Letting In: The Art of Coming Out

June is identified as Pride month to commemorate the 1969 uprising at New York City’s Stonewall Inn, the historic protest against discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community. Tired of being beaten and mistreated, they came together to begin the demonstrations that gave birth to the Pride movement. We have come a long way in the past 50 years, but the recent proposal to have a Straight Pride in Boston reminds us of how much further we still have to go. The organizers of this event claim that “straight people are an oppressed majority” and need to fight for the right “to express pride in themselves without judgement and hate”. These folks could just be going for irony, but for the sake of argument, I’m going to examine this statement.stonewall-50-years

I identify as straight and I’m having a really hard time remembering the last time I had to come out to anyone. It might be because I have never had to. I have never had to worry about how my orientation might make a friend, my family, or my colleagues feel about me or think about me. I’ve never had to sit someone down and say, “I have something to tell you” and then worry that the words I am about to utter next will change everything between us. I am also fairly certain that no other straight person has had to come out, either. Why? Because every day is Straight Pride day. Straight couples hold hands, hug, or even kiss in public daily without being accused of flaunting their sexuality, without worrying if they will be verbally or physically assaulted. A wedding between a man and woman is celebrated without question and they can expect to be congratulated by onlookers and not held in contempt. And when they travel abroad for their honeymoon, they won’t have to worry if their marriage will be recognized. We straight folk enjoy heterosexual privilege that allows us to live and love freely without even thinking anything about it. Not so for my LGBTQ friends.needtotellyou

Many times I have been on the other side of “I have something to tell you” and it is always an intimate and beautiful experience. Sometimes what follows the phrase is something absolutely joyous – I’m in love, I’m getting married, we’re expecting; and sometimes it is something that requires sympathy and support – I have cancer, I’m getting a divorced, I’ve had a miscarriage. Whether happy or sad, the news that is being shared is an indication of love and trust. I am being let into the inner world of another and it is a great honour. It is especially so when what follows “I have something to tell you” is an expression of sexual orientation or gender identity. It is why I prefer the term “letting in” instead of “coming out”. Karamo Brown from “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy” once explained that coming out gives power to the other person to accept or deny while letting people in allows one to keep the power.

loveislove-2On the occasions that friends have let me into their LGBTQ world, I will admit to feeling emotional and conflicted. Emotional because they have shared this beautiful part of their identity with me, and conflicted because in their eyes is that flicker of worry and it pains me that I am part of the culture that creates that concern. It’s not right that the concern is there. It’s not right that we even have to have this conversation. It’s not right that even now, here in the Lower Mainland of Vancouver, hanging a rainbow flag to celebrate Pride month is met with opposition and hate.

So, to my LGBTQ friends and family, I am ever so grateful and honoured that you trusted me enough to let me into your inner world. And I promise you that I will continue to do what I can to make this a world where no one will ever have to come out again. Love is love, and love will always win. Happy Pride.

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The Happiness Bias

In my last post I wrote about some themes that emerged from a talk with 3 recent graduates at our Mental Health and Wellbeing Symposium. Today I want to elaborate on a critical point made by Daniel: it is important to experience all our emotions and to teach kids that feeling and expressing them is okay. He spoke about having the expectation to be happy and feeling ashamed when he cried. The message Daniel internalized when he was younger was that it was wrong to cry. Instead of feeling and expressing emotions such as sadness, fear, frustration, and anger, he learned to deny that he had them. He pasted a smile on his face and pretended to be happy because school taught him it was expected. Now that he is graduating and about to leave our system, he passionately implored the participants at the symposium to ensure we teach and allow our kids, especially in the younger grades, to feel and express the full range of emotions.okay-to-feel

Daniel’s plea to the educators in the room struck a chord with me and I have found myself reflecting on his words as I think about our schools, my private practice, and most recently while sitting in sessions at the Learning and Brain Conference in New York City. The theme of this year’s conference was “Schooling Social Brains” and featured speakers and sessions around the topics of social competence, social thinking, social emotional learning and social media for social wellbeing. Some of the speakers were authors of the programs that we often use in schools.

social-detective-1Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking Curriculum has been very influential in our district. She developed strategies to help her clients with autism understand the social world around them. It was her attempt to teach them how to make sense of the way neurotypical people thought and behaved. The book “You are a Social Detective” teaches children to use their eyes, ears, and brains to try and figure out what others are doing or going to do and what they might mean by their words and actions. She groups the words and actions of people into the categories of “expected” and “unexpected”. It is not unusual to hear a teacher tell a student (typical or not) that their behaviour is unexpected or tell a class that their behaviours need to be expected. But when I heard Michelle Garcia Winner speak, she said this – if you are using her Social Thinking Curriculum to modify behaviour, DON’T. She went on to say that it was never designed to try and change behaviour, only to help her clients understand it. She does not want us using it to try and control behaviour or feelings. Here’s the thing – people, all people, express their feelings in a number of ways. Of course, it’s not okay to yell or hit others when we’re frustrated, but we want to teach kids that our emotions just happen and that’s okay. We need to feel what we feel, it’s how we think and act on those feelings that we can control.

insideoutThe desire to control or abolish emotions is a theme that I have also seen in my private practice. In the past year, I have had many clients come to see me wanting to change the way they feel. You might be thinking that seems reasonable – you’re a counsellor, isn’t that what you do? Well yes, absolutely – I have been trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help client understand the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. The theory suggests that if we can identify and change the unhealthy thoughts, it can help with unhelpful feelings like anxiety. However, sometimes clients who come to see me have experienced an extremely upsetting event – a loved one dying, a sudden job loss, a devastating break-up. Some are therapy veterans and when asked what they are hoping counselling will help them with, they often say they want me to help them stop the emotions – they’d had therapy before and found it helpful to change the way they feel, could I help them with strategies that will stop the pain? Sadly, the answer is no. When something profoundly heart-breaking has just happened, it makes sense that we fall apart, that we cry, that we feel like our whole world has just collapsed. I can’t take away the pain, but I can help them process the thoughts and feelings that accompany an overwhelming loss. And I can also hold the space for them to cry, because if you can’t cry when someone you love has died, when can you? It seems to me our society has a bias towards happiness – that emotions other than joy are wrong, or that we are somehow doing something wrong and that’s why we are unhappy. I don’t think I’m the only one who recognizes this. The Disney movie Inside Out, tells us that we need to embrace all our emotions, even the painful ones, because even sadness has a role to play in our wellbeing.tacos

Which leads me back to the wisdom of Daniel’s words. He is absolutely right in stressing the importance of experiencing a full range of feelings and teaching kids that all emotions are okay. Another speaker at the conference, Dr. Marc Brackett, professor at the Yale Child Study Center, agrees and has developed the social emotional learning program, the RULER Approach, based on this concept. Life is an emotional rollercoaster, he told us. There will be ups and downs and some wicked loops and turns. We can’t get off – we need to hold on tight and experience all of it – and sometimes we’re going to fall apart and throw up. And that’s okay.

 

Creating Space for Student Voice

West Vancouver Schools recently held a Mental Health and Wellbeing Symposium to explore how we might best support and enhance social-emotional health in the context of schools. In addition to educators, parents and community partners such as Vancouver Coastal Health, Canadian Mental Health Association, and Child and Youth Mental Health came together for a day of learning and thoughtful discussion. But before we started working, we first needed to ground our conversations in the experience and voice of students. In preparing for the symposium, I had the pleasure of interviewing some recently and nearly graduated students about their school experience.  They then came and shared these thoughts with all of the participants. Despite attending different schools and having different experiences, six common themes emerged from their stories:

  1. notes macbook study conferenceHomework. There were some very strong words about the type and amount of homework they were assigned. They thought it was reasonable that there should be some homework, but as Lacey said, “I spent 6 hours of scheduled time in school already – it is unfair when school has to become your entire life!” Sometimes it seemed that the only purpose was to make them work harder and longer, not because they needed practice or to understand better. However, when it did make sense, they had no problem with it. Daniel spoke about one math teacher that was flexible with homework – the practice questions were suggested but optional if students felt like they had a good grasp of the concepts. This approach was very much appreciated and was meaningful to him, but it was a not a common practice. Instead the students spoke about feeling the pressure keep up, falling behind, and then being told to try harder. The homework piled up, seemed irrelevant, and got in the way of their passion for learning. They said it was demoralizing.
  2. Lack of Flexibility and Choice. Despite a recent focus on personalized learning, all three of the students expressed needing more flexibility and choice. They felt constrained in their areas of study, in the ways in which they were allowed to learn, and in the timing and pace of the learning. What saved Kayleigh from quitting was Inglewood’s flexibility in assessment methods, project-based learning, and self-paced scheduling. In the end, she graduated early, enrolled in post-secondary, and is now actually working for the school district as an education assistant. That is the power of choice!
  3. Expectations. Each of the students talked about the expectations that were placed on them. In addition to the expectation to achieve and the different expectations of eight high school teachers, they also spoke about the expectation to stay positive. Daniel specifically spoke about needing to suppress any expression of negative emotion and be happy. If he wasn’t happy, he felt like it was his fault and there was something wrong with him. This made my heart sink. It made me wonder if our use
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    of programs like Zones of Regulation is inadvertently giving kids the message that there’s something wrong with them. Zones of Regulation is great for teaching self-awareness, but we don’t want them to think that certain energy levels or emotions are “bad” or undesirable. Lately I’ve been struck by how there seems to be a “happiness bias” and it worries me when I hear teachers asking students to “get in the green zone”. Perhaps this is something I will explore in another blog post.

  4. A Need to Be Seen. The students spoke about needing to be seen and heard, and to be valued for who they are, not for what they achieve. Often they were asked about their work or lack of it, and not how they were doing. When depression and anxiety made it difficult to hand things in, the concern was often centered on how teachers could help them keep their grades up. Although the students intellectually knew their teachers cared, they didn’t feel it. “They asked about the work and not about you.”
  5. Relationships and Connections to Teachers. When there was a personal connection with their teachers, they then felt seen and heard. Each spoke about a teacher who took the time to get to know them, learned about what was going on in their lives, and made them feel safe to be themselves. When the students were in these classes, they felt no judgement; they knew that these teachers would not get frustrated with them when things at home interfered with homework, when depression or anxiety zapped all their energy, or when they were just too overwhelmed. They thrived with these teachers because they felt known as a person, and that’s what made the difference.three person doing hand gestures
  6. Community. According to these students the best classrooms were ones where they had a feeling of belonging. They talked about wanting positive environments that ensure everyone is included. The specific strategies they identified were: teacher assigned pairs and groups, daily check-in circles that gave opportunities to let others know what kind of day they were having, and teacher assigned seating. Interestingly, these were not just mentioned as elementary strategies – the students wanted them in their high school classes too.

What blew me away was how much the kids had to say and how directly they expressed their thoughts. It could have been intimidating to speak in front of 100 adults, yet they openly and boldly told us how we could make schools better. It is amazing what we can learn from our students if we just make space and take the time to listen.

Why is Getting Enough Quality Sleep Just a Dream?

Imagine yourself sitting in a warm room at a meeting or presentation, you are listening to the soothing sounds of the speaker’s voice, and suddenly you feel your head nod forward and you realize your eyelids have shut despite your best efforts to pay attention. Are-you-letting-sleep-deprivation-sabotage-your-awesomeness_EngagingLeader.com_Depositphotos_7814223_m (1)You snap your head to attention and sit up straight, only to feel your body relax and the weight of your eyelids betray you over and over again. As you dig your nails into your palm, pinch your arms, and stab yourself with your pen to stay awake, you tell yourself, yet again, that you have got to go to bed earlier and get more sleep.

But you don’t. Sure you might go to bed a little earlier that night, but it won’t be long before familiar habits take over and you find yourself working late, catching up on emails, or binge watching Netflix just to relax. You continue to stay up too late and wake up tired. You’re not alone.

Modern society glorifies busyness and getting things done – for years we’ve put hard work and success above sleep. We often brag about how little sleep we get and how much we get done. However, researchers and medical professionals are ringing

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the alarm bells: We need to wake up to the fact that not getting enough sleep is bad for us (see these National Post and CBC articles).  We now know is that a lack of sleep actually makes us less productive and impairs our memory, reflexes, and judgement. Adequate sleep is also related to improved outcomes of both physical and mental health. So what can we do about it?

Sleep Week

To bring awareness to our need for better sleep and promote healthier sleep habits, West Vancouver Schools will be celebrating Sleep Week from February 18th-22nd.

WVS-good-sleep copyEach day will focus on one sleep tip to encourage a change for better sleep (see the details here). Perhaps the one that might have the biggest impact is a shift in our use of electronics. Sure, it’s easy to say that the kids have to stay on top of their homework assignments, or that I have to make sure I check those emails from work, but did you know that the blue light emitted from screens interferes with the natural release of melatonin in our bodies? Try turning off the devices at least 1 hour before bed for a avantree-4-port-desktop-usb-charging-station-organizer-for-multiple-devices-home-family-docking-stan__51cl0jDvMfLweek and see how it changes your ability to sleep. If you just have to finish that assignment or report on your device, wear orange tinted glasses that filter out the blue light. Another small change that all individuals and families can make is to create a charging station away from the bedroom. I have been doing this for 6 months and the improvement in my sleep quality has been undeniable. I went back to using an old school clock radio for my alarm, and it has been amazing. Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl and Dr. Mark Lysyshyn will be giving us more information and suggestions in the March 12th DPAC event “Dreaming of Better Sleep for Your Family?” which is open to anyone who wants to learn more.

So starting next week, what changes are you going to try? Come celebrate Sleep Week with West Vancouver Schools and get a better night’s sleep to have a better day.

Rising to the One Word Challenge in 2019

I know that some of you are thinking, “‘instant pot’ is two words…” As much as I love my Instant Pot, the word that is going to help guide my thinking and being for 2019 is “patience” (but see how I managed to get the Instant Pot in there ;)).

This is the first year that I am engaging in the one word challenge. Many others, including Superintendent Kennedy, have been selecting a word to provide a year’s worth of clarity and focus for some time now. I’m late to the party again. With so much I want to change about myself, my practice, my situation; finding one word to sustain the focus of my improvement seemed impossible. But, this year (finally), it hit me – patience!

I have always been the sort of person who looks ahead – wanting things to be better, forroadblock me, for others, and right now. However, it can often be frustrating that change happens slower than I’d like. Sometimes it seems that the world is a cold and difficult place with nothing but roadblocks and obstacles in my way and the way of progress. Why are we still talking about climate change? Why is there still so much injustice in the world? Why am I still struggling with managing my time, making ends meet, and life decisions? Shouldn’t I, we, be so much further ahead?

But the reality is, we have made progress. In my life time alone we have witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, people living in space, and the invention of handheld computers apple applications apps cell phonecalled smartphones that connect us in ways unimaginable (if you don’t think this is such a big deal, watch this YouTube video of two 17-year-olds try and use the rotary telephone of my youth). Our schools now demonstrate a greater awareness of diversity and our practices are more inclusive and accepting. Yes, we still need to improve, but we’re doing just fine.

And I’m doing just fine too. Yes, there are things I’d like to change but there’s no need to try and rush through to get there faster. Things will unfold as they need to, and some things will take the time they do. So, for 2019, it will be the word patience that will ground my practice and existence.

 

 

Looking Back So We Can Look Forward

New Year’s Eve is the traditional time to reflect back on the year that was and then resolve to make changes for the year ahead. In education we tend to do this also in June and September to mark the end and start of the new school year. However, as we say goodbye to 2018, it’s a good time to look back at what lessons we’ve learned. Here are a few of my own.

Goodbye Fitbit, Hello Clock Radio!

After wearing a Fitbit for over a year, one thing I noticed was that unlike most people, I moved less instead of more. I became less fit! I found that I was paying attention to the Fitbit to tell me whether or not I was moving enough instead of listening to my body. Since taking it off, I am more conscious of when I am low in energy, when my body feels sluggish, and when I need to run to relieve the tension I am carrying. Without the Fitbit, I am far more mindful of how my body feels and respond to that instead of what it says on an app.

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In 2018, our Comprehensive School Health Committee identified sleep as the health issue that we would tackle in 2019. Report after report indicated that our students are chronically under-slept. In fact, all of us are getting less sleep than we did even 10 years ago resulting in poorer physical and mental health outcomes. In our research, we discovered that one way to improve sleep was to keep the smartphone out of the bedroom. To test the theory and walk the talk, I moved my charger from beside my bed and replaced it with a clock radio. You know what? It’s true, my sleep has improved! I no longer am tempted to look at my phone if I wake in the middle of the night and I wake up more rested when the sounds of the radio come on (CBC Radio 1, actually).

The Instant Pot

Okay, I know this isn’t really education related, but holy cow – I love my Instant Pot! I duo-60had heard people rave about this appliance before, but only bought it because it was a good deal on Amazon Prime day. OMG, it is the appliance I didn’t know I needed! What does it do, you ask? What doesn’t it do? It sautés, it slow cooks, it pressure cooks, it makes yoghurt, and most importantly, it saves time. After putting dinner in the Instant Pot, I will often do a workout while it’s cooking. The Instant Pot has revolutionized the way I cook and what I cook – I use it 2 to 3 times per week and make things I would normally never even attempt (think restaurant quality cheesecake and dulce de leche). I think I have convinced at least a dozen or so people in the district to get one and jump on the Instant Pot bandwagon. It’s worth getting it just for the cheesecake alone!

Homophobia and Transphobia Are Still Alive and Well

On a more serious note, 2018 taught me that our work in SOGI is needed as much as ever. The lead up to the civic elections around the province saw an increase in homophobic and transphobic responses that were based on untruths, misinformation, and a lack of education. Recent conversations with friends and family outside of education have also highlighted for me that many people are still unaware of or even reject the existence of the discrimination and violence LGBTQ people are still facing. However, on the positive side, there has also been a more visible showing of those who support SOGI diversity as was evident by our large entry in the 2018 Pride Parade.

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Looking Forward to 2019

While I think resolutions are a bit overrated, the beginning of the new year is a good time to highlight changes that we want to see in the coming days. I’m looking forward to at least the following initiatives.

Sleep Week and District (North Shore) Wide Pyjama Day

As I mentioned above, the Comprehensive School Health Committee (made of community, school district, and DPAC members) identified improvement in sleep habits as our health target for this year. To bring awareness to the need to change habits, public schools in West Vancouver and North Vancouver will be participating in Sleep Week from February 18 to 22 in 2019. Each day, one tip for better sleep will be highlighted with the hope that all of us will change habits to increase the amount and quality of sleep we are getting. Watch for staff, students, and community members across the North Shore coming to school and work in their pyjamas to bring greater awareness to this campaign.

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West Van Run

We take Wellness seriously in West Van and one way we promote this is through promotion of the West Van Run http://www.westvanrun.com/. For the past few years several of us have committed to walking or running the 5K or 10K community race to promote physical fitness for staff and students. It’s a great reminder to keep moving and stay physically and mentally fit. However, self-care is more than just exercise and I’ll be writing more about how and why educators should engage in self-care practices.

SOGI and Pride 2019

I’m really looking forward to seeing more growth in the awareness and action around SOGI education. And really, it’s not the kids who need the educating – it’s the adults. photo of person holding multicolored heart decorAs Chris Kennedy pointed out in his recent blog post (https://cultureofyes.ca/2018/12/29/my-top-3-lists-for-2018/), SOGI isn’t much of an issue for students. Instead we need to continue working on enlightening the adults so that we might come to understand what the kids already know. However, I’m hopeful that we’ll catch up and that our 2019 entry in the Pride Parade will be even bigger than ever.

There are so many more things to look forward to in this new year. This is a great time to take stock of what we value and want to keep; let go of those things, ideas, and beliefs that no longer serve us; and make plans for what we want to change and grow. Happy New Year, everyone!

Learning Together, But Differently

The schools we have today are a far cry from the factory models that were designed to produce the workers needed during the industrial revolution. It’s no longer a “one size fits all” kind of place. For instance, our West Vancouver Schools have a variety of options that include more traditional programs like French Immersion and International Baccalaureate, as well as specific academies that draw specialized interests such as animation, baseball and fencing. Yes, that’s right, fencing! No longer do we stream boys into the industrial arts and girls into home economics – students are free to choose from a myriad of options that might suggest that there’s something for everyone.

bell-curve1However, the structure of school itself isn’t designed for everyone. Schools were designed to meet what might be considered the “normal” needs of most of the population. If we consider a normal distribution, the majority, or 68% of the  population, are in the middle (blue part) of the curve. For those who find themselves on the margins, school can be a difficult place to be. Consider those students who might have learning disabilities, those who might have difficult home lives, or those who might struggle with mental health – despite the increasing range of options available, schools are still designed to meet the needs of the middle and some students remain on the outsides.

There appears to be a growing narrative across the province that suggests an increasing number of students identified with special needs are arriving in our classrooms and there are many more who have needs that are not recognized by ministry designations. As well, the narrative goes, there are an increasing number of English Language Learners. But as I think about normal distributions, if the majority of the students in a classroom have diverse needs, then wouldn’t diversity actually BE the norm?  Perhaps we are struggling with trying to meet the diverse needs of our learners because the factory model of school no longer reflects the world in which we live.  If we want schools to exude the spirit of inclusion and embrace diversity, to be places where all students belong, feel welcome, and have meaningful learning experiences, then we need to make more changes.

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Let’s start by changing the language we use, beginning with “special” education. The title of special education perpetuates the idea of “otherness”. It suggests a medical model that identifies the student as flawed and in need of fixing.  Although our department is now called Student Support Services, we might consider just being called Student Services or even better, placed under the umbrella of Learning Services, supporting all teachers and students in teaching and learning. Removing the special education or student support label may help to remove that sense of difference and move differentiation from the margins to the center of educational practice.

inglewood1While we are rethinking special education, let’s rethink alternate education too. Inglewood Secondary is our newest West Vancouver high school from which students can graduate with a full Dogwood Diploma. The structure of Inglewood is designed around flexible scheduling and individualized learning in a smaller setting. Led by Head Teacher, Stefan Huskilson, the staff at Inglewood are passionate about creating a learning environment where the students feel like they belong and matter.

teagan1Recently, Stefan and Inglewood student, Teagan Hartwick, presented to our District Parent Advisory Committee. Teagan explained that the students at Inglewood are regular kids – they just need a different environment. She talked about how it didn’t work for her in the big school; she wasn’t attending and wanted to drop out. But being at Inglewood is different. She called Inglewood “home” and talked about working so hard that she could have graduated a year early.  In fact, she has now applied to university. And while she talked about how she used to be failing in the other setting, I think she got that part wrong. School was failing Teagan. And unfortunately, despite the different options, technology, and new programs, we still aren’t reaching every child.

We need to rethink how we do education. Let’s change our collective attitudes, beliefs, and practices to better include all our students and make them all feel like they belong. All of our kids deserve to have meaningful learning experiences and achieve high standards. Because in the end, it’s not alternate, it’s not special, it’s just education.