Student wellbeing and learning spaces – is there a connection?

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As an adult, it is hard not to make comparisons between what school life was like for ourselves as children versus today’s students. I’m of a vintage where I still have vivid memories of the smell of freshly printed copies of worksheets (albeit, I was inhaling toxic spirit fumes that had lingered on our purple-printed papers, but that’s beside the point!). However, there are aspects of our school days that stay with us into adulthood, and beyond. Some good, some great, and even some that may be downright awful. One thing I don’t ever remember being taught about in primary school was the importance of my own emotional and psychological wellbeing. We certainly covered general physical health to some degree (e.g. exercise, nutrition), but I can’t recall anything extending beyond that, even in my high school years.

So, what has changed to make this become necessary today? Firstly, I am a huge advocate for explicit teaching and discussion about wellbeing. I am of the firm belief that children who feel secure, calm, (and ideally happy) are much better suited to be engaged in their learning versus children who are not. The current Victorian Curriculum has numerous links to student wellbeing, both physically and emotionally. Many include topics that we as teachers will be covering include things such as analysing our own emotions and how they can influence our decision making with friends and family. Many schools now have Wellbeing Programs in place, along with Wellbeing Staff members.

Concerns about our students’ mental health today is real. The statistics are alarming. The 2015 Australian report of The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents states that in Australia approximately one in every seven children and/or young person has experienced a mental health disorder in the last year. Rates for depression, self-harm and thoughts of suicide among teenagers is particularly worrying, with approximately one in ten indicating they have engaged in self-harming behaviour, with three quarters doing so in the past 12 months.

In a class of 30 grade 5/6 students I taught last week, we discussed the everyday pressures they face. Extra tuition outside of school, extra-curricular sporting/artistic/music/language classes, scholarship tutoring. In this Grade 5/6 class alone, we ran a survey and more than 70% of students had some kind of activity scheduled for every weekday after school. Furthermore, there was no child with less than three weekday outside-of-school commitments, whether that be before or after school care, sports, tutoring, or tuition. On top of that, the days they had off were often spent rushing around for their siblings’ activities. (As a parent of four kids, I know this feeling all too well – “Quick! We don’t want to be late!”, “Hurry up! It’s time to go!”).

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Our children today lead busy lives, which isn’t to say that we didn’t when we were children, but with the onslaught of constant online connectedness, I think we have failed to pass on the gift of being switched off and just being a kid. I am not trying to romanticise the olden days of my youth – there were plenty of times I would complain of being so bored with nothing to do! But, I had an opportunity to be bored, to not be rushed somewhere every day, to slow my pace and to just be. How many of our students today can say the same? 

With the Australian Government committed to provide strategies to focus on prevention and early intervention of mental health issues, it is no wonder that we now see it filtering into our curriculum. And although some of the statistics are for children who will have left the primary school system, I feel it is important that we equip them with knowledge and strategies (and even support services) before that point.

Since I am not a therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or the like, it is highly unlikely that I am going to be directly involved in the ongoing counselling of my students, other than to offer immediate crisis support if and when necessary. However, there are things that I can do to empower my students, and that is where learning spaces fit in. We are aware that children have different preferred learning styles, but they also have preferences for the spaces in which they learn. These spaces can vary from day to day, and from task to task. The important thing is to ensure you provide options. Allow students a little bit of independence to make responsible choices about where they are choosing to learn. Of course there are consequences if they misuse your trust, but a student who is already under pressure and possibly trying their hardest just to get through the day is going to be more inclined to do so when provided with an activity that matches their learning style along with a learning space that innately appeals to them. 

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As an educator, part of our role is getting to know and understand the children in our care. We need to be able to support them with guidance and boundaries in order to prepare them for the real world, but it is possible to do that while still honouring them as individuals. Offer spaces where they can learn somewhere other than at their desks. Provide tasks where they can choose how to convey their learning. Develop scaffolding so that working as part of a group doesn’t become the sole responsibility of one child. Plan for lessons that provide interaction with people within their community and beyond to broaden their understanding and their horizons. But most of all, create a safe, welcoming, and nurturing learning space where they can be themselves and where they will be supported while they learn the skills to look after themselves as well as others.

Happy teaching!

Practise what you preach!!

As educators, we are constantly asking our students to try new things, take risks, make mistakes, bounce back, and try again. And we do this for good reason. We know that growth is achieved through challenging and extending our learners. But, (there’s always a ‘but’), why do we so often find ourselves reluctant to do the same thing ourselves? We are educators and we know what steps need to be taken to achieve new skills and knowledge, but when it comes to putting it into practise for ourselves, somehow we suffer from stage fright and aren’t quite sure we can do what we are asked to. Why is it so uncomfortable to try new challenges and take risks ourselves when we are the cheerleaders for these growth mindsets in our own classrooms?

I have wondered whether this is because we are comfortable with the status quo and therefore don’t believe the reward (ie. new skills and knowledge) is worth the risk (ie. failure, embarrassment, time ‘wasted’)? However, even when the learning is connected to skills or knowledge that we want to master, we are often still reluctant to try something new.

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As adults, particularly as educators, we are accustomed to being the ones that guide or initiate the learning and challenges. We are not necessarily the one with all the answers, but we are certainly seen as the ones in charge. And it can be unsettling to loosen that grip on our own self-image and change from master to novice again. However, in order to continue our own development, it is crucial that we actually put into practise the learning behaviours that we preach as it is virtually impossible to achieve new growth following our old patterns. (There’s a reason there is a very famous quote about this phenomenon – you are not alone in being hesitant to take risks or trying something new. And neither are your students!)

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As an educator who was recently involved in a lot of professional development, I have a newfound respect for our ability to continually challenge, upgrade, and sometimes totally reinvent ourselves. That isn’t to say that the process was always easy (spoiler alert – it wasn’t!). But, it was absolutely worth it. I didn’t always master everything. I certainly didn’t always master things on the first go. I had to let my guard down, be prepared to enter the area so many of us avoid at all costs – a liminal space – unknown territory.

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However, just as we expect our students to evolve and attempt new challenges, we, too, need to be willing to do the same. As an educator, when it is our turn to try something new and your inner voice starts to whisper words of self-doubt and express a fears of failure, this is your chance to put on your best teacher voice and be your own best support. What would you say to your students if they shared the same worries and concerns with you? You would tell them with confidence, patience, and belief that they should just have a try, that you would be there to support them, and that you knew that they would come out the other side having achieved some element of new learning.

So, when you are in the position to extend your own skills and knowledge, remember to be kind to yourself, but never sell yourself short. Flip the knee-jerk panic reaction that you may be personally experiencing and treat it as if it was coming from one of your students. Be supportive of your own learning, lean on those around you who can guide you, and just have a go. You may just amaze yourself with what you are capable of.

Happy teaching!

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Footpath philosopher

Isn’t it funny how words can sometimes have new meaning based on your own recent experiences?

Yesterday, while enjoying the springtime sunshine in Melbourne, I came across some graffiti. I know – not that uncommon. However, I realised as I walked past the series of words left strategically positioned along the footpath that each word resonated differently with me that day than they would have previously.

The first words I came across were these:

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Now, this could mean many different things for different people. However, for me, it was reinforcing the change that has occurred in my own thought patterns. Over the past year, I have spent many hours having my interpretations and perceptions of things challenged, enhanced and transformed. Without this change, my preconceived “understandings” would have continued to limit the choices I felt I was capable of making, particularly in regards to what I could offer as an educator. I have learned to embrace the wonder in the unknown, the beauty in taking risks and the enormous benefits of making mistakes and reflecting on these for an enhanced learning experience.

It also seemed relevant due to my recently broadened perspective on what one person’s role as an educator may be able to contribute on a scale much bigger than a classroom teacher. Investigating the Syrian refugee crisis highlighted to me the importance of education on a global scale, but it also freed my thinking beyond that of purely academic learning for any student, whether they be in a refugee camp in Za’atari or in a classroom in suburban Australia. For me, “Free Your Mind” was reinforcing that sometimes we need to let go of old beliefs in order to experience insights into ourselves that we never knew we could. As a teacher, I believe this is invaluable, as we have to remember to role model that we never stop learning either.

The next words I came across were:

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These two words – Freedom and Unity – written parallel, yet upside down from one another, seemed particularly relevant when considering my new understanding of the situation facing the world regarding the Syrian refugee crisis. In Australia, as with many non-European countries, it is easy to distract and distance ourselves from the issue as we largely don’t have to see or experience the desperation or distraught families trying to find their way amidst chaos and uncertainty. We see snippets of it on our morning or evening news, but we can then redirect our attention to our own busy lives. However, it struck me that the author of these words chose to put these two together in this fashion, for the more I have come to consider the plight of the largest crisis of displaced people since WWII, the more I see that “unity” can lead to “freedom”.

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When people unite, they can contribute and collaborate to become a stronger force in the effort to making positive change in all of their lives. When countries unite, we spread the load and try and avoid potential “burn out” (for want of a better term) on only neighbouring countries bearing the load of the 4 million refugees trying to escape Syria. When teachers unite, they can share their knowledge, skills and experiences in an effort to embrace a better educational program for our students. Through unity, we can work together towards establishing freedom, whether that be for the refugees or for the students within our classrooms.

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Perhaps freedom really comes from having unity to begin with, for if you are not restricted by having to challenge for your position in the world (or the classroom?), then perhaps you have freedom already?

The final word I came across was this:

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I like that this was posed as a question. After all, it is such a personal question that requires intimate reflection to try to respond. However, in light of the train-of-thought that I found myself on during my sunny midday walk, I felt that this word was asking me to consider what “life” would mean without those things? What sort of life am I expecting others to live if I am unable to free my mind beyond my own relatively narrow firsthand experiences of the world; if I am unable to practice unity within my classroom and as a citizen of the world; and if I am not able to recognise a person’s right to the basic freedoms of humanity that so many billions around the world are privileged to take for granted daily?

At the end of my walk, I finished feeling relieved. A strange response, perhaps, given the enormity of challenges that face the world today. However, I was relieved that I had had the experiences over the past year that have given me new perspectives and further insight into what I might be able to contribute as a teacher. Change often begins with one person. I may not be that person that will instigate the huge changes that are needed to fix anything, but what if one of my students are? If I can demonstrate and instil these understandings with my students as their teacher, then I believe I am giving them the opportunity to contribute to more than just their own futures, but perhaps to “the future” on a much broader scale.

Happy teaching.

ps – I should probably put this as a disclaimer in that I don’t support or condone graffiti. (However, I certainly am thankful for the timely appearance of these words).

Being on the precipice of change

Change. It does strange things to people. Some people thrive on change. They seek it out, deliberately trying to bring excitement, newness, adventure or difference to their day-to-day lives. Others avoid it at all costs. For some, even the smallest change can be enough to disturb their inner sense of self, their understanding of their world and/or their ability to cope or function, and as such, change is feared and avoided at all costs.

Whether we are able to cope with change or not, the irony is that change is one of the few constant things that joins us on our path throughout our lives. There are the obvious physical changes that we all go through as we age from newborn to adulthood. There are the intellectual changes that we progress through, some though formal learning and others through lessons of life. Then there are also the emotional changes that we experience, and some may argue that these are perhaps the most influential of all, particularly when it comes to how we perceive future changes.

Being on the threshold of change can be cause for emotional turmoil, particularly if you are unsure what that change is actually going to be, such as in the case of many of the Syrian refugees I have been studying lately. However, being on the threshold of a known change, whether a change by choice or by necessity, can also be cause for a similar response. Some people say it is the waiting, the not knowing, that is the worst. Preparing for the unknown. Very few people crave uncertainty. But, it is part of life. So, how do we help our students cope with it?

There are many variations of a popular quote, but ultimately I see this as a way of trying to intellectually remind ourselves to try and reduce the impact of our impulsive, emotional responses to liminal spaces.

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After studying just some of what the Syrian refugees in Za’atari are coping with, I would argue that sometimes it IS about what has happened to you. But, I would also agree that how you react matters as well. The most inspiring things about the Za’atari refugee camp was the ability whereby so many people displayed a commitment to overcoming their adversity and to making steps towards their inevitable changes becoming positive ones. This is no easy feat, especially given the dire state of affairs and limited resources at their disposal.

On a slightly different tangent, I have also seen the enormous challenges that my own son, who has autism, has had at times with change. With a great deal of guidance and tuition, he has learnt tools to help him cope with change. He has gotten particularly good at coping with the little, annoying changes that may not even bother many people, but they are ones that are significant enough to come up on his radar and disturb his emotional-balance at that moment. He is now able to reduce the emotional impact of these and concentrate on how he reacts instead. Not always, but a lot more than he used to be able to do.

However, one thing he still struggles with, as do so many others (whether they be on the autism spectrum or not), are the long, drawn-out changes. The ones where we aren’t sure what is actually going to happen. The ones with no definitive answer….yet. The liminal spaces filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. It is during these times that we often rely on our own inner voice to reassure us that we can get to the other side in one piece. For my son, that is when he needs others to become his inner voice to quiet his fears. For many Syrian refugees, I believe it is similar – they need citizens around the world to demonstrate that we will help alleviate their fears about the changes they are forced to face.

As an educator, perhaps how we approach change in our classrooms can help equip our students with some of the tools they will need now and in their futures. Liminal spaces, or being on the threshold of the unknown, offers an opportunity for a person to reflect and evaluate what is important to them and for them as they prepare to react and move forward. Perhaps if we encouraged our students to look inwards during times of uncertainty we could help guide their inner voice to react in a way that offers optimism and confidence. This would offer chances to highlight and remind students of past times when they were faced with, and coped with, change.

If we could assist students dealing with change to not view it as unavoidable, annoying part of life, but rather as an opportunity to learn about ourselves and our incredible abilities to transform (even without noticing), imagine how this might prepare them for the changes they will face throughout their futures?

Change is the essence

 

A mindmap for Za’atari’s future learning spaces

I found it useful to use a mind map to highlight areas that need to be considered and addressed whilst developing useful and meaningful learning spaces which respond to the educational and developmental needs of the children in Za’atari.

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A moment to reflect

For the last few months I have been fortunate enough to be involved with a group of enthusiastic educators whilst researching the place and contribution of learning spaces in education.

The research and learning that has taken place could not have been possible without the collective input of my peers. They have provided me with ideas, solutions, and motivation when at times I felt challenged. I can also wholeheartedly say that without the guidance, support and facilitation of one particular member and leader (thank you Adam Staples) none of this would have been possible.

Our research over the course of the last 4 weeks specifically has focussed on a topic that is not easy to digest – the Syrian refugee crisis. At many times, I found myself questioning the lack of humanity that people are capable of, and wondering what on earth I could do to make any improvements for such an enormous problem.

However, out of this I have come to develop a new sense of gratitude and inspiration. Gratitude for all of the unearned privileges I have been reminded that I have each and every day. But also extremely grateful to know that my children are going to be fortunate enough to be educated by the types of teachers I have come to know within this research group. The group of peers I have worked alongside are inspired, committed and passionate educators. They have approached each and every aspect of our research with determination and perseverance. They have inspired me with their ability to to create holistically-sound programs to meet each child’s educational and developmental needs.

As this experience together comes to a formal end, I am thankful for the changes they have afforded me, for I have a new outlook and perception of just what I can strive to achieve for myself and my students. And I am proud to know that the future of education within Australia (and beyond?) will be influenced by them.

Happy teaching.

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I am an educator. My hope for the children of Za’atari.

What can I do for a child

with innocence lost

whose young eyes have seen things they should not?

 

What can I do for a child

watching with a guarded stare

whose life has been changed, seemingly beyond repair?

 

What can I do for a child

filled with anger and fear

who no longer believes in dreams once held dear?

 

What can I do for a child

whose despair is shared by the faces they see

who begins to forget the child once filled with curiosity?

 

I am an educator

I strive to open minds and touch hearts

but we must transform these spaces so we can all take part.

 

I am an educator

I promise to show patience, kindness and empathy

in an effort to remind you that you are important to me.

 

I am an educator

I will offer you a safe space to learn and grow

where you can remember how to dream and strive for more.

 

I am an educator

I will encourage you to reflect and explore

so that you, too, can stretch beyond these limits that should not be your ‘norm’.

 

I am an educator

I will be here for you every step of the way

and we will work together for you to find hope again one day.

 

 

By Kayri Shanahan