We live and teach in a society that for the most part ignores the brain. For many of us, when we hear the term “wellness” we think about our physical, emotional, and mental health, yet few of us apply the term wellness to our brains. Research into the brain has increased in leaps and bounds over the last forty years. It is time for us to include it in our wellness repertoire.
It’s common knowledge that our sleep, diet, and activity level impact both body and brain health. What’s less commonly understood is how chronic or toxic stress can cause harm to both body and brain. And while we may seek out medical insights when our body manifests symptoms of toxic stress, we are less likely to do so when our brain shows signs of suffering. After all, neurological scars, anatomical changes, and the dismantling of brain architecture cannot be seen with the naked eye. Scientists, in contrast, can see these physical changes on brain scans. Non-invasive technology has revealed that toxic stress can do serious and lasting damage to the brain.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is scientists also have learned, and documented in extensive research, that our brains are innately wired to repair and recover. That said, it is not a quick fix and it is not easy. Returning a brain that has felt trapped in a toxic stress environment to organic brain health requires daily work at evidence-based practices. Reducing and eliminating the destructive effect of chronic stress demands the same kind of activation energy needed to get up off the couch and begin an exercise regime. You need to start slowly or risk injury. You need to believe in yourself in order to muster up the day-in, day-out work of deliberate practice. With commitment, over time you will find your lungs gasping less, your heart pounding less, your muscles strengthening, your resilience increasing, and your stress levels dropping.
Aerobic exercise is not only good for the body, it is immensely curative for a stressed-out brain. It fuels the brain with BDNF, brain-derived neurotropic factor, which neuroscientists see as comparable to fertilizer needed to encourage the birth of new brain cells, grow healthy brain structures, and fuel neural networks. A notable distinction between the body and brain, when it comes to exercise, is that the former can happily run on either a treadmill or a wooded path and still get strong and fit. In contrast, the brain does far better on the wooded path. Brains are hungry for learning on multiple levels. Along with the documented stress reduction of “forest bathing,” the path out in nature feeds the brain’s craving for challenges, surprises, and changes. There are few things better for the brain’s balance system than being thrown a rock or root on the path that requires it to do a rapid adjustment. Comparably, playing a sport combines aerobic exercise with further brain challenges. Competition that revolves around exercise is ideal for a brain that needs to train social-emotional connections, expand peripheral vision, hone focus, work the memory, and make split-second decisions.
Targeted brain training can also provide a boost to an educator’s overall wellness. A role model for what can be attained in terms of brain fitness is American quarterback Tom Brady. At 45 years old, he’s competing with 22-year-old professional athletes and outperforming them. Not only does he do daily physical fitness training, but he also does the BrainHQ online program designed by neuroscientists. While the market has many programs, I am highlighting this one because it is backed by extensive independent research from top-level institutions and individuals. Many programs promise to increase brain performance, but they lack research to back up their claims.
Other high performers who put the brain front and centre of their wellness program are basketball players Michael Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant. However, rather than targeted brain training, they practiced mindfulness with their team. The goal of their former coach, Phil Jackson, was to build a team that was so mindfully and empathically connected they could go into a flow state when playing regardless of the pressure they were under. They were trained by mindfulness expert George Mumford, and they went on to earn 11 NBA championships.
As documented in extensive research, mindfulness effectively calms the stress that triggers the sympathetic nervous system. The slow, purposeful breathing signals to the brain that it is safe and activates the parasympathetic response known as “rest and digest.” This lowers the stress hormone cortisol, which can become very harmful to brain and body health if it is being frequently released by the many stressors faced by educators and students. Despite a busy schedule, carving out time to activate your parasympathetic nervous system is an evidence-based investment that comes with multiple rewards. Mindfulness practitioners are responsive, not reactive; they’re more calm and creative; they feel more grounded and happier; they have better physical and mental health.
In our stressed lives we feel we cannot add another thing, but creating time for exercise, brain training, and mindfulness is a game-changer in terms of wellness that includes the brain. As educators, we are in the privileged position of being able to role model wellness for students and share with them what we practice. Imagine how much healthier, happier, better regulated, calmer, and less reactive students would be if they too had time each day for aerobic fitness, targeted brain training, and mindfulness. According to leading neuroscientists, these lessons in wellness are arguably the most important ones we need our students to learn. Prioritizing teacher and student wellness that includes the brain creates a foundation from which great learning can occur. Without it, lessons can be quickly lost to toxic stress.
The ability of scientists to see the brain via non-invasive technology needs to change the way educators understand threats to their own wellness and safety, as well as student wellness and safety. Schools are well-prepared and assessed regularly by experts when it comes to the risk of fire, but we have more work to do to ensure that teachers and students are not suffering from activated stress response systems and the damage caused by high cortisol levels. Chronically stressed educators and students not only suffer harm, they can also pass on their stress to others. As seen on brain scans, frequently released cortisol can turn a plush healthy hippocampus into a shrivelled lump. The hippocampus is an area of the brain engaged in learning, memory, tagging memories with emotion, and storing memories. If it is being bathed in cortisol, an educator may struggle to teach and a student may struggle to learn. Wellness is compromised for both adults and children. According to leading researchers Martin Teicher, Tracy Vaillancourt, and Bessel van der Kolk, harm to the brain from bullying and abuse creates much too high levels of cortisol and can leave neurological scars on the brain.
Shining a spotlight on harm to the brain from adversity and trauma supports a holistic understanding of wellness and encourages daily practices to enhance brain recovery and health. Having informed discussions as educators and sharing this knowledge with students enhances social-emotional relations, self-regulation, and overall learning. It is especially valuable since neuroscientists are well-informed about ways to return brains back to organic health after adversity. Evidence-based practices such as aerobic exercise, targeted brain training, and mindfulness can repair and restore brains so even students who have adversity in their past or present can be empowered to care for their brain.
The greatest way to share this important knowledge is by engaging in it personally, role-modelling it, and embodying it. This is where teachers can be allies in bringing about a brain-fitness revolution. Teachers who prioritize wellness that includes their brain can do a great deal to support student wellness.
Many workplace well-being initiatives in Canadian school districts originally developed approaches focusing on the individual, such as mindfulness, improving sleep patterns, doing more exercise, and improving diets. This approach was critiqued as limited by those who felt such a focus ignored systemic factors, like class size and workload, that can impact teacher and staff well-being. As Chelsea Prax, programs director of children’s health and well-being at the American Federation of Teachers, said in an Education Week article:
“You can’t deep-breathe your way out of a pandemic; you cannot stretch your way out of terrible class sizes; you cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems. Those are effective coping measures, but they don’t change the problem”
The notion of systemic change in some literature states or implies system transformation: radical overhauls of K–12 school systems to replace allegedly creaking systems with brand-new models in a brave new world. Well, brave new worlds come and go. Concepts and trends emerge, peak, and falter, yet education systems somehow continue, adapting and evolving. Or not, depending on your perspective.
In the world of workplace well-being, the notion of systems change is gaining greater credibility as an approach to improving staff well-being. Corporate Canada recognizes that organizations need to change and adapt to promote employees’ mental health, yet it can be argued that provincial governments and school districts have been slow to focus on their systems rather than on individuals when addressing workplace well-being in Canadian schools. So how to consider systems change concepts that provide direction for systemic implementation to improve workplace well-being?
Let’s consider what we mean by systemic implementation by looking at three ways to change systems:
This might include allocations for staff with responsibilities for staff well-being within or beyond the domain of district HR departments. It might mean focusing on workplace well-being in strategic plans and budgets, so that well-being is central to planning and funding, moving it away from the periphery to the core business of school districts. A focus on all staff – teachers, administrators, support and exempt staff – also suggests a major structural change in terms of focus.
Changing policies, administrative procedures, and guidelines to address well-being can send both a powerful signal and impact educators’ work and the expectations placed on them. Such policies might be at a provincial or district level, establishing priorities, directions, and values.
This concept is emerging as one possible strategy for creating systemic change. As enablers, school districts fund, support, and disseminate collaborative and facilitated approaches to workplace well-being, which are intended to permeate a system over time rather than mandate one-off approaches that may or may not be implemented or sustained. In some provinces, union grants can also be applied to support collaborative inquiry into workplace well-being, which potentially positions unions as enablers of systemic action. With some co-ordination, district and union actions could combine to systemically address workplace well-being issues.
Enabling systemic action may be considered “slow” systemic change, requiring staff buy-in and participation, but it may be more sustainable than policy mandates over the long term.
Some of these approaches have been documented and are accessible on EdCan’s Well at Work website
(https://k12wellatwork.ca) and on the B.C. K–12 Staff Well-being Network’s site (https://bc.k12wellatwork.ca).
We suggest that systemic action is possible through these three channels: structural change, policy initiatives, and school districts/unions acting as enablers of actions that can become systemic.
By combining these three approaches, school districts can include but move beyond a focus on the individual to create a sense of shared responsibility through collaborative actions and systemic change. The combination of approaches might also help to bridge the gap between unions and governments/districts if more ways can be found to introduce systemic change initiatives that address workload issues.
As we expand our scope and focus, we hope to share what we learn, and to learn ourselves from multiple jurisdictions about approaches to improving workplace well-being. Join us!
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
A growing number of school districts in several provinces are participating in a new EdCan Well at Work project (https://k12wellatwork.ca/advisors). This provides advisors to school districts wanting to further their workplace wellbeing efforts with the support of external expertise, acting as advisors and “critical friends.” We have developed a concept that includes individual approaches to wellbeing but goes beyond to propose and attempt new collaborative and systemic approaches to improve wellbeing of all staff in Canada’s K–12 schools.
Developed by the EdCan Network, Well at Work supports education leaders across Canada to develop and implement system-wide strategies to improve K-12 workplace wellbeing for the long term – all while mobilizing a network of passionate educators, researchers, practitioners, and stakeholder groups.
Well at Work offers an advisory service, professional learning, and resources.
Alberta Education. (2018). Superintendent leadership quality standard. Government of Alberta. www.alberta.ca/professional-practice-standards.aspx#jumplinks-3
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (n.d.). Mental health in schools strategy. Government of British Columbia. www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/erase/documents/mental-health-wellness/mhis-strategy.pdf
College of Alberta School Superintendents. (2020). Workplace wellness. https://cass.ab.ca/resources/wellness/
College of Alberta School Superintendents. (2021). Practice profiles. https://cass.ab.ca/resources/practice-profile
Naylor, C. (2020). The Powell River Learning Group: Improving professional relationships. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nSs5ZGmqQkYWCxqio42JehlV473kqm_l/view
Will, M. (2021, Sept. 14). Teachers are not OK, even though we need them to be: Administrators must think about teacher well-being differently. Education Week. www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-not-ok-even-though-we-need-them-to-be/2021/09
When I reflect upon my career in education, I am humbled, but not surprised by the amazing students, families, educators, and leaders with whom I have worked. As educators we are in the people business, and our students are our clients. And what could be more valuable or rewarding than helping children become compassionate and globally competent citizens who care about each other and our world?
But the pandemic turned that world upside down, and if we have learned anything from this unprecedented experience, we are reminded that taking care of our people matters and is foundational to educational success. Our schools represent our future, and our teachers, support staff, and leaders need to be well so that they can bring their best selves work every day and, in turn, bring out the best in their students. Education is a social experience and the way we interact with those around us matters. In our daily interactions we often ask others, “How are you?” and take interest in their wellbeing. But do we ever stop to reflect on our own wellness and ask, “How am I?” and then, “What I am doing about it?” As educators, we often put the needs of others before ours, and our own wellbeing suffers.
The EdCan Network has been amplifying the importance of workplace wellbeing for several years. Now we are excited to be welcoming thought leaders and educators from across Canada to the Pan-Canadian Summit on K–12 Workplace Wellbeing in Edmonton on November 7–9. This will be an opportunity to connect in person and share the “how” of making schools compassionate and vibrant learning communities where we strengthen mental health and wellbeing through intentional strategies to build system-wide resilience and culture. Innovative and thoughtful school districts across Canada have realized that championing this important work has far-reaching positive impacts. It is the right thing to do if we want to sustain our world-class Canadian education system, and our students deserve our best. I would argue that investing in the wellbeing of our staff is no longer an option; it is our mandate. I look forward to meeting you at the Summit in person!
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Sometimes to move ahead you must look back.
The global COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis in education and thrust educators and students into a period of unprecedented change and uncertainty. Educators were tasked with shifting remote and in-person learning requirements, while also prioritizing issues of safety, equity, and wellbeing. At a time when successful school leadership was more critical than ever, there were “no precedents, no ring-binders, no blueprints to help school leaders” (Harris & Jones, 2020, p. 246). The demands and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a very significant professional and personal toll on education leaders. In our study, The Future of Schooling in the COVID-19 Era, the responses and reflections of education leaders in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) identified impacts on school leaders’ professional roles and identities, and highlighted changing school leadership practices and values. We discuss these below.
Challenging school leaders’ professional roles and identities
School leaders’ roles changed during the pandemic. The importance of fulfilling public health mandates for the health and safety of students and staff placed considerable new demands on school leaders. As an elementary vice-principal commented:
“Most of what we’ve done and most of our attention is sucked up with making sure we know the protocols and the rules and checking this and that. It’s like running a public health unit.”
The priority focus on public health and safety shifted the role of school leaders, resulting in concerns regarding their ability to focus on leading school improvement and supporting teaching, learning, and equity:
“So basically, all of these layers have added to the complexity of our job. It’s actually taken away from the time that as school leaders we have to support staff and students with those school improvement plans, and board priorities that we want to do.” —Secondary school principal
The challenges of sustaining school improvement had a significant impact on education leaders’ professional roles. The priority focus on ensuring student and staff safety also came with a heavy responsibility for education leaders’ professional lives:
“[Parents] needed to know that they could trust us as much as possible to keep their kids safe. And it really got down to the point where I felt like those parents… especially this [past] fall without the vaccine, that they expect me to keep their kid alive. And so that’s a really, really heavy piece to walk around with all the time, but that’s what we’ve been focusing on with the parents.” —Elementary school vice-principal
“Every night she goes to sleep and she just prays that nobody dies either from illness from COVID, or from illnesses related to stress. We are all living in fear and we feel deeply responsible for the people in our care, whether staff or students.” —System leader
Unfortunately, the school leaders that we spoke with felt largely unsupported and undervalued. This affected their sense of competence, confidence, and professional identity:
“I feel kind of like an old piece of bologna. So, like, we’re just sandwiched between everybody above us sending policies and do this and make sure this happens and don’t miss this and a giant email… so many emails.… And then the other piece of the bread is, like, the staff and the students and the families, right… and we are just in the middle sort of feeling like we’re floundering, but doing a really great job. But you don’t feel that way.” —Elementary school vice-principal
Highly experienced educators were faced with unfamiliar emergency situations requiring urgent and ongoing attention. These shifts in professional roles and identities were challenging:
“We’re used to feeling competent… So we take people who have been in this profession for a while, and who think they have some things figured out, and know some things about students, and are used to feeling competent in that role, and we’ve up-ended that for them. So it’s no wonder that that’s how… we’re feeling. Because on good days, I like to think that I’m feeling fairly competent in what I’m doing, and it’s not there.” —Elementary school principal
There were also negative consequences for education leaders’ wellbeing, which was being impacted by increasing work intensification and unsustainable workload. A system leader explained:
“I can’t remember the last time I haven’t worked through an entire weekend. I work 16 hours a day. I don’t know that my principals work less than that. They often call me at 7:00, 8:00, 9:00 at night. The downloading of public health processes on principals to track who’s here, who’s not here, who’s vaccinated, who’s not vaccinated.…”
These findings are consistent with other research identifying the pressure of navigating through the pandemic for school leaders in Canada (People for Education, 2021; Osmond-Johnson & Fuhrmann, 2022), and internationally (Jopling & Harness, 2022).
Changing leadership practices and values
To respond to this time of crisis, educational leaders had to adapt their leadership practices to be more responsive, creative, and flexible:
“That was definitely a part of the strategy for last year; just being very flexible about expectations, very flexible about ways of reaching out.” —Elementary school vice-principal
Rather than instructional leadership, much of the work of school leaders shifted to practical support for the operational management of schools and staff:
“… I can’t get to school improvement as much as I’d like to. My building relationships with students and staff has been impeded because we are managing a facility and trying to keep students safe.” —Secondary school vice-principal
Modes and frequency of communications needed to be adapted and professional collaboration became more important (Thornton, 2021). As an elementary school vice-principal described:
“Just being transparent as much as possible about what we did know because we were all trying to figure it out and we were all trying to learn what was going on. So, just for staff to see us as part of that change, that we didn’t know all the answers, and so I think that, you know, it showed our own humanity and empathy throughout the process.”
Leadership values came to the fore. People needed to be supported with compassion and care through a sense of shared humanity, togetherness, and collaboration. These values informed not only leadership practices, but also leaders’ vision for what matters most in education:
“It was more of a mindset. And I think that worked, which was just being very open and being very compassionate to the challenges that everybody was facing… and being available, on whatever level you could be available, whether it was delivering things or tech solving or, you know, just listening.” —Elementary school vice-principal
Therefore, school leaders’ values became especially important and their leadership practices needed to change to respond flexibly and appropriately to the changing pandemic context.
Arising from our study of education leaders during the pandemic, we offer the following recommendations:
Within a school, the work of school leaders and teachers is crucial for students’ learning and student outcomes. We must demand that this new chapter in education takes into consideration the voices and lessons learned from its leaders to prioritize what is essential for supporting students’ learning, equity, and wellbeing.
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
Armstrong, P., Rayner, S. M., & Ainscow, M. (2021). Bridging the digital divide: Greater Manchester schools creating pathways to success. In On Digital Inequalities: Analysis and ideas on addressing digital inequalities (pp. 37–41). University of Manchester. https://policyatmanchester.shorthandstories.com/on-digital-inequalities
Campbell, C., Arain, A., & Ceau, M. (2022). Secondary school teachers’ experience of implementing hybrid learning and quadmester schedules in Peel, Ontario. University of Toronto. www.oise.utoronto.ca/preview/lhae/UserFiles/File/Peel_Teachers_Experiences_of_Hybrid_and_Quadmesters_May_2022_Campbell_Arain_Ceau_Final_for_Publication.pdf
Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF/FCE). (2022). But at what cost? Teacher mental health during the pandemic: Pandemic research report. https://acrobat.adobe.com/link/track?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:1cc80bf3-6c8e-4060-81e4-7493f178d1af
Ehren, M. C. M., Madrid, R., Romiti, S. et al. (2021). Teaching in the COVID-19 era: Understanding the opportunities and barriers for teacher agency. Perspectives in Education, 39(1), 61–76. doi.org/10.18820/2519593X/pie.v39.i1.5
Harris, A., & Jones, M. (2020). COVID-19 school leadership in disruptive times. School Leadership and Management, 40(4), 243–247. doi.org/10.1080/13632434.2020.1811479
Jopling, M., & Harness, O. (2022). Embracing vulnerability: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the pressures school leaders in Northern England face and how they deal with them? Journal of Educational Administration and History, 54(1), 69–84. doi.org/10.1080/00220620.2021.1997945
Osmond-Johnson, P. & Fuhrmann, L. (2022). Calm during crisis: Leading Saskatchewan schools through COVID-19. Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. https://www.stf.sk.ca/sites/default/files/stf-001139a_20220412_ec_web.pdf
People for Education. (2022). “A perfect storm of stress” Ontario’s publicly funded schools in year two of the COVID-19 pandemic. https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/People-for-Education_A-Perfect-Storm-of-Stress_May-2022.pdf
Thornton, K. (2021). Learning through COVID-19: New Zealand secondary principals describe their reality. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 49(3), 393–409. doi.org/10.1177/1741143220985110
Last year, I attended a conference and was chatting with another attendee. I told her about my interest and work in the area of teacher self-care. With a puzzled look on her face, she proceeded to ask me, “Is teacher self-care even a thing?” Before I could say “yes,” I realized that her response was something I myself would’ve asked prior to experiencing burnout back when I was teaching in 2015.
During my 20-year teaching career, I had no idea that the term ‘self-care’ or ‘teacher self-care’ ever existed. Like many teachers, I spent most of my weeks and weekends planning lessons, grading assignments (especially while at my son’s basketball practices and games), responding to emails from students, designing rubrics, and searching for the best learning resources that had the most perfect clipart. It was never-ending, but it was a choice I had made thinking that this was what it took to be a “good” teacher.
I began to show signs of burnout, but at the time I hadn’t realized that this was indeed the term for what I was feeling. My personality had started to change and I was quick to lose my patience with my colleagues and students – I just didn’t care anymore nor did I bother to hide my feelings. My colleagues who had known me for six or seven years didn’t ask if I was alright because they didn’t know the signs of burnout. Burning out for me was a slow burn – like the feeling you get from holding onto a rope in a game of tug-of-war. You know you’re slipping yet you can’t get a grip, it’s painful but you just don’t know what to do in the moment as things unfold. Eventually, the endless cycle of precarious work and the three personal crises I experienced within an 18-month period pushed me over the edge. It was time to walk away from a career that I had loved.
I’m certainly not alone when it comes to experiencing stress as a teacher. The high levels of stress and burnout in the teaching profession are widely documented. It’s the chronic use of empathy and emotional resources in our profession that’s strongly associated with exhaustion and/or professional burnout. There are numerous factors that can contribute to teacher stress including precarious work (especially in higher education), multiple workloads, students’ demands, increased legislative regulations, changing educational standards, few professional development opportunities, and a lack of planning time, support, and resources. As I researched to learn more about the warning signs of burnout, I began to understand more and more about the importance of having a self-care practice.
Self-care is not an indulgence, but rather it’s necessary in the work we do as caring teaching professionals. Self-care is the skills and strategies used to maintain personal, familial, emotional, and spiritual needs while attending to the needs and demands of others. Without self-care, teachers are at risk of emotional exhaustion and/or professional burnout.
Teachers have often told me that they feel self-care is just one more responsibility or one more item to add to their to-do list. However, recent research has shown us that self-care isn’t only an individual responsibility, but it’s also an organizational responsibility. Workplace well-being should be embedded within the K-12 education system and reflected in a school’s culture. Ultimately, working conditions should create an atmosphere where teachers feel supported in their role, feel less stressed, and are equipped with the skills to look after their own well-being.
Last year, I had decided that it was time to share my story of burnout, and so I wrote a book entitled The Teacher Self-care Manual: Simple Strategies for Stressed Teachers. I’ve been fortunate to present at conferences in Canada and the USA and have met teachers from all over the world who have shared their own stories and wisdom about teacher self-care practices. Many of the teachers I’ve spoken with all seem to have a similar definition of what it takes to be a “good” teacher and how this standard is not only unrealistic, but is what prevents or impacts a self-care practice. As one teacher suggested, it’s often a mindset of “self-sacrifice” versus “self-care.”
Upon returning to teaching in 2017, I realized that I needed to adopt self-care strategies if I wanted to prevent professional burnout again. I strongly believe that self-care should be easy to follow, at no cost, and shouldn’t add time to our already busy career. To achieve this, I find incorporating “new tiny habits” such as walking daily, setting reasonable marking expectations, setting boundaries (e.g. no emails at night or weekends), spending time doing things I enjoy, connecting with people important to me, and setting Sunday as a no-work day are self-care practices that are easy to follow. While these practices work for me, self-care practices are unique – there’s no one-size fits all plan and it’s important to find practices that work best for you.
The well-being of everyone within the school community including, students, teachers, and principals/vice-principals is important. Research suggests that learning happens best when both students and teachers are well. What’s more, when teachers are well, their relationships with students, colleagues, and the overall school community become more positive.
In the past year, I’ve noticed an increase in conferences that focus on teacher well-being as well as many excellent resources. There’s a rise in school-level initiatives, too. In Canada, we see examples in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and elsewhere where teachers have formed Staff Wellness Committees in their schools or at the district level. While this is positive news, work still needs to be done to address school cultures that prevent teachers from participating in well-being initiatives. For example, teachers are often reluctant to participate in well-being initiatives for fear of judgement and being seen as not coping well.
First published in June 2020
Photos: Adobe Stock
Acton, R., & Glasgow, P. (2015). Teacher wellbeing in neoliberal contexts: A review of the literature. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 40(8)
Cherkowski, S., & Walker, K. (2018). Teacher Wellbeing. Noticing, Nurturing, Sustaining and Flourishing in Schools. Word & Deed Publishing, ON
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397
Newell, J., & MacNeil, G. (2010). Professional Burnout, Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Traumatic Stress, and Compassion Fatigue: A Review of Theoretical Terms, Risk Factors, and Preventive Methods for Clinicians and Researchers. Best Practices in Mental Health, Vol. 6 (2) Lyccum Books
Skovholt, T. M., & Trotter-Mathison, M. (2011). The resilient practitioner: Burnout prevention and self-care strategies for counselors, therapists, teachers, and health professionals. (2nd Edition ed.) New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.
Spilt, J.L., Koomen, H.M. & Thijs, J.T. (2011). Teacher well-being: The importance of teacher-student relationships. Educational Psychology Review, 23(4)
Stoeber, J., & Rennert, D. (2008). Perfectionism in school teachers: Relations with stress appraisals, coping styles, and burnout. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 21, 37-53.
Spurgeon, J., & Thompson, L. (2018). Rooted in Resilience: A Framework for the Integration of Well-Being in Teacher Education Programs. University of Pennsylvania
Wellahead. (n.d.). Research Brief: Promoting the Wellbeing of Teachers and School Staff What are the most effective approaches in promoting the wellbeing of teachers and school staff? Retrieved fro https://static1.squarespace.com/static/586814ae2e69cfb1676a5c0b/t/5b281bb170a6ad31c89ab315/1529355185939/TSWB_ResearchBrief.pdf
Listen to “Why teacher self-care is not a thing ft. Patrice Palmer” on Spreaker.
Stress and burnout led Patrice Palmer to leave the teaching profession after a 20 year-long career. Although she had attempted to return to part-time teaching, Patrice never regained her passion. Why does teacher self-sacrifice appear to be the norm rather than the exception? In this episode, Patrice Palmer explains why it’s critical to avoid burning out in the first place and to find ways to practice self-care amid the demands of the teaching profession.
First published in April 2020
Listen to “Self-Care for New Educators” on Spreaker.
Teacher candidates are prepared to care for students in the classroom, but often they’re less prepared to take care of themselves. Why does educator self-care matter in the workplace?
First published in September 2019
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.
Acknowledging our negativity bias
“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
1 A. T. Beck, J. Beck, and M. E. P. Seligman, Aaron Beck, Judith Beck and Martin Seligman in Massive MAPP Meetup [Video] (April 21, 2020). www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk-uPg1rJmI&t=728s
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.
13 For supporting research and free online tools: https://self-compassion.org
Teaching in our current school system is hard work. There has never before been a time when educators were expected to take on so many roles, with more expectations and less support.
Teachers are exhausted and regularly facing burnout. Why? Because teachers care, and they are seeing more students struggle with academics due to lack of mental, emotional, and physical health resiliency.
Support staff are tired and don’t get paid nearly enough to support the educators and the students they work with one-on-one. Why? Because support staff care and they are seeing students and teachers struggle.
Administrators are weary. They are expected to be “on” at all times with no chance to recharge and to rest, and so they continue to push themselves and deliver. Why? Because administrators care about the school cultures they are leading.
We continue to push on, fake it, and survive. Educators are working with our most precious commodity – our children. Over the last few years, we’ve learned that if want to enable our kids to flourish then we need to take care of the adults that care for them.
Brain science tells us that children’s brains aren’t fully developed until they are 25 years-old. Until that age, children, teenagers, and young adults look to the developed brain of an adult for attunement and regulation. This helps their brains understand how and when to stay calm under stress. They use their mirror neurons to “mirror” the behaviour of others.
Have you ever walked into a room where everyone is frowning and instantly your stomach drops and your shoulders tense? Do you immediately, instinctively inhabit the same feelings? This is called ‘emotional contagion,’ and this is exactly what’s happening in schools. Kids are facing tough challenges and stress at home, at school, in their communities and – let’s face it – in our whole world right now, and they bring this stress with them to school.
Educators feel it and absorb this stress.
Many educators hold onto this stress and too often don’t have adequate self-care and self-compassion strategies to release the build-up. Therefore they burnout. Burnout rates for educators continue to skyrocket, while personal leaves, medical leaves, and sick days are going up. As our educators burnout, our students feel it — and the cycle of unwellness continues.
However, emotional contagion works with positive emotions as much as it does with the negative. When we focus on happiness, hope, gratitude, compassion, and joy we see a greater shift towards resiliency. By supporting the resiliency of our educators, we may simultaneously see this positive shift grow within our schools.
As a high school counsellor and teacher in the Greater Victoria School District in B.C. for the last 15 years, I have seen my own well-being teeter-totter along with the highs and lows of both my personal and professional life. I have become a mom, and have also seen youth in my schools die of overdose and suicide. I have engaged with colleagues in amazing learning opportunities, and have also been overwhelmed by the expectations placed on myself and my colleagues in the workplace. I have laughed out loud with students and seen them experience great joy in their learning, and I have also watched them struggle with tears in both our eyes.
I have ridden these ups and downs at times with ease and grace, and at other times while feeling like I was falling apart. There is no easy way to be an educator and a human being without sensing the suffering in our own lives and in that of our students. Through it all, I have learned some very important strategies that have helped me retain my composure, my resiliency, and my well-being.
As a practicing educator and counsellor in a challenging school of diverse learners, I know first-hand what burnout feels like. I have also repeatedly seen colleagues suffer from burnout and compassion fatigue. I believe we need to create space for educators to practice self-compassion, self-awareness, and well-being habits. In essence, educators need to be encouraged and supported to have a self-care practice to avoid burning out.
The ultimate act of self-care is a self-compassion practice. ‘Self-compassion’ means meeting ourselves during difficult and stressful times with the kindness and tenderness that you might offer to a dear friend or a small child. Kristin Neff suggests, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, whoever said you were supposed to be perfect?”
There are three elements of mindful self-compassion to better care for ourselves and to calm the inner critic:
‘Mindfulness’ is a non-judgemental, receptive state of mind in which one observes their thoughts, feelings, and body as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. Meeting these thoughts, feelings, and body sensations with kindness allow us to be present instead of over-identifying and being swept away by negative reactivity. By paying attention with kindness, we stay more present.
Often when we are suffering we tend to think we are alone. We believe that we are the only ones who may have felt this pain. So we hide away and keep our struggles to ourselves. With self-compassion, we are aware that all humans suffer and that we are never alone, and instead are part of a shared human experience. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable, and imperfect.
We are often quick to judge and criticize ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. However, self-compassion entails expressing warmth and understanding towards ourselves in these moments of suffering. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life’s difficulties are inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.
As I practiced and taught mindful self-compassion during the past few years, I have come to see it as an essential strategy in improving my own well-being. I often find myself slowing down and actually seeing what I need in any given moment to truly care for myself. I am also more conscious of my inner voice, and if it’s ever being unkind (as is so often the case for many of us), I ask myself if I would say what I’m saying to myself to my daughter – and if I wouldn’t, then I change the tone.
Mindful self-compassion is a practice that has changed my wellbeing and is the key component of my self-care practice. Self-care can’t just be indulgent acts like bubble baths and pedicures (although lovely and wonderful things). Rather, self-care is actually a discipline in how we treat our bodies and our minds. It’s boundary setting, saying no, discovering your values and living within them, and finding many ways to be kinder to ourselves.
Only when we have strongly focused on making our own well-being a priority will we see a shift in well-being in schools.
When we as educators feel emotionally regulated, physically strong, self-aware and socially connected we create a strong sense of well-being in our lives. Together, let’s find ways to rebuild our resiliency. Let’s focus on self-care AND self-compassion. Let’s reignite our passion for teaching. Let’s awaken educator well-being so that together we can get back to making a difference in our schools again.
First published in September 2019
“Let us define ‘ethical intention’ as aiming at the ‘good life’ with and for others, in just institutions.” –Paul Ricoeur (1990/1992, p.172)
What ethical responsibilities do educational organizations have to create the conditions that foster employee well-being? Is the strategy of self-care promotion sufficient or should educational organizations consider what other obligations exist in order to encourage the “good life?” If we are aiming at the good life as Ricoeur (1990/1992) suggests, and if our intention is to create well-being in the education workplace, then reminding people to take care of themselves and focusing on the health practices of individuals is not enough. People exist in relationships and work in complex systems, so addressing these things is also necessary in order to create and support well-being. If the relationships or systems are not well, then focusing on the individual “fixing” themselves becomes both ineffective and frustrating.
Making the “right” health decisions and doing self-care activities tend to be framed as a competence or character issue of an individual (Wang, Pollock, & Hauseman, 2018), but this idea falls apart when one considers that an employee only has control over one part of the situation. For example, employees can do all of the things they know are good for them – they can eat well, get the requisite hours of sleep each night, exercise, meditate, have great social support, and so on – but if they are in a toxic workplace environment or work with others who don’t care about them, then they will not be well. Many education leaders who are promoting and supporting self-care are trying to do the right thing for their employees, their employers, or both, but are, unintentionally, losing the substance for the shadow and doing more harm than good.
More and more ministries of education and school districts are recognizing the need to address staff well-being as an important step toward increasing student well-being. They are also acknowledging the importance of staff well-being in relation to students’ learning outcomes. In the province of B.C., the newly published Mental Health in Schools Strategy (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2020) recognizes the need for adult well-being for the very first time. “Not only does adult stress impact students directly, it can also lead to increased sick days taken by staff, increased disability claims and challenges with retention and recruitment, all of which cost the school system as a whole” (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2020, p. 5).
The Mental Health in Schools Strategy document correctly points out that there is also a business case to be made for addressing staff well-being. Education leaders are looking at well-being as a way to save money through lower absenteeism, increased staff retention, and other human resources considerations. Having a safe and caring workplace creates value for the institution, as it increases productivity and makes financial sense from the human resources perspective – but employee well-being has value beyond just what it can provide in a linear and measurable cost/benefit analysis. Organizations have a moral responsibility for the well-being of their employees. There is also intrinsic value that exists in the relationships between people that we cannot reduce to numbers and statistical analysis; this benefit exists in the connection itself and is experienced in the most successful and creative teams (Waterhouse, 2019).
As individual employees, we exist within organizations that are in relationships within the larger system. The system is not a separate entity that exists outside of the individuals who are part of it. The organization itself is made up of, developed, and shaped by people in relationship. This explanation fits with the idea that “the moral life of organizations is reducible neither to individual morality, nor to institutional structures. Rather it is usually the interplay of individual moral agency on the one hand, and organizational structures on the other that determines outcomes” (Herzog, 2018, p. 2). This interplay doesn’t take away the responsibility that each person has for their own decisions and actions, nor does it waive organizations’ responsibilities to attend to their employees’ well-being. But instead, it acknowledges that those decisions and actions, whether they are individual or organizational, occur within and are impacted and shaped by the individual’s relationships and interactions with the organizational contexts. Organizations need to change the way they work, co-develop well-being strategies and practices with their employees, and wholeheartedly integrate them into their daily lives.
It is valuable to look at what an organization is doing to promote health and well-being and whether these strategies and practices are having the intended impact. The use of self-care as a well-being strategy puts the responsibility on the individual to take care of their own health, ignoring the systemic inequities that create an unequal playing field. It also ignores the responsibility of organizational leaders to create and support policies and practices that bring well-being into the culture and structure of their organizations. In the education workplace, the role of the employers in supporting well-being is often seen as simply providing information – via newsletters, blog posts, or “wellness days” – for employees to learn about self-care they can do on their own. Such a view is patronizing, as it places the burden on individuals and neglects organizations’ impact on and responsibility for their employees. Recently, an education colleague spoke about a staff wellness day at their school: “Our administrator was praising the day and publicly people were praising the day too, but privately no one saw the point.” The idea that work-related stress can be relieved with health promotion materials is problematic because it ignores the organizational, social, and systemic patterns that have contributed to the stress in the first place (Bressi & Vaden, 2017). As illustrated from the above example, it also runs the risk of appearing inauthentic or becoming a “Band-Aid” solution that could damage the very relationships that it aims to support.
The other workplace strategy around self-care practices is to encourage or reinforce better health practices. Some districts are promoting the use of apps that record fitness and other health goals. These apps are often part of the employee assistance program offerings and tend to reward individuals or teams for meeting their goals with virtual awards or gift cards. There are mixed opinions on the effectiveness of these types of behaviour modification programs, but it is generally agreed that how these programs are structured matters. A study by Gneezy et al. (2011) found that this is particularly true for initiatives designed for the public good, as incentive programs can have “adverse effects in social norms, image concerns or trust” (p. 206). The same study also found that using incentives to make lifestyle changes sometimes works in the short term but is usually not sustainable. These are often great tools, but alone they are just not enough.
So, if we want to increase staff well-being and experience all the benefits this provides, what do we do?
One of the more promising strategies in workplace well-being is the idea of moving to a joint responsibility model of health promotion (Joyce et al., 2016). A white paper put out by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and Morneau Shepell (2018), a human resources company, promotes this joint responsibility model that includes recommendations like creating a caring culture and supporting the employee-manager relationship. We would like to suggest a three-part model that includes looking after self, supporting and caring about each other, and considering the policies and practices in the system that either promote or get in the way of well-being.
Having a well-being plan that has all three components acknowledges the shared responsibility and makes this something people at all levels of the organization are working on together. For example, it is still the individual’s responsibility to take care of their own health, so information or programs that encourage self-care are great – but only if that is just one part of a more comprehensive well-being support plan. The plan should also include ways to support each other like team building, opportunities to contribute, plans to address conflict, and anything that supports connection, collaboration, and belonging on teams. The third part is looking at policies and practices through the lens of equity and well-being. Which of your practices/policies are supporting well-being and which are getting in the way of it? There are many examples and opportunities to look at established practices with a new well-being lens, such as: whose voices are included in decision making processes? Do our onboard practices create equity and belonging? How do people advance in our district? Do we provide opportunities for ideas and feedback to be heard and shared? Do we need an email policy to support boundaries around work time? The answers to these and so many more questions will vary, but they are definitely worth asking and reflecting on together.
The education system’s ethical responsibility is to work together on creating well-being in the K–12 workplace; it is then that Paul Ricoeur’s (1990/1992) ethical aim for “the ‘good life’ with and for others, in just institutions” (p. 172) can be truly be achieved.
Bressi, S., & Vaden, E. R. (2017). Reconsidering self-care. Clinical Social Work Journal, 45(1), 33–38.
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2020). Mental health in schools strategy. Government of British Columbia.
Gneezy, U., Meier, S., & Rey-Biel, P. (2011). When and why incentives (don’t) work to modify behavior. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(4), 191–209.
Herzog, L. (2018). Reclaiming the system: Moral responsibility, divided labour, and the role of organizations in society. Oxford University Press. DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198830405.001.0001
Joyce, S., Modini, M., et al. (2016). Workplace interventions for common mental disorders: A systematic meta-review. Psychological Medicine, 46(4), 683–697. doi:10.1017/S0033291715002408
Mental Health Commission of Canada & Morneau Shepell (2018). Understanding mental health, mental illness, and their impacts in the workplace. Health Canada.
Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as another (Kathleen Blamey, Trans.). University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1990.)
Wang, F., Pollock, K., & Hauseman, D. C. (2018). Ontario principals’ and vice-principals’ well-being and coping strategies in the context of work intensification. In S. Cherkowski & K. Walker (Eds.), Perspectives on flourishing in schools (pp. 287–303). Lexington Books.
Waterhouse, A. (2019). Positive relationships in school: Supporting emotional health and well-being. Routledge.
Shanna (eight) has always been a sensitive child. She feels nervous about many things, and these feelings have only increased during the pandemic. It is becoming increasingly difficult for her caregiver to get her to school in the mornings.
Yasmin (11) has struggled with her adjustment to Canada and gets frustrated that school is so difficult when she was a strong student in her home country. Her worries about her family that are still back at home can feel overwhelming, and often distract her from her classes.
Jesse (14) is finding it really difficult to navigate their queer identity in different spaces, including different levels of acceptance at the home of each of their parents. They are feeling increasingly isolated and have thoughts of harming themselves.
What do these seemingly diverse students have in common? They have different strengths and different challenges, but are all struggling with the everyday expectations placed on them, including at school. Further, they could all benefit from opportunities to improve their mental health. For many students, mental health can be promoted through creating welcoming environments and teaching skills such as self-regulation, communication, and healthy relationships. For others, additional opportunities to learn coping strategies might be required. Still others may need more specialized services. As a major piece of children’s ecosystems, schools must be intentional in how they support positive mental health. We need to look beyond academic rankings for schools and recognize that successful schools support mental health, both for compassionate reasons and because strong mental health underlies future success.
Canada is often identified as a great place to live on international lists and rankings. However, our performance on children’s mental health is not a source of national pride. Even prior to the pandemic, the last UN report card ranked us 31st out of 38 rich countries on children’s mental health and happiness. We also have one of the highest rates of adolescent suicide. We would not accept such a ranking for our math scores; to score this low in mental health is cause for a significant call to action.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives and routines. Not surprisingly, children and youth are paying the price with decreased well-being. Data collected by SickKids looking at impacts during the second wave found that more than half of 750 kids aged 8–12 reported significant symptoms of depression; 70 percent of adolescents reported significant depression. Furthermore, the pandemic has exposed and amplified the inequities that were there all along. Equity-seeking groups have been harder hit by pandemic impacts, and this includes worse mental health for youth who belong to marginalized groups. The jury is still out on long-term impacts of disruptions related to the pandemic, but there is no question many of the negative impacts will linger.
Before we talk about the central role schools can play in promoting student well-being, I want to clarify what is meant by mental health. All too often, mental health is considered synonymous with mental illness, as if it only exists when there is a problem. Of course, we all have mental health the same way we all have physical health. Thinking about mental health in a deficit-based manner is analogous to saying we only have physical health when we are sick. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines positive mental health as, “the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face.” Within that definition, we can see there is significant overlap with the role of schools. We need to expand our ideas around what makes a school successful and recognize that one indicator of a successful school or school system is that proper mental-health supports are in place and education is seen as truly being about the development of the whole person.
There are many pragmatic reasons to think about an expanded notion of school mental health. Many skills that underlie positive mental health can be taught, often within a social-emotional learning framework. Promoting facets of mental health, such as self-regulation and optimism, improve learning outcomes. Most children and youth attend school, thus minimizing access barriers. Educators see children daily and are familiar with a wide range of what might be considered normal and healthy in a particular age group; as such, they are well positioned to notice changes.
Obviously, teachers are not social workers, nor should they be expected to take on that role. The answer lies in a tiered school mental-health approach, with role clarity at each tier. This tiered approach is often conceptualized as a triangle, and although different names are given to the tiers in different models, the notion of three tiers that represent universal, selected, and targeted intervention is widely understood in any comprehensive public health approach.
TIER 1 is where universal prevention or promotion happens. It can include everyday practices that create welcoming spaces for all students. At Tier 1, educators can introduce social-emotional learning concepts in short activities and reinforce them during teachable moments. There are also excellent programs that are effective in promoting well-being and align well with curricular expectations.
Over the past five years, my team has partnered with the London District Catholic School Board to implement and evaluate a program called MindUP. In our research with students with 580 students in 42 kindergarten classrooms, we found that students in MindUP classrooms experienced significant benefits. Problematic behaviours were reduced (Crooks, Bax et al., 2020). Their prosocial behaviours and executive functioning showed gains, suggesting that new and mental-health promoting skills were being developed. This project shows how mental health promotion can lead to much wider benefits than simply less depressed children. Improvements in executive functioning could be expected to translate to improved academic performance – a contention we were in the process of investigating when COVID hit and ended our research!
Furthermore, educators reported decreased burnout and an increased sense of personal efficacy (Kim et al., 2021). They talked about creating calmer classrooms that in turn led to a greater sense of personal well-being. By implementing a program that was aligned with curriculum and board priorities, this initiative reduced educator stress rather than leading to work intensification.
“I’ve become a lot more mindful as a teacher. You always recognize those kids who have difficulty, but there’s a whole different perspective now… as to how we look at children and how we deal with them.” – MindUP educator
TIER 2 is where students who may be considered vulnerable can be offered additional support. The source of this vulnerability may not be the individual child at all; effective programming at this level for identified equity-seeking groups might help buffer against experiences of discrimination or past trauma. Tier 2 work is often implemented by mental-health professionals, but educators still have an important role in identifying students who would benefit and supporting their involvement. We have developed or evaluated several programs through our intervention research over the past 15 years.
For example, our Uniting Our Nations mentoring program for Indigenous students promotes healthy relationship skills and coping, within a cultural framework. In the elementary school version, students meet weekly in groups with an adult mentor. The secondary school version uses student mentors and mentees who are also guided by an adult mentor. Our longitudinal evaluation found that students who were involved for two years had increased positive mental health, were more culturally connected, and achieved better credit accumulation than their peers (Crooks et al., 2017). This is an important study because it counters the prevailing notion that focusing on social and emotional well-being and cultural connectedness somehow competes with academic achievement. In this study, the opposite was true. By focusing on social and emotional well-being with an identity-affirming approach, students were able to shine with their academics.
Mentors are showing other kids that you can succeed and still be First Nations. That’s the key; it’s showing kids they don’t have to lose who they are in order to be successful. We are not asking you to assimilate or give up everything to succeed. We know that you can keep connected to your culture and succeed. – Indigenous educator
Supporting Transition Resilience of Newcomer Groups (STRONG) is a small-group resiliency-enhancing intervention for newcomer students who are struggling with some aspect of their adjustment. STRONG brings together groups of six to ten students with a clinician (and often a co-facilitator, who may be an educator) to teach youth resilience skills such as relaxation, coping, problem-solving skills, and goal setting. In addition to the individual skill development, youth benefit from the relationships they develop with other participants, and a decreased sense of being alone. Preliminary evidence suggests that STRONG increases coping strategies, connectedness, and resilience (Crooks, Kubyshin, et al., 2020).
HRP for 2SLGBTQA+ Youth is a group-based intervention for secondary school students who identify as gender, romantic, and sexual minority youth (and their allies). It was designed to be facilitated by educators in schools in the context of gender sexuality alliances (GSAs). The program includes key relationship skills and coping strategies appropriate for all youth, but has an expanded focus on being identity affirming and addressing stressors that are more specific to 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. Our focus groups with youth and educators suggest that students enjoy the program and benefit from the skills they learn, as well as the connections they make to others (Lapointe & Crooks, 2018).
Clearly, having effective programs for equity-seeking groups does not reduce the need to fight racism, colonialism, and homophobia on a larger societal level, but these strengths-based programs can help students develop important skills and strategies while also developing a sense of community.
TIER 3 refers to the domain where students’ mental health needs are of sufficient severity and complexity to require specialized services. Within a comprehensive school mental health model, the vision is for schools to hand over the care of students to qualified mental health professionals in the community at this point, while staying involved as part of the circle of supports for the student. In reality, there is a significant shortage of mental health resources in the community and schools are often left trying to support students with Tier 3 needs. Some boards are even exploring taking on this work more intentionally, in the face of the shortage of referral options.
The three tiers of a comprehensive school mental health approach are not isolated, and students may need different levels of support at different times. Also, referring to this integrated and comprehensive approach as school mental health does not let those beyond the school setting off the hook – we all have a role to play in promoting well-being for children and youth.
So, what do we need to advance the vision of comprehensive school mental health in every school in Canada? We need to move beyond piecemeal initiatives and create a comprehensive and coordinated strategy. Organizations such as the pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health (www.jcsh-cces.ca) can facilitate the sharing of effective practices across jurisdictions. This work cannot be achieved on the backs of individual educator and administrator champions. We need all the implicated government ministries to commit to this work and provide the appropriate resources.
What would a co-ordinated, comprehensive approach include?
Finally, we need to remember that schools are embedded in and reflect larger societal values and dynamics. As Canada continues to navigate reconciliation and attend to systemic racism, we need to think critically about how school mental health initiatives can be aligned with these movements and not reinforce negative systemic influences.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
For two-page summaries of the research mentioned in this article, see “Research Snapshots” at: www.csmh.uwo.ca/research
Crooks, C. V, Bax, K., et al. (2020). Impact of MindUP among young children: Improvements in behavioral problems, adaptive skills, and executive functioning. Mindfulness, 11(10), 2433–2444. doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01460-0.
Crooks, C. V., Exner-Cortens, D., et al. (2017). Two years of relationship-focused mentoring for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit adolescents: Promoting positive mental health. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 38. doi.org/10.1007/s10935-016-0457-0.
Crooks, C. V., Kubishyn, N., et al. (2020). The STRONG Resiliency program for newcomer youth: A mixed-methods exploration of youth experiences and impacts. International Journal of School Social Work, 5(2). doi.org/10.4148/2161-4148.1059.
Kim, S., Crooks, C. V., Bax, K., & Shokoohi, M. (2021). Impact of trauma-informed training and mindfulness-based social–emotional learning program on teacher attitudes and burnout: A mixed-methods study. School Mental Health, 13(1), 55-68.
Lapointe, A., & Crooks, C. (2018). GSA members’ experiences with a structured program to promote well-being. Journal of LGBT Youth, 15(4), 300–318. doi.org/10.1080/19361653.2018.1479672.
Welcome to Flight 2022! We are taking off into this new year with our positive attitude and gratitude secured in the upright position. We have turned off and stowed away all self-destructive devices, like worry and negativity. Our leadership, activated by hope, connections, strategic planning, and grit, will be assisting other passengers in activating their leadership. We will celebrate our efforts and enjoy this flight!
Educational leaders are trying to refuel their well-being and mental health while in full flight. Part of the flight path for Saskatchewan is shared here.
The Ministry of Education in Saskatchewan has established a two-year plan to address mental health and well-being in K–12 education. Led by a committee of senior educational administrators in partnership with the provincial Ministry, the plan includes:
At the school division level, school leaders are working within their local context to support students and staff. School-based well-being plans include local committee initiatives, specific programs, surveys, and community partnerships. Schools are supported by system-level initiatives including professional development, speakers, strategic messaging, system need surveys, and various grants.
The EdCan Network, via its Well at Work staff well-being initiative, has come into Saskatchewan as a welcomed “objective, critical friend” to support our mental health and well-being efforts:
Educational leaders need to support each other to meet the challenges of staff and student well-being with wisdom, strength, and confidence. There is a hunger for economical and proactive supports that educational leaders can readily apply and share. Educational leaders also want to know if their pathways and initiatives are really positively impacting as intended. The exciting part is that there are “beacons of brilliance” that exist across schools, school divisions, and provinces.
The authentic, safe connections and networking of educational leaders onsite and in virtual ways to face these challenges together is a brilliant opportunity in 2022. Our leadership connections will inspire us and help us be that needed steady light for our students, staff, communities and for ourselves as we rebound in 2022–23.
Have a safe landing!
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have increasingly shown the critical role schools play in promoting the health and wellbeing of students and staff. Now more than ever, a coordinated approach that takes action at all levels of the education system is essential to addressing mental health, safety, and belonging in schools. An approach that is gaining recognition among school districts across Canada for its value in promoting the wellbeing of students, teachers, and other members of the school community, is Comprehensive School Health (CSH).
Increasing knowledge, understanding and skills of the school community through formal and informal learning opportunities:
Creating policies, guidelines, and practices that:
Collaborating and engaging with:
When a Comprehensive School Health approach is taken, entire school communities can experience improved wellbeing, healthier educational spaces, and improved student learning outcomes. However, research points to the need for schools to invest time and resources into building a health-promoting environment that supports the wellbeing of students and staff. While this may seem like a daunting task, there are small steps everyone – school leaders, colleagues, parents, and community members – can take to drive change. An important first step is to continue educating ourselves and others about Comprehensive School Health and its benefits.
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Byrne, J., Pickett, K., et al. (2016). A longitudinal study to explore the impact of preservice teacher health training on early career teachers’ roles as health promoters. Pedagogy in Health Promotion, 2(3), 170–183. doi.org/10.1177/2373379916644449
Byrne, J., Pickett, K., & Rietdijk, W. (2018). Teachers as health promoters: Factors that influence early career teachers to engage with health and wellbeing education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 69(1), 289–299. doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2017.10.020
Koenig, A., Rodger, S., & Specht, J. (2018). Educator burnout and compassion fatigue: A pilot study. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 33(4), 259–278. doi.org/10.1177/0829573516685017
Kolbe, L. J. (2019). School health as a strategy to improve both public health and education. Annual Review of Public Health, 40(1), 443–463. doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040218- 043727
Langford, R., Bonell, C., et al. (2015). The World Health Organization’s Health Promoting Schools framework: a Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health, 15(1), 130–130. doi.org/10.1186/s12889-015-1360-y
Russell-Mayhew, S., Ireland, A., et al. (2017). Reflecting and informing a culture of wellness: The development of a comprehensive school health course in a bachelor of education program. Journal of Educational Thought, 50(2&3), 156-181. www.jstor.org/stable/26372402?seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents
Squires, V. (2019). The well-being of the early career teacher: A review of the literature on the pivotal role of mentoring. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 8(4), 255-267. doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-02-2019-0025
Viner, R. M., Russell, S. J., et al. (2020). School closure and management practices during coronavirus outbreaks including COVID-19: a rapid systematic review. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. doi.org/10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30095-X
I believe that reconciliation is an opportunity that has been given to us here in Canada by the Survivors of the Residential School system.
I don’t mean to say that Survivors intended reconciliation to be an opportunity for Canada, or that Survivors owe us anything at all. What I mean to say is that if it hadn’t been for the courage and strength of Survivors in sharing their stories and holding Canada to account for that history through the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), I don’t think we would have come around to talking about reconciliation the way we are today.
It is humbling to me to think about the profound strength and courage it must have taken to share those stories. We know that in many cases, the stories that Survivors shared were never told before. In some instances, their own families had never heard the details of the horrors that were residential schools. Perhaps any of us who have survived trauma in our own lives can appreciate how significant it is to share stories of trauma; to relive the pain, fear, and shame that so often accompanies having survived cultural genocide. As an Indigenous person myself, I am proud. I am grateful. Being able to acknowledge that I come from people of such strength inspires me. I would want all Indigenous young people to know that they come from communities of strength and resilience.
Yes, there are barriers acting against young people. There is intergenerational trauma. There is no excuse for turning a blind eye to the suffering of youth across the country. However, there is also intergenerational strength, and dignity, and courage. That fact is as real as any other. I would hope that every Indigenous young person is able to hold their head high with pride for that fact. Indigenous people and communities are strong.
Where schools in Canada were once used as weapons against Indigenous peoples, they can now become places of healing and empowerment for all students.
When I say that reconciliation is an opportunity, what I mean is that through the 94 Calls to Action of the the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Canada has the opportunity to heal as a nation. A very notable scholar by the name of Tasha Spillett once said on live TV that Canada doesn’t have an Indigenous problem, it has a colonial problem (paraphrasing with deep respect and gratitude). The work of reconciliation is not an act of pity for Indigenous peoples. Rather, it is an opportunity for Canada to get out of the way of the vibrancy and flourishing of Indigenous peoples and communities, while at the same time working to live up to its own values and potential.
Please understand that I am not suggesting that Canada is not a great country; it has been for many people over the past 150 years. I am of mixed ancestry. My father’s family is Ojibway/Métis from Treaty Two area. My grandparents, Mary and E.G., worked tirelessly for the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre here in Winnipeg for many years. There is a street named after them in Winnipeg and I am extremely proud of that. My mother’s family are Ukrainian/Polish from Ukraine. After the First World War, my Baba’s parents fled Ukraine to escape the Soviet Union. I’m told that if they had not they might have faced persecution and death. This was before the Holodomor and the genocide of Ukrainian people at the hands of the Soviet Union. Canada provided my family with an opportunity to survive – and not just survive, but to flourish on land that was made available through the signing of Treaty One. I have to acknowledge that part of my family’s story with gratitude in my heart.
However, as great as this country has been for so many families like my Ukrainian ancestors, Canada hasn’t lived up to its full potential. We are not yet the country that we can be, and I believe we never will be for so long as there are First Nations communities living in Third World conditions. We can never be the country that we want to be for so long as there are people within our own borders living under conditions that other people flee countries to escape from. There are communities in Canada that don’t have clean drinking water. If we consider that statement objectively, I believe the only rational response might be absolute disgust at the injustice. The fact that such conditions are tolerated speaks to just how deep the damage of colonization reaches in our country: into our relationships, our politics, and even our own sense of justice and fairness. Reconciliation is an opportunity to heal and to reach our full potential as a nation.
Reconciliation is an opportunity for all of us to contribute to solutions even though we are not responsible for having created the problems we inherited. That’s the incredible gift that has been given to our generation: to not just be concerned citizens, but to be transformative. We wouldn’t have this opportunity if it had not been for Survivors sharing their truths, and I for one am grateful to them in a way that I can’t fully express through words.
Education is key. I once heard Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, one of the TRC Commissioners, say that in his estimation 72 of the 94 Calls to Action are about education and awareness. If that is true, teachers are crucial to the work that must be done. Schools can become places where students are empowered to be a part of change. Where schools in Canada were once used as weapons against Indigenous peoples, they can now become places of healing and empowerment for all students. The damage created by colonialism and cultural genocide in Canada deeply impacts Indigenous communities, but it doesn’t end there. All Canadians have been impacted by this history. It is visible on our streets, in our schools, in our hospitals, in our justice system. The impact of colonization on thinking, assumptions, and our very identities has caused hatred, injustice, violence, and cruelty. Having watched the rise of populism and extremism globally, I can’t help but think about Canada’s own vulnerability to such threats. Truly, there is much healing work to be done.
Let’s be clear that the education that is needed isn’t just about transferring information from one intellect to another. This work is going to require deeper learning; what Jack Mezirow referred to as Transformative Learning, the pedagogy of allowing individuals to transcend previously held beliefs about the world in favour of a worldview that better serves them moving into the future. The education that is needed would free individuals from ever getting caught up in the callousness and cruelty of statements like, “Why don’t they just get over it?” It would empower young people to transcend apathy. The kind of education that is needed would allow people to see with clarity and compassion the absolute dishonour that exists for Canada in allowing communities to go without clean drinking water.
In order to facilitate that kind of learning, I believe that we will need to return to the basics. I certainly don’t mean reading, writing, and arithmetic (the supposed basics of the holy grail of any school system: academic achievement). I believe we would be better served with the basics of love, kindness, and compassion. I think our children, our economy, and our democratic freedoms would do better with that sort of foundation.
My Ojibway heritage teaches that as human beings we have the sacred responsibility to love and care for children even if they are not our own. The notion that schools should be about something other than this love, kindness, and compassion, is antiquated and rooted in an exploitive understanding of childhood – viewing children as a labour force rather than democratic citizens. The work of reconciliation allows us to reimagine business as usual, such that all children feel safe in schools. We know that school has not been safe for many Indigenous communities; we need to make them safe enough for children to find their voices in challenging the harmful legacies of colonization around them.
There continues to be an abusive discourse in Canada that argues that teachers need to be accountable and that accountability is measured through standardized testing of academics. I’m reminded of the Emperor who parades in front of his subjects, naked in his new clothes. Of course, that cautionary tale tells the story of swindlers who are producing nothing of value on their looms, but who manage to convince the emperor’s subjects to buy into the lie. I don’t believe that standardized tests predict the ability of a nation to navigate an uncertain future. They certainly haven’t served children of colour, Indigenous children, or children surviving poverty. They haven’t served teachers who have had their enthusiasm and passion for teaching handcuffed by the fallacy that we should feel shame for not achieving scores as high as others who were better able to squeeze a couple more points out of their exhausted, terrified, and anxious children. The education system parades through the streets in the fancy clothes of accountability through standardized testing, having been sold empty promises by those who never wanted to see us succeed in the first place.
This article isn’t about the history of such testing, which is grounded in the work of eugenicists and white supremacists who found rationale for their abuse of minorities in those test scores. Nor is it about how such tests, and their philosophic relatives, have been used to justify the forced sterilization of minorities and other “undesirables,” or how many brilliant, vibrant, potentially world-changing minds were cast aside, left believing they were dumb, because they didn’t do well on a test that was never designed to recognize the things that they were good at. No, this article isn’t about that, it is about really getting back to basics. But first we will have to be courageous enough to acknowledge that we have been sold defective goods, and that the Emperor is walking around naked.
During the worst days of pandemic lockdown, I was reminded of how willing so many teachers are to go above and beyond the call of duty for their students. I am not surprised by this, but am certainly inspired. The lengths that many were willing to go to ensure that that their students were engaged and loved was nothing short of heroic. However, we also need to recognize that these sacrifices came with a price. The entire system is exhausted and depleted. Many teachers are struggling with very serious consequences that impact their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Now, more than ever, I think the notion of schools as places of healing is resonating with people. “Business as usual” isn’t going to allow us meet a post-pandemic future with resiliency, but I believe that engaging in reconciliation might.
Through the work of reconciliation, we have the opportunity to engage with teachings, wisdom, and worldviews that can help us reimagine business as usual. Indigenous people know how to survive and meet hardship with resilience; but there is also a deeply rooted cultural belief regarding the sacredness of children that can help us in our work to create places of healing. Canada made its best attempt to erase that teaching from the face of the Earth – but it failed. The Knowledge Keepers, Elders, Grandmothers, and Grandfathers kept teachings alive so that future generations could reconnect to those sacred lifeways that allowed First Peoples to not only survive, but flourish through sustainable relations with Mide Aki – kind-hearted Mother Earth. Thanks to the courage, strength, and dignity of Residential School Survivors, we have the opportunity to re-engage with relationships that might allow us to see a future that is so deeply threatened in our age.
Photo credit: Adobe Stock
This is part of the first edition of Education Canada, powered by voicEd radio, a cross-platform professional learning experience.
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Read Truth and Reconciliation, K-12: Becoming a teacher ally
ADAPTABILITY HAS NEVER been a more important skill for educators than during the COVID-pandemic. From intermittent shifts between online and in-person learning environments to planning within restricted classroom working conditions, educators have been forced to hustle since the spring of 2020. As they continue to adapt and adjust to change, they must also consider how to prepare students for a labour market that is transforming before our very eyes. We are seeing significant shifts to remote work arrangements that appear to be both permanent and increasing (Castrillon, 2020; Lund et al., 2021). With so much change, pursuit of an enjoyable and valuable learning experience for any student can feel elusive or even unattainable – and this may be especially true for students with exceptional learning needs.
We know that students with exceptional learning needs were among the hardest hit during the pandemic. While many students faced abrupt discontinuations to specialized services such as speech and language therapy, others struggled to keep up with online lessons and expectations without the kind of direct support they’d been used to receiving in the classroom. In addition to losing supports, new “quadmester” formats see students learning fewer subjects at greater pace, leaving many feeling anxious, stressed, and burned out. With educators already doing everything they can to deal with changing and sub-par conditions, it is essential that students take on greater management of their own learning. Like adaptability for educators, self-regulated learning has become paramount for students. This is a skill that that students with many types of exceptional learning needs tend to struggle with (Nader-Grosbois, 2014; Schunk & Bursuck, 2013).
During the pandemic and beyond, educators must focus their efforts in education on helping students with exceptional learning needs on their path to becoming self-advocates. Even better, through the lens of inclusion, this should be a universal endeavour within our classrooms to benefit all students.
For students with exceptional learning needs, self-regulated learning can involve consideration of what additional learning supports they will need and be provided with. At the elementary and secondary school levels this kind of planning is driven by educators and parents, but responsibility shifts dramatically to the students following their completion of K–12 education. Students need to understand their strengths and areas of needs, because accessing the accommodations that are necessary for success in post-secondary education is contingent on the student’s ability to request, negotiate, and implement those plans. That was true before the pandemic began, but understanding one’s own strengths and needs has become even more of a challenge during the pandemic. Educators must prepare these students for this shift, and it will take some reconsideration of how educators communicate with and about students with exceptional learning needs. In short, students with exceptional learning needs must become self-advocates. But what does this involve?
While the negative impact of the pandemic on our society cannot be overstated, one potential benefit of pandemic schooling may be that educators become nimbler in their efforts to provide supports for students. As students move through the education system, they too become used to change – in how learning happens at multiple levels, in what is expected of students, and in who is expected to be the greatest advocate for students with exceptional learning needs. While we cannot prepare ourselves entirely for the next environment we will find ourselves in, whether it be another pandemic, a post-secondary program, or a new career and workplace, we can focus on what we bring into that environment. We can work to understand our strengths and needs, and prepare to obtain the resources we will need to be successful.
Test and colleagues (2005) constructed a conceptual model of what self-advocacy involves, and what it requires of us as educators. According to their model, becoming a self-advocate involves developing:
Students with exceptional learning needs who become self-advocates are positioned well for transitions (changes in environment). Like learning a language, researchers agree that developing self-advocacy skills is done best when students are young. During the pandemic and beyond, educators must focus their efforts in education on helping students with exceptional learning needs on their path to becoming self-advocates. Even better, through the lens of inclusion, this should be a universal endeavour within our classrooms to benefit all students.
Providing students with self-knowledge can involve distinguishing between what a student’s exceptionality actually means and what they might think it means. Educators should look to inform students about their specific learning challenges; we know that students who have the same label (e.g. learning disability) do not necessarily experience the same challenges. Experimentation is encouraged here – work with students to figure out what conditions are most and least ideal, and collaborate to generate ways to overcome the obstacles they face. The better they understand themselves, the better prepared they’ll be to seek what they need in whatever environment they find themselves in next.
For students who are identified with exceptional learning needs, educators have a legal responsibility to provide the supports that they document on their individual education plan (the term varies by location in Canada). These students must be taught to recognize when their needs are not being met, and to understand what kinds of accommodations and supports they may expect. This kind of education sets students up well to learn their rights as individuals with disabilities entering a labour market that will almost certainly not include an individual who advocates for them in the way that educators do for their students. Advocacy skills should be transferred to students and Pearson and Gallagher (1983) famously provided us with a model of how to do this. Educators must model for students, collaborate with them, scaffold supports as needed, and work toward the students’ independence.
Knowledge of self and rights are almost useless without the skills to communicate with others. Educators should focus on teaching students to seek what they require by being assertive and proactive, rather than aggressive and reactive. Often, students with exceptional learning needs will find themselves in situations where they cannot access the supports they need (e.g. prompting students to refocus during asynchronous learning). Here, educators should focus on helping these students learn to negotiate for support; the student and teacher/supervisor can consider the task demands, the environment and resources available, and find a way to compromise.
An essential component of self-advocacy is peer support. Students needs to look out for one another because, whether they are learning remotely or in the classroom with restrictions, educators may not as easily notice when students are struggling. It benefits everyone to encourage all students to consider how their peers are doing through regular check-ins, and to speak up when someone is having difficulty. Whether a student has exceptional learning needs or not, all students can advocate for their peers when additional support is required. Developing a culture that values this team-first approach begins with the teacher.
Sudden shifts to online learning required educators to think quickly about how they were going to create a new learning environment. The use of online platforms, a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning, and flexibility were all common features across the country. Many students with exceptional learning needs experienced obstacles with these new forms of learning and instruction, but these experiences also point to some tremendous lessons that we can take forward. Ultimately, the pandemic has been (and should be) a reminder that educators must develop a reflex of asking “can this be more accessible?” While educators should be asking themselves if learning can be more accessible for their students, there is a great opportunity to involve students with exceptional learning needs in this conversation to share their perspectives and insights from what they have experienced. In addition to focusing on the development of self-advocacy skills for our students with exceptional learning needs, several findings from pandemic research are worth considering.
We must also consider how, based on their experiences during school closures, educators might create more active opportunities for parents of students with exceptional learning needs to inform what happens in the classroom. Whitley and colleagues (in press a) identified that parents of children with exceptional learning needs generally did not feel confident in their ability to support their child’s learning needs during the pandemic-related school closures and remote learning. In a lot of cases, parents and caregivers were required to assume, to some degree, the role of “teacher” for their child. This was especially necessary for many parents of children with significant exceptional learning needs who were not able to access remote learning in the same ways as many of their peers. However, these researchers (Whitley, in press b) also identified that parents who felt they had greater social-emotional support from the school (e.g. supports for the child’s emotional well-being) felt more confident in their ability to support their child. In the same research study, some parents were able to identify new approaches, based on the knowledge they gained about their child’s exceptional learning needs during their focused time together.
Together, the results of this research highlight the opportunity we have in education to foster stronger parent/teacher relationships. While parents and caregivers have always been the experts on their children, many now have new insights about the exceptional learning needs of their children, and how learning happens best for them. As we move forward in education with uncertainty, we can be certain that students with exceptional learning needs can benefit when school and home collaborate to generate ideas about how learning can be more accessible. While this sort of collaboration may be often limited to annual meetings to review the child’s individual education plan, Whitley and colleagues (in press B) have documented that parents and caregivers can provide ideas for consideration about how teaching and learning happen.
IT DOES NO GOOD to dwell on what we cannot change. Despite the challenges and tragedies that the pandemic has brought, we should rather dwell on the opportunities it has given us to reconsider how we can give students a great learning experience, and how we can prepare them for an uncertain future. Pandemic-related research on children with exceptional learning needs not only highlights the challenges these students face regardless of the learning environment, but also reveals the anxiety and stress that these children and their families experience in dealing with these challenges. Communication among educators, parents, and students with exceptional learning needs is paramount to provide them with the support they need to succeed now, and the knowledge they need to thrive in whatever lies ahead for them.
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This is part of the first edition of Education Canada, powered by voicEd radio, a cross-platform professional learning experience.
Castrillon, C. (2020, December 27). This is the future of remote work in 2021. Forbes. www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2021/12/27/this-is-the-future-of-remote-work-in-2021/?sh=14a485721e1d
Lund, S., Madgavkar, A., et al. (2021). The future of work after COVID-19. McKinsey Global Institute. www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/the-future-of-work-after-covid-19
Nader-Grosbois N. (2014). Self-perception, self-regulation and metacognition in adolescents with intellectual disability. Research in developmental disabilities, 35(6), 1334–1348. doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2014.03.033
Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8(3), 317–344. doi.org/10.1016/0361-476X(83)90019-X
Schunk, D. H., & Bursuck, W. D. (2013). Self-regulation and disability. In M. L. Wehmeyer (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of positive psychology and disability (pp. 265–278). Oxford University Press.
Test, D. W., Fowler, C. H., Wood, et al. (2005). A Conceptual Framework of Self-Advocacy for Students with Disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 26(1), 43–54. doi.org/10.1177/07419325050260010601
Whitley, J., Matheson, I., et al. (in press a). Perspectives of parents of children with special education needs: Self-efficacy and school supports during COVID-19 school closures. Exceptionality Education International.
Whitley, J., Specht, J., et al. (in press b). Holes, patches and multiple hats: The experiences of parents of students with special education needs navigating at-home learning during COVID-19. In R. Turok-Squite (Ed.), COVID-19 and education in the Global North: Storytelling as alternative pedagogies. Palgrave.
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.
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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
School, for nearly every child, means far more than schoolwork. This point was clearly highlighted by the pandemic-related isolation: children were missing their friends and the social fabric of their school communities. During the pandemic, most children in Canada were isolated at home or confined to cohorts during the school day, often separated from friends. Recess, lunch, extra-curricular sports were drastically reduced, if not cancelled altogether.
How quickly we were reminded that social connection, play, and overall well-being are critically important to a healthy childhood, and how quickly we were reminded that well-being is critically important to school engagement. Just as there have been concerns of pandemic-related “learning loss,” there has been, unequivocally, a “play loss.” As we start a fresh new school year, we argue that children will need an extended amount of school time to focus on reconnection, healing, and play. Supportive spaces at school will need to be carved out for this to happen.
Schools have long been defined by standardization, academic competition, individualism, and conformity – so much so that play, social connection, and a sense of belonging may seem trivial and counterproductive to the purpose of learning.
But there is a sizable body of research to indicate otherwise. In a landmark new book, Let the Children Play, Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle (2019) consolidate over 700 recent research studies that link school-based play and social connection to increases in well-being and far better learning. Creativity, imagination, play, and social connection are foundational to well-being, and well-being is foundational to learning. It’s that simple. Yet the education system tends to be deeply entrenched in practices and routines that pay less attention to the social and emotional needs of children.
But we can change this. If the pandemic is to have a silver lining, it’s that it has highlighted the need to prioritize time and space for human connection. And this is particularly necessary in school, where attitudes and behaviour take root early and are continually reinforced. We have an opportunity now to change up the entrenched routines.
Let’s start now with something rather simple: provide more – and better – recess.
Recess is a social space. Remember how important recess was to your life, for better or for worse? Recess, from the perspective of students, is far more than a break from instruction, a time for fresh air, or a need to amass the required 60 minutes of daily physical activity. We have long known that positive school friendships provide students with a sense of connectedness that makes school meaningful and engaging. Indeed, we know that learning happens in relationships, and relationships are forged when students have an opportunity to connect with their peers during the school day, most often outside of instructional time. These connections happen during lunch, on the playground, and in other informal school spaces, with important benefits for health and learning.
Yet, we need to pay attention to these informal settings to ensure that they are supportive and inclusive, otherwise we run the risk of undermining the very benefits we hope to realize. Unfortunately, out of all of the developed nations, Canada has some of the highest rates of school-based social harm – and the majority of this harm has been found to take place during recess and lunch. Many schoolyards, particularly those in low-income areas, are barren and uninviting, covered by a soulless layer of asphalt; and in dense urban neighborhoods, schoolyards are further impeded by their small size. And for some children, particularly those in low-income and urban areas, recess may be the only chance for outdoor play and access to friends in their entire day. Our concern is that when these spaces go unsupported, we see higher rates of boredom, bullying, loneliness, and exclusion – factors that undermine children’s attempts at play and connection.
We can do better. It’s time to change this and use this time to prioritize well-being and ensure all children have the space in the school day to connect with others in activities that allow for meaningful, inclusive, and playful engagement. Far from detracting from learning, these opportunities can influence mood, well-being, school engagement, behaviour, learning, focus, attendance, and overall school climate.
Play and social connection mitigate stress. After nearly a year of social isolation, chaotic change, and uncertainty, students are undeniably experiencing stress. Stress makes it difficult for children to access the aspects of the brain that allow for thinking and reasoning. We now know that play activates the brain’s reward circuitry and releases endorphins – the chemicals that make us feel happy and calm.
Play, by definition, is something we do because we want to, not because we have to (Gray, 2013). This is important for children – particularly now – because it gives them a sense of control and predictability that allows them to feel safe and secure, mitigating the effects of anxiety and stress. Both laughter and physically active play trigger the release of oxytocin and serotonin, chemicals that relieve tension and buffer against further stress. Social play provides the emotionally sustaining qualities of happiness and support, which is precisely what children need to feel safe and secure.
Play makes children happy. Gasp – dare we consider this as a “metric” to measure school quality? Schools are far more than academic institutions. They are communities where children spend a considerable amount of their waking hours during highly significant developmental years. We know that when children feel included, connected, and accepted by their communities, they are more likely to develop a healthy, positive attitude toward themselves and others that influences their behaviour at school. When children feel calm, secure, and happy they are more likely to enjoy school, engage cooperatively and considerately toward their schoolmates, be committed to their schoolwork, and have higher expectations of success.
Children have a Right to Play. Because play is so fundamental to a healthy childhood, Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (General Assembly of the United Nations, 1989) deems play and rest to be indispensable human rights: “the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.” This responsibility to protect and promote this right includes schools. This right can be leveraged by ensuring the recess environment is inclusive, fully accessible, secure from the effects of social harm, and appropriate for all genders, ages, stages, and abilities (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2013).
Children should love school. We all want our children to experience an ecosystem that supports curiosity, creativity, and connection. When this nightmare pandemic is over, let’s collectively find ways to give them opportunities to laugh and connect again, to have meaningful breaks in their day that allow them to heal from the relentless trauma. Let’s push hard for what William Doyle calls a new Golden Age of Play – and be sure schools are part of this conversation.
This article is a summary of a chapter from the Royal Society of Canada’s Report on COVID and Schools, in press, 2021.
As a start, we suggest all stakeholders – teachers, administrators, education leaders, parents – continuously advocate for schools to integrate more and better recess:
General Assembly of the United Nations, Convention on the rights of the child (1989) Treaty no. 27531. United Nations Treaty Series, 1577, pp. 3–178.
Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books.
Sahlberg, P., & Doyle, W. (2019). Let the children play: why more play will save our schools and help children thrive. Oxford University Press.
UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), General comment No. 17 (2013) on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (art. 31), 17 April 2013, CRC/C/GC/17. www.refworld.org/docid/51ef9bcc4.html
The close coupling of content standards with standardized testing brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s U.K. government in the late 1980s ushered in a new form of school accountability that has become the dominant education reform model used by industrialized governments around the world (Volante, 2012). Student performance on large-scale assessment measures are intended to hold school administrators and teachers accountable while also providing the “data” to spur system and school-level improvements. Indeed, every single Canadian province and territory administers and reports achievement in relation to these external provincial measures and also participates in varying degrees in prominent international tests such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA).
The OECD, and PISA in particular, has increasingly exerted a pronounced influence in the governance of education systems both nationally and internationally and forced policymakers to grapple with consistent and recurring challenges, such as achievement gaps between different segments of their national and provincial student populations (Volante et al., 2018). One key achievement gap that is often reported is the difference between high and low socio-economic status (SES) groups. The OECD provides national profiles – which can also be disaggregated at the provincial level – to indicate the differences in student achievement that exist between the most and least socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Countries that possess a higher relative share of low SES students who achieve well are said to have a more academically resilient population.
As previously suggested, academic resilience is the notion that there are some students who achieve favourable achievement outcomes despite coming from lower SES backgrounds. Yet, to the average person, the word “resilient” means something quite different. Indeed, the Oxford dictionary defines resilience as “the ability of people or things to recover quickly after something unpleasant, such as shock, injury, etc.” Clearly, the general notion of resilience is much broader than what is typically captured and often widely reported when discussing students and education systems. At the same time, the unprecedented and generational challenges presented by COVID-19 have provided an important impetus to reconsider how we support students in contemporary schools. It is highly likely that the pandemic has created even greater inequities with respect to students’ access to learning resources and supports due to socio-economic factors. Further, the impact of these inequities will impact more than just academic outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the growing necessity of broader notions of academic resilience that recognize important mental health as well as physical well-being concerns in children and adolescent populations – elements of resilience that are typically not captured by large-scale assessment measures. Rarely does a day go by without public recognition of the daily struggles students, particularly those from poorer households, are facing given the upheaval caused by school closures, social isolation, and familial economic losses – to name but a few factors. Certainly, federal resources such as the recently released Guide to Student Mental Health During COVID-19 (Health Canada, 2020) underscores some of the growing challenges students are facing during the pandemic.
Canadian children may be facing an impending epidemic of mental health and general wellness struggles when the virus eventually subsides. For example, a pan-Canadian survey of the impact of the COVID pandemic on physical activity found less than 5 percent of children 5–11 years old and 0.6 percent of youth 12–17 years old were meeting required guidelines (Moore et al., 2020). Similarly, a recent study by the Hospital for Sick Children in Ontario found a staggering 67–70 percent of