Sunday, December 31, 2017

10 Steps to Better Self-care

Right about now many of us are thinking about including better self-care in our resolutions for the new year. Teachers, all of us, from those who teach K-12 to those of us in adult education, are known for donating our energy and personal time in order to give our students an enriched classroom experience. Self-care has never been easy for those of us who've chosen this field. But these days in Canadian settlement English programs--with the roll-out of Portfolio Based Language Assessment--good self-care has become even trickier and more elusive for many of us.

Below are ten ways that I attempt to arrive at the end of the work day or week feeling there is still some energy and time left for me, for my hobbies, for exercise, for family. These are things you may or may not already have thought of or made part of your life. Some of these tips relate to physical well-being, others to mental, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing. I hope you come away with at least one new idea to try in the new year and will take the time to use the comments section to share with us how you feel about this topic.

(1)  Reduce the cognitive load. Or rather, be mindful of where you and your students may be spending cognitive resources that you could free up via routines and wiser organization. Work smarter, not more.
    file folders on computer drive - very organized
  • Keep lists. We only have so much working memory. To feel less stressed throughout the day, I find it helpful to keep a written list of things I have to do. At school I maintain a tiny corner of the whiteboard for the things I need to remember, such as printing out my time sheet for my site supervisor or calling my dentist.
  • Keep well-organized files, both soft and hard. My day is easier and less stressful because I know exactly where everything is. If I need a resource on the topic of citizenship to use with a CLB 3/4 class, I know it's on my flash drive under Canada - Citizenship, which is in alphabetical order along with Canada -  Geography, Canada - Government, and Canada - History. In case you're not already annoyed at my having my ducks lined up in a way that would make Martha Stewart proud, I'll add that establishing a logical file naming convention is another thing I'm very glad I thought of at the beginning of my teaching career. For example, files to do with the ESL Literacy reader "Food from Home" are named Food from Home crossword, Food from Home word shapes, Food from Home activity pack, etc. This way they all end up together on the storage drive.
  • Use routines. Routines free up cognitive real estate for the content of the lesson, and this applies to both student and instructor. When students know what to expect, they can help you more easily. My students know that as soon as they enter the classroom after an absence, it's their job to check "the box" for the worksheets they missed. With routines like this one, the class can practically run itself, which means less stress for me than I would experience in a class where students were continually asking for direction.
woman sleeping - illustration(2)   Get your sleep. I am absolutely amazed at how much better I feel after going to bed early and getting those proverbial eight hours. I smile more. I let go of little annoyances more easily. I remember to breathe.

(3)   Nourish yourself. Stay hydrated and bring healthy meals and snacks every day. This has been a hard one for me, especially hydration. I've found ways to incentivize these new behaviours until they becomes habit:
  • Buy or upcycle a pretty water bottle; maybe even infuse some cucumber, lime, lemon or mint leaves in it. Most of my morning students nurse a little jam jar of green tea with goji berries all day long. They set a great example for me.
  • Buy or make an attractive lunch bag. I had to go online to find one I liked. I make up the first two or three lunches on the weekend and later mix in some leftovers or a Luvo organic frozen dinner for days when I've run out of homemade meals. If you think you don't have time to make healthy meals, let me tell you about grain bowls. I cook up a batch of brown rice or quinoa in my little rice cooker, then open and rinse a can of garbanzo beans, lentils, or other legume. These form the base of my grain bowl. From there I add in something crunchy, such as sunflower seeds, something green, such as seaweed or barely wilted baby spinach leaves. You might like to toss in a soft-boiled egg. Finally, add a dressing of your choice. I just mix up a tiny bit of sesame oil and vinegar. I divide this up into three lunch containers and...Bob's your uncle!
(4)   Guard your breaks. Take breaks away from clients and, if you're an introvert like me, away from colleagues, too. Retreat to a quiet room or close and lock your door. Don't stress out over being perceived as rude. Folks will get over it. If you have to, make a sign for the door that says, "I"m on a legally mandated break. Back at X:00." Do whatever restores you, whether that be deep breathing, cranking up some music, playing a game on your phone, whatever! I see too many of my colleagues spending their entire break and the first fifteen minutes after class trying to be their students' social worker.  That may work for them, but for me it would be a recipe for burnout.

(5)   Take a load off.
  • Follow Martine's Rule Number One. This one ties into 'routines' above.  Remember to delegate to students everything that can be handed off to them. If you didn't have time to make that wonderful graphic organizer, project an exemplar and pass out notebook paper. I did this recently when we needed a Venn Diagram graphic organizer. One student grabbed the tea tin off the hospitality station and started passing it around, as it was the perfect size for our two circles. Literacy students can make flashcards.
  • Strategically place quiet work. I was listening to a podcast from Jennifer Gonzalez / Cult of Pedagogy the other day on the topic of what she calls Grecian Urns. You have to listen to the podcast to find out how she arrived at the term. That's her name for an activity that takes up a lot of time and might be fun, but has no real educational value. She warns us away from them, of course. That being said, even she admits there can be times when you consciously choose to give students an activity that will get them out of your hair because, hey, you can't be ON all the time. This is the point where I admit to you that I embed a quiet activity in the lesson most days at 2:40. That's when my literacy learners and I are worn out. We've been working hard on listening, reading, writing and speaking. They need a break, and I need time to clean up the hospitality station. So that's the point in the day when I give them a puzzle. Yes, the puzzles have SOME value. But honestly? I need twenty minutes of quiet.
(6)   Wear sensible shoes and comfortable clothes. I know this is a hard one for my colleagues who like to wear high heels, but in the end you are going to have to decide which you value more: how you look or how your feet and back feel after hours of standing, walking, and stair-climbing. I find that I enjoy going to work more when I can spend my day dressed in clothes made from natural fibres that breathe and that are tailored to allow for easy movement. I am a big fan of Lagenlook. As for shoes, I've tried many brands and have found I can rely on Joseph Siebel and Blundstone for their comfort, support, and longevity.

(7)   Be authentic. It takes a lot less energy to be yourself than it does to wear a mask all day long.
Not very long ago, I was experiencing the emotional and physiological vagaries that accompany menopause. Because my students and I have an honest, real relationship in which I am a human being who happens to be the facilitator of their language learning and collaborator in shaping their curriculum, I was able to be candid with them regarding what was going on with me. During an especially difficult morning, I whispered to one of them, "I need to step out. Can you lead the lesson for five minutes?" I indicated to her what was going on. The transition was seamless. I knew I could trust the students to carry on without me. Because we are real with each other every day, this was no big deal. I also need to note that our way of being together also empowers my students to be their fullest selves. The student in whom I confided is a retired OB/GYN. I was honouring what she brings to our group--her expertise as a physician specializing in women's reproductive system--when I chose her to receive my whispered 'I need to step out' and my reason for needing to do so.

(8)   Work smarter, not longer. Weave in some Back-to-the-Well. Cut your marking time in half. Go materials-light at least some of the time (see also Dogme in ELT).  By following recommendations for the teaching of vocabulary or lexical chunks as outlined by Gianfranco Conti on his blog and in this week's blog post about a shift from focused to thorough processing, I believe you will end up making life easier on yourself while becoming a more effective language instructor.

(9)   Advocate for yourself and for your team. The number of signatures on this petition says to me that settlement English teachers in Canada are facing a crisis in their agencies and classrooms. If you are happy with Portfolio Based Language Assessment as it is being implemented at your workplace, then scroll on; number nine is not for you. If you are unhappy with what is happening, find a way to connect with others in your field. At the very least, get your head out of Canada and join a group such as the Facebook group Global Innovative Language Teachers, where trends and fads such as this one can be put into a wider context.

(10)   Protect your capacity for joy. If doing your job well and having a life outside of teaching have become mutually exclusive, it is time to re-evaluate. Life is too short to live it in such a way that you turn down play dates with children, don't ever walk in the woods, never find time for a day trip, no longer have time for hobbies. Decide now, before the new year begins, where you're going to draw the line. What will be your signal to yourself that enough is enough?

Done is better than perfect - illustrationWhen my lesson planning is corralled and self-care managed to the extent that I have time and energy for an evening class one or two nights a week, date nights with my partner, and blocks of unstructured down time throughout the week, I know I am achieving work-life balance. If not, that's when I know it's time to step back and see what's going awry.

How about you? Are you making resolutions to do with self-care in the new year? Do you have self-care strategies to share with me and with our peers in this field? We would love to hear.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Take a Break!

I'm drinking hot chocolate by the window. Kelly's Cafe is hopping. The juncoes, cardinals, tree sparrows, house sparrows, and even the odd song sparrow are enjoying my smorgasbord of finch seed mix, peanut splits, black-oil sunflower seed, suet, and the heated birdbath that never freezes over.

How are you spending this time when all the stores close and things are quiet and still? Do you have snow where you are? I would love to hear what you are up to.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

FREEBIE! Winter Break Wordless Picture Book

It's nice to have the webinar behind me. I can go back to what I enjoy most: illustrating and making learning materials! I spent today revamping a little 8-page wordless book about winter break that prints two-sided and folds in the middle for stapling. The whole book requires just 2 sheets of 8.5 by 11" paper. It uses only a tiny bit of colour ink and also prints well in grey scale. Some images were intentionally left as line drawings so that students may add the colour if they see fit. I keep a box of coloured pencils in my cabinet for those days when we just need a short break from the cognitive heavy lifting.  Colouring is also therapeutic for those experiencing PTSD. Margaret Margaritis and I have both observed students having better focus and lower affective filter during and after about 20 minutes of colouring.

As for the webinar, I suppose it went pretty well, but I have since thought of several things I'll do differently if we are invited to repeat somewhere. For one, I think we should have been more explicit in our directions. Teachers were to look at the graphic organizers and come up with specific ideas for how the initial collection activity could be a springboard to further study of one of the parts of speech. I've created a space on my Flipgrid where anyone curious about Back-to-the-Well or anyone who already believes in slowing down, turning fewer pages, and engaging learners more deeply can drop in with questions or ideas. Hey, if nothing else, just stop in to see how Flipgrid works! It's SO easy that even my seniors AND literacy learners can use it. There's nothing to register for, no email address required. Come on, you know you wanna. ;)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Nice to Meet You!

Instead of a blog post this week, I thought it would be nice to introduce myself to any of tonight's webinar attendees who visit the blog for the first time during or after the webinar. See you again next Sunday!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

I'm Starting a Newsletter

Don't worry, I don't want to clog up your inbox. Every time I publish a literacy activity pack, I email the site coordinators at certain centres where I know there are literacy teachers who rely on those resources quite a bit. Rather than trusting myself always to remember who likes to get which alerts, I thought it would be nice to have a monthly roundup, a simple summary of the topics I've written about on the blog during the prior month. I could also list any resources or activity packs that I published on the website for all to freely enjoy. If I've tweeted about anything I think would be of interest or value to others, I might include a little recap of that. What do you think?

If you would like to receive such a monthly summary, please click the link at the top of the sidebar. >

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Update on the pan-Canadian experiment:

I'm going to give the initiators of the pan-Canadian experiment in pseudo-pedagogy that is called Portfolio Based Language Assessment the benefit of the doubt and assume that they meant well in the beginning. By now, however, they realize that you cannot build a good house without first checking the soil on which you plan to build the foundation. If one doesn't have the time and money to first do lengthy, solid, peer-reviewed research and action research, then one should not undertake an initiative of this magnitude. As database designers and coders say, "Have no late errors." Measure twice, cut once. Follow best practices for bringing large change to large groups. Do your homework, ALL of it.

Some people are speaking truth to power. Some are speaking out about the disastrous impact this is having in many classrooms across Canada. They are doing things such as circulating petitions, contacting their MPs, exposing the weaknesses in presentations, and are attempting to quantify and qualify the impact of this experiment on teachers and learners via a national research project.