Supporting Learning and Educator Well-being through Challenging Times |

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Supporting Learning and Educator Well-being through Challenging Times

Monday, April 12, 2021 - 08:12

It is astounding to see all the innovative instructional, assessment and evaluation strategies educators have been providing to address the individual students’ needs in their classes, and ensuring meaningful learning opportunities for students on the face-to-face, virtual, and hybrid platforms this school year.

“Promoting the healthy development of all students, as well as enabling all students to reach their full potential, is a priority for educators across Ontario. Students’ health and well-being contribute to their ability to learn in all disciplines, including health and physical education, and that learning in turn contributes to their overall well-being.”1

There is no doubt that the learning experiences for students have always been at the forefront to ensure meaningful connections between what they already know and what they are learning in the curriculum. Whether it’s teaching Health and Physical Education with a mask and shield on, or delivering a synchronous lesson to students who are in their kitchen, living room, or one-bedroom apartment; educators are constantly pivoting to support and encourage their learners to apply their learning so that they can live healthy, active lives; even during a pandemic!

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges to students. Educators are taking steps to support their students’ well-being as many are still experiencing the impacts of schools being closed, physically distancing guidelines and isolation, and other unexpected changes to their lives. However, it is important to recognize the stress of this disrupted school year is affecting educators too. How are educators doing? How is their health and well-being prioritized? How can structures, practices, and time for self-care and reflection be put in place to support the mental health of educators?

In February, we had the opportunity to meet a group of secondary educators from Halton District School Board who are a part of the Health and Physical Education Department within the Board’s Virtual Secondary School. We originally connected with them for our Feature Friday on Ophea’s Instagram and Twitter platforms, to highlight how they have built a safe and supportive working environment; where they could collaborate, innovate, and connect to support their journey teaching Health and Physical Education online.

Creating a Safe Space

The Health and Physical Education Department of the Virtual Secondary School team included experienced educators who have been working with each other for several years, but also included educators who were new to the subject area, and educators who have never met anyone face-to-face. Andrew Male, the Health and Physical Education Department Head recognized the varying experiences, and knew that it was in his hands to take the steps to lead and support this team, as it was essential for everyone’s well-being during this challenging time.

Andrew shares, “We recognized the unique situation we were in, and bought into the ‘team’ aspect. We succeed if everyone in the Department succeeds. We created a shared Google Drive with general resources for Health and Physical Education, with course specific resources (e.g., PPL1/PPL2/PAF, etc.), and then with the actual resources that were being used in each individual teacher’s course (e.g., PPL1O - Andrew Male). This approach helped inspire those who had been teaching Physical Education for some time, as well as newcomers to the Department, and those unfamiliar with certain courses too. It was refreshing and promising that so many people were willing to buy-in to helping each other out as much as possible.” As a natural leader, Andrew wanted to build a partnership within his Department so that he could create a healthy and safe space that was welcoming to all. By maintaining consistent ways for the Department to promote connection and build relationships, an emotionally safe space was fostered for his team to explore, learn, succeed, and even make mistakes!

Building a Supportive Teaching and Learning Environment

Kaitlyn Andrews became a full time permanent teacher this year as a Virtual Secondary School teacher. “This year started out as the hardest year and the best year. I had to teach a course I had never heard of before with no prep because I was teaching another course as well. I have never taught virtually before this year. Without the constant support of this Department and the ideas shared, I would have been lost. With the group chat and shared drive for materials, I actually felt as if I could make it and do a good job. Then, when I had things come up and had to deal with hard situations with my students I knew I could lean on my Department for guidance and to feel like things would be ok. I have also developed more strategies to build relationships with students to the point that I have had students say how they wish every Department did what we did because they feel at home in our Health and Physical Education classes. So many students came into this class with bad experiences from the past with Health and Physical Education in school, after this last quad I had about 65% of my class saying they want to take H&PE next year because of the experience they had in this course for grade 9.”

Rishi Malhotra has several years of teaching experience in Business Studies, and teaching Health and Physical Education was new to him. “I finally got a chance to put my qualifications to use this year after several years of teaching Business. Learning that I’d be teaching online definitely threw me for a loop because I had no idea what online Health and Physical Education was supposed to look like. Luckily, I was placed into an amazing Department with colleagues who were welcoming and committed to working together to make this work for our students. Everyone celebrates each other’s victories, and regardless of each member’s individual teaching experience, every single person in the Department is humble and willing to learn and hear new ideas.”

The Art of Making Mistakes Together

We've all been there. The shift to teaching and learning online this year may not be something anyone had anticipated in their teaching career, but now it is the reality we are in. For those of us that consider ourselves experienced in the classroom we've learned that it isn't so much about not making mistakes, but instead it’s how you handle them. Nicole Rodrigues has been teaching for three years, and recognizes that there have been many challenges along the way, however having her colleagues by her side has helped her better understand how she can increase her own comfort level and skill in teaching Health and Physical Education online. “We are consistently asked ‘What does Health and Physical Education look like online?’ and quite frankly we were even asking that same question when the school year began. Right away we dove into this new world of teaching, particularly teaching Phys. Ed, as a TEAM. Each day we get better and better at answering that question through collaboration and building relationships. I actually haven’t even “physically met” a majority of our Department, but I feel like we have known each other for years. This is a group of people who just really want to grow and learn as educators while making this year as awesome as it can be for our students!”

Giving Ourselves a Break

Educators put in an incredible number of hours early in the morning, late at night, and during the weekend to ensure that their students are provided a wide range of opportunities to learn, practice, and demonstrate their skills and knowledge of the curriculum. We’ve learned from this team of educators that it is important to take the time to interact with and listen to one another as this is an opportunity for them to reflect on their own well-being.

Andrew and his Health and Physical Education Department team have set up weekly virtual check-ins to ensure that everyone knows that they are here to support each other. He shares, “Having these virtual check-ins allowed us to share our struggles and successes, learn from these experiences together, and support each other as we navigated teaching Health and Physical Education through this new platform. It also helped us a lot with our own mental health and well-being. The similar experiences we shared with each other while trying to build this virtual program helped us understand it wasn’t going to be the easiest and that there would be challenges along the way - it was ok if everything didn’t go exactly as planned initially, and we knew we had plenty of support if we needed any help or guidance. Most importantly, it helped us realize we could give ourselves a break and not put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect. We continue to learn from each other and get better every day, while providing a meaningful learning experience for our students.”

“This group we have is a special one. We connected right from the start and got on the same page in order to survive the start up. With learning new courses to learning a new platform, while teaching a double. If it wasn’t for this group, I would not have survived. They are always willing to do something to help anyone out. Cover a class, make health education lessons look fabulous on google slides, help with marking, sharing of ideas, and the sharing of scenarios/situations that have just occurred and helping to address them. I can’t thank this team enough for the collaboration and camaraderie that takes place here daily. Without these relationships carved out from the one wins!” Marjean Szura

“Teaching Health and Physical Education virtually brought a unique challenge with students having very different or limited resources. We worked as a team to find creative ways to teach a hands-on subject virtually. In our Department team, we each brought a unique skill set and worked collaboratively to build a great program and amazing friendships.” Jennifer Parrish

“What an amazing group of people in this Department! I had the honour of teaching with these fine people in quad 1 and it was an amazing journey! We consistently collaborated on everything and helped each other create lessons and activities. Meeting these amazing people has built up my confidence as a new teacher and I know that if I am ever stuck or need anything that I can reach out to anyone of them. I also love how we are able to connect and collaborate on other aspects of our job! Jen Parrish has become my mentor and I am so grateful for her! Even though my time with the Department was short, I still get to talk to them daily and feel a part of the community!” Alex Savva

It was a pleasure to connect and learn from this group. Working together, schools and communities can be powerful allies in motivating both students and educators to achieve their potential and lead healthy, active lives. While it is difficult to find bright spots in a pandemic, we are reminded to take some time to reflect on how we can build and strengthen caring relationships with our colleagues to cultivate an environment that supports both student and educator well-being.

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1Ontario Ministry of Education. (2019). The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8: Health and Physical Education (pg. 3). Retrieved from