Illness

Recently, I saw a commercial for the upcoming 2019 Bell Let’s Talk Day, to be held on January 30th. The ad shows scene after scene, in quick succession, a number of people who do not utter a word. The actors sit comfortably in front of the camera. Some are smiling, some are not, and others are neutral. It’s as if the ad is daring viewers to infer a story about them or  leap to false conclusions, and then we learn they aren’t actors.

By all appearances, the people in the spot represent a cross section of ages and cultures found across Canada. The only message stating that each person suffers from mental illness is a little chyron in the corner stating this fact. Suddenly, for the viewer, there’s a realization that unlike seeing someone in a cast, wearing a chemo patch, or who is propped up in a hospital bed we really have no way of knowing when someone is suffering from mental illness because it can’t be seen.

Does this excuse us from understanding or accepting a person’s illness merely because we can’t see it?

The invisible nature of mental illness makes it hard for all of us to identify it in someone. Especially sufferers who are stoic and silent. For many reasons, we are more likely to believe what we see rather than what we do not. Sometimes people are just having a bad day due to circumstances beyond their control. It is difficult to discern without ever learning all of the facts. So assumptions often take over. 

Adding fuel to this fire is the fallacy of personal incredulity that many people with mental illness face from their friends and family. 

That’s why we need to talk about mental illness as if it was as easy to discuss recovering from any other illnesses our bodies face. I think it starts here and it start with me.

I suffer from good days and bad days and I know I am not alone. We are not alone. No one is alone. 

I have felt happy, moody, pre-occupied, stressed, elated, angry, anxious, nervous, ecstatic, overjoyed, overwhelmed, indifferent, listless, lacklustre, sparkly, ebulient, magnaminous, and scared. In other words I have been on a few emotional roller coasters and the rides have not always been thrilling. I am fortunate that my highs and lows always level off and that none them linger longterm. Yet, I still choose to keep my feelings to myself.

After all, it is easier to bury it all in being busy instead of getting better. This means looking for things to take my mind off of how I feel. Helping others, taking on too many tasks, and staying occupied are all common ways of coping. Anything but talking about my feelings or appearing weak when I’m up or down. 

So let’s talk; because talking clears a path towards understanding, empathy, and encouragement. I am learning to share how I feel in posts like these and in interactions with others in the hopes of helping  more people to join the convo. 

Efforts to spark conversations about mental illness have indeed created awareness of the issues facing a sigificant segment of our population. And they are manifesting themselves more and more everyday in schools, offices, and homes. However, with recognition comes a responsibility.

Teachers are not trained psychologists. Schools are not clinics and school boards are not health networks. Yet everyday, educators are on the front lines of care for those who suffer. This includes themselves. How can we address a growing need in our profession to support one another while supporting our students in areas where few are trained to inhabit?

Here are 3 things that could make all the difference going forward;

  1. It is time for use to declassify Mental illness to the same status of illness regardless of the diagnosis. This way we can remove the invisible barrier and secret shame that some sufferers feel. No one mocks a person who has cancer? Why should people with mental illness be subjected to scorn?
  2. It’s time to fund schools and school boards to have more trained psychologists and mental health professions to support staff and students.
  3. Teachers need time and training to address their own issues of mental health without fear of stigma and reprisal from colleagues and employers. This training will build empathy and capacity in order to serve students. 

If we commit time and resources now, we stand a chance of truly ending the stigma of mental health in our community. Sadly, I fear that this will not happen in a board room or legislature because the dollars and cents are too easy to dismiss as ill spent, and with that our society needs to fix itself, not business. Government will say that it already funds health care to meet the needs of the people.

What both business and government fail to do is believe that there is really a problem to begin with. It is this collective incredulity that as historically led us to this point. So it falls again to education to create the conditions and pick up the pieces to effect change – and with zero to no budget. Nothing changes but the day. 

So here goes a simple solution in 5 easy steps to get you started. 

  1. Take time (know yourself, your colleagues, students and families, a smile or acknowledgement goes a long way as it may be the kindest thing someone experiences all day)
  2. Talk (share your feelings, hurts, joys, struggles, and victories without fear or shame)
  3. Listen (engage others to talk, let them know they matter, you do not have to solve any problems, a listener is what’s needed most)
  4. Take action (a smile, a call, or a cup of coffee with 1-4 may be the start of an important and impactful change in someone’s life, find the way you can support others best)
  5. Repeat

Our mental health is not a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that because it is an indication of our collective societal well-being. So let’s talk. 

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You are a teacher

You wake up before your alarm clock because your students are on your mind. You drive to school during a blizzard even when the busses are cancelled. You are a teacher.

You see lessons worth sharing in the simplest and strangest places. Pandora’s boxes of teachable moments just waiting to be opened. The work you do permeates the core of your existence and the students you serve. It identifies you. It might even define you. You are a teacher.

You take a break from it, but can’t break free from thinking of it. Weekends, weeks, Summers spent in loud silence. Void of bells, bustling hallways, playground screams, and dozens of daily impetous interruptions. You are a teacher.

You see them trying their best though they are stuck struggling in the saddest places.
You stand beside them, behind them, and in front of them. You are sometimes their biggest fan, sympathetic ear, and excellence expectation establisher. You are a teacher.

You ask them to dig deeper. To share their thoughts. To ask questions about their world. All the while working to empower them to find their place and know that they belong because they matter. You are a teacher.

You witness the world being discovered daily through eyes of innocence and wonder. You are a teacher.

Happy World Teacher’s Day.

 

Wyoming 1971

This is a companion post to Building blocks published on the Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning blog for the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. It is, as my wife puts it, a means to spare readers with commitment and time issues a chance to get some of the back story if they want it instead of a longer read.

In the early 1970s, my family moved to the State of Wyoming, USA. We settled in a little town of 10 000 people. It was there that I began 7 years of school from K to 6.

Our school year started in September and finished at the end of May. It was glorious. Once Alice Cooper’s anthem played on the radio we all knew that 3 months of vacation awaited. We would leave the house in the morning and only reture for a few reasons; food, medical attention, and the toilet. Neighbourhoods swarmed with kids of all ages on bikes, playing sports, fishing in the local creek, and cooling off in a pool. Parental supervision was at a minimum. The entire neighbourhood looked out for one another. There must have been at least 6 other families to turn to if trouble came my way. Summer vacation in Wyoming was spent outdoors, playing from dawn to dusk, and without talk of school. We all had chores to do, but even most of them were outdoors. My parents did not have a single school related task to fill those days; that I knew about.

The moment Labour Day weekend rolled around new clothes were purchased, maybe some shoes too if we outgrew the old ones, and like a switch got flipped, we were all back in school mode. Since I was new to all of this there was a lot of oblivion as it related to which class I would be in or who my teacher(s) might be. The only thing I knew about kindergarden was that a nap was scheduled in the afternoon, but I wondered who it was really for? Us or the teacher? By foot was how most of us arrived each day, with the only exception being a school bus full of tired farm kids whose commute was up to an hour each way.

Independence and the rust

From K to 1 someone walked me to school, but from Grade 2 on I joined the commuter class of children who walked to school on their own. It was a distance of about 700 metres that included 3 turns and crossing the street. We avoided cars, strangers, and loose dogs. At lunch, many of us would walk home and back, even though school lunch was provided in our lunch room for the price of 45 cents – milk included. It was nice to go home and relax in between classes. Our school had a nurse who checked our hearing, vision, and teeth. She applied iodine and bandages, which is probably why most kids chose not to go in when cuts or scrapes occured. It was better to take your chances with an infection than it was with the iodine. When my mom would ask me what happened, most of the time I couldn’t remember because we were too busy playing.

Of course it wasn’t only like Neverland in Wyoming. Once we settled into our classrooms each year there were the usual get to know you activities and expectations. Teachers would be trying to assess us on our abilities to read, write, do Science, and answer increasingly difficult pages of Math questions as fast as possible as our ages increased. Nothing like shaking the cobwebs off from the get-go. It was tantamount to a leap into frigid waters not felt since May. For some it was shock to the system and yet for others there were no effects.

For me, after being out of the classroom for 3 months, it was obvious some rust had formed and I knew it. However, it never seemed like our teachers were worried about what we remembered or forgot from the previous year. Perhaps, they believed that recalling knowledge was like riding a bike even though your feet haven’t touched the pedals in years. It just comes back to you after a little practice. Sure there were some wobbly moments and crashes, but eventually momentum was regained.

In that time, it never felt as though we weren’t getting better each year. Some subjects were harder for me and others came easier. We were taught, we tried to apply the lessons, we were tested, corrected(shown how to improve), and taught some more. Not much has changed 45 years later except I’m on the other side of the desks now. And students are a whole lot more connected and savvy than then. The Math we are asking them to understand is kilometres ahead of the drill and kill days. At least in some ways.

As I work with students who have been off for 10 weeks over the summer break, I am noticing that many are coming to school in September exhausted and anxious. They struggle to shake the rust off and pick up where they left off at the end of June. I wonder when/if they were able to be still, run, recharge or play without having every moment of their day prescribed by a camp, sports team, or club? Many of these programs seem more tied to child care than they do to fun and seem to be a necessary reality for children where all of the adults in the home are in the workforce.

As a result Math seems to suffer the greatest amount of rust over the summer. And this might contribute to some of the anxiety that we are now seeing in the classroom each September. Perhaps if we gave our students the time to savour the summer rather than sail through it, we might give them the opportunity to return to schoolready for another year at the speed of learning.

That leads to the blog I originally wrote called Building upon balance, which inspired this preamble and its companion Building blocks.

Thank you for reading. Please take time to share or comment to let me know your thoughts. If you would like to read a bit more about the experience of leaving this mid-west Shangri La and what it was like to return to Canada, please read Uprooted.

English evil

If I ever pry open my wallet to buy a vanity license plate, it would read WRDSRWRD  – Words are weird. Well, at least the English ones.

Over years of teaching language I’ve discovered something very important. That English is evil. Not English people as per se, but the English language as a whole, is evil.

It kind of rolled off the tongue one day while I was teaching when a student asked, “What kind of language would have 3 words mean something different, vary in spelling, but all sound the same?” I blurted out, “English, because English is evil.” The class lost it.

Imagine the propensity towards evil that exists in a language that can muddle up 26 letters to create an ex-con, lexicon of over 175 000 words with such reckless abdomen, abandon. And it’s still groaning, growing.

I love my classes spend time on the simplest words that then lead to so many interesting conversations. I love investing time into re-mixing and dissecting words with students. We even create our own words. I am presentating my ideas about language to you.

You heard correctly, I said presentating in the hope that the verb presentate in all of its awkward etymological glory will legitimately be included into the Oxford English Dictionary. 10 years ago, I started using it with the goal of being able to use a grammatical aberration and have it accepted as a part of our language, by first misusing it in the classroom.

No wonder my students get in trouble the following years when using presentate amidst less receptive instructors. I’ve had colleagues challenge my motive to add the verb presentate, but it is all in good fun.

When we learn like this, we invite laughter and oral communication skills into our space. This helps turn a difficult lesson into a powerful learning opportunity that is often unscripted, responsive, and accessible for all.

Knowing the value that exercises like these play in my teaching, has become a huge part of my instructional competency. I love it when students are able to turn their minds loose and then listen for the chuckles when words are captured, tamed, and then set them free again. This past year we shared a 40 minute discussion about Illuminati Grilled Cheese. We were in tears from laughing so hard.

What happened in that time was far more valuable to their education than any lesson found in a text.They were present for something spontaneously created by them. We play with words, sounds, and letters and let the conversations carry us towards creativity and critical thinking. We became closer as a classroom and community. My students felt safe and because of that, we were able to do some deep learning.

Every year, I share this reminder with educators and students because things become really confusing, really fast when a language which is still evolving gets mixed up, misunderstood or misused. I want everyone to know the power that waits within the language they are using. I want everyone to become comfortable with words and to own a rich vocabulary whether they are learners, teachers, writers, speakers or witty conversationalists.

To me the more we all interact with language, at any level, the richer our learning experiences will become. 

This summer, take some time to have fun with the language you experience. Use language like your communicating with an alien. Play with the letters, sounds, and words as if you’re inside of a VR game of puns, poetic devices, and crunchy axioms. Wishing ewe awl well. 

Note:

I am currently working through a TED Ed Innovative Educator Talk and initially wrote this part into my message. It was pulled from the final draft in the interest of time and in order to stay closer to my through line as it relates to peculiarities in our language and goals for education. I hope to be able to share it someday soon.

To the brother I have bothered

Tim, Mom, and writer.

He is 7 years 2 months and 2 days older than me.

He is 5 feet 9 inches, but I have have looked up to him ever since I could crawl across the floor or stick my head out my bunk bed cage to look at him up top.

At age 3, I followed him through a northern BC forest to school so I could play like he did. I am sure he would have been happier to cover me in syrup and leave me for the bears.

I wrecked his Beatles albums, his books, and his toys. Actions that I still regret to this day. He had nice things.

He is the brother that I have bothered for 52 of his 59 years on this planet. He has the patience of Job, the wit of a stand-up comedian, the generosity of a saint, and a golf swing like a rusty gate. Yet, he holds the record for most Ugly Jacket Golf Tour wins in our family.

When I was 8 he gave me money to buy candy before going off to day camp. He helped me sneak out the basement window of our house so I could run down the street and be back before anyone else knew what happened. I was instantly popular at camp that year.

He took me places. Sometimes willingly.

He was cool. He swam. I swam.
He worked. I worked.

He defended our sister from my tyrannous middle child ways. No one’s perfect.
He went away and I was sad. He came home and then we moved away.
He stayed. That was 40 years ago.

We still talk, laugh too much, and never forget to say I love you.

He will always be my favourite brother to bother.

Happy birthday Tim.