Dropping the Ball

I always know when I’ve dropped one of the gajillion juggling balls that is my teaching job. It’s when my students’ faces have the kind of look a puppy has when it’s being blamed for something it didn’t do. They look at me all wide-eyed and wondering what just happened as they listen to me express frustration.

This frustration always happens when I temporarily forget what I know about what my students need. One time, at a moment when I was exhausted and distressed, I forgot that lecturing after 1:00pm is an utter waste of time, completely out of sync with students’ circadian rhythms.

At the time, I was so caught up in my determination to move forward on a project, that I completely ignored the signs that it was not a good time to do so.  But when I noticed those puppy-eyed looks, in the midst of my complaints about their inattention, I realized that something was wrong, and so I asked.

They reminded me that I was expecting them to focus on listening at a time when they’d normally be napping. I had forgotten that the schedule for that day had been moved forward an hour and that on any other day, they’d be on their yoga mats, listening to a recording of the sound of rain, while focusing on their breathing.

And, once again, embarrassed, I apologized.

Splotched on the tapestry that is my relationship with my students, are apologies of all kinds. Regrets for lapses in judgement, feelings of remorse for slips of anger, anguish over my inability to keep all those gajillion balls floating in sequence throughout my teaching day.

I wish I didn’t have those splotches. I wish I could always be mindful of what I say and do in my classroom. I wish I could always be attuned to my students’ energy.

But I know that would take superhuman effort of which I’m incapable.


What I am capable of is being aware of when I mess up, and then gathering the courage to clean up.

I clean up by apologizing, of course, and then by taking inventory of what I did and didn’t do leading up to the point when the balls were dropped.

Usually there’s a missed yoga class, a missed meditation session, many missed walks, and a long list of things to do on my desk.

As a teacher, I know that I’m never going to get to zero on my to-do list but I can certainly move up from zero on my well-being list.

I love that well-being is getting lots of buzz lately now that education reform has taken a turn away from standardization and toward the critical importance of emotions and relationships in learning.

We teachers have always known this but it’s nice to have the powers-that-be elevate its importance to being a core competency in the new curriculum.

I just wish the Ministry would realize that expecting teachers to be effective models for personal and social competency while we are experiencing stress due to the effects of 15 years of deep cuts to education funding, and while we are reeling from the turmoil of a massive system change, is asking for too much.

You would think the Ministry would know that, given the fact that personal and social competency is just another way of talking about relationships, it would be motivated to change its relationship with teachers.

It would be nice to have a healthier relationship with our government, a relationship in which there was a demonstration of respect for our professional expertise.

Instead, we teachers are not only regularly maligned in the media, but we also have gone to the Supreme Court of Canada to defend our constitutional rights.

What we have here in British Columbia is the ironic situation of a government rolling out a new curriculum that situates social and emotional well-being at the centre of learning while it simultaneously undermines teachers and underfunds public education.

I bet there’d be barely any dropped balls in my classroom if I had the kind of support and respect that teachers in Finland and other countries have. This is not to say that I don’t accept the responsibility to take care of myself so that I am prepared to take care of my students.

It’s just that the BC Liberals certainly don’t make that task any easier.

Having dropped the ball on public education in 2002, there is no indication that they have any intention of ever picking it up again, funding-by-photo-op in an election year notwithstanding.  

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to ignore that pile of marking on my desk while I take myself for a well-being walk on this beautiful Sunday.

Cellphones: Alice’s Looking Glass in the 21st century

alice looking glass

I’ve been haunted by the images in the videos taken in the classroom at Spring Valley High  while a police officer, called to the classroom because a student refused to give up a cellphone, is seen violently throwing the student around.  That the student had been recently placed in foster care made the event that more tragic. In one of the videos, one can see the back of the teacher who had supposedly called on the principal when the student refused to put her cellphone away. When the principal could not convince the student to give up her phone, the police officer was called.

The incident made international news on Monday, 26th October, a day after Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence released a study that revealed that 75% of students in Grades 9 – 12 felt either tired, stressed or bored at school.

Did the student who refused to give up her phone feel bored or stressed or was she just feeling lonely?

I had long been aware that students would use their cellphones when they felt bored but it had never occurred to me that they may also do so because they felt lonely. But loneliness was one of the reasons my students gave for why they use cellphones in the classroom when I asked them to respond to a totally unscientific survey I conducted after a classroom discussion about the Spring Valley incident.

Although there are many discussions within education about whether teachers should or should not allow students to use cellphones in the classroom, and despite there being a growing awareness of the connection between emotions and learning, what may be missing is a conversation about connections between students’ emotional experiences in the classroom and what could be called students’ addiction to their phones.

While some students told me that they use their phones to “look up” something or to check spelling or for calculations, many students told me that they use their phones as an escape out of the classroom when they’re feeling bored or lonely. As this student says:

I use my cell because even though it might not be allowed in my class, I get the urge to check it because I always think there might be a message from a friend. But sometimes I guess I’m so used to it, I just automatically assume that I need to use it. Sometimes when there’s nothing to do in class because I’ve done my work or my test, I’ll use it for entertainment or to seem like I’m not just sitting there with nothing to do.

Like when I go to French 10, I don’t really talk to a lot of the grade 10s and so I go on my phone to distract myself or to make it seem like others think I actually have a life. … I can’t live without a social life. I need people to converse with so I can have a better time in class or school itself.

So it appears that, apart from all the features normally advertised, a smartphone can also act like Alice’s Looking glass and transport students out of the classroom into another world, one where they have a social life and are not bored or lonely.

But why can’t classrooms be places from which students do not want to escape? Why can’t they be places of excitement and engagement, the way they look to a 5-year-old on the first day of kindergarten?

What is being revealed about what is happening in  high school classrooms when a police officer is called to discipline a student? Not because she had a gun, not because she was being violent, but simply because she refused to give up her cellphone, her escape route from boredom and loneliness.  

What will it take to create classrooms that students want to run to, not escape from, classrooms that are the entry into a world on the other side of the Looking Glass? 

Learning Environments


The latest buzzword in educational reform is “learning environments”.  These are, according to the OECD, places where constructive, self-regulated learning, that is  sensitive to context, is fostered. Critical to the success of learning in these spaces is that “learning professionals [should be] highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement” and that they should also “encourage well-organized co-operative learning.”

This all sounds really wonderful and very 21st century but as someone who has spent almost 3 decades creating learning environments that are socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually stimulating, I can assure you that teachers are going to need much more than a text and a workshop to successfully role- shift from being primarily deliverers of content and dispensers of discipline to being “attuned to learners’ motivations” while they structure learning environments in which learners are at the centre.

It will take much more  than just a cognitive decision to change a way of being in the classroom.

If teachers do not spend time getting to know themselves, truly, and if they’re not willing to look deep into the shadows of why they do the things they do, they will be incapable of  creating for students an emotionally safe space in which miscommunication and conflict that arises amongst students and between students and the teacher is managed in a way that preserves relationships.

When a classroom becomes de-centred, when a teacher is not in complete control of all interactions,  all kinds of wonderful things can and do happen but these can be easily overshadowed if the not-so-wonderful dimensions of relationships within the learning environment are not constructively managed.

Relationships are strengthened when they can withstand, and be strengthened by the fires of conflict.  But how is a teacher to know how to deal with conflict when in her traditional role of dispenser of discipline, punishment or banishment was the norm?

Central to the success of learning environments is that teachers should ‘care’ about students’ emotional well-being but caring is not always rainbows or fuzzy Care Bears  and Hallmark cards. Caring takes courage and honesty and trust and those are not deliverable by a point and click or an announcement of a policy change.

It is not enough to be an educated adult, motivated to create a caring classroom community/learning environment.

Nothing in my undergraduate studies in Anthropology, Sociology or Psychology or my post-graduate studies in Curriculum and Instruction prepared me to know how to meaningfully manage the dynamics and dimensions of classroom relationships between students and teachers and amongst students.

I am still not aware of any teacher-education programme that directly and specifically teaches teachers, in ways beyond reading and discussing a text,  how to develop and maintain and support relationships in the classroom.  Please let me know if you do!

In the absence of such a formal program, I have learned, mostly through direct experience,  how to create a learning environment in my classroom that supports and encourages relationships between students. It is these relationships that are critical and crucial to the health of a learning environment. They are the lifeblood, the ground, of the learning environment.  Just as any biological ecosystem depends on healthy relationships between all components of the ecosystem, social learning environments cannot succeed without healthy relationships among all human beings in that environment.

It is because of this that I structure my classroom/learning environment so that it is socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually challenging.