrast, the brain does far better on the wooded path. Brains are hungry for learning on multiple levels. Along with the documented stress reduction of “forest bathing,” the path out in nature feeds the brain’s craving for challenges, surprises, and changes. There are few things better for the brain’s balance system than being thrown a rock or root on the path that requires it to do a rapid adjustment. Comparably, playing a sport combines aerobic exercise with further brain challenges. Competition that revolves around exercise is ideal for a brain that needs to train social-emotional connections, expand peripheral vision, hone focus, work the memory, and make split-second decisions.
Targeted brain training can also provide a boost to an educator’s overall wellness. A role model for what can be attained in terms of brain fitness is American quarterback Tom Brady. At 45 years old, he’s competing with 22-year-old professional athletes and outperforming them. Not only does he do daily physical fitness training, but he also does the BrainHQ online program designed by neuroscientists. While the market has many programs, I am highlighting this one because it is backed by extensive independent research from top-level institutions and individuals. Many programs promise to increase brain performance, but they lack research to back up their claims.
Other high performers who put the brain front and centre of their wellness program are basketball players Michael Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant. However, rather than targeted brain training, they practiced mindfulness with their team. The goal of their former coach, Phil Jackson, was to build a team that was so mindfully and empathically connected they could go into a flow state when playing regardless of the pressure they were under. They were trained by mindfulness expert George Mumford, and they went on to earn 11 NBA championships.
As documented in extensive research, mindfulness effectively calms the stress that triggers the sympathetic nervous system. The slow, purposeful breathing signals to the brain that it is safe and activates the parasympathetic response known as “rest and digest.” This lowers the stress hormone cortisol, which can become very harmful to brain and body health if it is being frequently released by the many stressors faced by educators and students. Despite a busy schedule, carving out time to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is an evidence-based investment that comes with multiple rewards. Mindfulness practitioners are responsive, not reactive; they’re more calm and creative; they feel more grounded and happier; they have better physical and mental health.
In our stressed lives we feel we cannot add another thing, but creating time for exercise, brain training, and mindfulness is a game-changer in terms of wellness that includes the brain. As educators, we are in the privileged position of being able to role model wellness for students and share with them what we practice. Imagine how much healthier, happier, better regulated, calmer, and less reactive students would be if they too had time each day for aerobic fitness, targeted brain training, and mindfulness. According to leading neuroscientists, these lessons in wellness are arguably the most important ones we need our students to learn. Prioritizing teacher and student wellness that includes the brain creates a foundation from which great learning can occur. Without it, lessons can be quickly lost to toxic stress.
The ability of scientists to see the brain via non-invasive technology needs to change the way educators understand threats to their own wellness and safety, as well as student wellness and safety. Schools are well-prepared and assessed regularly by experts when it comes to the risk of fire, but we have more work to do to ensure that teachers and students are not suffering from activated stress response systems and the damage caused by high cortisol levels. Chronically stressed educators and students not only suffer harm, they can also pass on their stress to others. As seen on brain scans, frequently released cortisol can turn a plush healthy hippocampus into a shrivelled lump. The hippocampus is an area of the brain engaged in learning, memory, tagging memories with emotion, and storing memories. If it is being bathed in cortisol, an educator may struggle to teach and a student may struggle to learn. Wellness is compromised for both adults and children. According to leading researchers Martin Teicher, Tracy Vaillancourt, and Bessel van der Kolk, harm to the brain from bullying and abuse creates much too high levels of cortisol and can leave neurological scars on the brain.
Shining a spotlight on harm to the brain from adversity and trauma supports a holistic understanding of wellness and encourages daily practices to enhance brain recovery and health. Having informed discussions as educators and sharing this knowledge with students enhances social-emotional relations, self-regulation, and overall learning. It is especially valuable since neuroscientists are well-informed about ways to return brains back to organic health after adversity. Evidence-based practices such as aerobic exercise, targeted brain training, and mindfulness can repair and restore brains so even students who have adversity in their past or present can be empowered to care for their brain.
The greatest way to share this important knowledge is by engaging in it personally, role-modelling it, and embodying it. This is where teachers can be allies in bringing about a brain-fitness revolution. Teachers who prioritize wellness that includes their brain can do a great deal to support student wellness.
Many workplace well-being initiatives in Canadian school districts originally developed approaches focusing on the individual, such as mindfulness, improving sleep patterns, doing more exercise, and improving diets. This approach was critiqued as limited by those who felt such a focus ignored systemic factors, like class size and workload, that can impact teacher and staff well-being. As Chelsea Prax, programs director of children’s health and well-being at the American Federation of Teachers, said in an Education Week article:
“You can’t deep-breathe your way out of a pandemic; you cannot stretch your way out of terrible class sizes; you cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems. Those are effective coping measures, but they don’t change the problem”
The notion of systemic change in some literature states or implies system transformation: radical overhauls of K–12 school systems to replace allegedly creaking systems with brand-new models in a brave new world. Well, brave new worlds come and go. Concepts and trends emerge, peak, and falter, yet education systems somehow continue, adapting and evolving. Or not, depending on your perspective.
In the world of workplace well-being, the notion of systems change is gaining greater credibility as an approach to improving staff well-being. Corporate Canada recognizes that organizations need to change and adapt to promote employees’ mental health, yet it can be argued that provincial governments and school districts have been slow to focus on their systems rather than on individuals when addressing workplace well-being in Canadian schools. So how to consider systems change concepts that provide direction for systemic implementation to improve workplace well-being?
Let’s consider what we mean by systemic implementation by looking at three ways to change systems:
This might include allocations for staff with responsibilities for staff well-being within or beyond the domain of district HR departments. It might mean focusing on workplace well-being in strategic plans and budgets, so that well-being is central to planning and funding, moving it away from the periphery to the core business of school districts. A focus on all staff – teachers, administrators, support and exempt staff – also suggests a major structural change in terms of focus.
Changing policies, administrative procedures, and guidelines to address well-being can send both a powerful signal and impact educators’ work and the expectations placed on them. Such policies might be at a provincial or district level, establishing priorities, directions, and values.
This concept is emerging as one possible strategy for creating systemic change. As enablers, school districts fund, support, and disseminate collaborative and facilitated approaches to workplace well-being, which are intended to permeate a system over time rather than mandate one-off approaches that may or may not be implemented or sustained. In some provinces, union grants can also be applied to support collaborative inquiry into workplace well-being, which potentially positions unions as enablers of systemic action. With some co-ordination, district and union actions could combine to systemically address workplace well-being issues.
Enabling systemic action may be considered “slow” systemic change, requiring staff buy-in and participation, but it may be more sustainable than policy mandates over the long term.
Some of these approaches have been documented and are accessible on EdCan’s Well at Work website
(https://k12wellatwork.ca) and on the B.C. K–12 Staff Well-being Network’s site (https://bc.k12wellatwork.ca).
We suggest that systemic action is possible through these three channels: structural change, policy initiatives, and school districts/unions acting as enablers of actions that can become systemic.
By combining these three approaches, school districts can include but move beyond a focus on the individual to create a sense of shared responsibility through collaborative actions and systemic change. The combination of approaches might also help to bridge the gap between unions and governments/districts if more ways can be found to introduce systemic change initiatives that address workload issues.
As we expand our scope and focus, we hope to share what we learn, and to learn ourselves from multiple jurisdictions about approaches to improving workplace well-being. Join us!
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
A growing number of school districts in several provinces are participating in a new EdCan Well at Work project (https://k12wellatwork.ca/advisors). This provides advisors to school districts wanting to further their workplace wellbeing efforts with the support of external expertise, acting as advisors and “critical friends.” We have developed a concept that includes individual approaches to wellbeing but goes beyond to propose and attempt new collaborative and systemic approaches to improve wellbeing of all staff in Canada’s K–12 schools.
Developed by the EdCan Network, Well at Work supports education leaders across Canada to develop and implement system-wide strategies to improve K-12 workplace wellbeing for the long term – all while mobilizing a network of passionate educators, researchers, practitioners, and stakeholder groups.
Well at Work offers an advisory service, professional learning, and resources.
Alberta Education. (2018). Superintendent leadership quality standard. Government of Alberta. www.alberta.ca/professional-practice-standards.aspx#jumplinks-3
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (n.d.). Mental health in schools strategy. Government of British Columbia. www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/erase/documents/mental-health-wellness/mhis-strategy.pdf
College of Alberta School Superintendents. (2020). Workplace wellness. https://cass.ab.ca/resources/wellness/
College of Alberta School Superintendents. (2021). Practice profiles. https://cass.ab.ca/resources/practice-profile
Naylor, C. (2020). The Powell River Learning Group: Improving professional relationships. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nSs5ZGmqQkYWCxqio42JehlV473kqm_l/view
Will, M. (2021, Sept. 14). Teachers are not OK, even though we need them to be: Administrators must think about teacher well-being differently. Education Week. www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-not-ok-even-though-we-need-them-to-be/2021/09
Ten-year-old Kate Sergieiva and her mother, Olga, still remember the blasts of Russian bombs dropping on their hometown of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine as they fled on February 24, 2022. It took three months in Moldova, Armenia, and Bulgaria before they arrived in Toronto, where Kate was able to attend school.
Olga, a single mother, worried that Kate’s transition to school in Canada would be traumatic. She says that Kate is still frightened by noises, loudspeakers, and people in uniforms. Kate worries about friends and family in Vinnytsia, where Russian missiles have destroyed their neighborhood and killed dozens of people. She relives the trauma of the bombing.
“We have this scary feeling,” Olga says. “You think every moment that it could happen again.”
But Kate loved her month in Grade 5 in Toronto and can’t wait to return in September. The teacher was very welcoming, she says, and all her classmates wanted to lend her their computers and play with her. She is glad they didn’t ask her about the war. “I am happy not to talk about it… I don’t want to bring the sad news to everyone.”
But Kate says another Ukrainian in her class was lonely because he could not understand English. The language barrier prevented him from integrating, she says. “It was much harder for him, and he mostly ignored the lessons.”
Kate’s story shows that while children arriving from war zones have things in common, each child is different and they can face different barriers to education. Teachers must create learning environments that are not only welcoming, but also equitable and inclusive.
New students with refugee status in Canada have legal access to resources, protection, and funding. Since Russia’s latest invasion, many Ukrainian children have arrived in elementary and secondary classrooms across the country. However, Canada has not granted refugee status to Ukrainians arriving during this recent conflict, instead offering a temporary settlement program, which for some has made their settlement process more precarious and uncertain.
Ukraine has made efforts to prioritize access to education for all children, especially since February’s invasion, yet many who have been forced to flee remain without access to school (Brookings, 2022). Ukrainian children have experienced prolonged exposure to violence and conflict, particularly since 2014 when Russia invaded and occupied the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and large swathes of the oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk (also known as the Donbas). Many children have had to cope with the trauma, and for them close attachments to family, caregivers, and educators are most critical for their psychosocial wellbeing (Bogdanov et al., 2021).
Multilingual learners adapting to a new landscape also need socio-emotional support in their transitions. For instance, traumas suffered by students from conflict zones need to be considered when teaching about topics that could trigger students to feel oppression or exclusion (Parker, 2021). Such social and emotional burdens make learning that much more challenging.
The welcoming process for displaced students has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. E-learning, social distancing, and wearing face masks have taken their toll on students worldwide, leaving many to feel disconnected and disengaged (Zakaria, 2021).
Many teachers across Canada have experience with refugee students joining their classrooms. They are faced with the challenge of differentiating their instruction to meet the needs of each student. However, addressing the needs of refugee and newly arrived students who have experienced the trauma of war is an additional challenge that many teachers may feel ill equipped to handle. The challenge is amplified by a lack of support from varying levels of the education system, including uneven resource distribution across schools, inadequate communication about the needs of these students, and few professional development opportunities.
Identifying and responding involves taking the time to understand the students’ lived experiences. Below, we offer background for supporting newly arrived Ukrainian students and pedagogical support for creating inclusive classrooms.
To address the barriers facing students arriving from conflict zones, we suggest some essential practices teachers can implement.
While these factors highlight what teachers can do to support newly arrived students’ readiness to learn, more resources and training opportunities from the different levels of the Canadian education system are needed (Clark, 2017).
Restorative justice in education (RJE) offers a framework for supporting the inclusion of students who have resettled from a war zone and helping them address their internalized trauma. Used with equity-focused and trauma-informed (see sidebar) approaches (Brummer, 2020), RJE pedagogies (such as intentional relationship building, dialogue exercises, circles, and conferencing) contribute to building the safe and welcoming community that students deserve in Canada. With a restorative approach, students are not passive members of the classroom who follow the social direction of the educator, but instead become responsible, active participants in maintaining harmony with their peer community as they engage in relationship-building.
Many teachers fear speaking about young people’s traumatic experiences. Their fears are amplified by a lack of training and support from administrators, colleagues, and communities. However, research shows that when teachers take the time to get to know their students and help them process traumatic experiences through relational connection and affirmations, their relationships with each other and with the class community deepen (González, 2015; Parker-Shandal, forthcoming). Teaching students about current issues from neutral perspectives is traditionally risky for teachers; however, ignoring or glazing over them could invalidate the experiences of some students. Teachers can use dialogue exercises and circles to help facilitate conflictual conversations, while being attune to students’ feelings and questions as they process this difficult situation.
For students arriving from conflict and war zones, building healthy relationships means creating a container for dialogue and understanding of the experiences that students bring to the classroom. The sooner educators can foster deep listening skills and develop a culture of valuing each other in the classroom, the easier integration and inclusion becomes.
Develop and sustain relational connections and community
Global conflicts have infiltrated classrooms as conversations emerge based on misinformation about the pandemic, white supremacy, and this most recent genocide in Ukraine. Developing strategies to support students’ mental health and wellbeing has become part of an ongoing commitment during the pandemic. These strategies need to continue developing and being applied, especially for students from conflict zones. Focusing on the individual experiences of students, using multilingual pedagogy in teaching strategies, and prioritizing relationships through restorative justice pedagogies are all strategies teachers can use to facilitate the integration of students and contribute to creating space for peace-building in times of conflict.
Refugee Story Bank of Canada provides first-hand accounts of people who sought refuge in Canada, which could be used in lessons about refugees and autoethnographic narrative writing. This site will soon feature lesson plans and educator resources for using these narratives in K–12 classrooms.