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A Pedagogy of Kindness

Hello to all,

I recently rewrote my teaching philosophy and wanted to share this with you – this year I have decided to formalize the concept of kindness as I work through this challenging time with my students. It has been beyond helpful to rethink how I show up for my students in a time when so much has changed. I hope you can take something from it – and remember to also be kind to yourself as we work our way through this dark month – there is light ahead.

My teaching philosophy is grounded in a transformative approach. I do not want to ‘fill up’ my students with research and information, but rather, I wish to invite them on a co-created academic journey that allows them to explore learning in a way that is meaningful to them. I believe this is accomplished by encouraging voice, asking exploratory questions and acting as a guide and facilitator of learning as opposed to the all-knowing teacher. This concept of transformation applies not only to my students, but to myself as well; I welcome the idea of being transformed by my student’s thoughts and I encourage intellectual challenge and diverse perspectives in my classroom.

As I update my teaching philosophy we find ourselves in a global pandemic that has had a plethora of effects on education and student wellbeing. This current global situation has caused me to pause and reflect on how I show up and interact with my students on a daily basis, both virtually and in person. With these global changes, should come changes in teaching philosophies as well. This year, I have refocused my teaching philosophy to that of a pedagogy of kindness. Through this formalization of kindness, I have reset my intentions with students to encompass, at the core, relationship building and the co-creation of knowledge, trust and understanding.

I have been sitting with this idea of kindness and have come to the conclusion that no other tenants of my teaching philosophy can be quite as effective without this first piece in place. Developing trust, understanding and empathy are at the root of any transformative learning experience. One cannot truly dive into life-changing discovery without first having trust in their teacher. I believe that exploring kindness in the classroom is also intimately connected to critical pedagogies and the acceptance of difference. The many facets of one’s identity will shape their experience and performance in a course and I am cognizant of and celebrate this difference as a teacher.

A pedagogy of kindness manifests quite literally in all of my teaching practices and I always come back to it. I believe I can accomplish this through giving voice and really hearing students; how they learn, what they know and where they want to go with their learning. When learning is personalized, transformation and engagement are actualized. I often begin my courses with questions; questions that will guide how we learn through the course together and discover and apply fascinating concepts to our everyday lives.

I ask for frequent feedback and believe that assessment should involve a continuous process of learning and (un)learning certain biases and theoretical concepts together. I encourage my students to ask for feedback before the submission of an assignment so they can refine and submit their most critically reflective work. If a student is willing to work through drafts of an assignment, deep learning and engagement occurs and with deep learning comes academic success. When a student is not able to submit work on time, or is struggling through a personal issue or learning difficulty, I believe and support them and I come back to a pedagogy of kindness. I will work with them in whatever way they need to find success, especially this year.

I want to understand how my students learn because I care; I want my visual and kinesthetic learners and those with learning differences to feel there is instruction that meets their unique needs. I strive to create this differentiation in my lessons and lectures through a variety of teaching strategies. I choose to offer traditional lectures, small group break outs, one-on-one learning and hands-on, authentic experiences for my students. I also believe in the importance of providing students with the opportunity to co-construct lessons and lead their peers in learning communities.

My research expertise and practice are centered intimately around student health and wellbeing. As a physical educator and sociologist, I draw on critical pedagogies; feminist, intersectional and post-colonial theory to unpack embodied perspectives of wellbeing. My top priority is teaching from a place that honours difference and prioritizes my student’s wellbeing through these theoretical lenses. In a recent post I discussed the importance of self-actualization and how this concept is intertwined with student wellbeing. When students are inspired to create social change, solve big problems and embrace difference, they access citizenship and wellbeing simultaneously; purpose and being of service to others is also part of one’s own path to personal wellbeing. My teaching is centered around individualization in this regard; I want to connect with each of my students and understand the social causes that create meaning in their lives. When I discover this, I can then work with my students to explore the learning that will inform their next steps in the community and their lives. In this way, a single course may unfold in a myriad of ways for a diverse group of students. I believe it is in this place of individualized deep learning and self-actualization that magic can happen in a person’s academic journey.

Finally, I believe in the pure joy of learning. We can often go to a negative place when forced onto zoom classes in our current reality. At no other time has it been more important to find the simple joy in coming together as a community to explore complex concepts in inspiring ways and to learn more about ourselves as human beings; this very concept is why I am a lifelong learner myself. I believe in the hope and positivity that comes with continuously learning and discovering.  I like to laugh with my students in the classroom, I like to explore the outdoors in walking meetings and to discuss inspiring topics with inspiring people. I believe these simple concepts shape part of my deeper teaching philosophy. 

🙂

L.

Redefining Resilience in 2021: a response to pandemic burnout for Educators & Parents

Well Everyone,

We made it to 2021! Humankind has banned together (while staying apart) and experts have created a life-saving vaccine; there is much to be proud of. In the reality of our everyday, however, this pandemic is far from over, and people are still sick. For us educators and parents, it is time to dig deep while simultaneously protecting ourselves as we enter what is hopefully the final stretch of this dismal marathon.

A marathon is a good place to start this post; if you run long distances you may have felt that indescribable pain of ‘hitting the wall’ at a certain kilometre mark. It hurts, and it is the product of overexertion as your body starts to tell you to stop what it’s doing. The cumulative psychological toll of this pandemic is not so different from hitting the wall in a marathon; have you hit a psychological wall yet this year? If so, what did it feel like? By now, sadly, many of you will know when this happened. Enter the ‘stress cycle.’

The Stress Cycle – When the human body experiences prolonged stress, it has trouble completing the stress cycle. Here’s something new for me – a science explanation! Bare with me. When we encounter an outside stressor, say a new daily high of COVID case numbers or a student in crisis, our bodies may jump into ‘fight or flight’ mode; this evolutionary mechanism that causes our heart rates to spike, blood to flow to our extremities and the diversion of resources away from things like digestion.

These evolutionary traits were really convenient for running from those Saber tooth tigers in ancient times, but in today’s world, this mechanism doesn’t always serve us in the best ways. Why? Because in pre-historic days, you simply either fought or fled from the dangerous situation, and your body prepared you to be good at it. If you survived, you went back to your village, hugged your people, and the stress cycle ended – digestion continued, heart rate slowed, life continued, and you were all good.

Today, this is not so simple. Say you have an argument with a colleague and it kicks this ancient hormonal mechanism into gear. You can’t really jump across the table and give your colleague a swat as you may have back then. Instead, your stress response triggers, and then nothing really happens. You remain cordial and then go stew in your office afterward, stress hormones ablaze! You have not completed the stress cycle. If this becomes chronic, your body will start to feel it; your stomach may ache, your head may hurt and you might feel fuzzy. Over time, you get burnt out.

Burn out – So, if your fight or flight mechanism kicks in too often (because of constant stressors in your life) and you don’t complete the stress cycle, you have a lot of stress hormones kicking around in your body. The thing is, we can’t avoid the stressors; the stressors they will always be there, especially these days. We have to go inward.

In their book Burnout; The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Nagoski & Nagoski offer a refreshing take on tackling the stress cycle and avoiding burn out. While journalling and gratitude are invaluable practices, these women assert that you must approach the physical stress response with physical coping mechanisms. It makes sense. Here are some ways to break the cycle and get through these next few dark and stressful months.

  1. Exercise – Yep, as always, this is the best strategy for you to avoid burnout, it’s as simple as that. What isn’t always clear though, is that exercise can mean very different things to different people. Perhaps you run that marathon, or maybe all you can handle is a guided muscle relaxation in bed at night; both exercise, both capable of breaking the stress cycle by telling your body that it survived the stressful event. Bottom line, if the body goes into flight mode, then throw on your runners and let it fly, however that looks for you.
  2. Affection – Oh, this one is my favourite physical coping mechanisms. Kiss your partner for 6 full seconds, or hug them for 20 seconds. Affection and human connection alerts your body that you are safe and have survived a threat. Go hug someone in your bubble; it feels so good, and completes your stress cycle. Swoon, you guys!
  3. Breathing – A common, but powerful tool to get through hard times, it only takes 1.5 minutes per day to make a difference and tell your body, hey!, the Saber tooth isn’t on my tail anymore! Breathe in for 5, hold, exhale for 10, hold. It really makes a huge difference. Put it in your calendar.
  4. Laughter and positive social interaction – A big belly laugh is one of the most therapeutic things you can do for your stressed out body. Laughing and interacting with others, even over FaceTime or zoom can make a big difference because it reminds your brain that you are safe and in a world that is good and fun. We really need to remember and check in with these facts this year.

Let’s redefine Resilience in 2021 – Finally, let’s all agree that resilience does not mean coping through a prolonged stress cycle that never ends. This is not resilience, this is silliness, and it is bad for our health. The militaristic understanding that has come to define resilience in the past is making us sick and tired; science says so. If we do not have downtime to breathe, move, connect, feel, and recover, we will actually be less productive as humans. The very act of breaking the stress cycle and replenishing our reserves will help us to show up for our children, our students and our people. Please do these things for yourself as we head back to school – science says you will be better for it!

L.

Storytelling – raising awareness of IBD

Hi Everyone,

I am veering slightly off path for this post to honour and raise awareness for Crohns and Colitis Awareness Week (Dec 1 -7th). My husband Blair suffers from Crohns Disease (CD), a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) of the GI tract. It causes all sorts of symptoms, but is primarily associated with GI issues (using the bathroom A LOT) and the accompanying symptoms of weight loss, fatigue and malnutrition, to name a few. For this post, I want to contribute to the IBD community by telling my husbands story in hopes that this invisible and debilitating disease can be better understood.

In the summer of 2014, 4 months before the birth of our first child, I stumbled upon Blair writhing in pain in our spare bedroom. It was one of those moments that you can remember like it was yesterday. As a man, Blair is known for fighting through pain and sickness (a symptom of being conditioned as a stoic boy in our society), so the state he was in was really worrisome. I rushed him to the hospital, suspecting appendicitis.

When tests came back negative, we started into the very frustrating process of a CD diagnosis; more testing and more waiting. In that period of waiting, Blair lost 30 pounds. Eventually, after a couple of months, he came home upset and told me the news; again, another moment I feel I could live in right now. I was sitting on our small beige couch in our Toronto home and Blair was sitting across from me in his work clothes. I really had no idea what we were talking about – what was Crohn’s Disease? It sounded bad, and it was.

At this time, Blair worked a finance job in downtown Toronto and commuted to work during these first few hard years of learning to manage his IBD. This is when we really realized the invisibility of the disease; Blair would often ride the subway home at night, hunched over in pain in the crowded group, and no one would think to offer him a seat; how would they know?! It’s invisible. When I was pregnant, someone always offered me their seat on the subway, and I didn’t really need it.

Over the next two years, Blair would go on and off many different drugs to try to manage his symptoms. The worst of the bunch for him was prednisone, which caused his face to swell up, his moods to yo-yo and his head to ache; and it really didn’t help his CD much in the end. As all of this was happening, Blair became a father. After the birth of our second child 2 years later, he was experiencing a flare up and had to leave the hospital room and sleep in the car as he was feeling so terrible. I didn’t mind, because I knew how bad it must have been to have to sleep in a car after the birth of your child. This was definitely a low point.

Thankfully, Blair’s employer at the time was one of those hard to come by sensitive Bay Street men, plus, his brother had CD. I remember Blair coming home saying his boss gave him a bear hug on a day when he wasn’t doing that well and shed a little tear for him. He also told him to go home and stay there as long as he needed. This display of male camaraderie and open emotion was special on multiple levels. I don’t think Blair’s boss would have had the same level of empathy or understanding had his own brother not suffered from the condition. This is why raising awareness is so important; this interaction could have been much different.

Unfortunately, not every employer has recognized Blair’s struggles with IBD, and it has contributed to some pretty stressful times for us as he has tried to navigate managing his CD and working a professional job. At our stage of life as young professionals, this is one of the most important reasons for raising awareness about IBD; to help employers understand how debilitating this condition can be. Trust me when I say, Blair wishes he could be productive at work every day during a flare up but it is humanly impossible at times, if only because he needs to spend most of the day in the bathroom. During the first week of school this year, Blair landed in the hospital because he lost so much fluid during a flare up and needed intravenous nutrition. Work wasn’t even something he could think about in these few days it lasted.

When our youngest child turned 1, we decided to leave the city and move to the Kawartha Lakes, where I am from. We would have the help of my mother, and live in the country, free from commuting on public transit and the hustle of Toronto living. Blair’s CD was not the primary driver of us choosing this different way of living, but it was definitely a factor in our decision-making process.

These past couple of years have been better for us. Blair has started taking an intravenous drug every 6 weeks that does a pretty good job of controlling his CD symptoms. The only issue is that it lowers his immunity considerably, so he can’t venture out too far in a global pandemic. Work-from-home options are actually really beneficial for people with IBD , though, and I hope those who have the good fortune to WFH get this option when the pandemic abates.

The silver lining of IBD might be the resilience and gratitude that comes with good health. When Blair is feeling really well, we are all grateful. Even our small children recognize when daddy is feeling good. CD adds layers to Blair’s identity and helps him to feel empathy for others on a level that many can’t understand. I will never pretend to understand what someone with IBD goes through, but I too have developed a new level of empathy for those living with chronic diseases. Please check in on someone you know with IBD; most of the time, they just need someone to listen.

Happy holidays and good health to all,

L.

Our path to personal wellbeing in 2020: Insights & offerings

Hello Everyone,

As the world shifts into what will inevitably be a challenging winter, I have been thinking a great deal about personal wellbeing and self-care for myself, my students, and my children. The advice we get from well-meaning health professionals is that maintaining our fitness and healthy eating practises is essential to our wellbeing in 2020. It is something we can control and it can provide some inner peace when the rest of the world is in chaos. While I agree with this, I believe the path is more complex than simply adopting these good practices.

I was inspired to write this post because of the pressure I have been feeling to maintain my pre-pandemic health practices when often I have just wanted to curl up on the couch with brownies and shut out the year 2020. I have begun to readjust my thinking surrounding fitness and have come to some personal conclusions I will share in this post. I will also offer some academic insights in hopes that this will help you (or your students) in some small way as you continue on your own journey to good health in these challenging times.

Fitness can serve you in different ways at different points in your life

Over the course of 2020, my fitness habits have fluctuated dramatically. In March, I was so wound up I developed an onerous fitness regime in an attempt to release some anxiety and come to grips with the uncertainty that was engulfing our lives. I am sure I’m not alone there. It wasn’t exactly within my health limits to do this much cardiovascular activity; my back and ankles were aching and I found the increased stress on my circulatory system wasn’t great because I was already in a fairly constant state of ‘fight or flight’. As time wore on and we all adjusted to a new normal, how I moved my body changed as well. I focused on Yoga and pilates and moving in a slower, more methodical way; perhaps I needed the centering. At another time, I did nothing at all; I just baked and put on 10 pounds.

What I found hard through all of this was releasing judgement of myself. I was yearning for a neutrality and an approach that revolved around curiosity as opposed to the discipline of my body. When I was sedentary for those few months, I felt I needed an answer as to why I was not vigorously exercising; ‘I must be too exhausted, parenting is all consuming, I need comfort food to cope, I’ll get back on track soon;” these were all statements that were on replay in my head. It was exhausting in an already exhausting year. I couldn’t help but think, why can’t I just be with what is?

The bigger picture behind self-monitoring the body

As a wellbeing research nerd, I inevitably turn to academia to find answers. There is a large body of research that revolves around this concept of monitoring the body and the subsequent negative self-talk that ensues. Grounded in neoliberal studies, researchers have found time and again that our need to self-regulate eating and fitness practices are intimately intertwined with neoliberal agendas to control the body; that is, powerful but invisible governmental practices that ask of citizens to take full responsibility for their own health (it makes healthcare less expensive that way). Neoliberal discourses place the individual under self-surveillance through draw[ing] on neoliberal notions of individualism that position the person as primarily responsible for changing their lifestyle via range of disciplinary measures and control techniques (Campos, 2004; Gard & Wright, 2001; Beausoleil, 2009) .

With this logic, I am unable to be curious about my own fitness (or lack-thereof) because I am constantly bombarded with messages that it is my duty to keep moving and keep eating well; popular culture reinforces this message and shows me what the ‘healthy’ woman should look like. The body I maintain and the practices I undertake are specific and gendered; slight, less body fat, a diet that promotes productivity and allows me to thrive at home and work. No where, in this narrative, have I thought about the joy of movement, the taste and pleasure of eating good food, or the way that fitness will serve me at different times in my life. Nowhere, have I evaluated the level of burn out experienced from a work-from-home lifestyle combined with rigorous fitness regimes, and there is something very wrong with this.

Applying this thinking to teenage wellbeing

This yo-yo fitness cycle I found myself in this year was eye opening in many ways. It took me back to my teenage years when body perception and awareness were at an all-time high and I suffered confidence issues. We know many of our young people have these feelings of self-doubt, and that self-monitoring really picks up in the teenage years. Friends, social media and advertising further reinforce the concept of individual responsibility to look a certain way; a narrow and constantly changing version of ‘health’ and beauty ranging from the ‘waif,’ made famous by Kate Moss in the ’90s, to the curvy shape of the infamous Kardashian sisters today. It’s hard to keep up and especially hard as our young people immerse themselves even deeper into their online worlds this year.

We can help our young people break this cycle by promoting the simple joys of movement and eating. We can encourage them to get outside and forest bath, to connect with what feels good and to give them vast choice in how they move their bodies. When joy and pleasure becomes the primary focus, a curiosity about how one moves emerges; a young person may find that they actually despise running but love skiing, that Paleo makes them feel weak, but plant-based gives them life; they will eat that brownie and savour it, without guilt and it will contribute to their overall wellbeing that day; burn-out culture will get called out because it doesn’t feel good to be productive ALL the time. You can see the dialogue shift in important and impactful ways that our youth desperately need for their wellbeing, especially this year.

Health and wellbeing are social justice issues

It is not lost on me that anything I have stated above is completely rooted in privilege; privilege to move my body in the ways I want to and for my society to allow that; the very good luck of having the time and resources to buy and prepare healthy food, to run, to stretch; the able-body to allow me to feel sore after I run and to bake and type this post; the space and proper ventilation in the places I live and work to not get repeatedly ill and continue to move.

I would be remiss here if I did not mention the staggering and heart-breaking statistics of COVID-19 deaths in 2020 and the connection to health; the CDC explicitly states that “long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.” Primarily, the social determinants of health (socioeconomic status, access to education, health care access, etc.) have played a major role in determining the victims of COVID-19; Black and Hispanic communities have been especially hard hit.

These groups, statistically, often live in ‘food deserts’ where access to healthy food exists far outside of the neighbourhood. The area where I taught in Toronto, for example, was a food desert, and families were forced to take several buses and a subway ride to find healthy and affordable food; a real risk in the current pandemic, in regular times, inconvenient and rarely doable. Counter this with the stress from working several jobs to try to pay the bills and lack of time for physical activity and healthy eating and the results have been devastating; we have all watched this unfold.

The path to our personal wellbeing is multifaceted, complex and steeped in circulating discourses about how we should live and behave in our bodies. Not everyone has the same access to be ‘well’ and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this heart-breaking fact on a devastating stage. As we work against competing ideals of health, I wish for you (and me) to make space, without judgement, to find joy and to find the practices that give you the most life. Fill your body with those things, then give to the communities that are trying to do the same. Approach your body with curiosity and gratitude for what it can do for you; marvel at what it can achieve and honour it.

Lessons Learned from Catharine Parr Traill on how to persevere as a woman

Please note that a version of the article appeared in the Star on Monday, Sept 28, 2020.

Navigating the Pandemic as a woman: Lessons Learned from Catherine Parr Traill

My family recently purchased the home of famous Canadian pioneer and author, Catharine Parr Traill. My fascination with “Katie” began the moment I saw the place. The giant maples told stories, as did the cozy house and the old iron fireplace that sits in the yard. We now boil maple syrup in that fireplace in the spring as she did. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has stolen from us nearly one million mothers, fathers and grandparents. I have channelled anxiety born of these times by reaching back to learn how others, such as Catharine, coped with such immense loss; the lessons offered and how resilience was practiced. 

My fascination with Catharine began when I learned about her unwavering commitment to writing. Letters she wrote home to Britain bristled with complaints about men who failed to fairly consider her writing. She faced misogyny at every turn while she wrote by candlelight as her family slept upstairs; this after another back-breaking day of the manual labour incumbent upon all women at the time. I remind myself of the challenges Catharine faced when, over 150 years later, there are still women wearing many hats. The life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg is instructive, with the many impactful feats she accomplished – all while a wife and mother – in tearing down misogynistic barriers for women that remain, tragically, so ingrained in our civil society. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women. Too many women have put their livelihoods and dreams on hold to care for their family in lockdown. A staggering percentage of women have lost work altogether in what has been called a ‘shecession’ (New York Times, May, 2020). Many women were forced to quit their jobs due to burnout caused by an inability to manage the impossible task of parenting, homeschooling, and working. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Catharine Parr Traill tell us that women occupy as complicated a space now as 150 years ago. Both women invite us to consider that female aspirations are important; not just to women, but to all of society, and for our next generation. They remind us women should always be afforded the right to have a choice in their pursuits; and that we have come this far on the shoulders of giants. 

So, how do women persevere when the world seems as dark and impossible? Again, we can turn to Catharine.

Catharine found beauty in the natural world and in the written word. She trained herself to become a gifted botanist and writer. She wrote through the raising, often alone, of nine children. She wrote when her house burned, the family relocated, her farm failed, and through the death of two children and her husband. She continued to write when she eventually settled in the Lakefield home, where I write this article.

Catharine openly expressed gratitude in her life. Gratitude in a time of hardship has been identified as one of the great coping mechanisms that helps to build resilience. We must afford ourselves permission to feel fear, anxiety, and sadness, as Catharine did, but we can add gratitude. Having a daily gratitude practice settles our physiological stress response, builds community and connection, and helps us to feel empathy (Harper, 2020). Catharine’s gratitude for new friends, the rugged Canadian wilderness, and her family, was a driving force in not just her success as a botanist and writer but in her survival. 

Autumn has always gifted me renewed energy. The air feels clean and carries with it a sense of new beginnings. I cuddle my children closer and I feel grateful. As I marvel at the riot of colour offered by the giant maples in Catharine’s yard, I feel her strength. I feel her determination, her optimism, and her sense of gratitude that reminds me of the wonderful, perpetual circle of regeneration and rebirth.

Special thanks to John Boyko and Tom Milburn for edits.