Why not go? (and some ways to get there)

Why not go? (and some ways to get there)

If you were paying attention to my social media postings over the past week, you know that I was at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference (#OLASC) from Tuesday night until Friday. This is a huge conference, with around 5000 participants coming from all over the country, and from every sort of library (medical, public, school, archives) you might be able to think of. It includes a trade show with many authors available for signings, a huge offering of workshops in different streams, and spotlight speakers for each stream as well as keynote speakers designed to appeal to all attendees. This year’s theme was “Fearless by Design”.

fearless

I had an amazing time. I presented on Wednesday morning, on the topic of “Dishcloths, Design Thinking and Knitted QR codes”. I was thrilled to have an enthusiastic, engaged group of learners who were ready to participate in the activities I had prepared, ask some great questions, and try their hand at knitting. The photos and tweets shared by participants showed that people were having some “aha” moments, and that there was a lot of mentoring going on by some of the experienced knitters in the crowd. It was a terrific way to start the conference.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend all 3 days of the conference, and I learned an immense amount. I got to watch amazing educators share their knowledge, hear some remarkable speakers (and have my thinking really pushed by some of them) and be a “fangirl” for a favourite author or two.

Most importantly for me, I got to spend some precious time with old friends, while making connections to new ones. Relationship-building is what this kind of event is all about for me, because connecting with those people is what can help me keep that “conference high” going. It was a terrific recharge and  this is a great time for it – a boost to get you through the “middle stretch”. I came home with much to think about.

And then I thought: “why don’t more people go to things like this?”, and then I had to check my privilege at the door, because I know there are a ton of reasons why people can’t/don’t attend conferences.

Economic barriers are huge – conferences are not cheap, and if you’re an out of towner, you’re paying for transportation, accommodation and meals. You also have to figure out release time, which, I learned, is WAY more of a hassle in some boards than in others. Time barriers are huge: if you have dependents of any size and shape, leaving for 3 days can be impossible, and then there’s the major chunk of time you’re going to spend prepping for a supply teacher. I hadn’t realized how much that was a factor until this self-funded leave year, when I went to a conference and it hit me that I didn’t have to worry about how thing were going in my classroom, or check for supply feedback, or adjust plans, or call a parent or…..(I know, you get it). This year, OLASC overlapped with my board’s elementary report-writing day. I would have been heading home Thursday night if I’d been teaching, or I might have decided not to go at all, in order to have time to complete reports. I think a third barrier is that people genuinely don’t know a) what conferences might be available and b) don’t know what a conference can offer them.

 

 

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There can be a lot of barriers to attending a conference. How can we work around them? photo credit: Matteo Parrini via cc

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about teacher mental health. Partly because I’m on a year off, and I know I’m emotionally and mentally healthier without work stress; partly because of the growing concern about violent incidents in the classroom; partly because I’m part of this community, and I know we don’t do enough for ourselves. At report card time in particular, we’re often hanging on by our toenails, as we try to keep all the balls in the air and meet everybody’s expectations. I’d like to propose that time away from your work routine for some self-directed learning, even for a day, might be one possible mental health strategy.

So how do we get around those barriers?

  • Check the workshops your provincial union might be offering – many that ETFO offers cost $50 and include release time, transportation, accommodation, meals and dependent care coverage (and yes, you have to apply). Summer workshops offered by OTF are multi-day events with transportation, accommodation and meal allowances, and you get your registration fee back after the workshop (yes, that’s right, it’s FREE!) and are open to all teachers in Ontario. (and they’re offered all over the province, so many people combine learning with a family holiday, if you have another adult who can help you make that happen).
  • If you’re looking for a lower registration price, put in a workshop proposal – we all have great ideas to share. Many conferences offer free registration for the day you present, or a discounted conference rate, if your proposal is accepted.
  • Release time an issue? Check if your union local offers funding for learning opportunities. Shoutout to KPRETFO, who will cover release time and up to $400 for accommodation and registration until that budget line is depleted. Yes, you will have to fill out an application and have your principal sign it. Worth it? I think so.
  • Find out where conferences are taking place. Can you stay with someone? OLA was downtown Toronto, and my best friend lives there, close to a transit route. I just hugely lowered the cost of my event, and got to spend time with my best friend. Win-win.
  • Check dates – find an event that’s happening when you feel like it might work for you to have a break.
  • Ask a friend to go with you – you can go to different workshops, and share resources (and if you share accommodation, your costs go down). And you’ll always have someone to sit with at lunchtime.
  • Find a conference that you really want to go to. Going to a conference won’t feed you unless it’s something you choose. Tech, subject area associations, indigenous learning, mental health, art, early learning, inquiry – it’s all out there.

Yes, it’s still a hassle to prep to be away. That’s a reality, and probably a whole blog post. You may still struggle to find child/parent care, which may mean that this post is a “not now, but someday” for you. You may be the kind of person who’s going to add to your stress  by going to a conference and getting overwhelmed by all the things you “should” be doing (yes, I’ve been there). You know what you need. But maybe, just maybe, it’s worth a try for moments like this that you can hold in your heart to get you through the next rough spot.

librarian love

The reason I really go to conferences. Spending face to face time with my personal learning family. Thank you, Diana, Alanna and Dawn!

 

What’s your favourite conference? How do we make going to conferences more manageable for a more diverse set of learners? How do we find opportunities for people to share what they learned, if they want to do that?

 

Let the sparks fly!

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Is this enough?

Is this enough?

Monday morning, as I checked my e-mail, I found a message from my director of education. She talked about our board’s focus on student well-being over the past few years, and introduced a new initiative, specifically targeting staff wellness. I admit, I got a little choked up reading that.

I have been that annoying person, every time we have professional development on student mental health, who participates fully, but always asks, “and what about staff mental health?”. For me, the two are inextricably linked. All teachers, and particularly those working with high-needs populations, need support to keep themselves healthy (physically, emotionally and mentally) in order to best support their students. They need to be working in spaces that feel safe, with supportive colleagues and admin, and have access to strategies and supports to help them when life is not going exactly as planned. I know I’m not alone in saying this has not always been my experience as a teacher. I was thrilled to see the e-mail.

I was less thrilled to read on and discover that the new focus on staff well-being comes in the form of a partnership with a particular research team, which “has over 20 years of experience working with some of the world’s highest performing individuals and organizations. They specialize in research-based strategies that improve health and wellbeing in challenging environments, including schools and boards.” I’m not saying that sounds bad – because it doesn’t. Teaching, and staying healthy while doing it, can define the phrase “challenging environment” . So, why did I have such a negative reaction?

Maybe I’ve become a cynic in my old age, but my experience has been that when we align ourselves with one particular program, a) we’re paying a lot for it and b) it doesn’t make for a lot of opportunity for differentiation. And I’ve wary of that at this point. I’m wary of anything that comes “pre-packaged”, that is supposed to meet a multitude of needs.

However, I try really hard to be a positive person, so I went on to the accompanying video.

 

And that’s when I really got frustrated.

I’m not going to go into all the things I struggled with in the video – those are probably for a conversation with my director, who I respect as a fellow educator. But I have to say that I felt like there was a gaping hole in the whole “pitch” (and yes, that’s my sarcastic voice coming through – it did feel like a pitch). There was no mention, really, of emotional well-being (other than as “stress”). In the interests of transparency, I need to say that my spouse is a couples and family therapist, who uses an emotionally focused approach. That definitely colours my thoughts on this.

The approach indicated in the video suggests a major focus on physical health, and I cannot argue with the importance of sleeping well, eating well and moving more, because those are strategies that work for me. I believe in the value of mindfulness practice, especially when it’s adapted to different people’s needs (some of us are helped by moving meditation). But for me, unless this program makes space for learning about the importance of our emotional health; for learning about our relationships – with ourselves, with our family and friends, with our school community – we’re missing a huge, vital, piece of the puzzle.

relationships

It’s all about relationships, really. Photo credit: flickr user Robert Eede via cc

My other main struggle is that this program will come to us, as teachers, every couple of months, as a package in our in-box, including videos, podcasts and articles. Again, I’m thrilled at the thought of more resources. However, the expectation that teachers will need to take another piece of their constantly shrinking “own” time, and dig into those resources, and hopefully benefit from them, is not a realistic one. How many colleagues do you know who rarely access their school e-mail, because they already feel the demands are too much? Surely, if this is really a priority, we could spend the occasional staff meeting working through a module together? Maybe find some PLC time during the day to gather with a small group and listen to a podcast or watch and discuss a video (maybe even with snacks)? Staff well-being is incredibly important, for bigger reasons than reducing absences.  I think it’s the bedrock we build on. A well staff means a well school, which means more ability to work with students, and their families towards their own wellness and, at its strongest, means being able to model what health and well-being looks like. Having been in the job for 25 years now, and currently experiencing the lowered stress level that comes with a self-funded leave, I know that many of us struggle with balancing our own emotional needs with the needs of our immediate and extended families and of our students, with the stress of deadlines and paperwork and trying to build safe spaces for our students. 

I think that we deserve more than a package in our in-box.

I’m going to end in hope that this focus will grow. I’d also love to know what other boards are doing. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Let the sparks fly……

 

It’s “check-in” time

 

This weekend’s bitter cold where I live had me thinking about the importance of check-ins. Everywhere I looked, there were reminders to check in: check in with your vulnerable family members and neighbours; make sure there isn’t a pipe break  threatening your business (Bluestreak records flooded); don’t leave your pets outside too long. 

My neighbour, upon leaving for holiday, asked my boys to do a walk through of her house each day, making sure that the heat was on and nothing disastrous had happened. We asked friends of Mr 16 to do the same when we went away.

That made me think about how lucky I was to be able to do that. I have neighbours, and relationships with them. I have family members to check in with (shout-out to my Oma, who was 97 on January 6).

Many in our communities don’t have those privileges. I did my first volunteer shift at our local emergency overnight shelter just before Christmas (that will be another blog post, when I can manage to put it into words). I knew that many in that community  would be moving from whatever warm spot they could find to another during the day, and couch-surfing or at a shelter overnight. I know that I can’t check in on everybody, but I have adopted the practice of carrying extra new warm socks in my bag when I’m downtown, and offering them to those who are asking for money on the street. I have also carried grocery store or Tim’s gift cards in the past. If you have a relationship with people in your local underhoused community, please check in, in whatever way works best for you. Make a donation of money, food or time, or just stop to make sure that someone on the street knows where the local shelter is. This article  has some suggestions in the school context. I occasionally encounter former students in my volunteer work at our local meal program, and I have found that they hugely appreciate me recognizing them and taking the time to check in, without judgement (and yes, I often cry later). 

So, all this thinking about check-ins made me think about those who are returning to school today (or having a snow day, if you live where I do). Brian Aspinall’s brain was running along the same lines yesterday.

And I was happy when another tweeter responded, suggesting that we remember this applies to staff, too.

I need us all to take a minute and think about how this weekend felt. Were you thrilled to have a weekend to cocoon? Knit, read, binge-watch your favourite show (or mixed doubles curling ), bake, prep food for the week? Did you bundle up and get out in the cold, like my husband and kids did, with a cross-country ski? Did you connect with a friend for a hot (or cold) beverage?

Or were you one of those tossing and turning last night, because you didn’t want to go back this morning? One who spent the weekend getting the marking and planning done that you had ignored over the last 2 weeks? One who woke up this morning, and were hit with that feeling of dread about going to work? Or were you in that completely different category, like the woman in my church community yesterday morning, who had a completely unforeseen tragedy strike her family over the break? Did you spend much of your break putting out fires for other people? Were you coping with toxic family time? Are you heading back without feeling you’ve had a break at all? I have, at different times, been in most of these categories, heading back in January, and I’m sure many of you have, too. So, of course, have our students.

Most of us are really good at checking in with our students. We have class meetings, or we start or finish our day with a quick check-in. We meet our kids at the door because we know it makes a difference. We’ve learned that along the way.

 

I don’t think we’re anywhere near as good at creating opportunities for a genuine check-in with our colleagues. We’ll ask the generic “how was your holiday?” or even “Did you have a good break?” as we pass in the hall, but we’re often not truly listening for the answer, and we’re rarely vulnerable enough to give an honest one. It’s not how we’ve been raised, and it’s not easy, but is, without question, worth the effort. If we know that check-ins help our students feel visible, understood and valued, imagine how extending that same care to ourselves would make us feel.

So, there’s my challenge to each of you. Today (especially if it’s a snow day, and you have a chance for a quiet moment), or some time this week,  try – even with one colleague – to do a genuine check-in. Ask how things are. If you know there’ve been some challenges (and really, when aren’t there?) maybe that’s the question to ask. Maybe this is the week to organize a potluck for Friday lunch, just to give people the chance to sit down together. If you have a colleague, as I do, who’s off on long-term disability, or who is off being a caregiver for someone they love, remember them, too. They would probably greatly appreciate someone in their professional life  remembering that they exist. We need to be seen and heard, just as our students do. Check in. It’s important. 

 

Let the sparks fly.

Starting a school…from scratch

Going with the philosophy that late is better than not at all, here’s my contribution to the #ossemooc #innovatorsmindset bloghop. We’ve been reading George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset, and this is one of the questions:

bloghop 2

image : Tina Zita

As I reflected on what my “dream school” might look like, I realized that my views have been profoundly influenced by the school community in which I have lived, worked and learned for the past 9 years. Teaching a clientele that reaches opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum with very little in the middle has confirmed for me that I can’t really help my students move through Bloom’s Taxonomy without making sure that they have the necessities of Maslow’s hierarchy.

I have also realized, much more than I expected, that a great many of my students’ parents are intimidated by the very concept of school, often due to their own negative experience. If my school concept is to succeed, it has to find a way to get past that fear and negativity and be a welcoming space. A genuine community space, offering reasons for both parent and child to want to be there.

Beginning. then, with those physiological basics at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid – air, water and food.

breakfast program

photo credit: flickr user US Dept of Agriculture via cc

A fully equipped and staffed kitchen, open beyond school hours, that can be used as classroom space, community kitchen (for teaching parents, kids and community members to prepare and share healthy food), breakfast/hot lunch/supper program, or just a space in which to do schoolwork while eating is the cornerstone of my school space. Access to extensive outdoor space, with both structured and unstructured areas, as well as a stream or pond, are my tweak on air and water. Many of my students have nature deficit disorder and regular learning time exploring outside is becoming a necessity.

The next levels of the Maslow pyramid, that delve into mental and emotional well-being, as well as physical, are at the heart of what I’d like to address in my school. As well as meeting physical needs with spaces like an open clothing “swap shop” and regular visits from a team of medical professionals, my school would be equipped to help with emotional needs as well. Intermediate student in crisis, and needing to talk to someone right away? There would be a trained counsellor available. Family needing support to move through a challenging situation? That would be available on site, too. Teachers needing mental/emotional health support – that’s here, too.  In the environment where I teach, many of my colleagues are finding themselves faced with students who need substantially more mental and emotional health support than we are able/trained to give. Having services to address this on-site, as needed, would help us shape a new approach to mental and emotional health support.

Don’t get me wrong – I want bells and whistles, too. Loads of light, flexible learning environments, creation spaces (analog and digital), room to stretch and socialize and laugh and read and curl up and be quiet and make and share and learn! Yes, I want those, too. But I want, at heart, a healthy community to be able to live, love and learn in that space.

What do other people think? Check them out here, and please share a comment, or write your own post:

Paul McGuire

Amit Mehrotra

Patrick Miller

Donna Fry

Leigh Cassell

Stacey Wallwin

Tina Zita

Jennifer Casa-Todd

Joe Caruso

Gary Gruber

Mark Carbone

George Couros

Allison Keskimaki

Anne Shillolo