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Reflections on Well-Being in Ontario K-12 Education

By: Stefani Burosch

“Literacy is the ability to share our life story, by whatever means that we are able do that.”

– David Bouchard, Acclaimed Métis Author, Literacy Advocate and Member of the Order of Canada

I have been working in the field of mental health and well-being within the context of K-12 education for the better part of a decade now. Throughout this time, I have wrestled with big ideas about equity, well-being and academic achievement. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to hear Denise Dwyer, Assistant Deputy Minister, Indigenous Education and Well-Being, and Patrick Case, Assistant Deputy Minister, Educational Equity Secretariat in the Ontario Ministry of Education, affirming the inseparable nature of these conversations during the opening of the 2017 EdCanNetwork Symposium: Well-Being A Key to Success – Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Solutions for Students and Educators. Patrick opened the conference alongside of Denise by saying, “We stand up here together because you cannot talk about well-being without talking about equity. Equity is a necessary precondition of well-being.”

After attending an incredible two days of learning and dialogue, I was inspired by many of the speakers and participants to write this reflection.  But before I share my thoughts and a piece of my own story, I must paraphrase something that Cat Criger, Aboriginal Elder and Traditional Teacher and Mentor in Residence at OISE, University of Toronto, said during his opening blessing. I may have added my own interpretation to his words, in my effort to recall them accurately, but they went something like this,

“It is only right that we acknowledge our teachers and the ones who came before them. I qualify the person who taught me out of respect. I understand who they are and what they stand for. I acknowledge them as a prayer and as a beginning.”

We all stand on the shoulders of giants, those who came before us, throughout time immemorial. And so, I would like to acknowledge all of the great thinkers and teachers who have shaped, and continue to shape, my ideas and who I am as a person in this world. I think that at a certain point, when we start digging back far enough, we lose a connection to the names and identities of some of these original thinkers. Dr. Stuart Shanker talks about these ancient paradigms as the ‘cognitive blinders’ that govern our life experiences. And so I wish to acknowledge Cat’s words and recognize the critical importance of understanding the origins of the thinking that shapes our feelings, thoughts, assumptions and ways of being in the world. The journey of understanding who we truly are and where we come from is a crucial part of how we move forward toward reconciliation and hope.  

I am also reminded of the words of a dear colleague and friend who just so happens to be a Catholic Priest. He said, “human health and wellness are not solo activities.” Indeed, these are things that we undertake together as families, communities and as a society. They are connected to our sense of spirituality, place and purpose in the world. As we are very rapidly learning through recent advances in neuroscience, they are also inextricably linked to the very way that the human brain was evolved. These understandings have important implications for the work that we are doing to create a healthier, more just society for all.

So with all of that said, I offer a few personal reflections below in light of the incredible movement that is happening right now in Ontario education, toward ensuring that all students are supported to reach their highest potential.

For all intents and purposes, I could probably be considered a successful product of Ontario’s public education system. Beginning in elementary school and extending throughout my high school career, I got top grades, was successful at my chosen sports, won academic awards and was recognized for community service. I went on to postsecondary education, completed a graduate degree funded by a substantial national scholarship, and landed great jobs with relative ease right out of university. I own a house, pay my taxes, drive my own car, enjoy a reasonable level of financial security and I am productive in my work.

Despite all of this seeming success, whatever that means, it doesn’t change the fact that I lived the first 30 years of my life walking around feeling as though my heart was at imminent risk of beating its way right out of my chest. The insistent rhythmic thumping was a sort of beat that accompanied me wherever I went. Considering that I am not much past 30 years old, I have felt this way for almost my entire life.

Over the last several years, my personal journey to quiet the relentless storm of thoughts, feelings and emotions swirling turbulently within me, has led me to explore the activities that help me to find calmness and peace, those moments where I can be fully present, alive and connected to the world around me. I find this refuge in connecting with the animals in my life, namely my canine and equine family members, enjoying the silence and solitude of being fully present in the natural world, and increasingly so, finding joy in nurturing relationships in my life. A connection to a faith community and sense of spirituality throughout my educational experience and professional work, has been a huge support. Eating well, exercise, and paying attention to my sleep habits are hugely important. And yes, I have dabbled in yoga and mindfulness meditation which I have found personally helpful at various times over the last many years.

Even still, with all of the progress that I have made, I startle at loud or unfamiliar noises, feel the hot flush of blood rushing to my face at the slightest of embarrassments, and experience my mind going blank at the smallest perceived social threat. I sometimes wake in the night with an overwhelming sense of dread, feeling as though my very survival is at stake. On regular occasions, my body literally vibrates with fear related to a whole host of irrational worries, or tremors with uncontainable excitement about an awe inspiring idea. In these moments, it feels as if I need to crawl right out of my skin. I feel like a stranger in my own body.

I have worked in the mental health and well-being field for the better part of the last decade and have been a sort of student in this field of inquiry for arguably my whole life. I have been extremely fortunate to have had many formal and informal teachers and mentors, some of whom might not even realize who they are, who have challenged and inspired me to keep learning and approaching the world with a sense of wonder and curiosity. It has been with their guidance, whether they are aware of it not, that I have been able to slowly piece together my personal experience with anxiety and depression, and also come to an understanding of my personal story of resilience. In particular, my ever-expanding understanding of the dynamic and complex factors that impact individual, community and societal well-being, including the effects of intergenerational trauma, has informed my developing awareness.

I now have a better understanding of the impact of my ancestors’ life experiences on who I am in the world today. I am more aware of the fact that my father’s parents and their fathers’ before them served in the World Wars, and experienced immeasurable trauma and the pervasive grief that comes with losing so many family and friends to tragedy and injustice. The fact that growing up as an immigrant from Germany in a post-world war Canada, my father was reluctant to share his language and culture and mostly deflected the attempts of my sister and I to get him to teach us how to speak in his first tongue.

The fact that my mother’s family, also recent immigrants to Canada from Italy after the First World War, struggled with issues of abuse, mental illness and addiction. The fact that I grew up without any meaningful connection to either my mother’s or my father’s extended family, a raw wound in my life that I feel to this day.

The fact that I wailed almost inconsolably throughout my infancy, refusing to be put down, especially for sleep. The fact that my mother remembers that I rarely smiled or laughed as a baby and that to this day, she tells me that I, “need to stop being so serious.” The fact that there is no known cause for why, since early adulthood, my kidneys function at about fifty percent capacity despite my past and present efforts to be a relatively health conscious and active person.

The fact that I have always struggled to understand human connection and relationships. The seeming ease with which people meet and greet each other and engage with one another in exuberant conversations, seemed like a foreign language to me. Throughout my young life, I studied these interactions relentlessly. I often felt as though I were standing on the bank of a fast flowing river, unable to dip my toes in the social waters, fearful that I would be swept away if I tried to wade in. 

At larger social gatherings, I would, and still do, often find myself on the outside of conversations, unable to keep pace with the fast-moving dynamics of these lively discussions. Who’s talking now? What were they saying? Should I be paying attention to this conversation or to that conversation over there? These sorts of social experiences, while sometimes quite enjoyable, are nevertheless utterly exhausting and leave me in need of silence, solitude and rest. 

From the time that I could read, I took refuge in books. As I entered into my pre-teen years, I was particularly fascinated by stories about human cultures and the origins of humanity. I would read for hours and days on end, studying and trying to figure out how to be a person in the world. It was easier for me to feel at ease with the rich characters in the stories that I read than to try to navigate the complex social world that I found myself in every day at school. 

The first speech that I ever had to make was in Gr. 8. We were told by the teacher that we were required to present a one minute, impromptu talk in front of the class on a topic of our choosing. I remember the wave after wave of fear that I felt in anticipation of my turn to present. When it was finally time, I got up in front of the class, face hot, the familiar pounding of my heart now a deafening roar in my ears. My mouth was desert dry and my hands were instantly wet with perspiration. After about five words, I froze completely. Mouth open, eyes wide, mind blank and the crushing weight of impending doom heavy in my chest. I stood there for what seemed like an eternity before the teacher finally gave me permission to sit down. I was devastated. Not only did I fail the assignment, I felt like a complete failure as a human being. 

I avoided public speaking at all costs after that, only venturing forth once again, with all of the courage that I could muster, when I was forced to do oral presentations during my graduate degree. I don’t remember the first academic conference presentation that I gave other than the fact that it was ten minutes long, my legs shook uncontrollably the whole time, and I don’t remember a single thing that I said.

Throughout my childhood and young adult life, while I struggled in silence and determination to overcome a foe that I couldn’t identify or name, not one adult – not my parents, not my teachers, not my coaches – recognized or named what I was experiencing. In fact, they praised me for my hard work and my uncanny attention to detail. These compliments soothed my fragile sense of self and fueled an even bigger fire which spurred me on to strive harder, accomplish more, and push myself beyond all limits, often to the detriment of my mental and physical health. 

So why do I tell this story now? It has become increasingly clear that as a society, we are facing unprecedented levels of stress. Mental illness, loneliness, disconnection in communities and families and chronic disease are pulling our social fabric apart at the seams and devastating our health, educational and other social institutions. And while I truly believe that we have made great strides in the right direction, that Ontario schools and educators are doing incredible things, and that increasingly, people are coming together to talk about these ideas, we still have a very long way to go. 

What are the solutions, the balm to this societal malaise? Certainly access to culturally responsive, timely and high quality mental and physical health care is one piece of the puzzle. However, the picture is far bigger than that. We are living in a culture that creates many of the very ills that we are scrambling to treat with medications and expensive clinical programs. As Dean Shareski, educator, author and Community Manager for Discovery Education Canada asserts, “we do crappy things to kids and then we try to teach them how to deal with the crappy things that we do to them.” 

Certainly there will always be a percentage of our population who require highly specialized and intensive services to regain and maintain their health. We have a moral responsibility to these members of our community. But we also have a responsibility to think critically about the root causes of the widespread sickness that we see in society today. These causes lie in our collective colonial, industrial, and post-industrial experiences. The solutions then, lie in our collective commitment and determination to forge a new path – one that has human and ecological health and well-being at its core. 

Again, Dean Shareski’s words that he shared at the EdCanNetwork Symposium spoke to me,

“Joy is an expression of well-being. We need schools that foster childhood and that foster joy. This vision requires that we build communities up by connecting people to their most valuable resource which is each other. In these kinds of environments, learning becomes an effortless thing that we love and become immersed in. As we continue to pursue highly personalized learning, how do we continue to communicate that doing things together is powerful?”

A panel session including Dr. Kathy Short, Director of Ontario’s School Mental Health ASSIST, Dr. Katina Pollock, Director of Western University’s Centre for Educational Leadership, Vani Jain, Program Director at The McConnell Foundation’s WellAhead initiative, and Dr. Jean Clinton, Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University, articulated similar sentiments when asked about the moral imperative for education.

Dr. Short responded by saying that the question is not, “what is the moral imperative for education, but how do we get there?” Vani Jain spoke to the need for a revolution in education that addresses issues of power operating at different levels. Dr. Pollock discussed the need to move forward in a way that ensures that people stay engaged in the process. And Dr. Jean Clinton closed the session by championing the need for a Charter of Interdependence not independence. She connected this statement to First Nations’ beliefs that our children are the sacred ones and we all have a human drive to help and connect with each other. 

And so, as I share these thoughts, I feel that it is necessary to articulate my own stake in this conversation. My intent in sharing these reflections is not to focus on my personal story, but to amplify a vision for a kinder, more just, and sustainable world for all of us. My wish is to have a sense of purpose and meaning in my life connected to helping others to have the same, a sense of belonging to those that I love in my family and in my community, and a sense of hope for the future. And what is my hope? It is simply to live a purposeful life filled with peace, meaningful connections, inspiring ideas, and a deep reverence for all of creation. My greatest hope for humanity is that everyone else can experience the same. That’s it.

In the meantime, I will continue to work in service of others, in the ways that my unique gifts and talents allow me to do. I will continue to develop my own self-awareness and commit to learning as much as I can about how I can contribute to social and ecological justice for all. This journey involves developing a greater understanding of our colonial history and the struggle of Indigenous peoples around the world to resist the onslaught of the dominant culture, and to rebuild their health and communities in the very holistic, culturally embedded senses of these terms. 

I will continue to work on my ability to truly listen to the voices of others. And I will commit to improving my awareness of how I can use my own privilege to respectfully create space for the voices of those who all too often go unheard. For everyone working to create a better, more just world for the generations to come, I invite you to join me and the many others who are advocating for transformation, and perhaps even a revolution, in the way that we do education in the 21st century. Together, we can and must leverage this crucial tool to work toward human flourishing and ecological sustainability for all.

Having grown up with the Catholic Faith tradition, I would like to conclude this reflection by leaving you with a universal call to collective action from Pope Francis, spoken on the Sept 1st Day of Prayer for Creation. I hope that you find these words as inspiring and hopeful as I have, a call to care for our common home.

Stefani is a Registered Social Worker living in Peterborough, ON. In addition to her work with TMC, Stefani is the former Mental Health Lead of an Ontario Catholic District School Board, and currently a school social worker with Trillium Lakelands District School Board. She is also a contract faculty member with Fleming College in the Social Service Worker program and instructs courses in health promotion and trauma specific interventions. She writes about the intersection between Self-Reg and topics including mental health, leadership, cultural and spiritual perspectives.

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