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How K-12 schools have brought wellbeing to the front 2020

January 19, 2021

Wellbeing as a central concept has existed in different forms for centuries but the word itself has only been used as we know it today since the 1980's.

Back in the great influenza epidemic of 1918, the world was a very different place. The Great War had hardly ended when in came another wave of tragedy, forcing a huge disruption on an already weary and fragile society in so many countries. Several schools in the US were completely closed, but some key cities stayed open, arguing that the children were better off in the well-ventilated classrooms with health professionals on staff than they were at home in cramped living conditions. In the UK, most schools stayed open, citing the same reason. Schools were a refuge, and of course distance learning was just not an option in those days.

It is interesting in reading of the 1918 pandemic, that very little discussion is available around mental health and wellbeing because the infrastructure around public healthcare was yet to be fully developed (the UK Ministry of Health was founded in response to the 1918 pandemic), and though the collective social trauma of a pandemic hot on the heels of a ruinous world war must have been deep and damaging, these issues were just not as well understood as they are today.

While we can learn from the social, political, and medical response to the 1918 outbreak, for measures to protect mental health and wellbeing, we are starting from scratch. This is a defining moment, and once again, the commitment, dedication, and altruism of teachers have been nothing short of heroic. The situation has also presented us with an opportunity to learn and, perhaps, find a better way forward.

Finding the way forward

Policy coming down from UNICEF and the WHO has been very general in the area of mental and emotional wellbeing. The guidance issued worldwide in Autumn 2020 was about 95% focused on procedures like handwashing and physical distancing. On mental health, the advice was simply to allow learners to ask questions about the situation and to encourage them to be kind to each other.

That is something that most teaching professionals would have done intuitively anyway, and so it was left to national bodies to issue more specific guidance to schools. Again, the advice was sporadic and general. In systems like Germany, Spain, and the UK, there were huge patchwork alliances of charities and NGO's quickly forming partnerships with schools, and distributing free materials. In the US, the CDC issued simple guidance to teachers on "encouraging self-care". There was a generalized agreement in most national and supranational bodies that K12 learners should be supported with strategies to promote positive mental health, self-care, and resilience, but the details and implementation were left to the schools and, ultimately, the teachers. So how did the teachers meet the challenges?

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Making Wellbeing and mental health a priority

Jose Negrin of West Lea School in the UK recently said that "If I could share one piece of advice with school leaders, it would be that ...we should strongly focus on wellbeing. If someone is struggling with their wellbeing, they cannot learn – and the same applies to staff and their teaching".

Marcela Betancourt, of Gimnasio Moderno in Bogota Colombia, told us that her teachers could simply not focus on anything else before addressing the emotional wellbeing of her staff and learners. You can see the full discussion of their wellbeing strategy on our #NEOchats video here.

The expectations of homework, attainment, and assessment moved to a distant second place. Exams were cancelled in many countries (though not everyone was happy about it) and support for wellbeing came to the front. This report from 2017 across 10 European countries concluded that schools were not doing enough to promote positive mental health and wellbeing, but that this was largely down to provision and funding, and not a lack of awareness or commitment. In 2020, there was far more talk of mental health and wellbeing as the number one priority. Organizations like Young Minds, whose research showed that only 15% of K12 students in the UK felt there was enough support for mental health in their school, are calling loudly for change "beyond tomorrow". At this very moment, there is little disagreement that resilience, mental health, wellbeing and emotional literacy are number one priorities, but a great many of these voices are only talking about it in the short to mid-term, future as a response to the effects of the pandemic. There is an opportunity to galvanize this movement to shore up support for a permanent shift in this direction.

Wellbeing of learners in an online environment

Teachers got really creative here. Trying to take the classroom-based structure and just move it online does not work at the best of times. Try that during a pandemic and it is a recipe for disaster. Instead, the social networks lit up with teachers sharing ideas about making the experience more positive.

It was widely accepted that not only should we be making space in online learning environments to talk about how we feel, but also that it helped everyone for the teacher to contribute too. The sense of a shared journey and shared vulnerability is powerful.

Peer teaching was also stepped up, which strengthened the social dimension of online learning (and in general is something we should always be encouraging in any learning environment anyway). In the absence of grading papers and quizzes, constructive peer assessment also proved hugely beneficial in strengthening empathic bonds and promoting positive self-image.

Learners could take time out and switch off the camera, backchannel chat with the teacher without the stigma of being seen to do so, the expectation of "task completion" was switched for "task engagement". Project-based learning allowed pupils to engage in learning through outdoor activity or experimentation, nature walks, and craft projects with their families. In making sure that learning was less stressful, and more socio-emotionally rewarding, and the most learner-directed it could be, teachers put the mental health and wellbeing of the learners front and center. This gave learners a sense of control in an environment where everything else must have felt unpredictable and chaotic. What they also did, was give us a glimpse of what a new education paradigm might look like, and reminded us clearly that teachers have always been the backbone of a healthy and progressive society.

The altruism and service of teachers

When things go wrong in education, what does the discussion look like? When a country is underperforming on outcomes, or when a school is the subject of complaints in the community or a sub-par inspection report, where do people look to explain this situation?

Don't look at teachers. Teachers don't make the rules. We are not talking about classroom management here, but the structural aspects of what "success" looks like in learning, and how "capacity" is measured and reported. That's on the system itself and the culture which supports it. Through all of the changes in the education systems across the world, teachers remain constant. The political winds shift, qualifications come and go, and a deluge of initiatives pile up at the door of every classroom, adding strain to the simple, straightforward sanctity of a learning space. If you have to teach to a test or sculpt your environment to look good on an inspection sheet, you will find that neither of these things is requested or required by the learners themselves. It was only a matter of time before we mentioned Finland. Since the early '90s, Finland has been steadily building a new culture around education in which teachers are rightly praised and prized, empowered, and left to get on with what they do best. Inspections are replaced with mutual trust, and the wellbeing of both learner and learning guide is not an outcome, but a prerequisite. It takes time, but Finland has shown us the way forward. Take away the red tape, elevate the status and treatment of teachers to what they have always deserved, listen to the evidence and stay fluid to change, and embed wellbeing as a foundational prerequisite, without which learning will never lead to self-actualization. Teachers know all this already, and perhaps we need to get out of their way so they can get on with it.

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Transitioning back and building better

UNESCO are not alone in calling for mental health to be prioritized when learners return to face-to-face learning environments. As much as teachers try their very best to support learners in their home environments, the reality is inescapable. Home is not always a safe place for everyone, and being confined there for so long can have impacts that are not easy to see, measure or act upon. A self-report study in California found that about a third of high school pupils had experienced worsening mental health in 2020, but the true figure is likely to be much higher.

So where are we? The pandemic happened, and everything changed. We all agree that mental health and wellbeing should be fundamental prerequisites to effective learning, but surely we can look beyond this as a simple transition phase to settle back into "normality"?

How will we tell our learners that, once the dust settles, we are moving back to exam-based testing, grades, and school league tables? How will we return to social engagement managed by the teacher, project based learning only as episodic intervention, success measured in numbers and letters, and technology integrated flexible learning left on standby for the next emergency?

For a short while, we saw wellbeing and the feelings of our learners as the most important thing. We elevated teachers and shone on them the spotlight they always deserved. We made learning flexible and came up with ways to help create learning environments outdoors or through experiential projects. We let learners take control of their own pathway, engaging when they felt ready, and taking breaks when they needed to.

We are hopefully getting closer to the end of this period of intense disruption. As we dare to think about what comes next, imagine for a second that we had something better than before to look forward to? That is a story we could tell our children; that we built from the challenges, and dared to build back stronger and better, for the future and anything it might bring.

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