Teaching with Humor, Compassion, and Conviction

by Heather Hollis

In today’s complex learning landscape, humor, compassion, and conviction are crucial. We are in the middle of a global pandemic, which means we have become even more dependent on the kindness and goodness of our family and friends, our teachers, and our students. The world can be a dark place without humor and compassion. We desperately need to be kind and generous towards each other if we are going to get through this crisis and go on to thrive and grow together.

Engaging Students Who Are Learning Remotely

The number one issue with online learning is engagement. We are relying on our students, some as young as 4 years of age, to be become engaged with a screen. I’ve heard people say, “Well, that should be easy for kids. They’re the screen generation after all. They’ve grown up looking at screens.” Yes, this is true. But most of them have only used screens for socializing and game playing. They haven’t had to use them for learning activities, which may be difficult and frankly, a little boring, for some.

Starting your online learning with something funny gets students engaged right away. Remember: you aren’t “wasting” your time doing these activities. They serve to engage your students in the learning process, so that when you do present new material, they are more ready to learn. I am working with student teachers online this term and I try to intersperse humor throughout our classes. I have started class by putting, “Which meme are you today?” up on the whiteboard. Students get to pick the meme that best describes their mood that day. These are often funny pictures of cats or dogs or famous people making funny faces. Everyone has to type in the number that matches their mood. This serves as an attendance tool, as well as a way to see who’s feeling happy or sad without getting too deeply into the issue. Just Google “which meme are you today” and click on images. There are thousands to choose from.

Another technique that I have found that works well is breaking up the lesson, so that no one is sitting, listening to me ramble on for more than 10–15 minutes (this should be adapted depending on the age and attention span of your students). Talk, then show a short, funny, engaging video on the topic you just discussed. Talk, then have students break into groups and do an activity. Talk, then have students assume a yoga pose and take a few deep breaths before starting the activity. Talk, then roll the magic name picker wheel (https://wheelofnames.com/) and see who gets to talk next. Wheel of Names is a great name generator that is free and easy to use. All you have to do is copy your class list, go to the site, drop in the names, and voila! You spin the magic wheel and when it stops on a student’s name, the screen lights up with confetti and celebratory horns. Even my adult students found it exciting. There are lots of things you can do to make your classes engaging and fun. I suspect that if you brainstormed with a small group of teachers you could come up with a whole list of ideas that would work at the different grade levels.

Compassion is key during these pandemic times. The expression, “We are all in the same boat” doesn’t apply to our students (or to us, for that matter). Some of our children have parents who can hover over them while they complete their online learning, supporting them with any technical or learning issues that may arise. Other students may have to share a computer with 3 of their siblings while their parents are at work. Still others may not have internet services at all where they live. How do we work with those students? It may require teams of teachers to come up with work packets that are delivered to student homes. Teachers could call those students to see if they have questions and to check for understanding. As well, we know that some of our students are dealing with mental health and safety issues within their homes. Keeping that line of communication open may help save that child from a dangerous situation.

Teacher Stress and Burnout

At this point, I can hear my teacher friends saying, “But what about ME? I have been so busy juggling the unprecedented demands of work and family that I haven’t had time to take care of myself and honestly, I’m falling apart here.”

Teacher stress is a fact of life right now. In a recent CBC (2020) survey of teachers, researchers found that teachers are largely overwhelmed and burned out. Developmental psychologist Lisa Bayrami, a contract lecturer at Lakehead University said the trickle down effect means that teacher stress can lead to student stress.

“We need to prioritize the well-being of educators because if they’re feeling as though they’re in survival mode… they don’t have the capacity to co-regulate and to engage in those attuned, positive relationships with students,” she said.

As I note in my book, teachers need to put their own oxygen masks on first before they can help others. This means forcing themselves to take a lunch break, get outside for a bit of fresh air, exercise sometime during the day, and schedule in some downtime. The most powerful predictor of student success is a teacher who feels confident about their abilities (Hatti, 2009). A teacher who feels demoralized or incapable of meeting the challenge cannot function at their best.

If teachers are feeling powerless and burnt out, not only is this a tragedy for them, it’s also a tragedy for their students. This is where we need to have the power of our convictions. Schools, administrators, governments, and the general public need to support teachers so that they can teach and support their students. It’s in everyone’s best interests to advocate for teachers. That means supporting them both publicly and privately. It means reaching out and helping your fellow teacher if you see that they are drowning. Finally, if you are a teacher, it means speaking to yourself as kindly as if you were your own best friend. This is hard. We can do hard things. And if we can’t, it’s OK to ask for help or to step away until we feel ready to come back.

Teachers are being asked to jump through burning hoops on a unicycle while juggling 10 balls. This means they need to be healthy, both mentally and physically.

My advice to teachers?

Take care of yourself first, and then take a deep breath and do what you know how to do.

You got this.

Wong, J. (2020, October 28). Teachers say return to school this fall has left them with overwhelming stress and a never-ending workload. CBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/teacher-questionnaire-pandemic-1.5775805
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement. Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.

Helping Students Become More Skilful at Managing Challenging Emotions through Mindfulness

by Shelley Murphy

We are facing great challenges and change in the midst of a pandemic and ongoing racial injustice. As a result, many of us are experiencing unrelenting waves of stress and worry in response to the uncertainties before us. A certain level of stress and worry during this time actually acts as a natural protector. It guides our behaviours in ways that are meant to help keep us safe. For this we can thank the natural intelligence and wisdom of our minds and bodies. At the same time, we need to be intentional about making sure that we are not getting caught in an ongoing and constant loop of fear and worry in ways that are no longer protective. It can be especially difficult to disrupt this ongoing loop in a time when our daily circumstances seem to require a constant need for vigilance. To stay healthy and resilient our minds need opportunities to build resilience.

When thinking about how to best support children at home and in school, it’s important for teachers and parents to give attention to their own emotional needs. We can go back to the message we receive on an airplane just before takeoff that reminds us to secure our own oxygen mask before supporting someone else with theirs. We are advised to do this because if we were to run out of oxygen in an emergency, we would be helpless to support anyone else. This is an important metaphor for life. When teachers focus on self-care, it ends up being protective for students as well. This is why if teachers or parents ask me to name the most powerful mindfulness practice for children, my answer is always the same: YOUR practice.  Even if teachers never introduce mindfulness to their students, if they commit to their own practice, there is almost always a positive ripple effect in the classroom.

We know from something called stress contagion that children will often take their cues from the adults around them. If we are feeling calm, the children around us are more likely to feel at ease. This doesn’t mean that teachers and parents shouldn’t talk about their feelings. In fact, by talking about our own feelings, we invite children to identify and share their own.

Science has shown that naming or labelling difficult emotions, like fear and worry, actually helps to loosen their grip. When students are in a heightened state of stress, the part of their brain that is necessary for thinking, reasoning, emotion regulation, and learning is less readily available to them. Teachers can provide children with opportunities to cultivate the skills they need to manage challenging emotions so they can meet each moment of their school day and beyond with less stress and greater awareness, attention, and resilience. Mindfulness of emotions helps them do that.

Mindfulness of one’s emotional experiences is central to well-being. Think of your students who are generally good at managing their emotions in positive ways. They are often the same students who show resilience when faced with challenges. Mindfulness practices and activities can help students to become more skilful at being aware of their emotions as they arise in the present moment and to become familiar with identifying, understanding, using, and managing their emotions in positive ways.

When students are able to identify and manage their own emotions (and those of other people) they are showing what has been called emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995). Students with strong emotional intelligence are better at managing stress and conflict, showing empathy and kindness, communicating effectively, making informed decisions, building strong relationships, and overcoming challenges. Of course, as teachers know, there is a strong connection between a student’s emotions and their ability to manage their impulses. It is not surprising that research has shown that emotional intelligence is central to success and happiness in life. Studies show that regular mindfulness practice with emotions helps boost emotional intelligence by improving a student’s ability to self-regulate in different situations. Regular mindfulness practice helps students become better aware of the connection between their thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and behaviors. It helps to create some thoughtful space between a student’s actions and reactions. This space strengthens a student’s ability to respond more skilfully, instead of letting their feelings and emotional impulses govern their actions.

This is an especially important skill when students are confronted with stressful states and difficult emotions. Mindfulness helps children become better attuned to their feelings, which helps them manage and cope with life’s challenges. While students strengthen their emotional awareness through formal practices, the benefits extend throughout the course of their day, as they become increasingly aware of their emotions and how they influence their responses.

One way to help children become better at recognizing, naming, and managing their emotions is through Emotion Mapping (see below). This activity gives students an opportunity to take some time to pay attention to how and where they are feeling an emotion, and to give it a name. While children are better able to identify emotions when they are feeling them at their extreme, they are less able to notice and name them on the way to the extreme. Through practices like emotion mapping, students become better attuned to their emotions, which leads to a greater likelihood that they will be able to regulate them. With regular practice, children become better able to recognize and name a challenging feeling which, in turn, helps to reduce its impact and build resilience.

Tips for Teaching Mindfulness of Emotions

  • Invite: As always, use invitational language when introducing mindfulness activities to students.
  • Begin with the brain: I like to start mindfulness-of-emotion activities with a brief lesson on mindfulness and its impact on the brain. It gives students agency through helping them understand how their minds work and it creates a context for activities to come.
  • Teach as content: It’s helpful to think of emotions and social emotional awareness as content and skills you can teach as you would anything else (explain, model, allow for practice, provide feedback).
  • Teach for transfer: The goal is for students to learn about and practice these strategies within your class setting and then use what they have learned in their daily lives.
  • Find teachable moments: Find opportunities throughout the day to return to concepts learned; i.e. when students are emotionally reactive, upset, anxious, etc.
  • Set boundaries and expectations: In the midst of some of these activities, students may show their vulnerability. It is important to begin these activities with clear expectations about care, compassion, empathy, and respecting the rights and feelings of others.
  • Be trauma-sensitive: For all students, and especially for students who have a history of chronic stress and/or trauma, it is important to offer flexibility. At the outset, offer opportunities to take breaks or stop activities altogether. Be sure to monitor for dysregulation and offer care and compassion to help students process their reactions.
  • Differentiate: As you would differentiate for any other learning opportunity, plan for mindfulness activities with diverse student needs in mind.
  • Integrate mindfulness practices into a culturally responsive, equity-minded, and anti-racist approach to teaching and learning: Mindfulness can act as a tool to help both teachers and students develop awareness and compassion so they are resourced to take action towards more justice and peace in the world.

Open Letter to Teachers: A Parent’s Perspective of Remote Learning

by Lisa Bush, reposted with permission from Purple Semicolon;

Let’s talk for a moment about my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Ms. X. 

No, that is not her real name, but I would like to protect her identity and “X” has a cool, mysterious sound to it. And Ms. X is very cool. She wears fun shoes and sings. During this remote learning journey, Ms. X has everything done perfectly. PERFECTLY.

She follows the Alberta Education Guidelines. She focuses on basic literacy and numeracy skills. She provides open-ended assignments that follow a clear pattern every week. She assigns a small number of assignments that are fun, hands-on, age appropriate, easily adaptable, and simple. She has one class meeting each week for 30 minutes. 

Easy peasy lemon squeezy as Ms. X (and now my daughter who adores Ms. X) says.

From an educator’s perspective, any family should be able to do Ms. X’s assignments.

Any. Family. At. All.

We cannot do them. On a good week we might turn in two assignments. Some weeks we don’t get any turned in. Sometimes we catch up over the weekend. Sometimes we don’t. From a pedagogical perspective, what would help this situation?

Should Ms. X be more entertaining? No. That is impossible. Her class meetings are better than Netflix. They are the highlight of our week. 

Should she be more organized? No. She is perfectly organized, even by my own high standards. I have very clear expectations of her assignments every week. 

Does she need to start flip-grid conversations or ask me to download interactive apps to engage my daughter further? No. That would send my anxiety skyrocketing and I would most likely shut down completely.

Should she send me emails about my kid’s missing assignments? No, that would anger me immensely.

Basically, there is nothing that Ms. X could do better.

selective focal photo of crayons in yellow box

You see, teachers, this is not on Ms. X, It’s on us. It is on me and my family.  And here is where we are. Husband: full-time job. Me: full-time assistant principal. 50+ hours of daycare for my children: gone. 

We do take education seriously. But it’s not our top priority. Our top priority is keeping our kids alive in a very literal sense. Also high on the list is to not do irreversible damage to our mental health and to do the jobs that pay our mortgage (especially critical during these times of economic chaos). And sometimes that is all I can do in  a day. 

So, some days—sure—we turn in my daughter’s journal entry. But most days my children roam the house like feral animals hiding cake under their bed, pulling the wooden boards off our backyard fence to make see-saws, and painting their eyelids pink as my husband and I teach and work online. 

I share this with you because I know that countless families are in similar or more complex situations than my own. 

I know that many of you are in similar or more complex situations than my own. 

So, if your students are not responding well to remote learning, please, please do not take it as a personal reflection of you. Your students love you. They miss you. But that doesn’t equate with them having the capability of turning in all, or any, of your assignments.

Please reach out to them. Check in to see if they are physically and mentally safe. 

But also know that, you are doing an amazing job. Your ability to adapt to this new reality has been nothing short of astounding. Resist the urge to judge your own worth as a teacher by how things are playing out now. And, please, do whatever it is that you need to keep yourself mentally safe and healthy. 

I thank you (and Ms. X) for all that you do.

Navigating At-Home Learning for Teachers of Young Children

by Brenda Stein Dzaldov, PhD & Ariella Segal, MEd, BSW

The jump to online learning has been quick all across the world, which has created a steep learning curve for teachers shifting to online learning, and for students and caregivers who are navigating this new reality — the reality of emergency teaching and learning.

As educators during a global pandemic, our first thoughts were, “Are our students and their families okay?” This very stressful time necessitates the need to check in on mental health and ensure that students and families have their basic needs met before they can start focusing on learning.

As online learning ramped up just a few weeks ago, educators were faced with a wide range of technical challenges: How do we get our students learning? Do our students have reliable access to technology? How can we get students and caregivers online? Can I find resources that they can “click on” that will keep them learning and working on meaningful activities? What are the best ways to teach online?

As different schools and different Boards of Education began using different tools (eg. phone calls, Zoom, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Learning Management Systems), educators started by contacting families and then sharing video links, free online learning spaces, and posted activities.  However, it quickly became apparent that assigning links, sharing vast amounts of content information, and hoping that the caregivers who are isolating with young children can support teaching and learning would require a new, more systematic approach.  These realizations guided the process: 

  • Parents and caregivers don’t have the knowledge, skills, and tools to step in as surrogate educators
  • Young children require a lot of step-by-step scaffolding in order to start the type of independent learning that is necessary in this new online learning environment

It takes years of training in pedagogy, content knowledge, psychology, and many other fields to become a teacher. Imagine if, suddenly, your accountant couldn’t support you in managing your investments and taxes anymore. Instead, you received a great link to a website that explained how to do these complex tasks, with the assumption that you could print and navigate the necessary forms and fill them out. We’re quite sure we wouldn’t suddenly be able to manage our investments and do our taxes with that type of information!

So, let’s take a step back. As teachers collect resources, check-in to see if students and families are okay, and share or post activities for students to complete (alone or with a caregiver), we need a lens for understanding this new reality from the perspectives of the learner, the caregiver, and the educator. Let’s widen our view and think about some big issues that need to be addressed so that online learning can start to be joyful and productive learning for our youngest students and their caregivers.

1) Navigating this new environment
Think about students entering the online environment in the same way as they would enter school on the first day.  Students need to find their classroom, figure out how to enter the room, where their belongings will be kept, where they will sit, and how to interact together in this classroom.  The same thinking needs to happen for this new virtual environment.

Spend some time orienting students and their caregivers to the new “classroom.” Teach students and their caregivers how to use any new technology or links and how to access resources that will regularly be shared with them, including worksheets, texts, and internet sites. Use step-by-step instruction or short videos to accomplish this.

Try to use familiar objects and replicate routines as often as possible in order to minimize disruption. In a virtual classroom, you could start each day with a familiar How Are You Feeling Today? chart. Whereas in their physical classroom, students might stick their names to the Emoji that best described their feelings for that day, in a virtual classroom, students would select and draw their Emoji for the day and then volunteer to share it with the class.

The consistency in a morning routine is an important anchor for students. This makes it clear that we are still there to learn together.

Example of “How Are You Feeling Today?” Chart and Activity.

(Creative Teaching Press, 2016)

2) Set up a home “learning station” with materials and resources

All young children need a learning station — a place where they sit down to learn online and where materials and resources are accessible to them. Caregivers will need help setting up this learning station, but once it’s set up, students will be able to work more independently. What will young children need in a learning station every day?

Create a short video tutorial to walk students through how to set up a home learning station. Provide a step-by-step checklist of all the “must-have” items that students could keep in their home learning station. Be flexible with expectations (eg. a bin for holding materials could be a tinfoil pan). Ask the children to send a picture of their learning stations as an exciting interaction. This approach empowers students to create their own home learning stations which makes necessary resources available while modelling how to do it in a fun, flexible way.

Must haves:

  • Alphabet chart to help with letter- sound recognition and letter formation
  • Number chart or number line to help with number recognition and number formation
  • Paper or cue cards for sight words
  • Pencils and erasers
  • Paper 
  • Colouring Tools (e.g. markers, coloured pencils, highlighters, crayons)
  • Scissors
  • Glue or tape

Nice to have:

  • Mini whiteboards and whiteboard markers
  • Magnetic letters or kinesthetic letters and numbers
  • A set of dice 
  • Sentence strips 
  • Access to a printer to print assigned sheets

3) Telling (or assigning) isn’t teaching 

As educators, we know that telling students to complete tasks or assigning activities is very different from teaching them.  Therefore, for every task we assign, we need to think about what is being taught, what is being learned, how the students will know they have been successful, what modelling will take place, how students will practice, and what the product will look like. (Stein Dzaldov, 2019).

Where possible, leverage additional technology capabilities to effectively model the work. Share your screen to walk through how to find the activity before asking students to attempt the work themselves.

4) Think about what elements of a lesson can be incorporated online

Just as teachers plan lessons for face-to-face teaching, designing a lesson for online learning will take some planning.  Let’s take the example of using a website with young children (eg. www.raz-kids.com).

Minds on: This site is called Raz-Kids, and you will have the opportunity to choose books that interest you and that you can read.

Learning goals: On this website, we are learning to find books that interest us and that we are able to read independently.

Success criteria:

  • I can choose an interesting book.
  • I can practice reading it. 
  • I can tell someone what it was about. 

Modelling: The teacher shares the website. The child watches or follows instructions as the teacher clicks on the link, navigates the website, thinks aloud about choosing a book, and practices reading it online. Then the teacher reflects on the reading (eg. “I chose a book that interested me, I could read it, and I know it was about different kinds of dogs.”).

Practice Time: The students are encouraged to do the activity alone or with a caregiver one time, and then to put together successes and questions they may still have.

Closure: What product do you expect from the child’s time on this website? Is it the amount of time spent? The number of tasks the child completed? Make sure the child and caregiver know what the expectations are and how accomplishments will be celebrated!

5) Share a simple lesson plan with parents or caregivers and incorporate prompts and question stems for parents and caregivers in your lesson outline

Use a different colour for prompts so that parents/caregivers will know what to access and how to support their child.  To make things as simple and easy as possible, hyperlink or attach all required resources directly into the lesson plan.

Sample of Lesson Plan

6) Assessment as learning is the most important assessment there will be right now

Although “assessment as learning” has often been viewed by educators of young children as a “nice to have” type of assessment, it is probably the most important type of assessment right now.  If students know what they are learning and what they need to know and be able to do to be successful, they can start to track their own learning.

Students need to be able to answer these questions when checking in on learning:

  • What am I learning about?
  • How will I know if I’ve been successful?
  • How did I do?

Lesson plans start with a learning goal, and a few succinct and specific success criteria that students can check off to self-assess their learning. To ensure that “Assessment as Learning” is achievable, it is crucial that the learning goals and success criteria are worded using level-appropriate language.

Sample of Lesson Plan with Success Criteria and Learning Goals

7) Check-ins are about mental health and LEARNING!

Many educators are being encouraged by their Boards to “check-in” with their students.  This is very important! Check-ins must start with care, kindness, and authentic concern about well being.

As well, as educators, we want to check in on learning.  Ask the child (or caregiver) to bring a product or artifact to the “meeting.”

Then, have a learning conversation as you praise the child authentically for their work:  

  • Tell me about this.
  • What did you learn?
  • Were you successful with this task?  How do you know?
  • You have done fantastic work on “X”!  

In this new teaching and learning environment, we will have challenges ahead, and we will continue adapting to make online schooling the best it can be for young students!  

Creative Teaching Press. (2016) How are You Feeling Today? Emoji Chart (5385). Retrieved at https://www.amazon.com/Creative-Teaching-Press-Chart-Feeling/dp/B01AXBF442.
Stein Dzaldov, B. (2019).  Inspiring Meaningful Learning:  Six steps to creating lessons that engage students in deep learning.  Pembroke Publishers. Markham.