Decades ago, David Bouchard was a student in school who told stories to anyone who would lend an ear. “I’ve always been a storyteller at heart, but when I was in school, not one person – not a teacher nor a classmate – ever told me my stories were interesting,” said David. “It wasn’t until I was 49 and working as a high school principal in West Vancouver that I resigned from my job because I couldn’t bear the thought of putting my dreams, well-being, and gifts on hold for another six years to receive a pension.” David’s illustrious career – with numerous published works across various mediums like poetry and children’s literature – led him to realize that people don’t want the same things, nor do they have the same ideas about what it means to live a healthy, successful life. While working with Inuit high school students in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, he asked, “Do you know what your success rate is as a high school student? Better yet, do you know what your life expectancy is?” A young woman responded with, “Ten years less than the average Canadian, and it doesn’t matter if I succeed or not because most universities in Canada won’t let me in and most of us will drop out before that anyway.” Just as David suppressed his love for storytelling, these students were moving through a school system that did not value drumming, throat singing, and oral histories: aspects of their lives that connected deeply with their sense of self and well-being, and skills that wouldn’t get them good grades or a shot at graduation. David, through storytelling and personal experience, identified what he sees as a core issue in today’s education systems: that children need to be treated as whole individuals with unique needs, gifts, and talents, and that educators need time and support to achieve this – if we are to ensure their well-being and success.
This perspective underscored the principle goal of the EdCan Network’s 2017 national symposium Educator Well-Being: A Key to Student Success: to identify what ‘well-being’ and ‘success’ look like to school leaders, educators, parents, school community members, and students across Canada. But if educators are over-stretched and resources are scarce, how can they build individual relationships with their students, identify their gifts and their challenges, and respond with empathy, support, and understanding? Asking a teacher to establish one-on-one relationships with each of their students is no small feat, especially when they’re expected to simultaneously meet curriculum expectations, keep-up with paperwork, lead extracurricular activities, and have a life outside of school.
Speakers and attendees – during fourteen concurrent sessions and five keynote presentations over two days – answered the following questions:
- What is well-being?
- What does student success look like?
- And how can school districts lead systemic change to meet unique learner needs?
Podcast - “Do you trust them?” Do they trust you?”
I. Towards a Vision for ‘Well-Being’
The Ontario Ministry of Education’s Assistant Deputy Minister for equity, Patrick Case, challenged attendees to consider the role of systemic barriers in schooling, where factors such as socio-economic status, race or gender are hurdles to success. “It’s difficult to talk about well-being without talking about equity,” he maintained. “How could I possibly be ‘well’ if I find myself working or learning in an environment where there are imbalances among school leadership, staff, and students?” Patrick suggested that human rights have gone through a rocky course of developments and setbacks – from legal challenges to discrimination on the grounds of race, towards employment restrictions against women. “In all of these cases,” Patrick continued, “it was not only individuals involved, but rather whole communities who were mobilizing and raising funds for social and legal change.” Patrick highlighted that even today, whole communities are engaged in an effort to make sense of how value-based human rights codes or declarations ought to be interpreted in different circumstances – pitted against the backdrop of only seventy years of human history since the first human rights legislations were enacted.
Denise Dwyer, Assistant Deputy Minister in the Leadership and Learning Environment Division of the Ontario Ministry of Education, noted that, “Nobody really wanted a well-being strategy: they just wanted us to focus on the whole child and on enhancing the student experience.” In the Ministry’s Well-Being in Our Schools, Strength in Our Society strategy, this means meeting students’ cognitive, emotional, social and physical needs. The strategy is deliberately broad and recognizes that meeting these needs does not look the same across the board and that, because human rights declarations and codes are value-driven in nature, a prescribed interpretation would not ensure equity for all.
For students Riley Yesno and Ronald Gamblin, the key to equity and well-being lies in political engagement. In their early childhood, both Riley and Ronald had experienced hardships as First Nations peoples – for Riley, an Anishinaabe from Fort Hope First Nation, it was an issue of limited opportunities for on-reserve youth, while for Ronald, an urban Anishinaabe-Cree, it was a question of identity, racism, and finding acceptance after he had moved from Winnipeg’s North End to the predominantly-White suburbs. Both youth had grown up in dysfunctional environments with socio-economic barriers and various types of abuse. The cornerstone to their well-being was the empowerment and sense of belonging they experienced because of their political engagement and activism. “While teachers cannot directly break down these barriers, dysfunctions, and traumas, they can, however, combat disengagement with political literacy,” they suggest. Having Indigenous student representatives on school councils, teaching young people about systemic inequities, and showcasing Indigenous role models are but a few ways to plant the roots of engagement. As civic engagement goes hand-in-hand with a sense of belonging – having a purpose and a path – it is also a route to well-being.
For a self-described “23-year-old dreadlocked, redhead, French Canadian First Nation” woman from Sudbury, Ontario, well-being is about self-understanding. “Someone asked me a few years ago to come up with three things that I loved about myself,” explains singer-songwriter Mimi O’Bonsawin. “I found it a lot easier to come up with things I didn’t like, and I feel that can be a really hard question to answer for a lot of people.” Mimi explained that songwriting is not only her passion, but also the driving force in pushing her to be honest with herself: how she feels, where she stands, and who she is. With her multiple identities, she is able to tell her story through song, bringing to her a sense of pride, ownership, and belonging. “Something happens when we all sing together, when we all share in one vibration,” she says. “If we were to do it again, it would be different, even if we were singing the exact same notes.” Encouraging students to understand themselves through music, art or some other medium works wonders for their sense and love of self.
This idea is a slight nudge into the concept of education as the pursuit of joy, as Discovery Education Canada’s Community Manager, Dean Shareski, elaborated upon. During his 14-year teaching career, Dean had often heard the word “rigour,” to the extent of being coined as a key facet of education. “When I think back to the ‘Larry King era’ when I wore big glasses, I often remember Christina: a student in my class who never smiled,” he recalled. “Today I don’t wonder what her math scores are like, but rather whether Christina is happy, and what role I may have played in contributing to or taking away from her sense of joy.” Dean’s point is twofold: for one, there’s a certain utility in knowing how students are fairing in their studies; conversely, he contends that learning should be fun and effortless, and that this – rather than rigour – is key to engaging students in school and on a pathway to lifelong learning. “What if instead of spending the bulk of our time on things that kids aren’t good at, we focus on what they’re doing well and on what brings them joy?” he challenged. For Dean, joy is the expression of well-being, and it’s something we can see, hear, feel, and build upon as educators.
Podcast - “About Pursuing Joy in a Complex World”
II. Good Practices in Teacher and Student Well-Being
Still, within a landscape rich in unique student learning needs and differing visions of success, it can be hard to think about how to integrate a concept as wide as ‘well-being’ into classrooms. At the Met School in Winnipeg – an alternative high school devoted to internships and project-based learning – educators are afforded time, opportunity, and support to develop individual relationships with their students, to the point that they are able to enter into the nitty-gritty of understanding students’ challenges and passions. “We have a policy of ‘one student at a time,’ and we’re here for all students, not only at-risk students or high-achievers,” says Met School principal Nancy Janelle. “Our model focuses on building relationships and trust, which allows us to be ‘advocates’ in addition to being teachers.” Advocating for students – giving direction, being an ear to listen, and believing that they are capable and can succeed – has allowed them to flourish. In one instance, a graduating student shared her experiences, saying:
“For over ten years I spent my days dreading going to school. I’ve been bullied, harassed, and abused since I was five years old, when a girl told me she would kill me. That same girl bullied me throughout middle school, and made me afraid of talking to others. Rumours had spread about me that I had brought a boy into the girls’ washroom, and it was then, at nine years old, that I learned the word ‘slut.’ I learned since then to suppress my feelings. By the time I reached high school, I had reached my limit and started hurting myself. I hated myself and my existence, and I decided that it wasn’t worth living anymore. I was rushed to emergency care and, later on down the road, was recommended to move schools. It was because of the relationships I formed at Met School that I am where I am today. I was nurtured by my teacher-advisors, and for the first time in years, I was able to be myself.”
Creating supportive school environments that afford teachers the time to develop strong bonds with their students has proven equally effective in encouraging student engagement at Cochrane High School in Alberta. Through the arts, teacher Brianne Link and school principal Anne Kromm created the Cochrane Healing Arts Time (CHAT) program: a calm and welcoming space for students experiencing anxiety and depression from social and academic pressures. It is here where they can express themselves through various art forms, speak with a caring adult, and be amongst their peers, who become more like a second family. “We have students who are academically successful, who get top marks in the 90s, but their feelings of anxiety are so severe that they have their heads down and make no eye contact,” said Brianne. “Would these kids look back at their high school experience and say that it was successful? Yes, they’re succeeding academically, but they also need to graduate with social skills to go out, become an adult, sit for an interview, get a job, and work with other people.” Effectively, this space has allowed educators to know their students better, while allowing students to speak through their art instead of through a nervous interaction with an adult.
Similarly for Sheldon Franken, and in the words of Plato, “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” An elementary school counsellor with the Vancouver School Board, Sheldon promotes the key tenets of social and emotional learning (SEL) through play: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making – all of which are essential to building resiliency in children and adults in the face of adversity. In one instance, Sheldon explained how each person develops ‘comfort zones’ and ‘danger zones’ in their lives – some of which are harmless, while others restrain quality of life. In representing these zones with a set of coloured ropes – a yellow for ‘comfort zone’, a green for ‘growth zone’, and a red for ‘panic zone ’ – attendees were called upon to evaluate how they feel, think and behave in different scenarios, and move towards the zone that best applies. “Kids who have strong relationships with their teachers and peers are more likely to take risks in their learning, and bonds of understanding can be formed through play,” said Sheldon.
While building strong relationships can be difficult given the time constraints and exigencies teachers face – and while school reform may very well be at the root of the solution – psychologist Dr. Andrew Miki and neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Balcarras want educators to be, as much as possible, at their very best right now. “I started my own practice after finishing my doctorate degree, and I quickly began receiving a lot of teachers who were off work due to depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Miki. “I’ve learned first and foremost that teaching is a helping profession, that most people become teachers to make a difference – which can be both a blessing and a curse.” In one sense, teachers wear numerous hats – they are mentors, role models, sources of inspiration, employees, professionals, colleagues, caregivers, parents, coaches, disciplinarians, advocates, counsellors, and diplomats. In another sense, they’re actors within a system of administrators, colleagues, and the public, who may or may not be supportive. Symposium attendees expressed intersection with this viewpoint, sharing that much of their stress stems from expectations, trying to achieve work-life balance, time management, working with colleagues and parents, and mistrust. Perhaps the most noteworthy stressor amongst participants was the recurring thought of “I’m not a good teacher.”
In yet another instance, Dr. Sam Ozersky, Dr. Sagar Parikh, and Kathleen Qu similarly asked participants to list the greatest causes of stress in the teaching profession. “We not only have a responsibility for student learning, but also for student well-being, safety and, to a certain extent, the type of people they will one day become – it’s a lot of pressure to have the future of children in our hands every single day,” said one teacher. Another participant suggested that, “Forming connections with students is critical to student success, yet with busy student timetables and teacher schedules, our time is limited.” The three discussion facilitators underlined that teachers operating at optimum capacity is a prerequisite for their ability to care for students’ health. “Mental health issues have other conditions that may not be so obvious as a broken leg, and we need to be made more aware of how to handle these situations for teachers just as much as for students,” they concluded.
III. Crafting District-Wide Cultures that Support Well-Being
How, then, can school districts shift towards building whole cultures that support well-being as a priority? Vani Jain of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, who is currently working on a philanthropic strategy on child and youth mental health, suggested that schools need an integrated approach where well-being is embedded into daily practices. This means educators taking care of their own well-being and modelling this to students, leveraging evidence-based practices within the classroom, and reframing curricula so that well-being is positioned as a prerequisite to student success.
Dr. Kathy Short, who is currently working on Ontario’s provincial well-being strategy, suggested that there is a lot of work to be done, as she sees that “our school systems are currently not setup to do well-being.” Having a community of practice where educators can learn from one another, identifying conditions that support systemic change, building gaps in knowledge around well-being and mental health, as well as ensuring equity by offering tailored support to unique and vulnerable populations are a few starting places for discussions to take-off. This conversation would be incomplete, however, without talking about school leadership. Principals and school leaders holstered by burnout or other well-being issues are less able to support teaching and learning in their schools, according to Dr. Katina Pollock of Western University. Ensuring school-wide well-being thus requires the participation of actors at all levels, including collaboration with community and research organizations to advance evidence-based practices.
A novel example of a system-wide strategy in support of teacher and student well-being can be seen within the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE), where their 2020 action plan for transforming the way students learn had, in fact, led them to centre well-being at the heart of their priorities. “In order to respond to the diverse and complex needs of our students, we need to ensure that we have educators in place who are not only competent and engaged, but also in good physical and mental health,” said Superintendent of Education Eugénie Congi. “We needed to rethink our talent and leadership, evaluate whether our policies and practices were inclusive and encouraging of innovation, ask staff whether they had enough support, see if collaboration was supported across the board, and question whether we were looking honestly at data in order to improve our practice.”
This is true, as well, for school-wide positive behaviour support (PBS) plans, where it’s vital to have a guiding team backed by strong leadership to bring everyone on board. Dr. Steve Bissonnette of the Université TELUQ, for instance, contended that underprivileged students in ‘effective schools’ – where everyone buys into the same values – can meet the same achievement scores or even exceed that of students in better-off neighbourhoods. PBS, in a nutshell, is a school-wide action plan with defined values and visions for acceptable and unacceptable student behaviour, complete with indicators of success as well as preventive and curative strategies for intervening. “One of the greatest reasons why teachers cease to teach is because they are unable to manage student behaviour,” said Dr. Bissonnette. “It can be difficult for teachers to know when to send a student out of class, or when to be tolerant of certain behaviours, especially when the engagement, learning, and safety of their classmates are at stake.” However, staff needs to adhere to the idea of changing things, otherwise a project like this would not succeed.
IV. Supporting Well-Being in a Wired World
In his classroom observations for his research on well-being and classroom technology, Dr. Thierry Karsenti of the Université de Montréal would often encounter people who were fearful of change. “It’s 2017 and we no longer need to be scared of technology; rather, we must start asking the right questions because it isn’t going away, and there will be more with each coming year.” In over 1,500 hours of classroom observation and studies surpassing 7,000 participants, Dr. Karsenti had arrived at the following conclusion: that when you trust students and guide them on both the positive and dark sides of technology, the results on learning can be very optimistic. In other words, it is the way in which the laptop or tablet is used that will influence school success. This encapsulates, for instance, supporting classroom and homework collaboration through coding, boosting motivation through interactive games that encourage students to “get to the next level,” maintaining concentration especially among children with attention deficit disorders, and fostering critical thinking skills in identifying fake news. For Dr. Karsenti, fear of change stems in part from lack of information, hence the importance of mobilizing evidence-based practices in teacher training programs on classroom technology.
Dr. Valerie Steeves of the University of Ottawa arrived at similar conclusions about the importance of having a child-level view on how kids use technology. Since 1999 through the Young Canadians in a Wired World project, Dr. Steeves has been tracking youths’ social media use and, in one instance, challenged them to take on a “social media fast” for a week. When the initial shock of the challenge wore off, students reported being able to meet deadlines, do more with their days, hang out with friends in person more often, read more, think deep thoughts, relieve stress, and spend more time with family. “A lot of this connectivity is not fed by kids, but by corporations that make their platforms addicting and draw kids in,” she said. While students reported a number of benefits to social media – like keeping connected or sharing jokes with friends – Dr. Steeves’s next step is to sit kids down with policy makers to bring about laws and curricula that can support them online.
VI. Where do we go from here?
“Every child has something special about them,” mentioned David Bouchard in his keynote. “It’s our job as educators to find out what that is.” While equipping educators and students with coping strategies allows them to confront everyday challenges, a system-wide approach creates conditions for educators to develop trust-based relationships with their students. As symposium speakers and attendees commonly emphasized, strong teacher-student relationships are integral to student well-being and success, yet educators who want to make a difference can find themselves constrained in every which way. Moving towards transforming whole-school cultures, rather than addressing symptoms with short-term remedies, is key to giving teachers and schools the foundation to support students’ needs beyond academics.
Current EdCan Network Initiatives
The EdCan Network will continue to support and showcase promising practices that proactively develop wellness within entire school cultures, because this issue concerns us all. We invite you to check out Education Canada, the EdCan Network’s bilingual quarterly magazine, as well as our Facts on Education fact sheet series, for more information on student and educator well-being.
To access full presentations and biographies of our speakers, visit our symposium event page.
About the Author
André Rebeiz is a Researcher for the EdCan Network. He is a graduate of the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po Paris).
About the EdCan Network
With over 125-years of experience as the leading independent national voice in Canadian K-12 education, the EdCan Network supports the thousands of courageous educators working tirelessly to ensure that all students discover their place, purpose and path.
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