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.