MEDICINE HAT PUBLIC School Division (MHPSD) is a medium-sized public-school jurisdiction in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Serving 850+ employees and 7,000 students, the division delivers inclusive education to 18 schools, all within the city limits. It is the division’s belief that fostering a culture of wellness will lead to increased staff engagement and positive student outcomes. In 2017, MHPSD Superintendent Mark Davidson requested that a wellness committee be created to support this work. Executive leadership and the Board of Trustees adopted “fostering a culture of wellness” as one of four universal division goals. Superintendent Mark Davidson explains:
“Our system has been very intentional in our focus on wellness as one of four ‘universal’ system goals. This decision flows from our understanding that all who form our learning community come to school, work, or their family relationships with individual needs in terms of health. Mental health has, for too long, been treated as if it was something to avoid discussing, or to be ashamed of. We, at Medicine Hat Public School Division, understand that proactive action to support the health of our community creates safer and healthier learning environments for all.”
Human Resources and Student Services collaborated to create the Be Well, Employee Wellness Program. Initially, the work was siloed into “staff” and “student” categories with assigned champions for each. Wellness Champions were assigned to staff wellbeing and Health Champions were assigned to student wellbeing. An employee engagement survey was sent out to all staff and received 416 responses, about a 50 percent response rate. The survey indicated that most respondents (71 percent) were not aware of any supports or resources offered by the division to assist in their health and wellbeing, and the majority (73 percent) had experienced significant work-related negative stress at some point in the previous six months. Just over half (55 percent) of respondents rated their wellbeing as “good” or “great” and ten percent identified as significantly struggling. When asked what employees would like to see as a support or resource from their employer, the top answers received were on-site or division-sponsored yoga and fitness classes, mindfulness and meditation resources, healthy sleep supports, and on-site influenza vaccination clinics.
The Be Well, Employee Wellness Committee created four pillars for the 2018–2019 school year with these categories as the focus. Wellness Champions were assigned an initiative to promote throughout a designated time frame during that school year (e.g. on-site influenza clinics were held September to November). In October 2018, I started with the division as the Health and Wellness Manager, Human Resources. As a registered nurse with a background in disability management and passion for positive health outcomes, I brought a different perspective to wellbeing in K–12 education. My role as the Health and Wellness Manager is to oversee the division’s employee wellness, disability management, and attendance support programs.
The division recognized that wellness was much more than yoga and meditation, though these can be important factors in maintaining personal wellness. Equally, if not more, important was identifying the cause of absenteeism and addressing how the division could support staff when they were unwell. As the Chair of the employee wellness committee, I support schools with connections to community resources, small amounts of designated wellness funding, and division-wide communications to promote initiatives. In addition to the wellness work, one of my first deliverables as the Health and Wellness Manager was the creation and implementation of an Attendance Support Program and Disability Management Program. The goal of these programs is to help employees who require accommodation(s) at work and to create sustainable plans for those who have high amounts of casual sick leave. Absenteeism for medical-related leaves had steadily risen between 2015 and 2018, with the number of workdays missed increasing by 52 percent in that time. Directly associated with that were rising financial costs to the division and increased workload for those remaining at work.
Disability Management is a proactive workplace process that allows employers to support employees with physical and mental health issues while they are at work; or, if they require a leave of absence, it also promotes an employee’s early and safe return to work, with a primary focus on minimizing the impact of injuries or illnesses on employees, employers, and society as a whole. The division recognized that, regardless of the cause of an employee illness or injury, facilitating a supportive and early return to work was essential for employees to sustain their working relationship and continue to provide quality, consistent services to students and families. In the first year of implementing these programs, the division saw an eight-and-a-half percent reduction in medical–related leaves, and numerous other employees received accommodations and supports, such as reduced work hours or a temporary change in work duties, to maintain their wellbeing and sustain regular employment. The 2019–2020 school year saw additional challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic; however, MHPSD staff demonstrated high levels of resilience, and absenteeism levels decreased by another ten percent including COVID-19 related leaves. Data from 2020–2022 is skewed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and cannot be considered reliable.
In May 2019, a follow-up employee engagement survey received 325 responses, about a 40 percent response rate. In this survey, 68 percent of respondents indicated they knew of the supports and resources available to them through the division; however, many expressed they were less familiar with the proactive health solutions available, such as nutritional coaching or stress management through the Employee and Family Assistance Program. The results also showed a 38 percent increase in the culture of wellness across the division; 87 percent of respondents felt the division placed a high value on wellness, compared to 63 percent in 2017.
However, when asked about feelings of negative stress, 37 percent of respondents stated they had missed work at least once in the previous 12 months due to work-related stress, and 48 percent of respondents stated they experienced stress or burnout to a point where they had considered quitting their job. The top–cited reasons for this were job demands and student behaviours, followed by struggles with work-life balance.
I met with the Associate Superintendent of Student Services, Tracy Hensel, and together we reviewed both the quantitative and qualitative data. We identified student behaviour as an indicator of staff wellness (and vice versa). Similarly, staff requests for professional development and training to assist in managing diverse and complex needs, also showed a relationship between staff wellness and student behaviours. It was a bit like the chicken or egg debate – what came first? Were student behaviour issues a cause or contributor to decreased staff wellness, or was decreased staff wellness a cause or contributor to student behaviour issues? Regardless, there is a direct relationship between employee wellness and student wellness. It was evident that the “one-size-fits-all” wellness committee approach was not working, and that the system could not separate “employee wellness” from “student wellness.”
The focus, we decided, should be on Comprehensive School Health; an internationally recognized framework to support the whole school community including staff, students, and families (Alberta Health Services, 2023), and individualized health and wellness planning for each school (see Figure 1).
Alberta Health Services. (2023). Process for building healthy school communities using the components of Comprehensive School Health. Government of Alberta.
Comprehensive School Health Teams (CHST) have been created at every work site. These teams consist of:
Teams meet every six weeks with discussions focused on their school-specific needs, and ideas or initiatives to promote health and wellbeing for all. Some of the initiatives align with division events such as anti-bullying awareness, mental health week, or Pride month, however, many initiatives are a direct response to themes or trends being noticed in the schools. These include such topics as staff connection and recognition ideas, student leadership and belonging initiatives, or connecting parent councils with school leaders or community professionals to discuss topics brought forth by families such as social media use, youth mental health, and nutrition. Administrators record and send their meeting minutes to the Health and Wellness Manager, and I review them to identify any additional resources or supports that could be offered from the division level.
In 2022, I partnered with a local School Health Promotion Facilitator from Alberta Health Services. Together we arranged meetings with each Comprehensive School Health Team to complete the Canadian Healthy School Standards (Canadian Healthy Schools Alliance, 2021) survey and obtain baseline school data. Executive leadership also attended these meetings to show support for this work. During these survey sessions, it was evident that every school had their own needs, cultures, and values, and the survey sparked excellent conversation between stakeholders. Once completed, survey results showed that 76 percent of MHPSD schools are “Mastering” the Healthy School Standards, 12 percent are “Accomplishing” and another 12 percent are “Developing.” Overall, Comprehensive School Health Teams felt that strong community partnerships are in place, staff are engaged in being wellness leaders, individual schools feel they have autonomy to make decisions pertinent to them, and all stakeholders understand the importance of a whole-school approach.
The process also identified areas for growth. These were:
Looking forward, all schools will complete the Healthy School Standards survey each spring as part of their Comprehensive School Health planning. The division has also committed to review and implement a formal Psychological Health and Safety plan, with Executive Leadership, Comprehensive School Health Teams, and the Joint Health and Safety Committee being key stakeholders in pursuing this work.
MHPSD has intentionally invested time, human resources, and funding to foster a culture of wellness for all of its members. The creation of Comprehensive School Health Teams, onboarding of a Health and Wellness Manager, implementation of programs to address wellness, and collaborative partnerships with community groups are just a few ways in which they have chosen to support their wellness goal.
“Medicine Hat Public School Division is proud of the efforts we have made, and will continue to make, in support of the health of our learning community. While it is hard to disaggregate the impact of this work from all of the other steps we have taken, we are convinced that our efforts have had a positive impact on staff efficacy and student learning.” – Superintendent Mark Davidson, MHPSD
Fostering a culture of wellness requires more than creating a single wellness committee or providing staff with a wellness PD Day; it is a culmination of efforts from all stakeholders to create a safe and inclusive environment and to tackle the hard and uncomfortable tasks head on. The division’s wellness plan is fluid and constantly evolving to meet the needs of its communities. It is unknown what tomorrow will bring, but MHPSD will continue to be all-in to support the wellbeing of their staff, students, and community members.
*This is part of Well at Work’s Stories of Success Webinar Series, which profiles the many ways that school districts across Canada are fostering workplace wellbeing.
Alberta Health Services. (2022). The CSH framework. Government of Alberta. https://schools.healthiertogether.ca/en/learn/the-csh-framework
Canadian Healthy Schools Alliance. (2021). Canadian Healthy School Standards.
First published in Education Canada, September 2023
On behalf of the Association of Canadian Deans of Education (ACDE)
We are living in a time of uncertainty, stress, and exhaustion. Our world is facing literal and metaphorical fires, encompassing environmental crises, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the spread of political and religious extremism, escalating violence and war, fragile economies and rising inflation, famine, poverty, and food insecurity.
Education is in the midst of its own profound “crisis of climate.” Teaching and learning cannot flourish in an alienating and inhospitable landscape. Canada and other world partners have set an ambitious goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 to tackle the global environmental climate crisis. What ambitious goals are addressing the climate crisis in education for Education 2050 and beyond? Arguing that the “current disruption has changed education forever,” the Association of Canadian Deans of Education met to signal “educational priorities… and where investment is needed in teacher education, teachers and research as a recovery strategy” (2020, p. 3).
Schools are ecosystems where children bring their own histories, knowledge, and experiences. These ecosystems have distinct cultures, structures, and access to resources. The wellbeing of children depends upon having consistent “attuned, non-stressed and emotionally reliable caregivers” (Maté & Maté, 2000, p. 101). However, in the present context, many children, families, and teachers are struggling.
Beista, Priestley et al., (2015) have been studying educational ecosystems for many years. Their interest stems from the fact that as global policies have been adopted, teachers have been positioned as agents of change. However, rather than seeing agency simply as the individual capacity that teachers may or may not possess, they understand meaningful agency as a part of the ecology of the school systems within which teachers practise. Embedding agency within an existing ecosystem clarifies that we are all complicit in the conditions we create for teaching and learning to thrive – or to wither.
An educational ecosystem is far more than a collection of physical spaces, policies, and curriculum documents. To empower teachers and bring about positive change, a clear vision is necessary. This involves meaningful engagement with parents, community members, school psychologists, healthcare providers, educational assistants, teacher education students, and teacher education providers. Recognizing the critical role each of these stakeholders plays is necessary for the wellbeing of students’ physical, social-emotional, intellectual, and mental health.
A critical habitat is essential for children to thrive. Recognizing the lasting impact of the current disruption on education, a thriving environment ensures safety, support, and equitable access to resources like technology and the internet. It upholds the rights of the children (UN General Assembly, 1989) and honours the provisions for francophone and minority language education (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982). It responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action. Educators play a vital role in the recovery, but without strategic and sustainable investment, they face additional risks.
Globalization has led to an emphasis on competition, excellence, and individualism in education. Despite well-documented disparities, the focus on “recovery” is trained narrowly on “learning gaps” and concern about “falling behind.” Ignoring the critical habitat effectively undermines efforts to close those gaps or achieve higher test scores. The needs of historically marginalized students and families have too often been debated, thwarted, or ignored.
Treating the educational system as a “market” undermines educational ecosystems, prioritizing shareholders over stakeholders. Government involvement in seeking market solutions to public policy problems diverts financial resources to for-profit businesses from schools. An emphasis on testing, for example, driven by the financial interests of publishing companies, devalues educators’ ongoing assessments. The shift redirects efforts toward test scores and global reputation over holistic growth.
When changes in education are subject to short-term, politically driven reactions, the gaze is fixed on the desires of electors with special interests, over the concrete needs of children and educators. Policies emerging from such a limited view can destabilize progress and can entrench traumatizing social conditions, leaving teachers without the agency, autonomy, purpose, and sense of meaning that leads to wellness and motivation. As key resources in the ecosystem, educators and teacher education providers must play a vital role in policy and curriculum planning and decisions.
Many parts of the world, with Canada now among them, have been crippled by a teacher shortage. When the environment in schools is neglected, and calls for support, resources, and safety measures are ignored (or promised but never realized), it can lead to despondence, positioning educators as disseminators of decisions made elsewhere (Hibbert & Iannacci, 2005). When teachers feel ignored, under-resourced, or undervalued, they leave the profession (Bryant et al., 2023).
For example, educators are the front-line witnesses to systemic racism and equity. The crisis of climate in education has revealed new depths of inequity. Interpersonal and structural violence became more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Building safe and trusting relationships is critical as we re-orient students to being in community, developing social-emotional capacity and recovering from their experiences over the past few years. The mental health needs of both teachers and students must be supported.
To build a safe and more sustainable educational ecosystem, we must prioritize the physical spaces, culture, and climate of schools. Schools ought to model advanced standards in air and water quality, as these factors impact students’ health, concentration, and comfort in learning. Implementing energy efficient and accessible technologies should be a basic requirement to demonstrate care for students and responsible use of resources. All curricula should incorporate cultural safety and human rights principles. By learning in schools that exemplify these shared goals, students can better connect what they learn with what they observe in a safe and sustainable world.
Cree scholar Dwayne Donald argues that “ethical relationality is an ecological understanding of human relationality that does not deny difference, but rather seeks to more deeply understand how our different histories and experiences position us in relation to each other” (2009, p. 6). Bringing a compassionate curiosity that positions us all as part of an interconnected whole – where one cannot thrive without the other – holds promise for developing the trauma consciousness that is so desperately needed to move beyond the damage sustained from years of neglect. The core vision and commitments cannot be subject to change with each new government. Rather, they must address a “security of place” (Neef et al., 2018) that prioritizes a healthier, sustainable and long-term vision and investment in our Canadian educational future – and the futures of all children who participate in these systems.
Refugees, migrants, and immigrants are choosing Canada as a safe place to educate their children. One need only read the news to see that that “safety” can be disingenuous for some populations. We know that “students’ relationships with their teachers are vital to their academic learning and psychosocial development” (Smith & Whitely, 2023, p. 96). Those relationships are made more fragile when the teacher’s own needs are not being met.
“How do we help children achieve and develop to the limits of their potential, particularly those who struggle most in an industrialized system of education that struggles to accommodate individual needs and challenges?” (p. 101). This process begins by establishing a caring relationship between educators and students. However, it is crucial for educators to operate within a caring environment and a system that genuinely values the education and wellbeing of children beyond their future economic contributions. Achieving this requires intellectual humility, collaboration, and investment as education is prioritized and valued for the significant role it plays in all our social futures.
Association of Canadian Deans of Education. (2020). Teaching and teacher education: Preparing for a flourishing post-pandemic Canada. ACDE.
Biesta, Priestley, M., & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher agency: an ecological approach. Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, Plc. doi.org/10.5040/9781474219426
Bryant, J., Ram, S., et al. (2023). K-12 teachers are quitting. What would make them stay? McKinsey & Company.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11.
Donald, D. (2009). Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts. First Nations Perspectives, 2(1), 1–24.
Government of Canada, (n.d.). Net-zero emissions by 2050.
Hibbert, K., & Iannacci, L. (2005). From Dissemination to discernment: The commodification of literacy instruction and the fostering of “good teacher consumerism.” The Reading Teacher, 58(8), 716–727.
Maté, G., & Maté, D. (2022). The myth of normal: trauma, illness and healing in a toxic culture. Alfred A. Knopf Canada.
Neef, A., Benge., L., et al. (2018). Climate adaptation strategies in Fiji: the role of social norms and cultural values. World Development, 107, 125-137.
Smith, J. D. & Whitley, J. (2023). Teaching with acceptance and commitment: Building teachers’ social-emotional competencies for teaching effectiveness. The Educational Forum, 87(1), 90–104. doi: 10.1080/00131725.2022.2053620
UN General Assembly. (1989). Convention on the rights of the child. Treaty Series, 1577, 3. United Nations.
First published in Education Canada, September 2023
HOW DO WE INFUSE INDIGENOUS perspectives into our work on educator wellbeing and workplace wellness? This is the question our writing team asked ourselves as we began working on the book, Teacher, Take Care: A guide to wellbeing and workplace wellness for educators. We wanted to infuse Indigenous knowledge throughout the book as a means of widening the lens on what it means to be well. Our Elder, Stanley Kipling, and Knowledge Keeper, Richelle North Star Scott, guided us in this process, using the Sacred Hoop as a model for wellbeing. We used this image as a foundation for understanding how to find balance and harmony within ourselves and within our schools. This article will explore the Sacred Hoop, its meaning, and the ways in which we have applied it to educator wellbeing and workplace wellness.
“The circle [Sacred Hoop], being primary, influences how we as Indigenous peoples view the world. In the process of how life evolves, how the natural world grows and works together, how all things are connected, and how all things move toward their destiny. Indigenous peoples see and respond to the world in a circular fashion and are influenced by the examples of the circles of creation in our environment. They represent the alignment and continuous interaction of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realities. The circle shape represents the interconnectivity of all aspects of one’s being, including the connection with the natural world. [Sacred Hoops] are frequently believed to be the circle of awareness of the individual self; the circle of knowledge that provides the power we each have over our own lives (Dumont, 1989).”
Image from Teacher, Take Care: A guide to well-being and workplace wellness for educators, by Jennifer E. Lawson. Copyright 2022, Reproduced with permission from Portage & Main Press.
We each have our own definition of wellness, whether we have articulated it or not. One understanding of holistic health and harmony is reflected in the Sacred Hoop. The Sacred Hoop is a representation of how some Indigenous Peoples view the world. It is also known by other names, such as Cosmological Circle, Circle Teachings, Hoop Teachings, Medicine Wheel, or Wheel Teachings. (Many Indigenous communities are trying to break free from using references to the Medicine Wheel and Wheel Teachings, as these are colonial terms.) There are many different perspectives on the Sacred Hoop, depending on nation, territory, and personal interpretations. A common theme, as represented in the Sacred Hoop by the Four Directions, is that wellness involves the whole person – their Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual selves. The Sacred Hoop shown here is the one that Elder Kipling and North Star are most familiar with. It supports their thoughts and ideas and has shaped the teachings they have received throughout their lives. When using the Sacred Hoop, it also is a reminder that we are not perfect – that as individuals we will go around the Sacred Hoop many times in our lifetime and that we are never done our healing. Wellness is not a destination, so we must think of it as endless teachings as we venture through life.
In the Sacred Hoop, the Physical dimension is represented by babies and children, as their physical bodies do much growing and learning when they are new to this world. The Golden Eagle sits in the East as a teacher of unconditional love for our children. The colour yellow represents the rising sun and the gift of a brand-new day. Nourishing a healthy body through exercise, nutrition, and sleep are ways to promote physical wellness.
The Emotional dimension is represented by teenagers, who experience a wide range of emotions during a time of hormone changes in their lives. The Wolf sits in the South as a teacher of humility. As true leaders, wolves are humble. Although often misrepresented as wild and dangerous animals by settlers, they care for the pack even if it means their needs are not met. The colour red represents the red-hot emotions we may have during this life stage. We are teaching emotional wellness when we allow ourselves and others to experience feelings in a safe environment. Expressing emotions is a natural way to bring ourselves back into balance.
The Mental dimension is represented by adults, who spend much of their time in cognitive thought. Actually, they also often overthink and then worry about the decisions they have to make or the consequences of the decisions they have already made. The Black Bear sits in the West as a teacher of courage, as it takes courage to go deep within our minds and learn about patterns that no longer serve us. The colour black represents our minds and the introspection it takes to journey through our lives. Being engaged in the world through learning, problem-solving, and creativity can improve our mental wellness. Learning is an ongoing, ever-evolving, lifelong process. It keeps us forever moving and growing and prevents us from getting stuck or becoming stagnant.
The Spiritual dimension is represented by Elders because they have great knowledge, having travelled the path around the entire Sacred Hoop. The White Buffalo sits in the North as a teacher who teaches us about facing the toughest of challenges head-on. Because of this, both the Elders and the White Buffalo deserve much respect. The colour white represents the harsh weather we must face and the wisdom our Elders have gained, often turning their hair white in the process. The Spiritual is that which fills us up. For some, Spirituality means connecting to our higher power, whether we call it Creator, God, Buddha, or Allah. For others, it means something different, such as that which embraces our soul, giving our lives meaning. The Spiritual also means the fire within us – our pursuits that fill us up when we feel empty. These can be dancing, singing, attending ceremonies, or painting – things that make us feel whole again. As we go deeper within ourselves, committing to another walk around the Sacred Hoop, spirituality keeps us grounded, creative, and inspired.
So, how do we live in harmony and find balance using the Sacred Hoop? It begins with an understanding of the equal importance of our Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual dimensions. It means acknowledging and caring for those four aspects of our whole being by keeping them in balance. Think, for a moment, about standing on a Bosu ball at the gym, and imagine that the ball’s round, flat circle is your Sacred Hoop.
Using this analogy, the goal is to keep yourself steady and balanced in all four dimensions of your being. If you are struggling in one area, it will indeed affect your overall sense of harmony. If you are challenged in more than one area, it may be difficult to maintain equilibrium at all.
How can we manage to find balance? Here, we will provide an example from each of us on how we strive to maintain a sense of wellbeing and harmony in our daily lives.
I am diabetic, and I struggle from day to day to maintain my blood sugar levels. Teaching can often be stressful, and my job keeps me extremely busy meeting 26 schools’ needs. I’m often not eating properly because I’m constantly on the move from one school to another and I’m not eating lunch at appropriate times. In addition, once I’m at a school, I am either teaching in a classroom or I am attending meetings in small conference rooms, requiring me to sit. So my Sacred Hoop is out of balance. I’m not eating well or exercising and that throws my Physical wellbeing out of balance. As soon as my Physical self suffers, my Emotional wellness also becomes askew. In contrast, my Mental health and Spiritual life are strong. I am constantly learning, reading, and writing, and I challenge myself mentally all the time. I am always in ceremony, so my spirit is strong. This means that I must be aware of both my strengths and challenges in my Sacred Hoop. As I become aware of where I am the strongest on my Hoop and where I am needing some support, I can seek out help to rectify this, knowing that the Physical and Emotional aspects of my life are out of balance. One thing that has always helped me with my diabetes and supporting the Physical and Emotional aspects of my Hoop is being out on the land. There I find I’m moving more and releasing any negative emotions, and so I often try to teach out on the land. I am taking care of myself, as well as my colleagues and students, as I introduce them to healing out on the land.
I find it important to be cognizant of my strengths and challenges in terms of my four dimensions. For example, in a Physical way, I am quite strong, active, and healthy. I walk outdoors daily and take Zumba classes several times a week. I also see my Mental dimension as quite strong, as I challenge my learning and thrive on gathering new knowledge. My Spiritual dimension is enhanced by my time immersed in music and nature. However, my Emotional dimension is where I struggle. I am what one would call an empath, highly sensitive, and can be easily overwhelmed by my own emotions. This makes it difficult for me to balance my own Sacred Hoop. I try to recover this imbalance by focusing on my strengths (Physical activity, Mental stimulation, Spiritual endeavours), while also acknowledging, articulating, and accepting my Emotions. This helps me to find balance, harmony, and wellbeing in daily life.
We are at the centre of our own wellbeing and healing. If we keep ourselves at the centre and take care of ourselves, then we can also take care of others. Often, as teachers, we are constantly taking care of everyone else, in both our personal and professional lives, and we can forget to take care of our own daily needs. As we journey around the Sacred Hoop, we need to be having that internal conversation about how we’re feeling throughout the day. Are we in balance?
The Sacred Hoop can also be used to determine and strengthen balance, harmony, and wellness in the workplace. For example, in schools, we need to consider all four dimensions – the Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual – as having equal influence on workplace wellness, and also the school community’s wellness.
The Physical dimension of a school, for example, involves every aspect of the community’s physical wellbeing, including the building itself. It is the right of every member of a school community to feel physically safe at all times. Unfortunately, this dimension also includes physical violence and injury, which puts both students and staff at risk. In addition, everything from temperature control and air quality to icy sidewalks and leaking ceiling tiles need to be attended to in order to maintain a well school. There is no easy answer to addressing these issues, but it is of utmost importance that Physical wellness and safety be at the forefront of managing facilities and creating a well school. For many students, the land surrounding the school is important not only for their Physical needs, but also for their Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual dimensions. Many schools recognize this and are now actively integrating outdoor classrooms and land-based learning.
The Emotional wellness of a school focuses on the culture and climate that is a felt sense in the building. How do students, families, and staff feel when they walk in the front doors? Is there a sense of feeling welcome, accepted, and belonging? This is the aim of an emotionally well school. Indigenous families may knowingly or subconsciously ask themselves, “Do I belong here? Will my child be safe here?” It is important for us to connect on an emotional level with our colleagues, students, and their families. One example of this is planning a graduation Powwow for students in their final year of high school. This brings together the staff, students, school families, as well as many other community members who may come to dance or drum.
The Mental dimension of school wellness focuses on the academic and intellectual pursuits of its members, keeping in mind the individual strengths, challenges, and needs of all members of the school community. In keeping with this commitment, a well school focuses on the learning and growing of students, while encouraging professional development for staff. Events such as a Celebration of Learning provide an opportunity for students and their teachers to share successes (from the Mental dimension) with families.
The Spiritual dimension of a school is rich and complex because we all see spirituality differently. This is a gift in one sense, in that we can acknowledge, respect, and celebrate a wealth of spiritual practices. At the same time, the challenge is to be inclusive and recognize the diversity of spiritual beliefs and traditions reflective of the school community. We need to be aware of what fills us up, for ourselves, our students, and our colleagues. This is Spirit. As an example, acknowledging and participating in a variety of cultural celebrations is one way of acknowledging Spirit. For many students, staff, and families, the Spiritual dimension is reflected in these cultural practices, so this is a way to respect Spiritual diversity.
Finding balance and harmony in terms of workplace wellness requires intentional actions that address the Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual dimensions of the school and its members. This, in turn, enhances the wellbeing of each individual in the school community.
FINDING BALANCE in one’s own Sacred Hoop is a challenging task, as is the endeavour to create that same harmonious balance at the whole-school level. By considering the inherent potential of the Sacred Hoop, we can acquire a stronger understanding of holistic health and harmony, and continue to strive for balance in the Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual dimensions. As we move around the Sacred Hoop on our journey with wellness, we become more aware of ourselves and others, and strengthen both individual wellbeing and workplace wellness.
Dumont, J. (1989). Culture, behaviour, & identity of the Native person. In NATI-2105: Culture, behaviour, & identity of the Native person. Laurentian University Press.
Lawson, J. E., Gander, S., et al. (2022). Teacher, take care: A guide to wellbeing and workplace wellness for educators. Portage & Main Press.
Banner Photo: Image from Teacher, Take Care: A guide to well-being and workplace wellness for educators, by Jennifer E. Lawson. Copyright 2022, Reproduced with permission from Portage & Main Press.
First published in Education Canada, September 2023
Schools play an integral part in the lives of children and youth. Not only is this a space for intellectual development, but it is also where many social skills and core competencies are acquired. During the past three years, provinces and territories implemented a variety of measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, including school closures and remote learning. While these measures were focused on reducing the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, there have been other consequences and impacts on the lives of students.
We are still trying to understand the impact of the pandemic on students, but we do know that there were huge repercussions throughout all education systems across Canada. Challenges included, but are not limited to, staff and student mental health, increased inequalities between learners, staff shortage and chronic attendance problems, learning loss, cancellation of sports and extracurricular activities, and adapting to online learning. There were also, however, a few opportunities that emerged: enhanced teachers’ digital skills, learning outside the classroom, Indigenous land-based education, prioritizing opportunities for authentic learning, and improved curricula in some jurisdictions.
It is important to recognize students’ intersectional identities and varying circumstances when discussing the impact of COVID-19 on students. We should not generalize the experiences of all youth. Not all communities, or students, faced the same impact of COVID-19.
Here, we share our experiences during the pandemic. These reflections only represent our individual experiences and not all students’ experiences.
Fiona: It was January 2020 for me when my school announced that we would be doing classes online. Until that point in my life, I had never used Zoom or Google classroom. In a week, my peers and I were thrown into an unfamiliar world.
The class was just an hour of looking at black screens with occasional emoji reactions from half-asleep students. Instead of interactive learning, we were asked to watch pre-recorded lectures, usually on Zoom, by teachers. As much as teachers tried their best to make lessons engaging, these lessons were just not as effective.
For example, in Grade 9 science, we had to learn about the different colours of flames. In a pre-pandemic classroom, students would participate in elaborate experiments and see the different flames at school. In our new class setting, the teacher displayed different pictures of the flames on his screen and explained them one by one. We were unable to experience the bright colours of the flame and experience the excitement. As a result, the information from the class was not deeply impressed upon us.
Raeesa: Learning online was a challenge at times. From poor internet connections disrupting our classes, to needing to constantly help my siblings who were often confused after their lessons, to staring at a screen for prolonged periods, online learning had many flaws. I found that fewer people spoke and gave answers to questions during online classes, which made things harder for teachers. Due to less student participation, classes felt longer and got boring at points. It was especially sad when the teacher had to wait for someone to answer their question. The flow of the class wasn’t as interesting or engaging, which affected students’ learning and interest.
On the plus side, learning from the comfort of my home was better for me, since I was in my own learning space. I got to explore and get used to using technology more often for school tasks, which was helpful since in the future most of us will use apps on our devices to complete our assignments and projects.
Lack of structure, need for more independence
Fiona: We used to have structured class schedules with strict expectations, like arriving to class on time and being there for attendance. However, as online classes rolled out, there was no one there to ensure we joined the online classes, and in many instances, classes were cancelled due to an unstable network. Because classes weren’t as effective, I had to figure out ways to learn on my own, so I found myself trying to watch crash-course YouTube videos and Khan Academy. Many classmates also resorted to these sources of information. Over time, we felt a disconnection between the teachers and us because they were no longer the people we went to for concerns and inquiries.
Raeesa: During the pandemic, without a teacher being there to make sure I did my work, I had to learn to be responsible for myself and manage my time independently to complete all my assignments and work at home. I also learned the importance of communicating with teachers. We were able to chat and text with teachers online, and I learned to be the one responsible for communicating with my teachers for help, because they are not able to help me if I don’t ask them.
Raeesa: For me, school has always been the place where I can participate in different activities like sports, arts, and clubs, and it has provided me with many opportunities. I missed out on many in-person activities, such as school assemblies and playing on certain sports teams due to the pandemic.
Fiona: Looking at the greater picture, the pandemic took away the chance for many students to discover their passions. I believe that passion is discovered through meaningful encounters with peers and teachers. With the pandemic, courses that many used to enjoy became mundane and not enjoyable. There were fewer interactions with teachers, less face-to-face communication. In the crucial years of interest exploration in Grades 8, 9, and 10, some were unable to explore their interests to the full extent.
However, the pandemic helped me appreciate the resources I have in my life. Pre-pandemic, there were no breaks. I was involved in hockey, rugby, multiple extracurricular classes, debate, and more. Right after school, my mom would drive us to all sorts of extracurricular programs. When we got home, my sister and I would quickly eat and go to our rooms to do homework. In contrast, after the pandemic hit a lot of classes were cancelled or were moved online, which gave my family a lot more family time. I was able to have more conversations with my mom and understand her immigration story to Canada. This gave me a stronger sense of family and appreciation for the things my mom has sacrificed to build a life in Canada.
Fiona: The pandemic brought out a huge surge of youth activists and youth leaders. There were many rising issues regarding educational resources, technology, and homelessness. Youth were inspired to speak up and aid their community members after seeing how the pandemic impacted their local communities. On a personal level, I run a non-profit organization, United Speakers Global, that aims to make public speaking resources more accessible to youth. Just after I joined the organization, the pandemic hit and the initiative became completely online – which at first seemed a problem. However, with an increased demand for these programs, we reached more students not only in the GTA but also in 11 different cities globally. Through this organization, I met youth leaders in Kuwait, Shanghai, Zambia, the U.S., and other places.
Raeesa: While the pandemic had its negative impacts on my learning, there were also some perks and learning opportunities. I like to think of it as a matter of perspective. I could have looked at the pandemic as an obstacle I was unable to overcome. Instead, I looked at the pandemic as a learning opportunity and used all the obstacles that came my way as stepping stones to opening my mind to different perspectives and ways of learning. The challenges helped me move forward instead of halting my path. In the end, it is our perception that forms our life and the way we choose to live it.
Photos: iStock, Fiona Shen and Raeesa Hoque
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
It is now increasingly clear that the school closures that began in the spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic have had and continue to have a significant impact on school environments and everyone within them. UNESCO (2022) estimates that more than 1.5 billion young people have been affected by the COVID-19-related education crisis. This crisis has apparently further weakened education systems that were already vulnerable, due in part to such factors as staff shortages, the unsatisfactory quality of teaching and learning, or inequalities related to gender, ethnic origin, language, socio-economic status or disabilities (UNICEF, 2015). Although the effects of this crisis are beginning to be understood, more research and field data are needed to better understand them and to better guide reconstruction efforts (Donnelly and Patrinos, 2022).
The overall goal of our study, conducted by the UNESCO Chair in Curriculum Development (UCCD) in partnership with the Ministère de l’Éducation du Québec (MEQ), was to improve our understanding of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on school environments in Quebec. Specifically, the project aimed to describe the impact of COVID-19 on: 1) school organization and facilities; 2) students; and 3) teachers. In this article, we will focus on teachers’ perceptions of the negative effects that COVID-19 has had on their students.
Where does our data come from?
Conducted in two phases with elementary and secondary teachers from three school service centres (SSCs), our mixed-method study sought to measure changes in the effects of COVID-19 on various dimensions. Nearly 500 teachers responded to an online survey in the fall of 2020, and nearly 350 did so in the spring of 2021. Among these respondents, there were also volunteers who took part in semi-structured interviews in the spring of 2021 to further explore some of the issues addressed in the questionnaires.
The questionnaires asked teachers to rate the situation at their school, first for the beginning of the school year (for fall data collection) and then for the second half of the school year (for spring data collection). At both times, teachers quantitatively assessed, among other things, the extent to which COVID-19 had negatively impacted their students, specifically their learning, autonomy, collaboration, problem-solving skills, attentiveness, and organizational capability.
The quantitative results thus obtained were supported by qualitative data. For the fall of 2020, this support came from the responses to an open-ended question in the online survey, where teachers were asked to name the three most significant areas in which COVID-19 had negatively affected their students. For the spring of 2021, the qualitative data consisted of the points raised by teachers participating in the interviews.
Key negative effects of COVID-19 on students according to teachers
In general, we noted that elementary school teachers perceived greater effects on subject-specific competencies (French, mathematics, science, etc.), while secondary school teachers perceived greater negative effects on academic competencies (skills related to the role of student: attention, organization, problem-solving, etc.). When asked in an open-ended question to name the aspects most impacted by COVID-19, respondents mentioned most often the social aspect for the elementary school level, followed by attentiveness and reading, whereas for the secondary school level, motivation, participation, attentiveness, and the social aspect were mentioned most frequently.
In the fall, the three learning areas most affected by COVID-19 in elementary schools were student achievement in grammar, writing, physical education, and health (Figure 1). Based on teachers’ perceptions, it would appear that the gap between the strongest students and those students who had some prior difficulties widened between school closures and the resumption in the fall of 2020. In connection with the effects on students’ grammar and writing levels, teachers pointed out, in response to the open question of the questionnaire, that these difficulties were particularly significant for a number of allophone students who had potentially missed opportunities to develop their French skills during the lockdown. As for the problems experienced by very young children in physical education and health, some difficulties related to fine motor skills were observed.
In the spring, the top three learning areas most affected by COVID-19 according to elementary teachers were students’ attentiveness, problem-solving ability, and grammar levels (Figure 2). With respect to students’ attentiveness, teachers mentioned that students seemed to have difficulties with their role as students, including the ability to pay attention both in the classroom and remotely, and the ability to solve academic and socioemotional problems. Concerning grammar difficulties, as in the responses to the fall questionnaire, elementary teachers mentioned in the spring interviews that difficulties in French were particularly significant for allophone students.
In the fall, secondary school teachers reported negative effects primarily on their students’ attentiveness, organization, and problem-solving ability (Figure 3). It is interesting to note that the effects on learning in the subject area taught by the respondents were relatively small (it was only the seventh most named learning area). In terms of attentiveness and organization, the responses to the open-ended question in the questionnaire indicated that these difficulties were experienced primarily in distance learning, since intervening was more difficult online than in the classroom, but they also occurred at school. There were more distractions online, and this made keeping students’ attention a challenge for teachers. In the classroom, the irregular school organization (schedules, classroom bubbles, travel, school materials, digital learning platforms and tools, etc.) that resulted from compliance with the health measures in force proved difficult to follow for a number of students. In terms of problem-solving, teachers noted that this was a major difficulty for students in mathematics.
In the spring, the top two negative effects of COVID-19 on students perceived by teachers still concerned their attentiveness and organization skills, followed by their autonomy and their level in the discipline being taught (Figure 4). Like their elementary school colleagues, secondary school teachers noted in the interviews that they had observed a greater effect of COVID-19 on students who were already struggling pre-pandemic, as well as large differences in adjustment between the strongest and struggling students upon returning to school. Secondary school teachers mentioned in the interviews that many students had little support at home, and that hybrid1 instruction would most likely further widen the gap between strong students, who would succeed in any case, and students more at risk of failure, for whom the risk would increase. It was also noted that student achievement in the subject being taught rose to the rank of fourth highest key negative effect of COVID-19. We can assume that students and teachers alike eventually felt the impact of the various delays that occurred both during the school closure and throughout the school year when the subject content had to be scaled back “to the essentials.”2
Before concluding, we need to mention that, like any study, this one has its limitations. First, as with the vast majority of studies on the effects of COVID-19 in both the educational and other fields, it is impossible to establish a pre-pandemic picture of the study population. It is therefore difficult to determine what is specifically the impact of COVID-19 and what is the result of prior situations or influences. Second, although our sample included several hundred students and teachers, it represented only a small proportion of the study population. Furthermore, the questionnaire respondents and interview volunteers may have been those teachers who had the most to say about the situation or who had experienced more difficulty than others in this particular school year.
Rebuilding schools and keeping the focus on students
Although the negative effects of COVID-19 on students as perceived by teachers are relatively significant, it was noted in both the questionnaires and the interviews that 100 percent of participating teachers emphasized the high resilience of students during the 2020-2021 school year. Many also mentioned that the student support measures (Conseil supérieur de l’éducation, 2021) had been very helpful. In addition, and interestingly, the students felt that the impact of COVID-19 on their learning was rather weak, whereas, as we have shown, the teachers had the perception that these effects were quite significant. This raises the question: did students underestimate the effects of COVID-19 or did teachers overestimate them? The reality probably lies somewhere in between. Regarding the teachers’ perceptions, it should be noted that the usual stresses associated with the teaching profession (Eblie Trudel et al., 2021), in addition to those associated with the pandemic, the health measures, and disruptions in school organization during the 2020-2021 year may have influenced their representation of the effects of COVID-19 on their students.
Since we do not know the long-term effects of COVID-19 on students, it is important to continue research on Quebec schools in order to support and equip them as they rebuild. Moreover, it is essential that teachers and other school staff working with students be adequately trained to support and assist these students in the short, medium and long terms, for example, in the areas of bereavement, stress and trauma counselling, school-family collaboration, and counselling for students with various difficulties (Müller & Goldenberg, 2020).
This project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Ministère de l’Éducation du Québec, under the Partnership Engage: COVID-19 Special Initiative program.
This article was written by Marion Deslandes Martineau, Patrick Charland, Yannick Skelling-Desmeules, Olivier Arvisais, and Marie-Hélène Bruyère. The authors would like to thank the partners of the Ministère de l’Éducation and the school service centres involved, as well as their colleagues, co-researchers and collaborators in the study: Jonathan Bluteau, Isabelle Plante, Isabelle Gauvin, Stéphane Cyr, Tegwen Gadais, Éric Dion, Joanna Trees Merckx, and Jay S. Kaufman.
Conseil supérieur de l’éducation. (2021). Returning to normal? Overcoming vulnerabilities in an education system responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Le Conseil. www.cse.gouv.qc.ca/en/rebe20-21-covid
Donnelly, R., and Patrinos, H. A. (2022). Learning loss during Covid-19: An early systematic review. PROSPECTS, 51(4), 601609. doi.org/10.1007/s11125-021-09582-6
Eblie Trudel, L., Sokal, L., and Babb, J. (2021). Teachers’ voices: Pandemic lessons for the future of education. Journal of Teaching and Learning, 15(1), 4–19. doi.org/10.22329/jtl.v15i1.6486
Müller, L.-M., and Goldenberg, G. (2020, July 5). Education in times of crisis: The potential implications of school closures for teachers and students. Chartered College of Teaching. https://my.chartered.college/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/CCTReport070520_FINAL.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0t62tROapzSQv28ofnIVc3AhE44UuFTP19dg6_V0-o7y8NqAFkEawAWZ8
UNESCO. (2022). Education: from school closure to recovery. UNESCO. www.unesco.org/en/covid-19/education-response
UNICEF. (2015, January 19). The investment case for education and equity. UNICEF, Education Section.
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
1 Hybrid teaching consists of teaching that is sometimes done remotely and sometimes in the classroom. For much of the 2020-2021 school year, this was the schedule that was imposed on students in the upper secondary level (i.e., students aged 14-17).
2 Lists of essential knowledge to focus on in each discipline have been made available by the Ministère de l’Éducation, to the detriment of other concepts normally included in the curriculum.
From an ecological perspective inspired by Bronfenbrenner’s theory of human development, resilience can be defined as a process initiated by systems when they find themselves in the face of adversity (Ungar, 2018). This article examines the resilience of students during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on language resilience in a francophone minority context.
According to Ungar’s model (2018), each human being is a system in and of itself, while also being a constituent of other systems. A student is therefore a system interacting with others – their school, their community(ies), family, etc. It is by interacting with these systems that students construct themselves, build their sense of the world and participate in (re)producing other systems.
Resilience is a process that aims to return the individual system1 to wellness or well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed entire nations in a context of health adversity. We have seen how they have been able to mobilize various internal resources (financial means, knowledge, attitudes, capacities) and external resources (vaccines, knowledge, allies) within a network of international systems.
In the midst of this upheaval, families, parents, children, students, teachers and school administrators mobilized internal and external resources in a process of resilience that began with school closures and the creation of an “ad hoc” virtual school space. We have therefore been able to confirm the extent to which the school is not only a place of learning but also, in terms of supervising children, a concomitant system of family and social systems. Moreover, the role of schools in reducing social inequalities has been confirmed when family systems have taken on more responsibility for the schooling of children. On the one hand, for example, we saw the lower availability of Internet and computer equipment in low-income households or in those located far from the country’s urban centres. On the other hand, families with the necessary internal resources created “school cells” and hired a qualified teacher to ensure their children’s continued schooling, while the school system struggled to meet its teacher staffing needs and other children were doing minimal hours of virtual schooling, with or without adult supervision or support at home. This is reminiscent of the creation of playgroups by some parents to ensure the availability of a French-language space for their preschoolers in an Anglo-dominated setting, as well as the trend noted in research on school choice: only some families actively choose their children’s school. Thus, the mobilization of internal and external resources by a system, in this case a family system, depends largely on the availability, accessibility and relevance of such resources.
In a francophone minority context, it is also important to take into account accessibility to the French language during the pandemic and afterwards. We already know that in the most Anglo-dominated francophone and Acadian communities, the school is the only public space where the French language enjoys a higher official status than English, although the latter enjoys a very high social status in student interactions. This is the case, for example, in Halifax (Liboy and Patouma, 2021), Toronto (Heller, 1994; Heller, 2006) and Ontario more generally (Gérin-Lajoie, 2004), Manitoba (Cormier, 2020) and Vancouver (Levasseur, 2020). The introduction of the Civic Community School concept developed by FNCSF (Fédération nationale des conseils scolaires francophones) in 2011 and the identification of the sociolinguistic role of the education system as a major issue by AEFO (Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens) in 2022 confirmed the centrality of the school for community language resilience in an Anglo-dominated context. Within the school, students find spaces for social interaction that are conducive to contextualized language production and reproduction. The closure of schools and community centres therefore placed young people in a context of language adversity.
The pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of adolescents (Vaillancourt et al., 2021), particularly because of the social isolation that has significantly reduced peer contact. Even when health measures have been relaxed to allow social distancing, young people in a minority setting may have encountered difficulties in getting together with their francophone friends if these friends were scattered over an area beyond the limits of their neighbourhood. Indeed, although some historical francophone or Acadian communities occupy a well-defined geographic space (the Brayon population of the City of Edmundston, the Acadian population of Pubnico or the Franco-Ontarian population of Hearst, for example), their lives are for the most part intertwined in a municipality with the lives of an English-speaking majority, thus diminishing the opportunities to communicate in French. Under such conditions, a decision becomes necessary with respect to mobilizing internal and external resources that can support language resilience in French.
Data was collected in various provinces: in Ontario and Prince Edward Island in conjunction with communications sent to various groups in the school system; in New Brunswick in connection with the research component of the Canadian Playful Schools Network; and in Nova Scotia as part of a Master’s thesis. The data shows that the closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on the availability and accessibility of external and internal resources relevant to the language resilience of some young French speakers. In our conversations with teachers and parents in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, we heard that some children’s ability and motivation to speak French decreased during the pandemic. Teachers in some elementary school settings noted that a greater number of students who did not attend daycare because of the pandemic entered school with little or no knowledge of the French language. Teachers at one school were interviewed at the annual ACELF conference and estimated that 70 percent of students did not speak French when they arrived at school in September 2022.
Secondary school students had the habit of switching from English to French when in the vicinity of a teacher in the school hallways; after two years of interrupted copresence, however, this automatic reflex seems to have generally disappeared when students returned to the classroom. Teachers have reported that some students simply refuse to speak French in the classroom, even with staff. A Master’s study of three secondary school students in Nova Scotia informs us about the factors that may have contributed to such changes and describes how in-person school acts as a concurrent system supporting students’ language resilience process (Sutherland, 2022).
Three secondary school seniors from schools across Nova Scotia participated in individual online narrative conversations during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite distinct sociolinguistic profiles, each one testified to the importance of school for their language resilience (Sutherland, 2022). The in-school resources which they mobilized were (1) access to academic French in French courses, (2) legitimization of the local variety of French (Acadjonne) by certain staff members and (3) extracurricular activities. The French language school thus provides these students with three spaces in which various language resources and norms of communication in French can circulate: interaction in academic French, in Acadjonne and in the language of young people. Although Acadjonne was available to two of these students at home, with one of them speaking French closer to the academic standard with her parents, the pandemic greatly reduced their daily access to academic French and interactions with their peers in French.
When their schools were closed, students in French-language schools had access to a reduced number of classes. French classes were maintained, but accessibility to academic French was reduced as the trend shifted from participative education to lecture-style teaching. The individuals Sutherland met noted in particular the relevance of interaction in the French classroom to their access to academic language. Considering that, for two students, this linguistic variety was not legitimate within their family and community settings but was required for their legitimacy as francophones outside these environments, interactions in academic French proved to be a necessary resource for post-secondary language resilience for these students.
In addition, students testified to the importance of a French-language space, as their propensity to use the dominant language with their peers meant that, in the absence of school-organized extracurricular activities, they turned to social media to communicate with their friends. However, they used English mostly, if not exclusively, in the digital socialization space. For these individuals, the school closure during the pandemic entailed the loss of spaces of social interaction relevant to the production and contextualized language reproduction of the various forms of French.
However, unlike a growing number of young people living in a minority setting, those met by Sutherland had access to French-language resources in their families and in their respective communities. They were also among the young people who mobilized extracurricular school activities as a resource for their resilience in general and for their language resilience in particular. In Ontario, parents from a minority background but who use French at home and mobilize French language resources in their interactions with their children noted that their children spoke and read more frequently in French. This seems to have resulted in an improvement in their French vocabulary and a greater ability to move from a situation of translinguistic communication (i.e., the creative mobilization by bi-plurilingual persons of all their linguistic resources to create meaning and communicate a message) to a unilingual situation. Could it be that, by keeping their children away from a socialization space between young people where French is little used (the school hallways, for example), school closures contributed to these students’ linguistic resilience in French?
In a minority context, the surrounding society cannot ensure that students and their families will have sustained access to the language and linguistic resources distributed by the French-language school. Consequently, the French-language school offers great potential as an external resource for students’ language resilience. Under current conditions, it is not able to fully carry out this role in the context of a pandemic or e-learning. Moreover, some anecdotal data suggests that the French-language school contributes negatively to the language resilience of some students. Thus, there is still much to be learned about the interaction between the school and students’ other language ecology systems, and about the contribution of this interaction to short- and long-term language resilience.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Cormier, G. (2020). School perspectives and definitions of linguistic identity in a minority environment: How do French-language schools respond to the needs of 21st century students faced with the many social, cultural and demographic changes underway? Éducation et francophonie, 48(1), 53-72. doi.org/10.7202/1070100ar
Gérin-Lajoie, D. (2004). La problématique identitaire et l’école de langue française en Ontario. Francophonies d’Amérique, (18), 171–179. doi.org/10.7202/1005360ar
Heller, M. (1994). Crosswords: Language, education, and ethnicity in French Ontario. Mouton de Gruyter.
Heller, M. (2006). Linguistic minorities and modernity: A sociolinguistic ethnography (2nd ed.). Continuum.
Levasseur, C. (2020). Being multilingual and Francophone: identity representations and positioning of francization students in Vancouver. Éducation et francophonie, 48(1), 93-121. doi.org/10.7202/1070102ar
Liboy, M.-G., & Patouma, J. (2021). L’école francophone en milieu minoritaire est-elle apte à intégrer les élèves immigrants et réfugiés récemment arrivés au pays? Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, 53(2), 23-40.
Sutherland, H. (2022). De l’insécurité linguistique à la résilience linguistique : le rôle de l’école de langue française dans la formation de la résilience linguistique des adolescents. [Master’s thesis, University of Ottawa]. ResearchuO. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/43860
Vaillancourt, T., Beauchamp, M., 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.pdf
Ungar, M. (2018). Systemic resilience: Principles and processes for a science of change in contexts of adversity. Ecology and Society, 23(4). doi.org/10.5751/ES-10385-230434
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
1 Gauvin-Lepage and Lefebvre (2010) focus their research on family resilience. In this context, internal resources belong to the family while external resources are located in the systems around them.
In 2018, during their 50th anniversary, the Whyte Museum in Banff, Alberta, hosted an extraordinary sculpture exhibit of 100 human busts. Christine Wignall, the sculptor, reflected on her work:
“When I began the project, I thought I would simply start and see where the muse would lead. It wasn’t until I had completed about ten heads that I began to realize who they represented and from where they were coming. My memories and imagination were giving life to the clay and each one of the heads took on the character of someone I had known while growing up… Many of these folks are dead now, a lot of them, but they do haunt my memories. They walked the streets of Banff while the museum was being planned. It is good to remember them all.”
One of the reports on the exhibition stated, “Wignall captured the faces of prominent Banff people… the faces were so full of life” (Szuszkiel, n.d., para. 8). Indeed, the collection was impressive. But when I saw the exhibit with a colleague, what struck me was that 96 of the sculpted busts in the exhibit were those of individuals who had settled in the Banff area. The exhibition included four people from the Stoney Nakoda Nations.
The Stoney Nakoda, comprising the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations, are the first peoples in this region. And unlike all the other sculptures in the exhibit, only one of these four sculptures was of a named individual, Walking Buffalo. We wondered, if more people from the Stoney Nakoda Nations were to be included, who might those individuals be. Who were some of the important members of the Nations?
I was fortunate to lead a professional learning and research organization, Galileo Educational Network (Galileo) in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Those of us at Galileo had a history of developing research-practice partnerships to engage in professional learning with teachers, principals, and district leaders. Galileo had an ongoing research-practice partnership with the school district in the Banff corridor, focused on nurturing excellence in instruction and leadership, also known in the district as NEIL. In one of the monthly co-design meetings with educators from the school district, we shared our observation about the exhibit at the Whyte Museum. We proposed that perhaps one of the teachers in the district might want to work with one of our professional learning mentors to engage in a project that would involve members of the Stoney Nakoda Nations to learn who from their Nations they considered to be important and to learn their stories. One of the public schools in the school district, whose population is comprised primarily of students from the Stoney Nakoda First Nations, was put forward by district leaders as the one most likely to have an interested teacher. A Grade 4 teacher, whose students were all from the Stoney Nakoda Nations, stepped forward.
The school’s success coach joined the first meeting between the Galileo mentor and the teacher. The success coach, who had worked with the Stoney Nakoda Education Authority for 18 years, brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the first design meeting. While offering to assist with the overall initiative, she also stated she could assist with making connections with Elders within the community. It was imperative to us at Galileo that Elders be involved in this project, right from the beginning of the design process. While we had engaged in a number of research-practice partnerships with First Nations communities and Elders prior to this one, this would be somewhat unique as we wanted to invite Elders to collaboratively design (co-design) the classroom activities and tasks with us. Having Elders as co-designers added a new and valuable dimension to this classroom initiative.
As this was not only a professional learning initiative, but also a research initiative, I felt it was important to take a participatory research approach. Within participatory design, the individuals involved in creating the design make a resolute commitment to ensure those who will be impacted by the design be significantly involved in the initial and subsequent iterative work of design (Bødker et al. 2004). In participatory design initiatives, the partners are not merely informants; rather, they are legitimate and acknowledged participants in the design process. In this initiative, the teacher, success worker, and the Elders contributed in all phases of the design work, and throughout all the iterations. As legitimate partners it is important that the participants “be involved in the making of decisions which affect their flourishing in any way” (Heron, 1996, p. 11). For it is through their participation they experience a sense of well being.
At the next meeting, four of the respected Elders from the Nations accepted our invitation to join us in conversation. They agreed to join the initiative; however, when it was suggested they provide the names of members – heroes from the Nations – they were not forthcoming with names. The Elders, although intrigued, spoke of intellectual property, of acknowledging who “owns” the stories and who has the right to hear or to re-tell the stories. They spoke of the disconnect many students have to their own heritage, their families, and their identities. At this point they saw an opportunity that those engaged in the previous design work had not seen. The Elders saw an opportunity for the students to learn about who they are by having them identify their own ancestors and trace who they are related to. The Elders wanted to work directly with the students to help them connect with their culture, their community, and their own families. They were confident they would be able to help each student trace back their lineage to a Stoney Nakoda “hero.” Through genealogy, students would then have the intellectual property rights to the stories of their own ancestors. As the Elders instructed, the students’ ancestors’ stories are their stories.
Over the following month, the teacher worked with the students and their families to identify the names of family members. Most students came back with family trees that extended to their grandparents. Some had more. Some had less. Regardless of what students were able to come up with, it would serve as a starting point for the next step.
At the next meeting with the co-design team, the four Elders brought an additional four Elders to the meeting. The teacher and her Galileo mentor brought the family trees to that meeting to show the Elders in hopes that the Elders would review the family trees. However, the Elders were clear: the children needed to be present when they reviewed the family trees. This new information necessitated a change to the design. The eight Elders would be invited into the classroom, where the children would share their family trees. What became evident to the entire co-design team, is that the initial four Elders recognized their own need to bring in more Elders to help fill in the gaps in students’ family trees. In addition, the Elders were not interested in merely viewing the family trees that students had created without the students; rather, they wanted the students to hear the stories of their ancestors from the Elders themselves.
The eight Elders began their teachings with the children with an opening prayer and a sharing circle in which the students were encouraged to speak their names clearly and proudly. The Elders and the children immersed themselves in the important work of tracing ancestral lineages. Speaking with one child, an Elder stated, “You are a descendent of great warriors. Your name comes from your ancestors.” In another corner of the room, an Elder looked at a child and said, “Your great, great, great grandfather was a powerful Shaman. People came to see him from far away because he had supernatural powers. He could heal people.” Where one Elder’s recollection ended, another one carefully filled in the gaps. The conversations and collaboration between Elders and students were a powerful sight to witness. The Elders circled the room going from one student to another, from one family tree to another, helping each other remember when there was a gap that needed to be filled or confirming each other’s recollections. Throughout the day’s activity, the family trees that initially seemed so small were now expanding beyond the constraints of the chart paper. Notes were added to one family tree to show how this student’s lineage continued onto another student’s chart. Elders continually reinforced to the students, “You are family. Get to know each other. Now you need to look out for each other, because that’s what families do.”
We did not end there. The now 11-person co-design team invited Christine Wignall, the artist whose exhibition inspired this project, to join the initiative. While sculpting busts with nine- and ten-year-olds was a bit daunting to her at first, she willingly agreed to accept the challenge. The local Canmore community arts centre, artsPlace, agreed to open its doors to Christine and the children. The children had all selected one of their ancestors as their hero, had learned the stories of their ancestral hero from the Elders, and now they were ready to sculpt a bust of their hero to fill in the missing people from the original 100-head exhibit. The local news media (Lucero, 2019) featured the work of the students, and the public was invited to attend the exhibition of their hero sculptures as part of the National Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations.
I had more than 20 years of experience in research-practice partnerships with teachers and school leaders. However, with this project, I and my colleagues at Galileo had the opportunity to learn how to weave what we knew with the wisdom of the Elders who participated with us to co-design classroom learning for children. It was our opportunity to engage in a process of unlearning – unlearning professional learning and research, and unlearning classroom and curriculum approaches and processes tethered to “colonial logics of relationship denial” (Donald, 2022, para. 8).
What began fairly naively as a school project to connect children with their community grew and surpassed any of our expectations. The Elders brought us into relationship with each other, the children’s ancestors, and historical events that not only shaped this region, but also so many regions across Canada. One of the Elders commented, “Not only was this experience incredibly beneficial for the children, but for the Elders as well.” A number of the Elders noted that as they helped each other remember, they were reminded of stories, family members, and cultural histories that have not been spoken of in some time. As one Elder stated, “This is good for our community.” I would add, this was so good for me as well. I witnessed the ways in which even the best intended curriculum approaches often remain tethered to colonial logics. Opening myself to the teachings of the Elders and being in the presence of their work with the children showed me how to begin the work of unlearning in a good way – a way that honours and respects. Perhaps my unlearning is best captured by the words of an Elder who was such an integral part of this entire project, Elder Skyes Powderface. Elder Powderface has now passed on to the spirit world, but I am left with his words: “This is what reconciliation is all about.”
The Galileo Educational Network created a short video documenting this project:
Stoney Nakoda Heroes Project https://vimeo.com/333252310/5f9b208c95
Photos: Amy Park and and Sharon Friesen, Galileo Educational Network
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Bødker, K., Pors, J. K., & Simonsen, J. (2004). Implementation of web-based information systems in distributed organizations: A change management approach. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 16(1). https://aisel.aisnet.org/sjis/vol16/iss1/4
Donald, D. (2022). A curriculum for educating differently: Unlearning colonialism and renewing kinship relations. Education Canada, 62(2). www.edcan.ca/articles/a-curriculum-for-educating-differently
Heron, J. (1996). Quality as primacy of the practical. Qualitative Inquiry, 2(1), 41–56. doi.org/10.1177/107780049600200107
Lucero, K. (2019, June 20). Stoney Nakoda heroes: Uncovering lost family history with guidance of elders. RMOTODAY.com. www.rmotoday.com/mountain-guide/stoney-nakoda-heroes-uncovering-lost-family-history-with-guidance-of-elders-1574369
Szuskiel, D. (n.d.) Whyte Museum 50th anniversary. https://whererockies.com/2019/05/10/whyte-museum-50th-anniversary
As podcasters ourselves, we have learned a lot and see a lot of value in podcasting for the classroom. That said, for those not in podcasting, the idea of creating one with students can seem daunting; there are so many tools, and the starting point isn’t always that clear. That’s where we step in! Podcasting really isn’t that scary, and can be simple to do in the classroom.
We will help you to understand why podcasts are great for the classroom, and how you can get started.
Believe it or not, podcasting is a fantastic way to get students talking, and is a natural scaffold to the writing process. Here are some of our top reasons to introduce podcasting with your students:
As a bonus, it’s easy to get started. Podcasts don’t require much in the way of equipment. These days, almost all students have access to a cell phone or a device that can be used to capture audio.
Podcasting isn’t as complicated as you might think. There are four main phases in the podcasting process: Identify, plan, record, and share.
Here are some simple and free recording tools to consider:
The above tools are a great starting point for any skill level. They are simple to use and only require a student to click on record, and then click stop when they are done. The web-based tools will then give you the option to download the mp3 file.
If you have access, here are some additional tools to consider:
4. Share This doesn’t have to be public; it can be as simple as curating each student’s work on a collaborative slide deck (think PowerPoint or Google Slides), or simply sharing a folder that houses all of the audio files (Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, etc.) with the class.
That being said, you may want to build toward creating a podcast that can be shared with a wider audience, such as your school community. Building in an authentic audience can help to create buy-in and motivation for students.
Podcasting is likely a new concept for your students, so it is important to scaffold the process as much as possible so that students can experience success with this new modality.
As a teacher, your first step should be to expose your students to the podcasting format. There are so many student-friendly podcasts, so a simple search should provide a wealth of options (See Student-Friendly Podcasts for some suggestions). While listening together, you can then identify the different components, such as an intro, an outro, and the different segment structures.
From there, identify what skills you want your students to demonstrate in their podcast. This is a totally new format for most students, so be sure to provide a planner, a template, and a means of brainstorming ideas either independently or as a class. This is also a time to help support students with skills such as pronunciation, language, and communication in general. This may be an uncomfortable format for many students at first, so they will need time to practise and get used to podcasting.
If students want to interview a guest, it is important to go over questioning techniques, question formation, and interview etiquette. You might consider offering a set of question starters or stems to scaffold the question creation process. A quick internet search will help you find lots of ideas to get started.
Podcasting doesn’t have to be an immediate or short-term goal. It is possible to scaffold it in such a way that you help your students to build the skills over a longer period of time, with the end goal of producing their own podcast by the end of the semester or term.
As with all things web-based, it is extremely important to consider the privacy and protection of student data when sharing the podcast. Make sure that you check with your administration, get permission from parents or guardians, and also review Board policies to ensure that you are not potentially putting students at risk.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
The EduGals Podcast E050: Podcasting in the Classroom https://edugals.com/podcasting-in-the-classroom-e050
The EduGals Podcast E083: Leveraging Audio in the Classroom https://edugals.com/leveraging-audio-in-the-classroom-e083
Blog Post: Student-Created Podcasts Made Easy with Screencastify https://edugals.com/student-created-podcasts-made-easy-with-screencastify
Last year, I attended a conference and was chatting with another attendee. I told her about my interest and work in the area of teacher self-care. With a puzzled look on her face, she proceeded to ask me, “Is teacher self-care even a thing?” Before I could say “yes,” I realized that her response was something I myself would’ve asked prior to experiencing burnout back when I was teaching in 2015.
During my 20-year teaching career, I had no idea that the term ‘self-care’ or ‘teacher self-care’ ever existed. Like many teachers, I spent most of my weeks and weekends planning lessons, grading assignments (especially while at my son’s basketball practices and games), responding to emails from students, designing rubrics, and searching for the best learning resources that had the most perfect clipart. It was never-ending, but it was a choice I had made thinking that this was what it took to be a “good” teacher.
I began to show signs of burnout, but at the time I hadn’t realized that this was indeed the term for what I was feeling. My personality had started to change and I was quick to lose my patience with my colleagues and students – I just didn’t care anymore nor did I bother to hide my feelings. My colleagues who had known me for six or seven years didn’t ask if I was alright because they didn’t know the signs of burnout. Burning out for me was a slow burn – like the feeling you get from holding onto a rope in a game of tug-of-war. You know you’re slipping yet you can’t get a grip, it’s painful but you just don’t know what to do in the moment as things unfold. Eventually, the endless cycle of precarious work and the three personal crises I experienced within an 18-month period pushed me over the edge. It was time to walk away from a career that I had loved.
I’m certainly not alone when it comes to experiencing stress as a teacher. The high levels of stress and burnout in the teaching profession are widely documented. It’s the chronic use of empathy and emotional resources in our profession that’s strongly associated with exhaustion and/or professional burnout. There are numerous factors that can contribute to teacher stress including precarious work (especially in higher education), multiple workloads, students’ demands, increased legislative regulations, changing educational standards, few professional development opportunities, and a lack of planning time, support, and resources. As I researched to learn more about the warning signs of burnout, I began to understand more and more about the importance of having a self-care practice.
Self-care is not an indulgence, but rather it’s necessary in the work we do as caring teaching professionals. Self-care is the skills and strategies used to maintain personal, familial, emotional, and spiritual needs while attending to the needs and demands of others. Without self-care, teachers are at risk of emotional exhaustion and/or professional burnout.
Teachers have often told me that they feel self-care is just one more responsibility or one more item to add to their to-do list. However, recent research has shown us that self-care isn’t only an individual responsibility, but it’s also an organizational responsibility. Workplace well-being should be embedded within the K-12 education system and reflected in a school’s culture. Ultimately, working conditions should create an atmosphere where teachers feel supported in their role, feel less stressed, and are equipped with the skills to look after their own well-being.
Last year, I had decided that it was time to share my story of burnout, and so I wrote a book entitled The Teacher Self-care Manual: Simple Strategies for Stressed Teachers. I’ve been fortunate to present at conferences in Canada and the USA and have met teachers from all over the world who have shared their own stories and wisdom about teacher self-care practices. Many of the teachers I’ve spoken with all seem to have a similar definition of what it takes to be a “good” teacher and how this standard is not only unrealistic, but is what prevents or impacts a self-care practice. As one teacher suggested, it’s often a mindset of “self-sacrifice” versus “self-care.”
Upon returning to teaching in 2017, I realized that I needed to adopt self-care strategies if I wanted to prevent professional burnout again. I strongly believe that self-care should be easy to follow, at no cost, and shouldn’t add time to our already busy career. To achieve this, I find incorporating “new tiny habits” such as walking daily, setting reasonable marking expectations, setting boundaries (e.g. no emails at night or weekends), spending time doing things I enjoy, connecting with people important to me, and setting Sunday as a no-work day are self-care practices that are easy to follow. While these practices work for me, self-care practices are unique – there’s no one-size fits all plan and it’s important to find practices that work best for you.
The well-being of everyone within the school community including, students, teachers, and principals/vice-principals is important. Research suggests that learning happens best when both students and teachers are well. What’s more, when teachers are well, their relationships with students, colleagues, and the overall school community become more positive.
In the past year, I’ve noticed an increase in conferences that focus on teacher well-being as well as many excellent resources. There’s a rise in school-level initiatives, too. In Canada, we see examples in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and elsewhere where teachers have formed Staff Wellness Committees in their schools or at the district level. While this is positive news, work still needs to be done to address school cultures that prevent teachers from participating in well-being initiatives. For example, teachers are often reluctant to participate in well-being initiatives for fear of judgement and being seen as not coping well.
First published in June 2020
Photos: Adobe Stock
Acton, R., & Glasgow, P. (2015). Teacher wellbeing in neoliberal contexts: A review of the literature. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 40(8)
Cherkowski, S., & Walker, K. (2018). Teacher Wellbeing. Noticing, Nurturing, Sustaining and Flourishing in Schools. Word & Deed Publishing, ON
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397
Newell, J., & MacNeil, G. (2010). Professional Burnout, Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Traumatic Stress, and Compassion Fatigue: A Review of Theoretical Terms, Risk Factors, and Preventive Methods for Clinicians and Researchers. Best Practices in Mental Health, Vol. 6 (2) Lyccum Books
Skovholt, T. M., & Trotter-Mathison, M. (2011). The resilient practitioner: Burnout prevention and self-care strategies for counselors, therapists, teachers, and health professionals. (2nd Edition ed.) New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.
Spilt, J.L., Koomen, H.M. & Thijs, J.T. (2011). Teacher well-being: The importance of teacher-student relationships. Educational Psychology Review, 23(4)
Stoeber, J., & Rennert, D. (2008). Perfectionism in school teachers: Relations with stress appraisals, coping styles, and burnout. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 21, 37-53.
Spurgeon, J., & Thompson, L. (2018). Rooted in Resilience: A Framework for the Integration of Well-Being in Teacher Education Programs. University of Pennsylvania
Wellahead. (n.d.). Research Brief: Promoting the Wellbeing of Teachers and School Staff What are the most effective approaches in promoting the wellbeing of teachers and school staff? Retrieved fro https://static1.squarespace.com/static/586814ae2e69cfb1676a5c0b/t/5b281bb170a6ad31c89ab315/1529355185939/TSWB_ResearchBrief.pdf
Teaching in northern and remote communities can be an intense, even overwhelming experience – and the result can be exhausted, struggling teachers. The authors present seven dimensions of wellness as a framework for nurturing both personal and collective wellness in the context of rural and remote schools.
My first year of teaching was an emotional rollercoaster. I cried. I laughed. I cry-laughed. In the span of one academic year, there were suicide attempts, deaths, high rates of teacher attrition, and school closures. These traumas were compounded by the poverty, lack of food security, and unsafe drinking water in the community. I was a brand-new teacher teaching high school in an isolated First Nation community in Northern Ontario and I was filled with both excitement and doubt. I was drowning in student debt, completely removed from my family and support network, and working harder than ever to be the best teacher I could. What I know now, that I didn’t know then, was that you can’t out-teach trauma or grief, and you can’t out-teach a complete lack of well-being. I tried to, but I couldn’t.
I didn’t know about wellness in the same way I do now.
I realize now that my wellness was deeply compromised – financially, socially, physically, environmentally, and intellectually – and I didn’t even know it. I thought I needed to toughen up; I just needed to get through the day, the week, the month. But at the end of each day, each week, and each month, I was depleted and drained. I had so little left to offer my students. They were resilient, supportive, and strong, not me. I didn’t know about wellness in the same way I do now. I knew about physical health and why it was important. I knew I needed to exercise and eat well (neither of which I did) and I knew mental health mattered, so I talked to colleagues and tried to offer and gain support when needed. But that was the limit of my understanding about wellness and the limit of my embodiment of it. I never thought to access counselling support from someone like my co-author Elaine, or to seek help from veteran teachers, family, or administration. I just white-knuckled it through three full years of teaching. In the end I left my teaching position to pursue a PhD and, quickly thereafter, I crashed. I was riddled with anxiety, battling weight gain, taking on more student debt, and attempting to fend off looming health concerns. I was forced to begin a long journey in learning about wellness and how to prioritize my own.
That journey has led me here, to writing this article that you are reading today. It also led me to the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge, where I’m an associate professor and where I met Dr. Elaine Greidanus. When I met Elaine, we shared stories of the North: the long drives, the intense cold weather, the amazing people, and the communities and cultures we were privileged to learn from and with. Whether in Alberta or Ontario, our experiences merged and as a result we have pursued a research agenda and teaching opportunities that have centralized the wellness of educators.
Every two weeks I would leave my home in Edmonton at five in the morning and make the five- or six-hour drive to the community I was to work in. I marked the time of the year by which town I drove through as the sun came up. In the summer, the sun was just rising as I left Edmonton; in the spring, I would witness the sun rise over the farming fields around Westlock; and in winter, the sun might just be rising as I got to the community for that day. Often, I would not see anyone else on the road, except the moose, coyotes, deer, bear, and lynx.
I made myself available to help in any way that I could.
Some school days, I would complete one or two psychoeducational assessments with students who were struggling to meet the educational goals that were set for them. On days when there were no assessments to complete, or the students were not able to attend that day, I made myself available to help in any way that I could. Each school had their own ideas about the best use of my time. On occasion, I was asked to meet with students who were feeling upset, coach inclusive education teachers on how to design or implement individualized plans for students, or speak with principals about the ways to approach mental health challenges that arose in the school.
Whenever possible, I made it a priority to be in classrooms with teachers who invited me to provide feedback on their students or their own teaching approaches, and at the end of the day I stayed as long as possible to talk with those teachers who wanted to talk. Every teacher I met was open to talking about their experiences in the school, and many shared their own personal struggles with working and living in a remote community. Because I was not directly employed by the school, they felt I was far enough removed to be impartial. Because I was a psychologist, I was “professional” enough to hold their confidences, and because I worked in the communities, I understood enough for them to share their stories with me – stories just like Dawn’s.
You can’t pour from an empty cup! As a teacher, you have heard this said several times, and perhaps even said it yourself. The statement resonates with us; it reminds us to take the time we need to be our best selves, so we can best support our students. However, research shows that the wellness of educators is much more complicated than this. As educators, we are part of a greater community and even if we have a full cup individually, the collective cup (the school community, the families, and students) may not be full. This impacts the day-to-day experiences in every classroom. So, how can educators situate themselves and their understanding of wellness both individually and collectively in order to thrive and not just survive?
Wellness can generally be defined as an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.1 The “7 Dimensions” model of wellness (below) is a strong fit with the practice of educators because it highlights the diversity of wellness needs and provides a practical framework to develop wellness both individually and collectively.2
Figure 1: 7 Dimensions of Wellness
In Northern and remote locations, the dimensions of wellness are often more deeply intertwined. Colleagues are friends, parents and students are neighbours, and social interactions take place in school settings with colleagues and the greater school community. Living, working, and socially interacting with the same pool of people in common places compound and intensify all seven dimensions. The occupational dimension of wellness is of vital importance and relevance for those educators who find themselves part of small school communities where the borders between school and home are blurred. A concerted focus on the occupation dimension can be very useful for educators in Northern, remote, and rural school settings as a means of developing collective wellness.
1. Pedagogical Alignment: To increase your satisfaction and challenge yourself, seek out and explore various pedagogical approaches that align with your philosophy of teaching and learning.
2. Professional Networks: Reach out and develop networks of peers within and beyond the school to expand your connections and contribute to a healthy and productive dynamic.
3. Positive Perspective: Contribute to a positive, growth-oriented working environment by seeking solutions, thinking forward, seeing challenges as opportunities, and expressing gratitude. Adopting a growth mindset can help to actively challenge limiting frameworks such as black-and-white thinking, overgeneralizing, jumping to conclusions, personalizing, catastrophizing, and blaming.
Not only can the seven dimensions of wellness serve as a framework to support collective wellness; they can also generate a strong foundation for addressing and developing wellness at an individual level.
1. Self-Assessment: Identify the wellness dimensions that are already strengths for you and those areas that you want to learn more about. To assist you in identifying these areas, consider using a self-assessment tool that attends to different aspects of wellness, such as the one provided online by Simon Fraser University.3
2. Strategic Wellness Planning: Based on the wellness priorities you have identified in your self-assessment, be strategic and choose just a few to focus on during one timeframe. Design a plan to address those specific dimensions, using a SMART goals approach.4 If possible, find an accountability partner to check in with periodically to see how you are both doing in terms of addressing your wellness. As time progresses, revisit your plan and adjust according to what your needs and current realities or limitation are.
3. Seek Support: Reach out through your networks, such as an employee assistance program, community programs, or social networks. Meet with a counsellor, try a meditation class, join a walking group or a book club, or download (and use!) a mindfulness app. As you work through a self-assessment process and develop a strategic wellness plan you will, more clearly, be able to identify what types of support to seek.
The wellness of educators in all school settings is a vitally important aspect of the teaching profession. Research indicates that when educators address both individual and collective wellness needs, rates of teacher attrition decrease, school dynamics improve, and ultimately students benefit. Addressing and developing a culture of wellness for teachers and in schools is no easy task. Working on the three P’s and the three S’s will help develop a strong culture of individual and collective wellness and will ultimately serve to improve school environments for both teachers and students. This is especially important for those Northern, rural, and isolated school communities where the spaces between individual and collective are narrowed.
It’s been more than ten years since Dawn started her teaching career in Northern Ontario. She says, “Since then I have devoted much of my time both professionally and personally to wellness. I have never felt better, more motivated or more passionate about teaching. I exercise, eat well, seek support, and develop wellness plans that I share with my accountability partner. That being said, I have days, and even semesters, when I am exhausted, stressed out, and feel hopeless at times. But when those days or semesters come, I revisit the 3 P’s and 3 S’s and I work at my wellness, the same way I work at my lesson plans and assessments with students.”
After all, teachers who are well will be our best teachers.
Photo: iStock and Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, December 2019
2 Adapted from Alberta’s Strategic Approach to Wellness: Health for all… wellness for life (Government of Alberta, Alberta Health: 2014).
4 SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. https://alis.alberta.ca/plan-your-career/set-smart-goals
“I have a general recommendation that I make to people – turn adversity into opportunity.”
– Dr. Aaron T. Beck1
Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, says the current pandemic can offer a unique opportunity for us to reassess our priorities, realign our values, and mine for meaning. During virtual professional learning hosted by Ever Active Schools (a provincial initiative in Alberta initiative supporting healthy school communities), and in casual conversation with educators in our lives, we have heard from teachers who have found inspiring ways to prioritize well-being during this challenging time. These educators have shared well-being success stories and new opportunities that they would like to continue in a transition back to schools. Themes included intentionality, connection, slowing down, and greater flexibility and control over their days.
In considering opportunities to carry forward, one teacher shared, “It would be nice to have time in our school day to just connect with students and start slower.” Others discussed how the pandemic created space to savour their morning coffee, purposefully connect with students and colleagues, spend more time with family, and get outside. These perspectives have been echoed in conversations with educators since the pandemic reshaped our daily lives.
As an education community, how will we reprioritize? What lessons have we learned from the COVID-19 crisis and how will we act upon them with intention, compassion, and courage?
Through the uncertainty of the past several months, there are a few things that remain certain. It’s even more clear that social connection, savouring positive moments, and resilience are key to optimal teaching and learning, and to our capacity to be well through life’s inevitable highs and lows. Staff and student well-being can be mutually reinforcing when well-being is intentionally prioritized. Drawing on research and educators’ experiences2 during the pandemic, we explore opportunities to reconsider well-being in education.
“Our natural tendency is toward the negative, so it takes a concerted effort to wear a different set of glasses.”
– Dr. Judith Beck3
Most studies on “teacher well-being” have focused on the impacts of teacher stress and burnout. We propose that a focus on well-being should be centered on wellness and not illness.
One aspect of our human psychology that may help to explain the pervasive emphasis on stress and burnout in the teaching profession is that we are wired to focus on the negative more than the positive.4 This is a normal reaction to events in our daily lives; we may even owe part of our survival as a species to this negativity bias. As teachers, this is why one defiant student can derail us after an otherwise stellar lesson, or a brief negative interaction with a colleague or parent can send us into a downward spiral (despite several other positive interactions that same day).
The depiction of teaching as a stressful profession, however, is priming new teachers to normalize and expect exhaustion. As early as the first day of their BEd programs, many teacher candidates are warned of high attrition and exhaustion in the profession. New teachers are asking for a more inspiring and balanced view. At the 2019 National Forum on Wellness in Post-Secondary, one teacher candidate shared, “There’s a common narrative of mutually endured suffering going into our practicums, and I was stressed about the stress… both of my practicums were incredible and I didn’t need to be that stressed. Changing up the narrative would be helpful.”
We hope that the lessons learned from the pandemic can serve as an invitation to shift the conversation from being stressed at school to being well at school. While there are several contributing factors to the current narrative, the good news is we are also hard-wired to connect and overcome challenges. We can leverage these innate strengths to redirect our attention.
Below, we share educators’ experiences during the pandemic within three specific categories: cultivating connection, savouring positive moments, and building resilience (CPR).5 These lessons are relevant whether we’re at home, school, or somewhere in between.
“Connecting with kids is the key.” – Elementary teacher on experiencing joy after 20+ years in the profession
The transition from bustling hallways and classrooms to virtual spaces has highlighted in real-time that social connection is foundational to well-being and to learning. We crave it. Teachers and students alike say that what they miss most is each other.
Strong relationships can lead to a longer lifespan and improved creativity, meaning, resilience, and learning outcomes. Positive workplace interactions have the potential to strengthen our immune system, broaden our thinking, enhance self-image, and increase adaptability, cooperation, and job satisfaction.6 Powerful benefits for schools!
Especially during times of difficulty, our social connections need to go beyond chit-chat and honour the full pendulum of emotions.
While it’s not the same as face-to-face, teachers found creative ways to maintain those needed connections even during a global pandemic: sidewalk messages and neighbourhood obstacle courses, driveway charades, celebration car parades, drop-in Google lunches, Instagram live, email check-ins with jokes, and department calls with silly themes and fun games. We have been resourceful in connecting even when we can’t be physically close.
Especially during times of difficulty, these social connections need to go beyond chit-chat and honour the full pendulum of emotions. To cultivate these deeper connections, we can ask meaningful questions:
(Some of the above were adapted from organizational psychologist Dr. Adam Grant. Check out his WorkLife podcast for more ideas to build meaningful connections both in-person and remotely.)
Research on effective teacher well-being initiatives show that increasing experiences of positive emotion is equally or more important to promote well-being than building skills to reduce stress and burnout.7 Capitalizing on small positive moments ignites a “broaden and build” effect – positive emotions broaden our perspectives, actions, and relationships, and build resources like social support and resilience.8 An experienced Grade 1/2 teacher reflected in an email on a small positive moment during the pandemic that improved her well-being and job satisfaction:
“Students can see how hard you’re trying, and will offer their grace to you. This was demonstrated when students offered to meet with me prior to Google Meets to allow me to practice sharing my screen, and other skills I needed for my lessons. They were willing to be my guinea pigs so that I could be successful. Knowing that they wanted me to be successful made me feel amazing. I love my job!”
Balancing our work and personal life is especially vital in the current context. During an online conversation, teachers shared how setting time boundaries and managing expectations helped them to stay positive. Others carved out time for meditation, walks outside with family, Zoom fitness classes with friends, podcasts, or reading for pleasure. Some teachers found joy in starting a gratitude practice and taking time to reflect on what went well in their changed teaching role.
Teachers also shared their successes with colleagues. Emotions are contagious; we can “catch” positive emotions as easily as negative ones.9 Savouring positive experiences and celebrating others when they do the same can boost resilience and cultivate awareness of those meaningful moments in the future. Actively responding to others’ good news offers reciprocal benefits for both parties; it can help decrease loneliness and strengthen self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and our memory of the good event.10
Some teachers found the following daily questions,11 applicable in any context, particularly helpful for cultivating positive moments during the pandemic:
Resilience allows us to manage inevitable challenges and setbacks, and develop skills to move through those experiences and grow as a result. It allows us to experience hope in hardship. Teachers shared during the virtual chat how the pandemic has provided opportunities to build resilience, including managing expectations of productivity and creating space to be vulnerable and name emotions (which, in turn, encourages their colleagues to do the same): “It’s okay not to be okay.”
How can we continue these generative conversations…and interrupt the narrative of burnout and stress?
A powerful skill in developing resilience is the ability to reframe and challenge our rigid thoughts or expectations. It takes practice, but we can learn how to turn unproductive worries, all-or-nothing thinking, and guilt-inducing lists of “shoulds” into more balanced and empowering thoughts. One educator shared how she was able to reframe disappointment in missing a pre-planned trip by connecting to the meaning, or her why, of going on the trip in the first place. Her why was connection, so she found a new opportunity to connect with those same people. Consider these questions to reframe in the moment:
Similarly, self-compassion is a strategy to build our resilience and ability to manage stress. Teachers identify self-compassion as a powerful practice to combat self-criticism while navigating uncertainty. Dr. Kristin Neff explains self-compassion as treating ourselves with kindness. To apply self-compassion, try asking these questions inspired by Neff’s framework:13
Continuing the conversation
Let’s not forget the lessons we’re learning through this difficult situation. How can we continue these generative conversations, implement a reprioritized value for well-being habits, and as a result, interrupt the narrative of burnout and stress? These seemingly simple habits are impactful regardless of the setting; the pandemic simply shone a bright light on their necessity.
To envision an education system that prioritizes well-being at an individual and organizational level, how would we allocate time? For example, how could we restructure the school day to encourage intentional opportunities to connect and savour positive moments, without the usual rush to the next thing? Habits teachers reported during the pandemic are simple, inexpensive ways to build well-being and sustainability in our profession.
Imagine a narrative of teaching that is energizing and empowering to both manage the complexities of education today, and to spark an upward spiral of well-being for teachers and students. Eventually, talking about well-being will become as common as talking about stress.
Illustration: Diana Pham
First published in Education Canada, September 2020
2 For a summary of the In the Round learning chats hosted by Ever Active Schools: https://everactive.org/professional-learning/#online
4 P. Rozin and E. B. Royzman, “Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 5, No. 4 (2001): 296-320; R. F. Baumeister, E. Bratslavsky, et al., “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology 5, No. 4 (2001): 323-370.
5 Referred to as the CPR of happiness by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center: https://blog.edx.org/scientific-self-care-feel-happy-grounded-grateful
6 J. E. Dutton and E. D. Heaphy, “The Power of High-quality Connections,” Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline 3 (2003): 263-278; J. Holt-Lunstad, T. B. Smith, and J. B. Layton, “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A meta-analytic review,” PLOS Medicine 7, No. 7 (2010).
7 WellAhead, Research Brief: Promoting the wellbeing of teachers and school staff (2018). https://static1.squarespace.com/static/586814ae2e69cfb1676a5c0b/t/5b281bb170a6ad31c89ab315/1529355185939/TSWB_ResearchBrief.pdf
8 B. L. Fredrickson, (2001). “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions,” American Psychologist 56, No. 3 (2001): 218-226.
9 S. G. Barsade, C. G. Coutifaris, and J. Pillemer, “Emotional Contagion in Organizational Life,” Research in Organizational Behavior 38 (2018): 137-151; S. G. Barsade, “The Ripple Effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior,” Administrative Science Quarterly 47, No. 4 (2002): 644-675.
10 S. L. Gable et al., “What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87, No. 2 (2004): 228-245.
11 Brooke Anderson, “Six Daily Questions to Ask Yourself in Quarantine,” Greater Good Magazine (March 24, 2020). https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_daily_questions_to_ask_yourself_in_quarantine
12 Visit www.viacharacter.org to take a free character strengths survey and learn about your signature strengths. Using strengths creates a common language, builds resilience skills, and benefits student and staff well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted life across the globe in every sector of society. As we move toward the third year of the pandemic, educators are examining the impact on student learning, educational outcomes, and well-being. Educators over the past two years have been adjusting practice and reflecting on what lies ahead for education and schooling in a “post-pandemic” world. We all acknowledge that it might be premature to think of “post-pandemic,” as students, parents, educators, policymakers and communities are still experiencing effects of the pandemic.
The pandemic continues to impact Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities in devastating ways, and has exacerbated structural inequities that these communities experience. Research has shown that the pandemic has impacted student learning in significant ways, with many students falling behind, experiencing challenges with persistent and ongoing virtual learning and the safety concerns with in-person learning, and suffering diminished mental health and well-being. There have been challenges for parents: supporting students with online learning, work and life balance, and child care issues, among others. Educators have voiced concerns about ongoing safety measures as many return to in-person learning. The impact and consequences of the pandemic have been experienced differently by members of society depending on status, resources, type of work, racialization, ability, and other aspects of identity. Essential and frontline workers have borne the brunt of the impact and many are experiencing burnout, anxiety, and negative impact on their well-being. As Reyes (2020) argues, our different social identities and the social groups we belong to determine our inclusion within society and, by extension, our vulnerability to epidemics.
As educators and policymakers reimagine education and schooling in a post-pandemic era, there is a growing awareness that the experiences of the pandemic and the lessons learned should serve as motivation for radical new and alternative approaches to teaching, learning, and leading. Calls to “get back to normal” by some ignore challenges and structural inequities across all sectors of society that have been laid bare and exacerbated by the pandemic.
Students, educators, and community members all want teaching and learning to return in fulsome ways; however, those from global majority communities say “getting back to normal” must not include returning to oppressive policies and practices that prevent racialized students from achieving positive educational outcomes. The pandemic widened gaps that already existed for Black, Brown, and Indigenous students. Students and communities are demanding new approaches and policies that centre their lived experiences and will no longer tolerate educational policies and practices that oppress them and negatively impact their futures. The pandemic has magnified historic systemic failures affecting Black students, families, and communities, causing increased racial trauma, issues of mental health and well-being for educators and students, and the erosion of trust in schools and institutions (Horsford et al., 2021). As a result, many children and youth have experienced disengagement, chronic attendance problems, declines in academic achievement, and decreased credit attainment during the pandemic, with the impact far deeper for those already at risk (Whitley et al., 2021). “The pandemic has not only added to the social and educational inequities among young people, it has exacerbated the racial injustice with which racialized and Indigenous youth must contend” (James, 2020, p.1), and this reality cannot be overlooked.
Against this backdrop, educators and policymakers are called on to reimagine education and schooling, to name and challenge the ways in which students are marginalized, and to question practices, policies, and “norms” of a pre-pandemic era that must not return. The lessons of the pandemic must be learned and there must not be a return to business as usual. Instead, those most impacted by the pandemic are calling for inequities to be acknowledged and a commitment made to lasting systemic change.
To this end, critical educators see the pandemic as an opportunity not only to question oppressive educational policies and practices, but to take action and offer new and alternative approaches. One key issue that this article examines is the notion of student success. Measures of student success have traditionally focused on such areas as grades, credit accumulation, engagement in the school environments, and so on. What the pandemic (as well as student and community advocates) has highlighted is that student success is also about well-being, having a sense of belonging, and the ability to survive and thrive academically, emotionally, and spiritually. In this article I argue for rethinking student success through an anti-oppressive and decolonizing lens. To do so means naming systems of oppression and the ways coloniality and colonization continue to be perpetuated in educational practices, policies, and the framing of notions such as student success.
Student success has been a long-standing goal of educators. Nonetheless, the term carries a variety of meanings within education, though it has commonly been identified with various forms of measurable student outcomes. Schools in their school success plans often define and contextualize student success to set organizational goals. In broad terms, student success has been understood in terms of outcomes such as academic achievement, graduation rates, persistence, increase in self-efficacy, increase in engagement, and initiative (Weatherton & Schussler, 2021). Research shows that there are differences in how teachers and students understand student success. Racialized students, for example, tend to define success for themselves, which often aligns with what matters to them and the kinds of supports they need for their educational advancement (Oh & Kim, 2016). Weatherton and Schussier (2021) argue that current discourse around the meaning of student success is maintained in part by social hierarchies that can be examined through the lens of hegemony and critical race theory, and which often hinder the success of certain student populations who may not define success in the same way.
Many have argued that markers of student success have been created to serve a predominantly white student population and do not sufficiently reflect or meet the needs of a diverse student population. Students from global majority communities are no longer willing to be labelled as “unsuccessful,” “disadvantaged,” “at-risk,” and other markers of deficit in school while their educational, mental health, and well-being needs are not met, and racism and other forms of oppression that impact their educational outcomes persist. For example, throughout the pandemic students from low-resourced families could not participate effectively in the shift to online learning, as some did not have adequate access to the internet and computers. The failure of the system to provide adequate resources for students must not be laid at the feet of vulnerable students and used to render them as unsuccessful. Instead, questions must be asked about what success means for students from global majority communities, and what policies and practices need to be put in place in order for them to survive and thrive. Resiliency has emerged in the discourse when discussing success of students, and in particular students from Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. While resilience is a worthy endeavour, students should not be called on to be resilient in the face of ongoing oppression. Oppressive systems, policies, and practices must change, instead of calling on some students to be more resilient.
Anti-oppressive and decolonizing education, which identifies structural inequities and practices grounded in coloniality and the resulting gaps in student outcomes, provides a framework for advancing equity that challenges all forms of oppression. This should be seen as foundational to student success.
Reimagining student success grounded in anti-oppressive and decolonizing approaches must prioritize the following elements:
These suggestions do not operate in an isolated linear fashion, but overlap and are interconnected.
Research shows that students often have different notions of what success means. In addition to grades, students want to feel that they are being heard. As well, students from global majority communities see success as being able to thrive academically and without spirit injury – not having to endure racism and other forms of exclusion that stand in the way of their academic success and well-being. In Canada, we have read story after story of Black students experiencing anti-Black racism in schools and Indigenous students experiencing anti-Indigenous racism in schools. In response to community and parental advocacy, some school boards have put policies in place to address anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, but there is more work to be done.
Student-centred approaches are not new; however a student-centred approach grounded in anti-oppressive and decolonizing education requires educators to examine their relationships with students through the lens of power, whiteness, white supremacy, ways that systemic forms of oppression can be manifested in those relationships, and ways in which practices grounded in colonial thinking and mindset define markers of success. Wells and Cordova-Cobo (2021) argue that it is impossible for educators to be student-centred, to engage in a holistic education focused on students’ social and emotional needs, without also being anti-racist. This approach means that success cannot be seen within paradigms of meritocracy, but instead through supports they need, acknowledging the impact of racism and other forms of oppression on their educational experiences. For educators in classrooms, this might mean examining assessment practices, pedagogical approaches, and curriculum context. For administrators this might mean examining discipline policies that penalize students instead of learning about what else might be happening in students’ lives.
Anti-oppressive and decolonizing education cannot be treated as an add-on to teachers’ and school leaders’ everyday work, but must instead be embedded in everyday practice. It must become the norm. Students must experience curriculum, pedagogy, and school practices that reflect their lived experiences, address their needs holistically, and identify forms of oppression in all aspects of teaching, learning, and leading that stand in the way of their progress. Students’ school experiences must be wholesome and fulfilling, both academically and spiritually. Seeing the impact of COVID-19 on racialized students, educators must commit to this work and be provided ongoing support to make it a reality, not just theory. This will require educators to examine activities that they engage in on a daily basis, including morning greetings, conversations with students in the hallways, meetings with families, resources that are purchased, and knowledge used to frame decision-making. For example, examining the influence of Eurocentric knowledge in relationship to students from global majority communities; and asking questions about the use of deficit narratives to construct students’ experiences and success or lack thereof. Anti-oppressive and decolonizing education also requires the examination of self – for educators to examine their positionality and how this intersects with that of students; and to look for the tensions in the relationship and include student voice and experience as they work through these tensions. Educators must also be committed to ongoing learning, unlearning, and relearning. This is critical for anti-oppressive and decolonizing work to be sustained and create the lasting change needed.
Students’ mental health and well-being has been a consistent conversation throughout the pandemic. For racialized students who are already experiencing racial violence and trauma in schools, the impact has been devastating. In addition to the already heightened challenges on their mental health and well-being, many students from low-resource families and communities work to earn extra family income, and thus shoulder an added layer of stress. These issues, illuminated and exacerbated during the pandemic, must now form part of the discourse, policy and practice as we reconceptualize student success. The impact of these experiences should not be constructed as deficits when examining student success, but instead as a result of embedded structural inequities. I am suggesting here that when discussing student success, questions must be asked about students’ economic well-being and how that impacts their educational outcomes. Students’ economic lives are not separate from their educational lives; they are intertwined. New conceptualizations of success must include providing supports for students to overcome these challenges. These should be envisioned as the “new normal” and markers of success in a “post-pandemic” world.
As we begin to rethink education, schooling, and what student success means through an anti-oppressive and decolonizing lens, relationships with communities must be seen as central to student success. Connection with their community deepens educators’ understanding of students in holistic ways and fosters greater understanding of their needs. This also means building into curriculum and pedagogy knowledge that students bring from their communities, what Gonzalez et al. (2005) refer to as Funds of Knowledge. They suggest that families, especially those who are working class, can be characterized by the practices they have developed and the knowledge they have produced and acquired in the living of their lives. In other words, how is community knowledge part of the conversation about success? How are the formal and informal activities that students engage in at the community level taken into account when discussing student success? Decolonizing approaches to education require educators to examine and disrupt notions about certain communities constructed and maintained through colonized frames, that disregard local knowledge as valued and valuable (Lopez, 2021). This knowledge is valuable to schools in supporting students’ learning and bringing about positive educational outcomes. We also need to support students to engage in cultural border crossing – drawing on knowledge from their own experiences, and getting to know students who are different from themselves – and to see other cultures through an affirming lens. Building positive relationships with community is a cornerstone of anti-oppressive and decolonizing education.
Education in a “post-pandemic” era calls for radical action. Student success can no longer be conceptualized only in terms of measurable outcomes and indicators such as graduation rates and marks. While it is important that students graduate and move to the next level, other markers of student success must be seen as equally important – such as how well students are thriving in teaching and learning spaces free from oppression and marginalization. The relationship between students, community, and school, should become central to student success policies and practice. The moment we are currently in provides educators with a great opportunity to build deep, lasting, and respectful relationships with communities, examine ways that COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated structural inequities, and construct alternative approaches and practices. This will prepare students to be successful in a fast-changing and diverse world.
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
Horsford, S. D. et al. (2021). Black education in the wake of COVID-19 & systemic racism: Toward a theory of change and action. Black Education Research Collective, Teachers College, Columbia University. https://www.tc.columbia.edu/media/centers/berc/Final-BERC-COVID-Report-20July2021.pdf
González, N., Moll, L., Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Lawrence Erlbaum.
James, C. (2021). Racial inequity, COVID-19 and the education of Black and other marginalized students. In F. Henry & C. James (Eds.) Impacts of COVID-19 in Racialized Communities (36–44). Royal Society of Canada. https://rsc-src.ca/en/themes/impact-covid-19-in-racialized-communities
Lopez, A. E. (2021). Decolonizing educational leadership: Exploring alternative approaches to leading schools. Palgrave Macmillan.
Oh, C. J., & Kim, N. Y. (2016). “Success is relative”: Comparative social class and ethnic effects in an academic paradox. Sociological Perspectives, 59(2), 270–295.
Osmond-Johnson, P., Lopez, A. E., & Button, J. (2020, November 20). Centring equity in an era of COVID-19: A new twist on an existing challenge. Education Canada. www.edcan.ca/articles/centring-equity-in-the-covid-19-era
Reyes, N. V. (2020). The disproportional impact of COVID-19 on African Americans. Health and Human Rights, 22(2) 299–307.
Weatherton, M., & Schussler, E. E. (2021). Success for all? A call to re-examine how student success is defined in higher education. CBE – life sciences education, 20(1), es3. doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-09-0223
Wells, A. S., & Cordova-Cobo, D. (2021). The post-pandemic pathway to anti-racist education: Building a coalition across progressive, multicultural, culturally responsive, and ethnic studies advocates. The Century Foundation. https://tcf.org/content/report/post-pandemic-pathway-anti-racist-education-building-coalition-across-progressive-multicultural-culturally-responsive-ethnic-studies-advocates
Whitley, J., Beauchamp, M. H., & Brown C. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on the learning and achievement of vulnerable Canadian children and youth. FACETS 6(1), 1693–1713. doi.org/10.1139/facets-2021-0096
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
If there is anything that we have learned over the course of COVID-19 and the constant shifting from in-person to remote, etc., it’s the importance of a positive classroom community. This is established when all students feel valued, safe, and represented in their classroom, and students are actively taking risks and making mistakes.
Every classroom is going to look different, because every teacher and student group is different; what works for one educator is not going to be the same for others – and that’s OK! It’s important to reflect on your strengths and what you bring to your own classroom, and build from there.
In an ideal world, face-to-face interactions are a key component to building community; students get to see and interact with their teacher and peers, and become comfortable in the classroom setting. The strategies we share below are meant to provide ideas on how you can leverage tech tools to support this class bonding.
Please remember that building community is not a one-and-done activity; it takes real effort and continuous commitment to build and foster positive relationships throughout the course of the school year.
Why is community so important? Classroom community is a fundamental building block upon which everything is based. Positive relationships foster safe, inclusive, and effective learning environments.
First, a positive community encourages communication. Communication allows students to get comfortable with their peers, to build friendships, and to gain confidence using their voice in the classroom. It also allows students and teachers to communicate more openly about expectations, struggles, and how to improve.
From there, community leads to more effective collaboration. This is a skill that is important for students in all courses, but will also be important for their future.
Community also supports social and emotional learning. It’s important for students to build healthy attitudes toward their self-identity, to learn how to manage their emotions and behaviours, and to develop a sense of empathy for themselves and others.
Finally, one of the most important reasons for building community is the creation of a safe and inclusive learning environment. By recognizing milestones and highlighting the many cultures and strengths in their classrooms, educators can create a space where students feel valued and able to share their ideas, their learning, etc., without feeling judged or ridiculed by their peers or teacher.
Now let’s talk about technology tools that you can use to support community building in your classroom. No matter which tools you choose, consider tools that allow students to see and/or hear you and each other. This helps students to connect with you as their teacher, and with their peers. Think of the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” – when you include yourself in a video, students can see facial expressions and hear intonation, without having to interpret that from text only.
Be sure to protect students and their identities. Check privacy policies, and try to avoid having students use tools that gather a lot of personal data. If your board has rules about technology use for students, make sure that you are verifying each tool to ensure students are protected.
Please note that there are many different tools that are quite similar. We have included tools that we use regularly.
You can record a combination of voice, screen, and/or webcam. Tools include Screencastify, Loom, Explain Everything, Screencast-o-matic, and WeVideo.
These tools allow you to record audio notes in Google Workspace (Docs, Slides, Forms, Gmail) and beyond. You can achieve this with Mote and Google Read&Write’s Voice Comment feature.
Real-time messaging apps are more similar to the way that students communicate in real life. Tools include Remind, Slack, Discord, Google Chat or the chat feature built into your LMS.
These are collaborative tools that can be leveraged in the classroom. Examples of these tools are Microsoft (Office) 365 (Word, PowerPoint) and Google Workspace (Docs, Slides, Drawings).
These tools can be used to gather information. Surveys can be created using a variety of tools, such as Microsoft Forms, Survey Monkey, and Google Forms.
This is a great tool for collaborating in real time. Similar tools include: Google Jamboard, whiteboard.fi, whiteboard.chat, as well as the Microsoft Whiteboard.
Video conferencing tools have become a staple in virtual classrooms. Take advantage of additional features within these tools such as polls, Q&A, and breakout rooms to build your classroom community.
An LMS is a centralized hub where students can access content, submit assignments, and more. Examples of an LMS are: Google Classroom, Brightspace by D2L, Schoology, Canvas, etc.
As you start off your school year, remember that community building does not happen overnight. Teachers must continue to make an effort throughout the course or school year to ensure that all students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom. Taking just a few minutes every day can lead to positive student outcomes, as well as stronger and more positive student-teacher relationships.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
This department is generously sponsored by IPEVO
The lights are low and peaceful in the school gymnasium. Around the floor, tiny pink and purple yoga mats are splayed in a large circle, six feet apart. The Community Schools Partnership facilitator sits in the centre. “This is how you breathe mindfully. Sit with your heart up and take a deep breath in and empty all of the worries from your day.” The students in her program adore her. She is the reason some students come to school each day during a pandemic. They feel the safe, caring space and it shows.
Community Schools Partnership (CSP) is a department that complements educational programs in Surrey Schools. Our work is to provide before-, during-, and after-school programs with a focus on sports, arts, STEM, and social-emotional learning (SEL) opportunities. CSP’s goals are aligned with the district’s goals to ensure equity and access for all children to reach their full potential, expand their learning, and grow socially and emotionally. Our programs are shaped around the needs of the school community. We focus on programs and partnership development in areas like physical literacy, art, music, STEM, coding, yoga, dance, and many other extra activities. It is in these programs that CSP Outreach staff have the opportunity to support children and youth who may not have access to fun physical and emotional supports that help them thrive.
Community Schools Partnership is funded through multiple streams provincially, locally, and federally. Our primary funding is through the Community Link Funding, which is intended to target students with complexities who need the additional supports in schools to thrive. Some of those complexities include financial and accessibilty barriers.
Throughout the pandemic, our small but mighty department pivoted and flexed in ways we never knew were possible to ensure that after-school programs continued. In British Columbia, schools remained open throughout the pandemic. Our team continued to implement programs by following the guidelines from the Provincial Health Authority and our school district’s Health and Safety team. Some of the key measures we put in place included: shortening program time, lowering numbers of students in programs, keeping students in their learning cohorts (not mixing cohorts), and communicating clear guidelines for keeping our students and school communities safe.
After-school programs have always made a difference for kids. They became even more important during the pandemic, when students were on blended learning programs that limited their ability to see friends face to face. Our CSP Outreach Workers and Facilitators worked hard to continue to meet the needs of our students and bring them back to safety, security, and normalcy. One of our Outreach staff, Vanessa, related that “many kids want to learn friendship skills, especially given the circumstances where they are forced to stay at home for extended periods.”
At a time when the mental health and well-being of young people have been clearly impacted, intentional programming that effectively responds to the needs of students will support their recovery as we move into our “new normal.”
Community Schools Partnership programs foster an atmosphere of safety and wrap-around support. They are not separate from the school culture; rather they echo the values and learning throughout the school day and contribute to a school culture that is healthy and robust. Jordan, one of our outreach workers, says, “In our after-school programs, everyone feels accepted and valued. We create opportunities for team building and bringing everyone closer to our common goals.” CSP’s after-school programs provide an intentional space to extend students’ learning and belonging. Student participants feel more connected to the school because they belong to the programs. Group leader Meghan names additional benefits: “Social-emotional learning, social connections after school, physical literacy, and community empowerment.”
Through the pandemic, we felt it was increasingly important to know where our students were at, socially and emotionally. We collaborated with our research department to create a survey based on some key pillars that reflect the students’ perception of how they are doing.
We evaluated students in nine different CSP after-school programs. Data was collected from 617 program participants ages six to 12, attending these programs across Surrey Schools. Program participants were asked to complete a 25-item survey, broadly grouped into five domains using a five-point Likert Scale. Program participants responded to survey items by indicating their level of agreement: 1) Disagree a lot; 2) Disagree a little; 3) Don’t agree or disagree; 4) Agree a little; and 5) Agree a lot. Additional open-ended questions were posed to program participants.
What we learned through this process was that students who attend CSP after-school programs tend to report higher feelings of attachment and after-school involvement, and to feel a deeper sense of awareness of their thoughts and feelings, than is reported by the overall school population of B.C. in the provincial Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI) survey (see Figure 1). These are early findings, but showcase the importance of after-school programming.
We have been fortunate to be able to run after-school programs for students despite the pandemic. The strain that the pandemic has added to the lives of students has amplified the urgency for us to continue to effectively address the areas of mental health and SEL in our youth. Jordynn, one of our outreach staff, says, “Teaching mental health literacy in our after-school programs has been integral… mindfulness, awareness, and fostering social interactions have been lacking throughout this pandemic.” The opportunity for healthy interactions and rediscovering that place of quiet and calm can offer a much-needed respite for our youth, some of whom may find that the only space for them to practise mindfulness is in their after-school programs.
Consistently listening to the voices, opinions, and insights of our students is essential in creating programs that truly meet their needs. The more we listen, hear, and apply their considerations and make any necessary adaptations to our programs, the more we reach students where they are at and build their trust. We are always listening to them.
At the beginning of the article, our students were finding peace in their after-school program. In the final moments of this program, each student takes a long deep breath in and out. Then they roll up their little yoga mats, and the outreach worker checks in with each student as they make their way to the yoga mat bin. One student says casually on the way out, “I can teach this to my mom. Sometimes she gets stressed too, this could help her,” and runs to catch up with her mom waiting outside. This captures why we do what we do. The pressure that the pandemic is placing on our families and society is significant; however with supports and programming, we adapt. CSP after-school programs encourage children to express and accept their feelings, to embrace challenges, and to build up their resiliency toolboxes.
The authors wish to thank: Chadwin Stang, Tanya Parker, Arthur Tiojanco, Mark Elke, Denis Pavlovic, Manjot Badesha, Jordynn Punter, Jordan McDougall, and the Community Schools Partnership Team.
Photo: Courtesy James Speidel
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
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.
Last May I visited Walnut Park Elementary, which is located on the unceded traditional territories of the Wet’suwet’en in Smithers, B.C. While navigating the halls to get to Mary Neto’s Grade 4 classroom, I passed students and staff decked out in denim, fluorescent headbands, tie-dye masks, scrunchies, and leather jackets. It was ’80s day.
Mrs. Neto welcomed me into her classroom and invited me to make myself at home. Students were quietly reading at their desks, some eating snacks, while others continued to trickle in. One student asked Mrs. Neto if he could tell her something, and when she replied of course, he told her about his dog running away (they found him), and then getting stuck in traffic, almost making him late for school. Mrs. Neto empathized with his hectic morning and said she was glad he made it to school on time in the end.
Looking around, I noticed many objects and displays that were familiar from my childhood Grade 4 classroom. Lined up along the windowsill were Styrofoam cups filled with dirt and the beginnings of tiny green sprouts. On the walls were exhibits of student work. However, there were also differences. Posters on the back bulletin board showed the different “Core Competencies” (Communicating, Collaborating, Creative Thinking, Critical and Reflective Thinking, and Personal and Social Identity). The chairs students were sitting at weren’t all the standard plastic-backed chair I remember either; some were wobble stools and others were on rockers.
A buzzer interrupted my thoughts, announcing the end of individual reading time. Students were instructed to find a partner and read to each other. Two boys reading Calvin and Hobbes comics partnered up and laughed at the antics of the boy and the tiger. Over the murmur of the class I heard a girl exclaim, “Oh, poor dinosaur!” in response to the story her friend was sharing. I hadn’t been in the class for more than 15 minutes and I had already witnessed displays of students practising and strengthening their social and emotional skills.
Walnut Park Elementary is one of seven schools in Bulkley Valley School District 54 (SD 54). It is no surprise that I observed social and emotional learning (SEL) in Mrs. Neto’s class, as SEL is a priority in the district. For those of you who are unfamiliar with SEL, it focuses on five competencies (CASEL, n.d.):
There are numerous SEL programs designed for the school setting; however SD 54’s approach goes beyond a single program, which is likely one of the reasons it is so successful. SD 54 uses an approach that aligns with Comprehensive School Health (CSH).
CSH is an internationally recognized framework for supporting improvements in students’ educational outcomes while addressing school health in a planned, integrated, and holistic way. It is based upon the proven relationship between health and education: healthy students are better learners and more educated students are healthier.
Schools are often seen as an ideal setting to promote health among children and youth. Most children and youth attend school, and therefore ideas taught at school reach the majority of the population. However, educators already have a lot of material to cover in the short span of ten months. Adding more to their plate can be overwhelming, and in some cases, impossible. If you imagine each subject that educators have to cover as a block, many educators are already carrying their maximum number of blocks. Using a CSH approach to promote health ensures that we aren’t just adding another block to educators’ already towering stacks. Instead, a CSH approach seeks to embed health into the school and district culture so that making the healthy choice is the easy choice. I like to imagine CSH as a wheelbarrow rather than another block. It may take time and energy for educators and schools to figure out how best to use it, and how to organize their other blocks within it, but once they do, the wheelbarrow actually makes carrying all of the other blocks easier.
Specifically, CSH involves planning health-promoting activities in four distinct but interrelated areas:
Here is more detail about each component:
Teaching and learning occurs in the classroom and beyond. It includes any teaching and learning opportunities that build knowledge and skills. Students learn from teachers, other adults in the school and community, and from their peers.
The physical environment refers to the physical spaces in the school that support health and well-being. This includes buildings, equipment, and outdoor areas. The social environment includes the quality of relationships and emotional well-being of members of the school community.
There are many potential community partners that schools can connect with to promote health and well-being. Some examples are parents, other schools or classrooms, community organizations, and health professionals.
The final component of CSH refers to provincial, district, school, or classroom policies, as well as rules, procedures, and codes of conduct that help shape a caring and safe school environment and promote student health and well-being.
CSH can be used to promote any health topic, but for this article we’re going to take a deeper look at how SD 54’s actions to promote SEL in their schools align with a CSH approach.
In 2016, the B.C. Ministry of Education released a revamped K–9 curriculum with the significant new addition of Core Competencies. The Core Competencies closely align with the five SEL competencies. Incorporating the Core Competencies into the provincial curriculum is an example of a policy change that supports SEL in schools. Policy changes such as these are effective, especially when combined with support for implementation. While changes to the curriculum are out of the control of any one school district, the district can provide this support to ensure they are successful.
A case in point: around the same time that the new curriculum was being released, SD 54 created a new position within their district: Elementary Social and Emotional Helping Teacher. It was originally a part-time role and filled by a school counsellor in the district. Over time it developed into a .8 FTE position as demand from educators to work with the Helping Teacher increased. In a short video about the initiative, superintendent Mike McDiarmid explains that the role was spurred by increasing concern about the mental wellness of students in the district and educators feeling like they didn’t have the necessary background to teach the social and emotional curriculum.
This partnership between the district and elementary schools successfully supported implementation of SEL and the Core Competencies. Educators could schedule sessions for the Social and Emotional Helping Teacher to join their classroom to collaborate and co-teach around the social and emotional curriculum. If you think back to my earlier analogy of the teacher holding a towering stack of blocks, you might ask, “How are they supposed to load the wheelbarrow without dropping everything? They don’t have any free hands.” This shows just how important partnerships are when it comes to CSH. In SD 54, educators who had previously felt uncomfortable or unsure about how to approach SEL gained valuable skills and confidence by observing and working alongside the Social and Emotional Helping Teacher. They were then able to more easily incorporate the ideas that they had learned into their regular lesson plans, which laid the groundwork for embedding SEL into the school culture.
In Mrs. Neto’s classroom, the physical environment supported SEL with different seating options that allowed students to self-regulate depending on how they were feeling. Schools and districts can support changes in the physical environment by ensuring there is funding available for classrooms to put toward SEL. There are also strategies educators can use to impact the physical environement that don’t cost any money. Mrs. Neto turned off some of the lights in the classroom when students were high energy and it was time to focus, and had different seating configurations that were associated with different levels of ease to communicate with their classmates.
Modelling behaviour and actions is another form of teaching. By modelling SEL through their words and actions, teachers are directly impacting the social environment. Cultivating an environment of mutual respect and care will support learning and create a space that is more enjoyable for everyone. Sometimes actions speak louder than words; Mrs. Neto’s calm and empathetic demeanor set a precedent that her students followed.
Teaching and learning is part of many of the actions that I’ve already discussed, but SEL was also explicitly addressed while I was in Mrs. Neto’s class. After students each did two laps around the school (an effective way to regulate their energy levels and develop their fitness), they came inside and worked on their daily goals. Mrs. Neto started the class off by reviewing her own goal from the previous day: to read one chapter of her book. She shared that it was difficult because she was tired, but she persevered and managed to finish the chapter. Alongside their goals, students had space to write the steps they would take to achieve them and something they were grateful for. I walked around the room asking students what their goals were, and they varied from being a better listener to eating healthier snacks. In the space asking what they were grateful for, many of the students wrote, “Mrs. Neto.”
Procedures such as daily goal setting and partner reading demonstrate how policy can be established at the classroom level, and that it doesn’t have to come from the district when using a CSH approach.
These collective actions in policy, community partnerships, the environment, and teaching and learning have made SEL an integral part of students’ school days in SD 54. Hopefully you can also see how the approach the district took meant that the weight of it didn’t fall solely on any one person’s lap. And while Mrs. Neto is particularly passionate about SEL, the underlying SEL principles are present in every classroom in the district.
Health and learning are intertwined. Using a CSH approach to make health and well-being part of your school’s culture will inevitably improve student learning and behaviour and contribute to the development of more well-rounded students.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (n.d.). CASEL’s SEL Framework: What are the core competence areas and where are they promoted? https://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CASEL-SEL-Framework-11.2020.pdf
In early 2020, I sat in the revolving restaurant of the Calgary Tower on a cold January night to share a meal with a teacher and vice-principal from Tarui, Japan. We were celebrating the successful conclusion of a cultural exchange between our schools. Over the week, we had opened our school, billeted students in our homes, and shared rich cultural experiences. Through broken English and Japanese we told stories and forged bonds. Little did we know that within weeks, borders would close, and the COVID-19 pandemic would change all our lives fundamentally. Looking back, it is easy to see the ways we took that experience, and so many like it, for granted.
In early February, our school community would be thrown into disarray. One of our students returned from a trip to China and questions began to arise. Parent calls followed. What if the student had been exposed to this novel coronavirus? What if it came into the school? This previously distant disease became an unsettling and very present reality.
As anxiety rose, I worked with parents, staff, and my admin team to maintain calm while coping with crippling uncertainty myself. My responsibility to create a safe environment for children had never felt so challenging or elusive. Following guidance, we didn’t encourage the use of masks in our school, citing their limited effectiveness
(if only we knew!) and scarce supply for healthcare workers. On Sunday, March 15 in the late afternoon, we watched a news conference announcing the closure of physical schools effective Monday morning. We had no more notice of the closures than the families we served.
Overnight, we were thrust into this strange new reality. My wife was home sick with our three school-aged children who were suddenly distance learning. I felt I had no choice but to go in to work to help guide my community through those tenuous early days of remote teaching and learning.
Our staff met in-person the next morning as we had always done. I naively felt prepared to lead. After all, I had spent years researching instructional leadership. In our meeting I told teachers to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I am surprised now they didn’t walk out. “Uncomfortable” was a grave underestimation of how they were feeling. A teacher with a compromised immune system contacted me that night to say he could not meet in person anymore. In that moment, my perspective changed. I realized that the very lives of my staff would be impacted by my decisions from here on out. The gravity of that responsibility sat heavy on my shoulders.
We scrambled to provide professional learning and resources to our teachers as they moved online. We shared resources, PD was organized, and teachers worked together to troubleshoot new tech tools. In the end, our success pivoting to online learning was built on relationships rather than program. We worked tirelessly to reach out to families in those months. We reached out to one another. We focused on building community despite physical distance.
The pandemic has been one of the most dynamic, nerve-wracking, challenging, exhausting, and at times exciting experiences of my career as a school principal. From moving classes online overnight in the spring, to riding the wave of uncertainty and fear about school reopening through the summer, to reinventing school around safety guidelines in the fall, to the constant threat of contact-tracing and isolations this winter, this school year has been like no other. It has been said that leadership is a rainy-day job. In the 2020–21 school year, we are living through a monsoon.
On that cold January night with our Japanese counterparts, we compared our school systems in the hopes that this cross-pollination of ideas would lead to positive change. We dreamed of future trips to Japan and the celebrations and fun that would ensue. While those dreams now seem distant, I often think of our friends from Japan and wonder how they experienced this global calamity, how they adapted their school and family life, and when we will meet again. We will certainly not take it for granted when we do.
The pandemic has tested our resilience and fortitude as educators, parents, and individuals. I am proud of how my school has served our community and how all teachers continue to show commitment to their students even in the face of personal health risks. Let us move forward through this pandemic with hope for better things to come while celebrating the gift of a new perspective.
Photo: courtesy of Kirk Linton
First published in Education Canada, June 2021
It seems the one thing we can be certain of is uncertainty; COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that change is part of our lives. It’s difficult to predict what our formal education system will look like post-pandemic. Nevertheless, we can say that in this new normal there will certainly be a need for open exchange of views among all stakeholders in education. This article describes a model of school and community engagement, the Gathering Model, that may prove useful. In presenting this model, we share a set of equitable best practices that teachers, schools, and school boards can use as a template for parent and community outreach initiatives and to offer a resource for addressing the new normal.
Toronto’s York Region is one of Canada’s most diverse school districts. While 90 percent of its residents are Canadian citizens, one in two were born outside Canada. The languages spoken at home include Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Russian, Farsi, Italian, Tamil, Korean, Urdu, Spanish, Punjabi, and Gujarati. When we consider these changes, it becomes clear that we need to think differently when talking about community building. Community building based on goals and principles of sameness does not achieve inclusion. Community building has to be fostered through inclusive practices and processes. This applies in all our school communities, as populations across Canada are increasingly more diverse.
The Gathering Model is based on an ongoing, 15-year collaboration between the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) and the Faculty of Education at York University. In 2005, they partnered to pilot a new model of community engagement. Scott Milne, Manager of School and Community Projects at YRDSB, and Dr. John Ippolito, Associate Professor at York, were invited to serve as leads. Armadale Public School was selected as the pilot site because it was the largest and most linguistically diverse school in the YRDSB, in a neighbourhood experiencing pronounced demographic shifts. The thinking was that the initiative could both capitalize on emerging assets within the changing population and respond to new challenges. Since this time, multiple versions of the model have been implemented in over a dozen YRDSB schools.
This model goes beyond community engagement to explore the potential for family voices – including the voices of marginalized parents – to support school and community improvement. The model responds both to recent patterns of migration and to extensive research on the positive impacts of parents taking an active role in their children’s education.1
The Gathering Model supports a cycle of community dialogue. This dialogue centres on after-school/evening events involving parents, administrators, teachers, students, researchers, and community service agencies. In most of our sites, the role of community agencies has been limited, but in some schools their role has been more significant, even if only to highlight the services they offer. These events (anywhere from one to four per year at participating schools) address issues parents think are important to their families’ experience of public schooling. At some schools, the event now includes a separate student dialogue.
Clearly, the pandemic has put these in-person events on hold. As with education more generally, our participating schools have experienced a fracturing of community, leaving students and families feeling disconnected from their schools. However, this forced time-out is being put to good use in revisiting initiatives the model has piloted over the years, such as parent-driven research, parent and teacher research groups, and online discussion forums (Ippolito, 2012, 2018), and in exploring more recent online conversation platforms such as ThoughtExchange. We look forward to making innovative links between these online platforms and in-person events, which will, at some future point, become possible. This interplay of in-person and online resources will remain defined by the cycle of community dialogue outlined below (see Figure 1).
A fundamental component of the Gathering Model is a formalized planning team consisting of staff, families, and community partners. While everyone is invited to the planning team, a deliberate effort is made to engage individuals, community members, and organizations that represent marginalized voices. The aim is to have at least three community members present for each meeting, though the community members do not have to be the same at each meeting. In these instances, new members are welcomed into the planning discussion with a brief synopsis of previous work. Rotating membership for community members and flexibility in the timing of meetings encourages community engagement. This planning team is involved in every stage of the cycle, from pre-event planning, to event design, to post-event data analysis, to data mobilization in school, and system planning. Through this process, the model becomes a regular and ongoing formalized process.
Unlike traditional parent involvement approaches, where families are encouraged to participate in their children’s schools but where the agenda and decisions lie in the hands of the school, this is a model of community engagement where schools evolve in relation to family needs and where the community shares responsibility and power in determining agendas (Ippolito, 2010). In developing an agenda and topics for the discussion forums, the goal is to have at least half of each event’s agenda determined by students, families, and community partners on the planning team. The questions used to collect data for school and system improvement must be generated with community input, as with the following:
The structure and frequency of planning meetings are flexible and depend on the context and availability at each school. However, planning teams meet twice per month in the three months preceding an event. Some timelines to consider include when to send out invitations to the community to provide sufficient time to RSVP and when to contact local food vendors.
Community dialogue events begin with a shared meal. Schools have held this event in school gymnasiums and libraries/learning commons. Some schools have organized the event in local community spaces, such as a neighbourhood mosque. When planning the menu and selecting vendors for a shared meal, it is important to be culturally responsive and to consider dietary needs of the community. Since childminding is also provided, schools consider opportunities to partner with community organizations to provide students and families greater awareness of local resources. In addition, planning the physical space requires consideration of religious accommodations, including prayer spaces. The shared meal, childminding, and any other expenses are funded through the school, removing barriers for families wanting to take part in the community dialogue.
Tables are set up and all stakeholders are invited to sit with each other, regardless of their roles. This encourages community building by removing the barriers of formal titles like administrator, school staff member, community organization leader, parent, or student. The purpose of the shared meal is to provide time and space for people to get to know each other through conversation. At the end of the meal, children are directed to various childminding spaces and activities. Some schools have encouraged student performances of dance, poetry, and music to open and close the shared meal and bring families together in celebration of students. Student performances are welcomed, but care is taken so they don’t take up too much time. The goal is to ensure that table-based discussions of the agenda items constitute roughly three-quarters of the time of each event.
The community dialogue engages stakeholders in open-ended conversations while removing potential barriers for participation. One such barrier for many families is language. Intentional steps are made to lessen this by providing translation technology and on-site translators reflecting the home languages of families. In addition, designated tables are assigned for conversations in preferred languages, with additional support of translators as needed. Another barrier is posed by power differentials between various stakeholders within education. These differentials can influence what gets shared and what is kept silent. To disrupt this, the event is set up to encourage discussion of agenda items between stakeholders in the same role, rather than across stakeholder groups. This provides each group an opportunity to speak openly about their thoughts and experiences.
A defining feature of the Gathering Model is a commitment to collect and mobilize data generated through various forms of community engagement. This research work is done by the formalized planning team consisting of staff, families, and community partners. Planning teams also have access to research expertise from the Faculty of Education at York University.
At the community dialogue events, data is recorded at each discussion table with Chromebooks equipped with multilingual software. Having the data digitized enables translation into English for the purposes of data analysis. The digitized data is prepared for analysis following qualitative methods for text-based responses (e.g. Glesne, 2015; Lichtman, 2013). Focusing on the core questions that shape the agenda for a community dialogue event, data is coded to summarize and condense key themes or issues. This search for patterns in the data moves from the level of codes to categories to themes and, potentially, to theory generation. The overarching aim of data analysis is to measure the impact of community engagement, which can include student engagement through participation in co-curricular activities, and to generate recommendations for school planning and further mobilization of findings.
The school must update the community in a timely fashion on how data have been used to improve school and/or system operations. Community members must see and hear evidence that their efforts are moving the school’s culture and practices forward. These updates often take place at subsequent community dialogue events and serve to link a previous event to a current one. The school, school board departments, and senior management may present information of benefit to the community, or data may generate key questions for gathering further data to help the school and system serve students and families better. This is also an opportunity for the community to ask follow-up questions about school and system priorities and how to better support student learning and community development.
A core challenge in mobilizing this process is sustaining the involvement of community throughout various stages of the process. Currently, families and community partners are mostly engaged as participants in the community dialogue. Community participation is substantially reduced or absent during data analysis, mobilization of data, and decision making. This highlights a mindset prevalent among system staff that community is not an integral partner. While schools welcome community voice, they continue to hold decision-making power in how narratives are shaped and what is prioritized and acted upon.
This lack of full involvement by community members means that realizing the model’s potential for change lies disproportionately in the hands of staff. In many cases, staff have neither the skills nor knowledge to seize upon this opportunity, so schools often choose to take action on items that are easiest to address rather than on what is identified by the community as most urgent and needed.
Additionally, school responses can sometimes be surface-level actions (such as inviting a one-time guest speaker, without further follow through or commitment to looking at implications of their own school policies and programs) that lack depth or sustainability. In this way, a checklist mentality becomes a barrier to the model’s potential for change. This way of thinking is reinforced by the system’s emphasis on timing and accountability that pressures schools to sacrifice the quality of the process in exchange for completion.
Addressing this core challenge requires full focus on the key determinant of success within the Gathering Model, namely, inclusion of community voice and agency. This input must occur in a formal way through participation on the planning and research team, and not through ad-hoc, informal conversations with school and/or system staff. Having said this, participating schools are encouraged to seek out partnerships with internal system departments such as Research Services, Planning, or Special Education, and with external community-based agencies.
Schools wanting to implement the Gathering Model effectively must ensure this level of community input. Community is more than just a physical and geographic similarity. It is also a feeling of safety and belonging. Identity and community cannot be separate and belonging must be defined through a lens of equity and justice. These priorities are well-served by the open exchange enabled by the Gathering Model and will prove useful to us in the new normal.
First published in Education Canada, June 2021
By Hirosh Abeywardane
The Gathering Model has made an impact on our community in ways beyond what I can explain in words. It has given a voice to marginalized parents and caregivers and helped bridge a communication gap between school and home. It eliminated the language barriers for many parents and caregivers and allowed them to express their concerns freely. It has helped build relationships, not just between school and the community, but also among parents and caregivers. The gathering has made it possible to transform ideas and suggestions into implementable solutions because the end result is a collective perspective of students, staff, and the community.
The gathering has become a tool to help parents and caregivers understand the importance of engagement and the impact it will have on their child’s well-being and education. Most importantly, it taught the school community to think beyond just their own child’s experience in the school and aim to improve every child’s experience in the school.
The gathering event has allowed the school community to trust that the school staff and administration will listen to their concerns, ideas, and suggestions because they know that, unlike a typical survey where you will never see a visible result, those concerns, ideas, and suggestions will be converted into solutions, and those solutions will be implemented as visible actions.
My various involvement with the school and the school board has given me a unique perspective of the event. As a parent, a school council co-chair, and as a PEAC (PIC) Co-chair, I am truly humbled to be part of the planning process of the gathering event at my school. It was amazing to see the students, parents, caregivers, school council, and staff building partnerships and working together for a common goal. It would be almost impossible to organize a successful event like the gathering without those partnerships. During the data mining process, it was unbelievable to see the same reaction and expressions from different groups of individuals who are reading the same feedback forms. It is truly remarkable to see an event like this connecting students, teachers, and the community.
1 Included here is stronger academic achievement, more consistent attendance at school, higher rates of graduation, a strengthened sense of self-worth, and a more positive outlook on education (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). More recently, these positive indicators are reiterated at primary levels (Wong et al., 2018); secondary levels (Gordon & Cui, 2012); and post-secondary levels (Palbusa & Gauvain, 2017).
Glesne, C. (2015). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction (5th ed.). Pearson.
Gordon, M., & Cui, M. (2012). The effect of school-specific parenting processes on academic achievement in adolescence and young adulthood. Family Relations, 61(5): 728–741.
Henderson, A., & Mapp, K. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools.
Ippolito, J. (2018). Learning in schools and homes: Successes and complications in bringing minority parents into conversation with their children’s school. In Y. Guo (Ed.), Home-school relations: International perspectives (pp. 57–71). Springer.
Ippolito, J. (2012). Bringing marginalized parents and caregivers into their children’s schooling. What works? Research into practice. Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ontario Ministry of Education. www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/WW_MarginParents.pdf
Lichtman, M. (2013). Qualitative research in education: A user’s guide (3rd ed.). Sage.
Ippolito, J. (2010). Minority parents as researchers: Beyond a dichotomy in parent involvement in schooling. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 114, 47-68.
Palbusa, J. A., & Gauvain, M. (2017). Parent-student communication about college and freshman grades in first-generation and non-first generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 58(1), 107–112. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1127388
Wong, R., Ho, F., Wong, W., et al. (2018). Parental involvement in primary school education: Its relationship with children’s academic performance and psychosocial competence through engaging children with school. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(5), 1544–1555.
“What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I manage? I feel like a failure. I can’t go on like this.”
If only one teacher had said this to me – or even just a handful – I would not be writing this article. However, over the course of the past 12 months, and especially the last six, I have heard these statements from teachers so consistently and with such frequency that I cannot help but see a bigger pattern emerging.
As a psychotherapist, I have been privileged to support many educators in finding ways to maintain their mental health amid personal struggles, strikes, resource management issues, and changes in job expectations. Prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many reported feeling an understandable sense of burnout and frustration, but always present in each session was a very palpable love and devotion to their occupation as teacher.
Things are different now.
In the clients I see, the educators and administrators I speak with, and the articles I search through for a sign I might be wrong, the evidence is everywhere… teachers and school leaders are not OK.
This isn’t the kind of “not OK” that gets restored after a summer break. Nor is it the kind that is resolved by a politically stale “We appreciate all that you do.” This is the kind of not OK that does lasting and long-term damage to one’s view of the world and one’s self. This is the kind of not OK that results in trauma.
Educators, like other front-line workers, have been asked to face the challenges and changes brought on by the pandemic while helping others do the same. But at what cost? Is there more that can be done to shine a light on the potential risks for teachers? While the COVID-19 pandemic is a new obstacle for the world, research on the mental health impact on front-line workers during crisis situations is plentiful and clearly details the hazards of prolonged exposure to heightened stress. With such risks landing on the shoulders of those who care for our children, it is imperative that educators are provided with the information and supports needed to protect their mental well-being. Without a true understanding of the risks they face, educators cannot protect themselves against the long-term consequences of pandemic teaching.
My intention is not to encourage teachers to abandon their post, but instead to renew their commitment to their craft in a way that is informed and intentional. It is also to provide a look at the very real risks of continuing to ignore their mental health as they try to meet the ever-changing demands of pandemic learning.
Here are the top three psychological risks teachers currently face:
To assume that all of the risks stated above are solely the result of this pandemic is to overlook the conditions that educators faced prior to March 2020. The demands on teachers to provide the best learning experience (often with limited or insufficient resources), manage the weight of public opinion (which is not always compassionate and appreciative), and provide for the intricate and diverse emotional, cultural and sociological needs of their students has grown steadily over time. For decades, some of the best minds have explored how the education system can better meet the needs of the students – but what of the needs of teachers? How can any model of improvement not include those who are on the front lines for any change we wish to make?
I do not presume to know what a system needs to look to like support both students and teachers alike, but I do know that the risks educators face during these challenging times are real. I also know that these risks are not limited to a few months of disruption or challenge but, instead, have the ability to tragically impact their health, careers and relationships well into the future.
The first step toward change is informed consent. Teachers, and all front-line workers, need to be aware of the risks of the work they do and the conditions in which they do them. Secondly, the mental health risks to educators need to be considered a primary occupational hazard and treated as such. Resources should be mobilized and allocated in a way that reflects the system’s commitment to protecting educators through and beyond the pandemic. Where time, funding or other resources are limited, the potential for community support should be considered. This might include inviting local mental-health professionals or community-based social organizations to partner in providing information or supports. Restructuring or re-allocating professional development opportunities may also be an option. Supporting teachers may require innovative new methods, but the pandemic has provided many examples of how communities can come together to meet the needs of our most vulnerable.
The care of our children – and those who support them – is not a government issue or a union issue. It is a public-health issue. Effectively supporting our educators as front-line workers is well within our capacity as a community and as a nation. To begin this important work we only need to acknowledge and accept that educators are facing a mental-health crisis and refuse to minimize the very real hazards of pandemic teaching any longer.
There are steps teachers can also take to build resilience and fortify their mental health. These include:
First published in Education Canada, June 2021