From the brillian mind of Kim Preshoff.
The top photo was unintentional garbage graffiti, if there is such a thing…loved the “all natural” label…we were walking along a hiking trail and stumbled upon it. I honestly don’t think anything needs to be said about that—
The other two garbage graffitis were my attempts at making a point with my students. I saw this technique previously used in an advertisement and thought–wow, I can do that. What a great project for students…Not as easy as it looks. After collecting tons of “clean” garbage…box labels, can labels, chip bags…I came up with very few garbage graffiti finished products. Give it a shot–see if you can do it!
Recently, I encountered a student having a significant behavioural lapse. This, in itself, is not a new occurrence in my life as an educator because it occupies a large part of the instructional day. That is, teaching an unwritten curriculum(life learning). From my experience, a lot of time in between subjects is devoted to helping students develop better decision-making strategies and healthier social interactions.
The truth is, it was a normal day at school. Except that particular day’s events took deeper root in my mind because I still felt the need to write about them, even after time to process, several days later.
A lesson was rolling along with the usual interactions between students, teacher, and content when I had to slam the brakes on after a poisonous passing comment directed towards a student’s ethnic background by another. I had to ask if that was what I really heard? Yup, and I was filled with so much disappointment, but I could not let the emotion cloud such a teachable moment even though something emotional had been triggered in me. Something good had to be born from this, but what?
In brief, the student exhibited racist behaviour in their comment, and I called them out on it. Once their denial was dismantled, we got to the heart of the matter and why it was not ever appropriate or acceptable in our school or society. We concluded by mapping out some strategies to use that could repair some of the damage including apologizing and learning more about who their words had hurt. We also talked about what would happen if this behaviour was repeated.
This could never be more true than when it comes to dealing with students, their family, and the system we all function within. That student did not arrive with a racist mindset on their own. Did I mention that the student was only in grade 3? This is where my own form of personal incredulity kicked in. I could not believe what was happening in an otherwise well-balanced and kind group of learners.
How could racism exist in a child so young?
Let’s look at truth from the lens of education. Are teachers the conduits for imparting the most altruistic conciliation(s), and scientifically proven truths? That’s a whole lot of truths over 18 to 20 years of school from JK to BA many of which form the foundations for healthy societal interactions and good citizenship. The truth is, that truth has evolved in education. Despite the shadowy sides of the past, racism, sexism, and intolerance do not occupy such a prominent place on the colonial mantle.
Having grown up in Wyoming during the 1970s the “History” lessons could not have been more indicative of a racist bias to First Nations people. Fast forward 40 years and the steps towards acknowledgement, reconciliation, and resolution are finally beginning to be made. This could not have happened without awareness, education, and resistance to a past built on flawed truths.
Education is meaningless where racist behaviour is allowed to permeate the classroom, if even for a misinformed moment. How can we teach against the distorted truths held by our learners regardless of age?
Initially, I was taken back to witness this from an otherwise “good” kid. That being said, there had to be an immediately teachable moment in order to counter the bad social indoctrination that had already happened.
It is during moments like these that I am sure that all teachers feel like they are tasked with teaching generations of families, not just their children. The scary part for me, is that we work in a country where everyone generally gets along with each other. Yet, it continues to happen in this era of awareness and activism. Our schools are relatively safe spaces for all of our students. Our classrooms are indicative of multiple nationalities and backgrounds all learning alongside of one another without a fight breaking out because of some historical beef between ancient relatives.
A friend shared that ,”There is nothing good or righteous about throwing rocks(real ones or verbal put downs) at your neighbour while espousing how great a religion or culture are at the same time. It would be better that we focus on what we have in common so that we might build on the positives that can strengthen and unite us.” I love the simple and edifying nature of those words and I want to impart their wisdom to all of my students.
I know it takes time, strength, and community commitment to overcome when racism occurs. Teachers must become social agents of the truth in order to establish a foundation of trust first before mis-truths can be overcome. This starts by making sure that when racist behaviour shows up, it gets shown the door.
So our first truth can be; regardless of age, there is no room for hatred and rage.
Let’s start there.
All of this has me thinking about truth and all of its iterations. Could it be possible that one person’s truth ever truly matches that of another. Can we admit that there are relatively 7 billion versions of the truth in our world? Better yet, can we get along with this; never really knowing which version is absolute? What if there are many truths? Psst…there are.
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;
- 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?
- It’s time to fund schools and school boards to have more trained psychologists and mental health professions to support staff and students.
- 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.
- 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)
- Talk (share your feelings, hurts, joys, struggles, and victories without fear or shame)
- 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)
- 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)
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.
While hunting for some wisdom and humour in the classroom a while back, I asked a group of grade one students to tell me about what they wanted to buy when they were adults and could spend their own money? I asked the question this way because, asking children what they want to be when they grow up has become a clichéd default question from adults. Also, I really hated that question as a child, teen, and twenty-something.
Once asked, students’ eyes lit up with excitement and they responded with an understandable amount of youthful exuberance and predictability; Lamborghini’s, mansions, dessert at every meal, exotic pets, and toys galore.
You get the drift.
There were others, however, who appeared almost to have an answer which seemed as if they’d thought of this question beforehand. One responded with a desire to own a castle and an army of monkeys. Another talked about becoming a Transformer. Almost lost in all of the sharing were the few students who wanted to share how they would help people less fortunate than themselves when they were older. Almost.
As a grade one student, it would have been a toss-up between the monkeys and being a transformer for me, but these students chose kindness first. It is these voices that are often overlooked amongst the silliness and somewhat selfish desires. However, thoughts like these must be honoured and nurtured in all of our learners.
My goal as an educator each year is not to deliver a curriculum, but to instill thoughtfulness, kindness, and otherliness through life lessons in all subject areas. If I do not achieve that first, but only succeed in teaching the content, then I have failed my learners.
Maybe, once I grow up, my army of monkeys can be trained to do good things?
What is learning? Is it the content inside of the textbook? Does it come from all of the socialization experienced at school that is supposed to prepare us all to run on the hamster wheel of life? Could there also be lessons to learn from moving desks in a classroom?
I’m writing this post while my grade 5 class attempts a self-directed room re-organization. Cacophony, collisions, and an occasional boundary dispute resolution tribunal are all part of the process. Desks and chairs in motion cause mini-tremors across our classroom floor. It’s as if 26 simultaneous games of Tetris are being played as the furniture gets turned and shoved in search of a new place, perspective and neighbours.
To understand whether this exercise went well, if at all, requires a keen eye, a calm mind, and a deaf ear. Throughout the process, students do not hear a word from me. It’s their time to sort things out and into place. I’m happy to watch and hear it happen. There are negotiations, subtle and otherwise. Accommodations too.
After 10 minutes of time that seemed more like 15 minutes, we made it. I asked, “What did you learn about this?”
“We have to communicate with each other,” said one.
“Some people are only worried about themselves,” replied another.
“You didn’t help us,” said a third student.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
Letting students shape their learning space on their own has become an informative exercise in my practice. It points out who is willing to embrace change and who is clinging to a familiar and safe(in their mind) past. It also provides me insight into whether peer groups and friendships have changed.
Desk moves also give students a chance to negotiate with one another. I find it interesting how problems get worked out when there are disagreements. It forces students to listen and respond when things are in motion and out-of-place.
When the dust settles. We get back to learning…the other learning.
Well in advance of my ever becoming an educator came an episode of BBC’s Dr. Who, where the TARDIS traveller shared,
“You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: They don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views, which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” from Dr Who Episode – The Face of Evil Part 4 January 22, 1977
It seems very clear now, that we are capable of convincing ourselves of anything regardless of sensibility, social standing, or support system. It’s happening everyday in classrooms because it has been allowed to happen over and over this way since forever. I’ll use the short story below to illustrate how it might be playing out in a typical Math classroom.
It’s a Tuesday, or is it Wednesday? No matter, because it’s Mathday. A teacher shares the concept(s). Some respond with nods, others avoid eye-contact, and silent supplications of “please don’t ask me to explain this”. Students try to understand what’s being taught. Some get it faster than others. Seconds pass, then minutes. Teacher grows impatient with awkward silences and then ploughs on. As if in unison, the others begin to doubt whether they’ll ever get it? Some wonder in disbelief how the others don’t get it and repeat. At some point most educators will have learners floating in various states between being some or the others.
Suddenly, but with far less warning, an assessment is given and the results serve to separate some from the others. Followed by a false, yet difficult to overcome, opinion that Math ‘can’t be got’, and therefore must be hated, simply because of the inability of others to solve all or some of the concepts taught and problems given. This imbalanced view negatively warps some mindsets one way or an other;
- They tie Math and other academic success to self-worth
- Students begin to doubt their abilities based on single results rather than embracing an attitude of process and progress instead of performance.
- Problem solving skills are mitigated out of the day by educators who feel they have to cover what’s in the text books rather than what’s needed by their students. In other words they are being taught to the test rather than being allow to test what they’re taught.
- Resilience is skill that goes further underdeveloped in favour of focusing on report card marks. Instead of emphasising growth from concept attainment, iterative thinking, and real life application opportunities students are made to live, breathe, and be measured by a singular method and measure.
Simply put, we can’t allow alternative facts, false beliefs, or misinformation to infect the minds of our learners and colleagues. Yes, teachers believe that they can’t do Math too. We need to stand in the gap to prevent and dispel destructive mindsets. For some students and teachers this means time to unlearn, a safe place to make mistakes, relearn, and start again.
If we equip our learners with the ability to re-frame their focus with confidence and arm them with problem solving tools we can erase the discourse of doubt that plagues so many. This will run counter to the mass instruction of the past, but it will be better than perpetuating the destruction any longer. We need to understand that we are works in process and success will look different from lesson to lesson and learner to learner.
Perhaps then, the breezy breath of fresh air will be felt as a change for the better by everyone? In the meantime, I will be moving the air about my classroom like a human tornado helping students understand that thinking they are not good at Math is does not equal the truth.
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