I began writing this series a year and a half ago to explore the many considerations we need to contemplate regarding the changes that will occur in the next decade and what our students will need to be successful in that time-frame and beyond. Access, happiness, mental well-being, reflection, patience, social-emotional learning, and mindset are just a smattering of the topics touched on throughout the series of The A, B, Cs (and X, Y, Zs) of the Class of 2030. And here we are at “X” to mark this spot in time. I’m not sure if I should take that as prophetic or ironic, most likely it is a bit of both.
This spot in time has seen many of the topics I have explored come into the limelight, and unfortunately not for good reasons. The pandemic and emergency remote learning have laid bare issues and faults in our system that has been even further scrutinized by the subsequent racially charged atrocities we have witnessed.
I read a tweet the other day where the author, Christie Nold, said this whole experience made her soul hurt. I completely concur. Part of me is still astounded at how deeply many aspects impacted me and how long it is taking to reconcile with those feelings. I honestly thought I was good until I talked about the onset of the closures when everything was still so uncertain, with a colleague and I couldn’t speak, I just broke down. The impact comes in waves that have become less frequent but are still very much there.
Our system was lacking in mental health supports prior to the pandemic and it is even more of a glaring problem now. Tom Ross reported for City News that as of March 18, 2020, there was a “Doubling overnight in contacts out to Kids Help phone in the last 24 to 48 hours,” and “More than 350 percent increase in people calling us or contacting us about COVID or coronavirus.” Kids Help Phone provides free confidential online and telephone counselling, and according to Ariana Kelland of CBC News, “it saw a 350 percent spike in service usage in mid- to late March. Even as restrictions begin to lift across Canada, the helpline is still seeing 112 percent more calls and texts than this time last year.” The Toronto Foundation, in its Better Toronto Coalition Brief #3 of April 30, 2020 “COVID-19 and the repercussions for mental health in Toronto” report, found that the pandemic is producing a mental health crisis in Canada and abroad, particularly lower-income households, who have had much bigger declines in mental health than higher-income households.
There is no need to discuss or argue, it’s patently obvious that things need to change. Now is the time to implement change. I recently enjoyed listening to a keynote called “Permission to Feel” by Marc Brackett, Director of Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, during Microsoft’s ConnectEd Conference. He said if we don’t have the skills to deal with our feelings, then we won’t reach our potential. Likewise, Mark Sparvell, award-winning educator and Education Leader with Microsoft Education, noted in his keynote that children can’t learn effectively if their emotional selves aren’t looked after. Social-emotional learning is more important than the content we teach because, without it, we don’t learn effectively and can’t attain our best. Centering on trauma-informed teaching, mental wellness and social-emotional learning must be the way forward. Promoting a supportive climate bears dividends – lower burn out rates, lower absence rates, better sleep, fewer mental health issues, these all translate into a huge cost-benefit – and I don’t just mean monetarily, I mean in human cost as well.
Supporting mental health and social-emotional learning is far from the only issue that needs to be appropriately addressed and supported: equity, access, assessment, and more all need serious consideration. For example, the Human Restoration Project, a non-profit aimed at restoring humanity to education and promoting progressive education shared some research around grades and assessment revealing that they are detrimental to student learning. Given the engagement issues during emergency remote learning the truth in this statement becomes quite apparent.
Here is yet another way to support students’ well-being and their social-emotional learning. Focus more on feedback instead of grades in order to improve intrinsic motivation which will lead more students to reach their potential.
No system is perfect, but the goal should always be to improve and right now, at this moment in time, after seeing clearly the conspicuous needs that should be addressed, now, is when we should be collaborating and prioritizing to make these issues a thing of the past and improve the way forward for all students.