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
The end of a challenging school year is in sight. To all the teachers, EAs, support staff, principals, school superintendents, school board employees, and trustees who worked so hard to adapt to shifting conditions and requirements and keep students both safe and learning – thank you!
And I know, it’s not over yet. But we have reason to think that we will start the new school year, in most places, with a return to many of the pre-pandemic aspects of schooling. We’re not out of the woods, but we’re getting there.
So it’s time to take stock of what we’ve learned, and ask: How will things be different when we return to school in the fall? How can we deal with post-pandemic challenges? In “Learning Our Way Out of the Pandemic” (p. 23), Karen Mundy and Kelly Gallagher sum up global lessons on the impacts of school shutdowns on students and ways to alleviate them.
We also need to consider where we are aiming to land. Is the goal to return to the status quo, or is this the time to address the inequities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic, and strengthen our education system’s ability to prepare all students to thrive in the rapidly changing world that awaits them? There’s a reason this issue’s theme is “Back to Normal?” with a question mark. Not everyone is convinced that normal was all that great. In this issue, Christine Younghusband (p. 19) argues that now, more than ever, we need to intentionally make space for students to exercise agency in their education. Sarah Leung and her team (p. 26) share a model for inviting more meaningful parent participation in school life and decision-making, while two prominent Canadian education thinkers, Charles Pascal and Paul Bennett, present their differing visions for what our educational priorities should be in the coming school year (“Plotting a Post-Pandemic Course for Public Education” (p. 13).
As you read through the magazine, don’t overlook the valuable web-exclusive articles on our website! In this issue, Danielle Lapointe-McEwan and her colleagues discuss challenges and strategies for formative assessment of online or blended learning in “Navigating New Territory.” John Chan and Nicholas White present an effective program to support students with reading difficulties (“Overcoming Reading Deficits,”), while Susan Drake and Joanne Reid describe their “Story Model,” a way for students to broaden their understanding of an issue and then create their own vision for a positive future outcome.
What’s your vision of what school should be? What do we need to do to get there?
We want to know what you think. Send your comments and article proposals to email@example.com – or join the conversation by using #EdCan on Twitter and Facebook.
First published in Education Canada, June 2021
COVID-19 has put students in a unique situation when it comes to reflecting on our planet’s future. Difficult as it is, the pandemic has been instructive. It shows how we are interdependent, sustained by nature, and that our actions matter. This experience provides a timely opportunity for students and educators to focus on sustainability action, using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The UN’s goals, agreed on by Canada and nearly all other countries, are far-reaching and important. They target 17 areas directed toward sustaining life on Earth – human and all other forms – as well as ending poverty and inequity, achieving social justice, and combating climate change.
As sustainability becomes ever more important, strategies are emerging to help schools and educators inspire students to understand that their learning and community action contribute to progress on the Global Goals. These approaches make the goals both real and achievable, as youth begin to see new ideas and progress scale up across nations and regions of the world.
Using strategies to integrate the SDGs within a whole-school approach is a key focus for Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF). LSF is a Canadian charity whose mission is to promote, through education, the knowledge, skills, values, perspectives, and practices essential to a sustainable future. Working with schools, school policies, and curricula is a core part of LSF’s activities, explains the organization’s President and Chief Executive Officer Pamela Schwartzberg.
LSF began its whole-school approach with support for Belfountain Public School in Ontario in 2005 and continued with the first Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Lighthouse School project at Stouffville District Secondary School in 2006. In 2007, in partnership with the UNESCO Chair in Reorienting Education for Sustainable Development, York University’s Schulich School of Business, and its Faculty of Education, LSF began Sustainability and Education Academy (SEdA) seminars to engage senior education officials from school boards across Canada in:
The whole-school approach is designed to help students, teachers, principals, staff, parents, and community members integrate the SDGs into school culture, teaching and learning, facilities and operations, and community partnerships. “We get farther, faster if we work as a whole school,” says Pamela Gibson, LSF consultant. A whole-school approach helps reinforce engaging teaching methods and moves schools toward practising sustainability. It optimizes learning in synergistic ways and models 21st century skills – collaboration, innovation, and action.
In 2016, the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) articulated six broad Pan Canadian Global Competencies to: “provide learners with the abilities to meet the shifting and ongoing demands of life, work, and learning; to be active and responsive in their communities; to understand diverse perspectives; and to act on issues of global significance.” With some variation across the provinces and territories, the attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed for 21st century citizens include:
These Global Competencies support SDG 4.7 (Global Citizenship and Sustainable Development) as well as the education component of all of the other 16 SDGs.
By the same token, applying an SDG lens to course content and class work gives students the opportunity to practise all six competencies relevant to school success and their future roles. Any local or school issue embraced by students needs to be supported by specific instruction and guided practice of oral, written, and digital communication skills in order to gain support, design innovations, and find partners for collaboration. Students need to learn methods of collecting, organizing, and critically reflecting on data and research to determine best options for action. Educators have both the curriculum and the instructional strategies to build these competencies and help students practise them on a project that, whatever its size or scope, can contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Greening a school playground with support from a local plant nursery and hardware store? Think about Goal 15: Life on Land; Goal 13: Protect the Planet and Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Taking action involves many stages and steps requiring organization, planning, and self-regulation skills when plans don’t go as expected or take more time. The competencies build core functional skills, a big-picture perspective, strong learning skills, and resources for well-being. The SDGs give practice a purpose.
Introduce students to environmental, social, and economic issues. These will vary based on the community, and might include, for example, dealing with single-use plastics, exploring green jobs, understanding food insecurity, etc. Finding community partners is a great first step to making issues relevant and including practical experiences.
Provide context and purpose. Learning is more powerful when it’s applied. For example, data management comes to life when you step outside the classroom and learn to measure and graph the amount of food waste your classmates diverted from landfill and the compost that resulted. Relating this work to specific SDGs (See Goal 12 and Goal 15, for example) helps make abstract ideas real.
Transform teaching strategies and thinking tools. Using inquiry, systems thinking, and other tools for student engagement can link curriculum and local issues, leading to action projects that relate to SDGs. This extends learning, develops hands-on skills, provides valuable life/work experiences, and more. For example, researching and planting native plants can be linked to Goal 13 (Climate Action) and Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities).
Use SDGs to guide curriculum and practices. Educators can tap into nearby nature and the surrounding built, natural, or cultural community to see how their learning can be used to improve or support innovation right where they live. They can embed this process in curriculum learning – for example, integrating environment-based budgeting into math or working on advocacy skills in writing. This place-based approach to learning is applicable to all grade levels.
Adopt inclusive models of planning and decision-making that consider the SDGs. Students, teachers, parents, and community members are valued voices in making decisions and problem solving. They can strengthen relationships by consulting each other, through interviews, questionnaires, or small focus groups. Other models include a Council of All Beings, where participants take on roles of different stakeholders in a decision including the people, plants, and animals. Important to include are Indigenous community partners or Elders as well as local experts. The SDGs gives discussions a wider context that can help build consensus.
LSF is now piloting a Sustainable Future Schools program (see Figure 1) promoting a whole-school approach using the SDGs and the global competencies as a foundation.
“The program will be a resource for schools to design their own path for advancing the SDGs. It is not set out as a prescribed journey, but rather as a map and set of planning tools using the SDGs as a lens,” Schwartzberg says.
It provides tools and strategies to monitor and evaluate progress, crucial for support from the board and parents.
The circular structure of the program framework allows schools and classrooms to start anywhere. The “Sustainable Self” is every individual child in our care at school, putting the student’s growth and well-being at the centre of the learning community. Students build awareness, caring relationships with others and with nature, learn new skills and knowledge – all in support of taking action to better their lives and communities.
The ten pedagogical elements are cited by research and practice as transformative tools for change. Educators’ depth of understanding and implementation for each practice may vary. Resources and professional learning on each are available and accessible. Teachers can learn independently, or with a teaching colleague, course, local partner, or faculty as a professional learning community.
LSF launched the Sustainable Future Schools pilot program in 2020, with support from 3M Canada, at Belfountain Public School. In early 2020, all classes at Belfountain learned about the Sustainable Development Goals. Using reflection time over the year, teachers asked students how their course content, information, or projects could be linked to one of the 17 goals. Noting these connections on a learning wall and in class discussions helped teach the SDG framework. It also provided evidence that students were understanding the goals over time. The connections showed the students the relevance of what they were learning at school. Students could link their own assignment goals to a website about an SDG initiative, showing how their work aligns with positive action taking place around the world.
For the 2020–2021 school year, the Sustainable Development Goals have become more integrated in classes throughout the school. The program began with a virtual school assembly in October, with a call to action on food waste and SDG 2: End hunger and achieve food security. In November each class shared their learnings and actions on the SDGs through videos, songs, and writings.
Starting from a shared understanding of a school’s culture and its unique sense of place ensures that success is not wholly dependent on one principal, teacher, or club for leadership and energy! The next step is to link the local action to one or more of the Sustainable Development Goals. Framing school learning to the wider world of the SDGs in school priorities is critical to the success of a whole-school approach. When the school is connected to local partners and tuned into real-life concerns, students, staff, and parents can work together on actions rooted in what matters to them, making acting on learning motivating and sustained over time.
Belfountain Principal Lynn Bristoll says, “When I was new, I sent out a short questionnaire to parents to find out their priorities and concerns and what they loved about the school. Overwhelmingly important for them was the environment and getting students outside.” For many years, Belfountain staff, students, and parents have connected to nature and the community.
“This is a core value of the school and a foundation to its culture. Students apply their lessons to making a difference, globally and locally,” says Bristoll. “For example, they participate in an annual Garlic Mustard Festival – a program that engages the public to identify and remove invasive garlic mustard from local green spaces. That underscores the importance of integrating the Sustainable Development Goals into our thinking and action.” (See Belfountain Grade 4 Water Inquiry for a class example).
The Sustainable Development Goals also help build awareness and understanding for other important social issues that are school priorities, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and Indigenous knowledge. Bristoll explains, “The goal is that students will leave the school knowing they can act on what they have learned.”
Grade 4 students wanted to learn and do something about water. They live in homes with well water, so potable water is important for them. They are concerned about a possible new development in the area and what might happen. SDG 6 is about Clean Water and Sanitation and SDG 14 is about Life below Water, so making the local relate to the global need was a clear imperative.
“Take them to the river,” LSF consultant Pamela Gibson advised the teacher. “I told her that the students are like investigative journalists, finding out what’s important for them and their community. That way they are attached to what they are learning, dialed in.”
The students observed and collected data on the river near the school. They had many questions from this initial visit. What will happen to the water table? Where is the water coming from and where is it going? Is it clean water? Their questions directed their lessons and research back at school. They learned about artesian wells, surface water, and underground rivers. The students could proceed in many directions with many projects, simply through collecting information and using their learning. The teacher could find many curriculum links through this process across several subject areas. Key to this was the outdoor experience.
It is important that teachers view the process through their curriculum. There were links to Science, Social Studies, Math and Language right from the start. Teachers can see what is possible and can guide learners to the curriculum concepts and the big ideas. Through the river and water experience, the teacher saw how her curriculum, the SDGs, and the integration of new pedagogies could all be linked.
Gibson says, “The idea is to reflect on learning experiences through the SDGs. Ask questions: How does this relate to our own future? To our local community? To global challenges?“
Belfountain kindergarten teacher and LSF Consultant Janice Haines has been part of the sustainability culture of the school for many years. “To make the goals understood you have to make them real for children. Big ideas need to be connected to their day-to-day experiences,” Haines explains. “For example, children can grasp a science idea like adaptation when they see the animals outside managing to survive in winter. They really get it.” Finding community partners is especially helpful. “A parent got us working on squirrel conservation a few years ago and we continued with it for five years,” she says.
It’s important to offer context and reassurance to students that what they are doing makes a difference. “We don’t stress them with catastrophes, but instead relate it to what is happening in their school playground,” Haines says. “My ultimate vision is of happy kids who are eager to learn and do more in their community. They know they have a voice.”
World’s Largest Lesson
Posters and Lesson Plans https://worldslargestlesson.globalgoals.org/resource/introducing-explorers-for-the-global-goals/
Intro to Goals video: Sustainable Development Goals: Improve life all around the globe
Resources from Learning For a Sustainable Future (http://lsf-lst.ca)
These webinars introduce teachers to the SDGs and provide opportunities to share ideas and resources for integrating key SDGs into lesson plans and action projects.
Resources for Rethinking: www.R4R.ca
A free online database where educators and the general public can search, by the SDGs, for the highest quality, peer-reviewed, curriculum-matched teaching resources, children’s literature, videos, outdoor activities, and apps/games.
Our Canada Project: www.ourcanadaproject.ca
Allows schools to share their sustainability action projects with others to inspire youth agency, access resources, and apply for funding. More than 850 projects are currently posted and searchable by SDG.
Youth Leadership Forums: www.Bit.ly/LSF-Forums-2021
These forums engage students in local sustainability issues, equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to make a change, and empower them to take action.
Banner Photo: Adobe Stock
Images courtesy of Learning for Sustainable Futures
Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. (2016). Pan-global competencies.
The Global Goals. (2015). The Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
Kozak, S., & Elliott, S. (2014). Connecting the Dots: Key strategies that transform learning for environmental education, citizenship and sustainability. Learning for a Sustainable Future.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The 17 Goals. United Nations.
UNESCO International Bureau of Education. (2020). Canada establishes a Pan Canadian Global Competencies Framework for Education. UNESCO.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals – also known as the SDGs or the Global Goals – offer a blueprint for a more just and sustainable future for all. As many as 193 governments from around the world adopted these goals in 2015 and agreed to implement them in their own countries in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Over the coming decade, these countries will continue to mobilize efforts to end poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change. These new, interconnected goals build on the earlier Millennium Development Goals while encompassing new priority areas, such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, and others.
SDGs have a huge part to play in today’s classrooms. As a road map for making the world a better place, these goals can support student engagement and can also inform and influence lesson plans. The Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO) has been supporting students and educators in bringing these global goals to the classroom through the UNESCO Schools Network, a global network of schools contributing to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Here are a few examples of how members of this network are taking action on the SDGs in their schools across Canada.
At Elm Creek School, a K–12 community school in Elm Creek, Manitoba, their UNESCO team of students and lead teachers launched a school-wide project to bring more awareness to, and take action on, the SDGs. The World’s Largest Lesson, launched in 2015 to bring these global goals to children everywhere, was shared with all students in a special school assembly. At this assembly, students were placed into various multi-graded groups. The school’s UNESCO committee collected various print and electronic resources, and then assigned each of these groups one or two of the goals to research. This research process led to planning that supported the ultimate goal of the entire school working together to implement action projects that could address the SDGs. Action projects that continue to be implemented and sustained include:
In 2020, the CCUNESCO and the Global Centre for Pluralism launched online teacher training on “Talking About Racism in the Classroom” in response to racial injustice in Canada and in our schools. More than 1,000 teachers responded and more than 500 participated in online training as it was clear that teachers and school administrators urgently wished to be equipped and supported to have these conversations and to explore systemic racism within their school systems.
In order to continue this important conversation with students, CCUNESCO partnered with TakingItGlobal and the Centre for Global Education to organize an online live video conference for schools across the country titled “#BlackLivesMatter in Canadian Schools.” The two keynote speakers for this video conference were two students from the David Suzuki Secondary School from Brampton, Ontario. As members of the United Souls, a Black student leadership group that shares a common ideal of upholding Black excellence, they were able to share their personal experiences of racism and how we can address systemic racism within our school systems.
To promote health and well-being in their community, some of the students at F.H. Collins Secondary School in Whitehorse, Yukon, organized care packages for people in need this winter. Students purchased arm socks and mitts along with personal-care products and some chocolate to be distributed locally. The students enjoyed working together to spread some holiday cheer and work toward SDG #3: Good Health and Well-Being.
Climate action is essential for sustainable development, which, at heart, is a way for people to benefit from natural resources without using them all up and depriving future generations. For example, reducing carbon emissions is key to living within environmental limits. So is being responsible about excess packaging, waste disposal, and how we treat the world’s oceans. It is increasingly urgent to preserve the world’s ecosystems and natural and cultural heritage, and to protect the Earth from the most devastating effects of weather extremes, such as wildfires, floods, severe storms, and more.
At Bruce Peninsula District School in rural Ontario, teachers, students, and staff have implemented a comprehensive program driving climate action in every classroom, with monthly challenges and tips. As part of this approach, the entire K–12 school completed ten monthly challenges focused on climate action during the school year. The projects supported what students were learning in class and involved parents and community members. To ensure everyone stayed on track, the school kept tally sheets of climate actions and had one student elected by each class to make sure climate actions were being taken.
At École secondaire Cavelier-De LaSalle in Quebec, reducing waste is serious business. After installing an industrial composter, the school redirected 176 kg of waste as compost in 2017, and 200 kg of waste in 2018. The school also reduced plastic waste by selling reusable water bottles in the 2017–2018 school year, which are fillable at the school’s bottle fountains.
In order to ensure peace, justice and strong institutions in Canada, Indigenous peoples’ rights must be respected. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society. The UNESCO Schools Network supports initiatives that promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada within UNESCO’s program areas. To facilitate the conversation around reconciliation within the classroom, CCUNESCO partnered with Wapikoni, an organization that works with Indigenous youth through cinema and music to develop their artistic, technical, social, and professional skills, and broadcasts their films to increase public awareness of issues facing Indigenous communities. The result was a teaching guide intended to encourage high-school teachers to engage students in discussions about current issues and to introduce them to the diversity of Indigenous cultures in Canada.
At Allison Bernard Memorial High School, located in Eskasoni First Nation in Nova Scotia, the school uses music and technology to help students engage with, share, and celebrate their cultural identity. For example, high-school students put Rita Joe’s famous poem, I Lost My Talk, to music. “It’s all about reconciliation through art – that was the overriding idea with this whole project,” says Eskasoni teacher Carter Chiasson. They are also in the process of developing a language app to revive Mi’kmaq.
Imagine more than 11,500 schools in 182 countries connecting and learning from one other, where students reflect on global challenges such as peace, climate action, human rights, cultural diversity, and sustainable development, while taking action to contribute to positive changes in their own communities. This is what the UNESCO Schools Network is all about. Created in 1953, it connects schools across the world to promote quality education for all in the pursuit of peace and development. There are more than 100 UNESCO schools across Canada.
There is a particularly important role for UNESCO schools in Canada to take action on SDGs. A Teacher’s Toolkit was recently created to support all educators and students who are interested in implementing UNESCO values at their schools. While all schools can access UNESCO and CCUNESCO educational resources and publications, those that are part of the network also get to learn from one another with other schools that are committed to tackling local and global issues related to the SDGs, thereby contributing to a better and more sustainable future for all. Learn more about the SDGs, connect with others across Canada and the world, and join the movement!
Canadian Commission for UNESCO.
Canadian Commission for UNESCO. (March 2020). Teachers toolkit: UNESCO Schools Network in Canada. UNESCO.
Rita Joe Song Project. Gentle warrior. National Arts Centre.
Global Centre for Pluralism. (2020). Talking about racism in the classroom: Webinar and resources for educators on anti-Black racism.
UNESCO Schools Network.
Wapikoni. (n.d.) Wapikoni teaching guide: An introduction to the diversity of Indigenous cultures in Canada.
World’s Largest Lessons.
What else can be said about our experiences since the onset of the pandemic? “Unprecedented, stress producing, disrupting, mind boggling, unimagined.” All of the descriptors of our current context have been used and overused. Yet somehow the magnitude of it all never seems quite properly conveyed. The pandemic has shone a light, as rarely before, on the possibilities and opportunities for innovation and change in the education system. And we are all engaged in thinking about how we can respond in ways that not only address immediate needs but also capitalize on the opportunity for much larger and more significant innovation.
As children and teachers return to the classroom, we have searched for an accurate description of the impact of the pandemic on the education system and all the people within it. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing stressors and challenges as administrators, educators, and support staff return to school: it has been tough, really tough. Regular routines have been disrupted; the needs of many learners have increased, and those with special needs especially so; the need to be innovative and try new things, though exciting, has also depleted energy; children are experiencing high levels of anxiety and sadness.
Simultaneously though, the disorder presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to consider actions that are capable of transforming the system in ways that we could not have envisaged at the start of 2020. We have a chance now, from this place of disruption, to create a new kind of environment; one that is compassionate and nurturing as an essential foundation for learning; one that focuses on our shared humanity and provides continuous collaboration and learning for both students and educators; one that is grounded in an understanding of the complexity of the education system and acknowledges this in all of the decisions that need to be made.
Compassionate Systems Leadership (CSL) is a framework that can facilitate such a transformation. CSL is an approach to educational leadership that explicitly builds skills and practices in three interconnected domains (see Figure 1) that are required in this new reality: self (building a practice of personal reflection, mindfulness, and compassion), each other (building authentic relationships that can support generative conversations), and the system (developing skills and capabilities to use tools that honour the complexity of the work that needs to be done).
CSL draws on practices that are similar to those that have proven effective in building teacher well-being and supporting the social and emotional capacity of learners. It extends these to include the strengthening of interpersonal relationships, while deepening the understanding of how the system can perpetuate, rather than diminish, stress in the workplace. CSL can shift us out of that continuous cycle of doing what we can to take care of ourselves, while always returning to a structure that does not take care of the health and well-being of the people within it.
The foundation of CSL is a continuous practice of mindfulness and reflection. It draws on the premise that increasing the awareness of ourselves as leaders – our values and beliefs, our passions and our challenges – allows us to become more alert to how we are “showing up” at work every day and how our behaviour and approach might be impacting those around us. CSL uses simple tools to build this awareness. It encourages a practice of personal mindfulness meditation (the deep skill of pausing, understanding our emotions and thoughts, and responding from a place of clarity), and regular reflective journaling.
The CSL process also introduces practices that facilitate awareness and deeper, more authentic, and trusting relationships amongst groups of colleagues: these are essential to more courageous systems work. For example, “Check-in” (See Steps in Facilitating a Check-In) is a CSL tool that is simple and powerful. It creates the time and space for each person to share their thoughts and emotions without judgment. It creates a place where all those involved can bring their whole selves into the work. It asks that we practise the basic skills of intentional speaking and listening that can generate a new and shared personal understanding with our colleagues. The CSL approach also supports a curiosity into the possibility for more transformative conversations that take us beyond our existing ways of thinking and solving problems into a more aspirational approach that can encourage more innovative and creative solutions.
The core concepts of systems thinking (Meadows, 2008; Stroh, 2015) that are included in the CSL framework provide a broad set of tools for viewing the challenges and opportunities faced by schools and the system more generally at the moment. CSL incorporates a series of practices and concepts that facilitate perspective taking (from multiple perspectives), deepen knowledge about systemic behaviour, and illuminate the patterns that often lead to us into a continuous cycle of frustration and powerlessness, where we keep on doing the same things and getting the same outcome. One such concept is the Systems Iceberg (see Figure 2). This concept provides a structure to explore and unpack the system challenges that consume too much time and energy, and yield little progress. The iceberg moves us from seeing daily events, to understanding the patterns in these events and then digging deeper to understand the structures, processes, values, and beliefs that continue to generate non-optimal outcomes and leave us feeling stuck.
The CSL framework that we are developing in B.C. is a compilation of the work of many others. It is connected to the work of Peter Senge (2006) and Mette Boell at the Centre for Systems Awareness at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Through the Centre, a global community for systemic change in education is developing. In B.C. we have also integrated an approach to cultivating compassion that was developed at Stanford University and the Cultivating Compassion Institute based in California. And we are grateful to be able to draw on tools and approaches developed by Otto Scharmer (2018) (Theory U), Robert Fritz (1989) (Creative Tension), and others.
We are testing and applying this emerging framework with educators and other child-serving professionals in B.C. The B.C. Ministry of Education recently incorporated a CSL component in its Mental Health in Schools strategy. Through a robust and growing Community of Practice of educators and professionals from a range of sectors, which meets on a regular basis, we are continuously adapting the approach to integrate shared learnings and best fit the systemic context of participants. Our discussions and emergent practice focus on collaborative learning. And we are grounded in the idea that “we are the system,” that what we each do, individually and collectively, is an essential contribution toward meaningful and effective systemic change. We are also connected in a common commitment to approach the work ahead of us with an intention toward kindness and compassion (Jinpa, 2016); cultivating compassion for ourselves and for those we connect with every day is an essential foundation for the transformation that we seek.
Curious to know more? Check out the website: compassionatesystemsleadership.net
First published in Education Canada, January 2021
Fritz, R. (1989). Path of least resistance: Learning to become the creative force in your own life. The Random House Publishing Group.
Jinpa, T. (2016). A fearless heart: How the courage to be compassionate can transform our lives. Penguin Random House LLC.
Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Scharmer, O. (2018). The essential of Theory U: Core principles and applications. Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Crown Business.
Stroh, D. (2015). Systems thinking for social change: A practical guide to solving complex problems, avoiding unintended consequences and achieving lasting results. Chelsea Green Publish