School and Wellbeing

I’ve been in New Zealand for three weeks now and just finished up my second week of classes. I had originally planned on writing today about the observations I’ve made about NZ education during these first two weeks – now that I’ve gone to all of my classes at least twice; however, plans change when there’s a pandemic. 

I woke up this morning to lots of emails that all essentially said: The coronavirus is getting worse so we’re shutting down campus, moving classes online, and canceling study abroad programs, therefore, everyone needs to return home to the US as quickly as possible.

Honestly one of the worst ways to wake up.

I cried. I got mad. I went to class – because why get behind?

Now I’m trying to be patient, calm, and distract myself from checking for new emails every 30 seconds.

Crazy enough it wasn’t until talking to a barista at lunch that I realized that it wasn’t the virus itself that made me sad or mad or even scared.

I was sad because I’ve been waiting for years to study in New Zealand and now I finally get here and things are going well and I’m being told to come home. Then I got mad because I realized the situation here is actually far safer than traveling through multiple airports and returning to Atlanta where there have been far more reported cases of the virus then the 4 contained cases in a different part of New Zealand from where I’m studying. (I’ve already written several emails to different people hoping to be allowed to stay since New Zealand is not the average country at the moment.) Then I got concerned with how it’s going to affect my education.

I started wondering if I have to go back to the states will I be able to keep taking my NZ classes online; how will I be able to attend tutorials which count towards my overall average? I wondered, will this push my graduation back another semester? I wondered how my financial aid will be impacted – will I lose a full semester of funding from being here for these few weeks? Will my airfare home get covered? Will I be able to re-enroll in the fall even though I was supposed to be in NZ until November? Will school even be back in August or will classes still be online or will they just officially cancel classes? If my university decides they don’t think it’s better for me to stay here, can I stay anyway, or will my visa get terminated, or will classes then not transfer?

I say all of these questions in the past tense, but I suppose I’m still wondering them I’m just trying not to focus on them as much at the moment.

Right now I’m just thinking about how crazy it is to have such a strong feeling of knowing history is being made. These next coming days in front of us will be in history textbooks.

And furthermore, I’m thinking how it’s equally crazy that in this time of world crisis, my thoughts immediately think about how my schooling will be impacted over thinking about my actual health… Have I really become that drilled into the system? And it’s not just me. I’ve made friends with other exchange students here from all over the US and they’re starting to receive similar emails requesting study abroad students to come home. They too are wondering the same questions centered around how this will impact us getting our degrees.

I didn’t cry this morning because I was scared that the virus has reached a point that requires schools shutting down and students going home. I cried because of all the questions above making me immediately think about how stressful this situation is going to make my education. And I wasn’t alone… WHY???

Why do students think first about education over health?

Is this because our generation is still young and naive and therefore, doesn’t have the same sense of worry? Is it because the situation isn’t as bad here so we aren’t thinking about the implications as intensely? Is it because every professor keeps reminding us that this is not actually the most deadly disease currently being transmitted? Or could it be because our education system focuses on schooling above wellbeing so that’s what we’ve learned to focus on too?

Honestly, it’s probably a bit of all of the above, but it’s the last question that worries me the most. When I think about my k-12 schooling, I know that individual teachers might say “put your health first and we’ll be here for you,” but I’m not sure how much I really saw this mentality in action systematically.  Whether it be mental or physical illnesses, you never really got a break from school. I remember a kid who had a serious concussion during the year that was denied from exempting exams, despite still attaining the necessary A average in the class, but it was because their illness caused them to miss too many days of school. I remember kids leaving early, or for days, due to therapy, but they had to pick up packets of strenuous homework before they left. I remember being sick myself and wanting to skype into classes so I wouldn’t have to deal with the make-up work and the amount of catch up you have to play from just missing a few days for being sick.  – Granted, I acknowledge my own bias because I’m aware of how personally I can be overly anxious about this kind of thing, but I know I’m not the only one that stresses time off from being sick.

And now we have this virus that is causing schools to move to online and I just wonder, especially now – how do we remain aware of wellbeing in our education system?

Should we even be having classes still? I can really argue both ways.

Part of me immediately thinks, “Of course! It’s the middle of the semester and we’ve already done half the work it seems silly to stop doing school work now if we’re not actually sick. It would make me more annoyed to have to not count any of this semesters’ work and start over and get pushed back a semester, plus school can be a good distraction sometimes.”

However, on the other hand, I think about all the students who typically rely on school for food, housing, work-study, etc. The students having to all of a sudden rapidly relocate. The international students worrying about family members overseas. I think about the teachers now working from home and having to balance between watching their own kids since schools are closed while also trying to change their lesson plans to be compatible with online learning. Not to mention I can only imagine all of the challenges involved with being in an area that’s actually infected. And when I think about all of these challenges I seriously wonder if students and teachers are mentally healthy enough to be also worrying about tests and projects and watching online lectures right now.

There’s no “right” answer, everything has pros and cons. And I know everyone is trying the best they can to make appropriate decisions in this time of great uncertainty, but I  can’t stop wondering about this balance between school and wellbeing and how this current volatile situation could be a chance to reconsider our actions towards wellbeing during the typical school year.

Science tells us there are good stressors and bad stressors – stressors that motivate us to work harder and grow as scholars and those that hinder us and decrease our mental and physical capacity. How might we make sure school isn’t a bad stressor? It doesn’t need to be, but oftentimes I find that it is.

Personally, I’m trying really hard right now to not be overwhelmed with the thought of being forced to leave my exchange program early and all that entails. I don’t think I like the fact that I’m more concerned with my education than my health at the moment but at least it’s led me to interesting observations that are also serving as good distractions. And I wonder, how are we going to learn from this pandemic about the balance between school and wellbeing, and how are we going to utilize what we learn once it’s under control? 

 

 

 

With that, happy Friday the 13th… and almost Pi Day! Hope this weekend isn’t my last here in New Zealand.

iNACOL Recap/Takeaways

Last week involved dozens of hours of learning and networking with thought leaders around the country working towards transforming the education system. While I reflected each night of the conference, I also decided this week to put together a presentation of some of the biggest trends and takeaways I noticed from the conference. The intent of this presentation is so that I can share highlights from the conference with the rest of the Trailblazers Production Team since I was the only member able to attend; however, I thought I would also share it publically if anyone else was curious about the happenings at iNACOl (at least from the sessions I attended).

iNACOL Day 1: Questions to Ponder

Being able to attend events like iNACOL Symposium (as of today now known as Aurora Institute) really means a lot to me because it’s an opportunity to dive deep into the world of k-12 education – a world which I’ve been somewhat disconnected from since entering undergrad. It’s been amusing to me to see all of the surprised faces when people learn I’m a young learner that chose to attend this conference; my number one asked question of the day is, “So why are you here? Is it for a class or something…?” Yet to me what is surprising is the lack of young learners in attendance, especially since this particular conference has no registration fee for k-12 students. I have always said that my personal motivation in this field is driven by the belief that young learners should be at the forefront of education transformation. Students are the primary users of school, and every good design project will say you have to start with the users to talk with them, empathize with them, and build with them in order to actually create something that meets user needs and therefore will last.

Anyway, despite the lack of young learners, we had some great conversations today! I felt like my day was divided by three main conversations so I’ll focus my reflection on those three areas: professional development, research on online learning, and whole child development.

 

Professional Development:

In the realm of professional development, we mainly just discussed a lot of interesting questions several of us are having in regards to what effective PD looks like in innovative k-12 environments. Personally, I’m interested in the question, “How might we re-design teach training from the very beginning (i.e. undergrad teacher education)?” because if re-design teacher education then it should make the onboarding process for new teachers entering innovative learning environments much smoother. We didn’t really discuss this question in-depth today, but I enjoyed having the opportunity to work on framing this question since I have recently realized that it is a reoccurring theme in my pondering. We did however talk a lot about, “HMW measure/insure the impact of professional development on teacher growth?” I found this question particularly interesting because a lot of discussions in education have been focused around competency-based learning and how to measure/assess this style of learning. And theoretically, I see no reason why these same methodologies couldn’t be used to measure/assess teacher learning and growth. Why don’t we always practice what we preach? If we truly believe that teachers are learners too, doesn’t it make sense to provide them with frequent and specific feedback on their work? Some teachers might not yet be comfortable with the idea of receiving constant feedback on their work, but we can’t improve as individuals, schools, or larger communities without feedback. As one of our table group members said “It’s a wonderful place, your comfort zone, but nothing grows there.”

 

 

Research on Online Learning:

Moving on into the day, we discussed a lot about education research specifically within the context of online and blended learning. Today I learned that I don’t know very much about online or blended learning. I’ve taken a few online courses in the past, and I had mixed opinions about them, but that’s about my extent of knowledge in this area of education. I never realized how many different kinds of online learning systems that exist until today but apparently there are over eight based on what came up in our discussions. I don’t have a particular interest in this topic, but today was really the pre-conference day for iNACOL and since I was going to be here anyway, I decided to participate in a session and the only free session was about online and blended learning, thus that’s what I participated in. To be honest, I felt like there was a lot of information that went over my head. The session was designed based on past feedback from online teachers who requested more sessions specific to online/virtual/blended education; thus there were a lot of experts in the room talking about a lot of specific elements of research and practice.

While I didn’t have a lot of take aways today specific to online learning, I did appreciate the general focus on new education practices needing to be grounded in research. A big thing being pushed was that every change should be backed by research, and I think that’s an important idea because it proves people aren’t creating change just for the sake of it. There is a lot of thought and evidence behind decisions which helps make a very convincing case for change that goes beyond just, “Well the old system clearly doesn’t work.”

Something I also heard a lot of today was the idea of “researcher or practitioner.” This came up because our presenters were wanting to bridge this gap, noting that researchers really want to hear from practitioners what kind of research is actually needed in the field that way when research is conducted it can be of real use in the field. However, I wasn’t a big fan of the idea that we have to either be a researcher or a practitioner. Maybe it’s just the reality that we all tend to be one or the other, but I’d imagine it would be more interesting if we all did a little of both. I don’t see why k-12 practitioners can’t also be researchers. Sure timing might be challenging, but if a school could have adult learners both researching and practicing innovative teaching methods I can only imagine the sort of interesting insights that would come about.

 

 

Whole Child Development:

Finally, the end of my night included a great opening keynote given by Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizar with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The keynote was all about education needing to be whole child-focused which means focusing on 6 key aspects: physical health, mental health, social-emotional development, identity development, academic development, and cognitive development. One of my favorite things she said was, “When we’re most vulnerable is when learning takes place.” I was fortunate to have an overall pretty great high school experience with very supportive peers and mentors, but I also am very aware that this is not the case for many k-12 students. Dr. Stafford-Brizar showed word clouds about studies showing when students and teachers alike were asked to pick a word that comes to mind when they think of school they thought of things like stressed, frustrated, and overwhelmed. We know all too well that mental health is an extreme problem in education today, but we have to intentionally design time, space, and culture focused on supporting mental health in order for these issues to change. Dr. Stafford-Brizar made an analogy I loved and will probably now unintentionally butcher: “We don’t expect calculus to be learned in a morning meeting or an advisory session; we intentionally design class lessons to teach these skills. So why do we expect mental health to be learned without intentionally designing for it to be taught to students?” My big wonder though is how do we actually do this in practice? Dr. Stafford-Brizar suggests starting with the adults and making sure their mental health is addressed so that it permeates into the student body. But culture change is anything but easy. So how might we create a culture that’s comfortable with being uncomfortable and vulnerable? Starting with the adults seems like a great idea, but what does that really mean and look like in the start? There is no switch that will all of a sudden make everyone totally open to talking about personal struggles at school. I’ve seen examples of schools that do a really great job with mental health, but I still don’t feel like I have a good concept on how they got started. Or in some cases, I know that the school was founded with mental health as a key principle to the mission so there wasn’t the same cultural shift that has to happen in a preexisting environment trying to become more aware of mental health needs.

So overall I would describe day 1 as a day of thought provoking questions. I didn’t have any mind blowing, game changing takeaways, but sometimes it’s okay to just take away lots of questions because every question is an opportunity to learn.

 

 

Pictures from today:

Don’t Forget to be Awesome

Sometimes you have to remind people that they’re awesome. Furthermore, sometimes you have to remind people that they need to remind themselves that they’re awesome.

Today I made a girl yell out loud that she was awesome because who knows how the rest of her day was going but by the time she got to practice she was having some serious self-doubt going on. I don’t feel that self-doubt is something that just get’s better with age either because a similar situation came up with some Tech kids as we’ve begun our first week of school. There was a big conversation I more witnessed and listened than partook in literally after day 1 of school complete with yelling and tears that was essentially all about self-doubt with school, friends, and life in general.

It seems that mental health problems have started hitting kids younger and younger nowadays. I don’t know if the general pressures of life have really gotten that much more stressful or what it is, but I notice more and more kids of all ages doubting themselves daily. I know the feeling and admit it’s one thing to give advice and an entirely different thing to take even your own advice; there’s no simple fix so I’m not going to try to propose one at this point in time.

It’s just hard to see people constantly blaming themselves and not thinking they’re good enough. Since I’ve come to college it seems to just be a norm though, and now that I coach gymnastics more often, I’ve started noticing signs of self-doubt at even younger ages which is even harder to see.

I wish more was being done to combat this. I can’t help but feel the best place to make a difference would be in schools where kids spend the majority of their day-to-day lives. Yet the opposite seems to be happening. We’re always pushing kids to be perfect; to get a “perfect score” specifically. There’s nothing wrong with striving for greatness, but no matter how many teachers try to say “it’s okay to fail because we learn from our mistakes,” at the end of the day I never truly see this mindset in practice. I don’t think we ever will as long as we have grades, standardized tests, and college applications so heavily based on all of the numbers. How often do we just teach kids to love themselves the way they are and that striving for greatness is a personal mission to be the greatest “you” you can be for the world, not a competitive mission to be the best singular thing compared to everyone else?

The competitive nature that comes along with the numbers is inevitable and detrimental. Wheather intentional or not, kids end up comparing and competing in terms of grades. It always happens and it only makes it that much worse when someone slips up. It doesn’t feel good to be “beaten,” and this competitive nature, whether it means vying for valedictorian or messing around with friends about the little participation grades, until the foundational systematic approach to schooling is altered I don’t imagine mental health in society improving anytime soon.

Watch a 10-year-old beat herself up over forgetting two poses in a 3-minute long routine she learned in less than three hours and tell me that mental health isn’t an issue amongst young learners.