In the past 5 years, I’ve heard more and more about student mental health as cases of anxiety, depression and suicide ideation. Now, five years ago, I started my new career as an administrator and being aware of what is happening in schools at an admin level is far greater than what I knew as a teacher (more on that in future posts). However, students cannot learn when they are dealing with illness of any kind. It is a struggle to concentrate on what a student could think of as meaningless mathematics when they are in constant pain, wondering where or when they will see the doctor. And this is when their illness is obvious, like a broken leg, arm or a disease that is more understood by society, like cancer or diabetes.
But what happens when the disease is less understood and hidden from view? We can’t always see the pain or the effects of the disease when it involves the mind. And some learn to cope and manage by hiding their illness from their peers, family and medical professionals. Many turn to self-medication to manage their illness. However, we are not alone; we are a community. As such, we need to all work together to help recognize the symptoms of illness and then find supports within the community to help manage and hopefully cure the disease. There are many programmes that different schools and communities use. I believe that all of them, no matter how they are marketed or sold to the public or institutions, must involve the whole community to deal with the whole child: a holistic approach that involves all of us.
Mental health strategies (whatever they are) should be in all schools at all levels: we don’t wait to teach our children to buckle up until they are mentally capable of understanding how a combustible engine works.
I’ve been learning in my district with the ERASE bullying/VTRA level training and find that this community approach, for all ages, works only as well when all partners are connected with the process. Another post, perhaps I’ll rant about the different levels of support from outside agencies.
If you are reading this on October 18th, check out the #BCEdChat tonight at 7:00 pm PST to chat further about Student Mental Health.
The CPVPA (Coquitlam Principals/Vice-Principals Association) set up, through the support of the professional development committee and the help from Murray Peters, who spearheaded the initiative, an opportunity for administrators in different schools to either swap places for the day, or shadow an administrator. Secondary administrators went to elementary/middle, elementary went to middle/secondary, and middle went to elementary/secondary. The purpose of this swap was to create collegiality, support and understanding of how our roles are different, yet consistent in our beliefs.
I had the opportunity to go to an elementary school just down the road from my secondary school where the principal (Michelle Reid) was not only a friend of mine, but I had replaced her when she moved from secondary vice-principal to elementary principal. She had helped mentor me through the first few months, all while navigating her new role in a new school.
I arrived at the school just before recess and had a great first impression of the school. This school is a french immersion school, which means that every English division, there is a mirror French division. So Division 1 is the English Kindergarten class and Division 11 is the French Kindergarten class. Which reminds me, the kindergartners were practicing for their dance recital coming up later in the week (it was so cute to see them go through the moves for the big show). The school layout was interesting, as it needed to have almost double of every space, including the area within the library where both English-language and French-language resources and books are needed.
After a great conversation with Michelle Reid, we went for a tour of the school. One of the best spaces I found was the inner courtyard which had been turned into a garden-classroom. It is an enclosed open-air space, with places for sitting, gardening, drawing, playing and learning (okay, the learning happens all over). The space was not being used for the past few years and had become a storage space for everything you could imagine. I could see such great potential for the students to learn about the natural environment, working together and play.
At recess, I wandered about the yard, watching how students found play in all different ways. Fields became soccer pitches, tag zones, pirate maps, space races. It was incredible to see their imaginations run wild, giving them not only exercise for the body, but for the mind.
The art displayed helped create a colourful, vibrant, and welcoming hallway. I also had the chance to talk about the art as creation/exploration and art as practice for dexterity. Projects like snowflakes, spiral snowmen give students the opportunity to practice fine motor skills around cutting, colouring and pasting. I had not thought of this before, and felt that the arts and crafts side of elementary art was not exposing the students to the creative field. I found out that sometimes motor practice is necessary, and sometimes exposure to the arts (like seeing Munch’s The Scream) is just as important.
After visiting this school, I had a greater appreciation of the hard, different work that elementary administrators do on a regular basis (I was lucky that this was a nice, ‘slow’ day and not when there was teaching-time or Standardised Testing happening). Thank you, Michelle, for inviting me into your amazing school (and I will try to forgive the grade 2 student who wondered aloud if I was your father….). And after all that, I guess an administrator’s office is the same in any school.
My School CARES. It really does: teachers care about their students, students care about their peers, students care about their teachers, teachers care about their colleagues. Cares also happens to be our acronym to help remember our Code of Conduct: Cooperation; Accountability; Respect; Excellence; and Social Responsibility. We added the Social Responsibility to account for an area that we saw was lacking.
In any school, I am sure there are thefts from classes, students and possibly teachers. With the proliferation of personal devices such as music devices, Smart Phones, and tablets, the temptation for some must be huge to ‘borrow’. My school has had its share of loss, but, thankfully, many get returned by students who understand the social contract that allows any space of many individuals to run smoothly.
Some devices are ‘liberated’ by students for their own enjoyment, and many get caught, but some do not, and the devices are quickly lost in the space between social and personal responsibility. The ease with which cell phones can be palmed, turned off, sim card removed and passed on to others is mind-blowing. In less than a minute, a phone can be sitting on the desk and then outside the school building.
We have just recently re-started the reward system for found phones. Students who find phones left in places (washrooms, change rooms) and return them to the office are rewarded with coupons for lunch in the cafeteria. Once word of this began to spread, we were getting many, many phones turned in. But is the carrot system working to stop the thefts? Would these phones be returned more quickly to their owners if they didn’t pass through the office for a snack? Does this provide the cultural change needed to create a safer environment for students and their belongings?
I do not have answers to these questions. I believe that students should look after their own property more carefully, but a moment’s distraction can be a loss of several hundred dollars. I also believe that students should be more social responsible; looking out for their peers, protecting and enhancing the safe spaces for learning. If a student sees something is not right, they should tell someone; staying quiet just endures and promotes the negative actions of others.
My school is considered an old school at 47 years young. It does not get all the repairs needed in a timely way to help create a welcoming environment (leaking pipes, buckets in the hallways, falling tiles). Some students (who some may consider socially responsible) started a twitter feed to point out these problems. Although the intent was good, it quickly degraded into a forum for other students to bully, harass and spread racially hurtful comments. As administrators, we had to try to shut the account down, with limited success. Through conversations with students who had participated in the twitter forum, many were unaware of their tacit support of many of these comments, and quickly changed or deleted their twitter posts and re-tweets.
This shows, I think, that students need to be reminded of their social and citizenship responsibilities; as a schooling organisation, we must remember that these are individuals developing their own moral compass and need subtle and not so subtle reminders of where true north is.
I’ve been thinking a lot about educational change.
It seems that when we look at the past one hundred years, there has always been a cry for change in the educational system: a movement beyond the rote learning; getting student actively engaged; personalizing their learning; creating social learning spaces. These calls for educational reform had been coming from post-secondary educational institutions. In some cases, they were successful in implementing, even for a short time, an innovative system, programme or class structure. However, it seems, that these changes are short lived, isolated in pockets of innovation, or are replaced by the next, best, newest thing.
In the late 20th century, universities were the ones calling for a change in the system of education, suggesting different theoretical and pedagogical concepts to improve student understanding and learning (think Vigotsky’s constructivist theory that became more popular in the late nineties, or Dewey’s educational philosophies that seemed to remain in place into the eighties and nineties).
Somewhere along the line, these positive changes reverted back to traditional modes of education (class structures, activities, school environment, assessment and reporting). The students were given a lesson, practiced the lesson, were tested on the lesson and given a grade that remained, or was averaged, for a final mark in the course, which was then written on a permanent record for parents, post-secondary institutions to evaluate, judge and rank. Any changes that were lasting, were embedded in the societal concepts of what education meant: Grandparents learnt a certain way, parents learnt a certain way, so the present students should also be taught that way. School was a known entity: lesson, practice, test, repeat.
If the changes moved too far to the innovative, society complained that the education system did not have enough rigor (horrible term, in my opinion, let’s talk about vigor, instead). If the changes moved too far to the strict, rote learning, teachers and parents would complain that their children were losing their creativity and spark. The system was set up (intentionally or not) to make sure that any and all changes would be diluted to the point where the changes became semantic versions of 150 words for snow. They described the same actions, activities, pedagogy, but in the different terms. Everyone could look to the system and say that changes were happening, but no one was happy (except, perhaps, the educational industries that made millions with each ‘new’ change).
Now, in the age of the connected educator, the calls for change are coming loudest from the teachers themselves. Small pockets of educators connected through Twitter, Google +, Facebook and other social media and have started discussing their practices in a way that has never happened before. They are discussing their practice in terms of practical means: what happened in a lesson when I tried to differentiate/use technology/student blog/assess differently. They encourage each other to experiment in the classroom, connect their students, use technology to enhance the learning (not supplement it). And amazing things are happening: teachers connected and shared, giving others ideas for changing their practice. However, we still educate within the same institutional system that holds fast to its history.
This worries me, as new teachers, connecting with others around the world, are trying to integrate technology, assess with standards based grading, differentiate lessons, personalise their curriculum. I worry that a frustration will come about and a new exodus of teachers from our profession. These positions might easily be replaced by those that are comfortable with the status quo, reinforcing the homeostasis of our education system.
Perhaps it is time to celebrate those brave, innovative teachers that are trying to pull our educational system out of the 19th century and into the 21st century. The big question for me, however, is how do we do this?
Over the past few weeks, I have been looking at the differences between assessments that promote learning of content and conceptual understanding and those that are based on the behaviour or social development of students. This led to some conversations around the use of late marks, zeroes for not handing in work and ‘the first five minutes of class’ quizzes. See here, for some of that discussion. Now, I am looking at how we take that information and share it with parents and students. Again, looking at what is the purpose of report cards.
I don’t envy the teachers when report card time of year arrives as they are competing with many opposing forces: administrator deadlines for reports, student work and assignments coming in, valuing the learning, reporting learning versus reporting levels. If a teacher has embraced the concepts of Assessments for Learning, this time of year must be exponentially stressful, as all the formative assessment work is now over and summative has arrived (even for the day). But I question the purpose of report cards.
It is mandated from the Ministry of Education that there must be a formal mechanism throughout the year where parent are informed of their child’s progress. This mandate comes from a time when even phone calls were difficult for connections between school and home. Not everyone had an answering machine, some had party lines, and some may not have had a phone at all. We are now in the twenty-first century (I know this because of all those great articles coming out about teaching in the 21st Century-fourteen years a little late….). Communication has changed from phone calls, to emails, to sites where a student or parent can look up the exact percentage in the course. (love those programmes that continue to instill the concept of averaging marks, everything is assessed and reported).
I have seen many teachers move beyond this, by setting up classroom blogs or twitter accounts. Parents can get a glimpse into the classroom and see what is going on. Some teachers have set up e-portfolios that a parent can access and see the progress their child has made as well as where growth is needed. The amount of real data and information that a parent gets through these connections is probably about 3 hours of conversation on the phone.
So let’s look at the report card. Traditionally, it gives a percentage and/or a letter grade, perhaps a work habits mark (g=good, s=satisfactory, n=needs improvement) and a comment or two. These comments are usually canned: $’s is working well and continues to show improvement; $ should be working on his/her mathematics homework for at least three hours a night. There are programmes when a teacher can add a comment, but they are also restricted to length. The amount of information that a parent thinks they are getting is huge (a possible ranking of their child in the class, an idea around whether they go to class and participate, and suggestions for improvement), but the actual information is very misleading. If you read four hundred grade 10 report cards (as I am doing this weekend), the common comments or even some of the personalised comments still reduce the report card to a mandatory reporting out, not a useful engagement of parent, student, teacher triad.
My mother often recounts the time I received my report card from school where it stated that I was a very valuable member of the rugby team. My father was so proud, as I had never shown any interest in the sport, nor talked about it. Turns out, they sent the wrong report card home. Now, it was fixed and my father had to be proud of my swimming athleticism, not my rugby ability, but it makes me think that we could eliminate all the stress of report cards, by removing them completely.
Let’s invite parents into the conversation throughout the year, not just two to three time a semester.
Public education is a beautiful concept: all children, everywhere, have the grand opportunity to learn, discover and grow, regardless of gender, family background, economic dis/advantages, or ability. It is, in my opinion, the cornerstone to any democracy (not that democracy is the best, just the best we have right now). In the last fifteen years, in North America at least, there seems to be a growing change around public sentiment and discourse on public education and, in particular, public education teachers.
With adages like “those that can’t, teach”, respect for what a teacher does in his/her classroom has been diminished to seem to be one of a glorified babysitter.
“Look after my child from 8:30 to 3:30, and be glad you have the opportunity, as you wouldn’t be able to get a job anywhere else”
Now, if you asked parents what they think of their child’s teacher, a different set of responses would be revealed: parents support their own teacher, but lump the teaching profession into negative light.
This disconnect between their personal experiences with teachers and the global portrayal of teachers has been building for years. Governments and unions debate in public to sway opinion during contract talks. The result is a disenfranchised public that end up having negative views on both politicians and educators. This demoralizes teachers and slowly destroys all the relationships and community that has taken many years to build.
When I first started teaching in the nineties (last century), teachers were seen as the gatekeepers of knowledge. Their skills and art of teaching allowed them to give students opportunities to learn content that would be hidden to them. Once the internet opened up the content knowledge (or as I like to call it, the world wide interthingy), teachers’ roles changed. Classrooms became places where not only content knowledge was important but also social emotional learning , cultures of learning, individual education plans, critical thinking.
When the perceived role of a teacher is to provide the content knowledge only, big business can step in and provide options. Knowledge content that is mobile, accessible and free (to start, at least) means that issues of class size and composition become irrelevant in this view of education. This reduces the role of the teacher back to that belief of babysitter.
Yet without the teacher, critical thinking and the ability to synthesize the content, cannot be done. We end up with students who have google knowledge, but no ability to fully comprehend complex issues or situations. In this new model, our new good teachers will not want to enter a system where they feel discounted. They will not become our next group of great teachers for all students, not just a privileged few.
The egg has cracked and is in the process of being scrambled. We can either accept that our best and brightest will be part of the google nation, or we can think outside the box and see what great, imaginative recipes we can come up with.