Dr. Erin Keith is a recently retired K-12 educator who spent her 16-year teaching career working to support students in the areas of special education, self-regulation, and mental health. She is currently an adjunct Assistant Professor at Western University, and a sessional instructor at several Canadian universities. Dr. Keith earned her Doctor of Education degree in Educational Leadership from Western University. Her teaching and research focus was in early childhood education, social-emotional and mental well-being, building school learning capacity through a collective, ethical responsibility of inclusion, and enhancing professional learning through a lens of authentic and shared leadership.
Here is TVO TeachOntario In Conversation with Dr. Erin Keith
Let's begin with your journey as an elementary teacher and later as a board-wide itinerant teacher for special needs, self-regulation, and behaviour. How did these experiences shape your beliefs related to belonging, inclusion, and student wellness?
When I began my career as a teacher, I had very little formal learning related to special education and student wellness. My teaching practice was primarily focused on students’ academic progress with little focus on personalized learning driven by students’ strengths and needs. But when my lessons began to flop, and student-engagement waned, I knew what I had previously understood needed some significant unlearning. This is when I sought my own professional growth.
I fully embraced my own learning by reading research by seminal authors including Dewey, Senge, Bronfenbrenner, Papert, Malaguzzi, Freire, and organizations advocating for children’s rights such as the UN and the OECD. I also completed the three-part Additional Qualification courses in Special Education and Kindergarten. With purposeful intent, I began to integrate my new learning into my teaching practice. Recognizing the value of being a reflective practitioner, I saw extraordinary gains year after year in my students’ in a much more holistic manner beyond academics.
What was the key that unlocked this shift? It truly was understanding the power of seeing each child as a strong, capable, and wonder-filled being who had as much to teach me as I had to teach them. This was definitely a new image of the child for me.
I realized that children bring their best selves to school each day. I also realized that, as a teacher, I have the privilege to walk alongside them, and am responsible to provide a kind, caring environment in the classroom.
I found a space of fluidity in my teaching practice that I had not experienced before. It was a space that granted me permission to be fully present, authentic, and flexible to the ebbs and flows of students’ learning. I was no longer the transmitter of knowledge. As Malaguzzi says, I saw myself as "the creator of relationships.” I began to value relationships with students, families, colleagues, and community members. As well, I began to value relationships with knowledge curation, creative thinking, and imagination.
What are the key issues that you have been amplifying in your work?
As an Itinerant teacher for over 10 years, I supported and coached colleagues on how best to walk alongside students with complex special needs. This includes students with Autism, developmental disabilities, and issues with self-regulation, behaviour and mental health. I witnessed the positive impact of an asset-driven team approach. In a wrap-around model of care, there are a variety of professionals working together to support students including child and youth workers, social workers, psychologists, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, and physiotherapists. The opportunity to partner with fellow professionals who are equity literate in their field of knowledge provides a community of support that strives to find solutions with the best interests of the child and family. Reframing our special education service model to include many voices creates a better space for everyone, including the student.
Another area to amplify is embedding trauma sensitive practices into our daily teaching. Students who may have experienced adversity in their pasts are more likely to have lower self-esteem, increased post-traumatic stress, and decreased academic outcomes. Trauma can take on many forms including violence, family trauma, refugee trauma, poverty, historical, gender, and racialized trauma (e.g., Indigenous communities, BiPOC, and LGBTQ2S+). Teachers need to be aware of triggers that their teaching may provoke. Teachers should prioritize creating a classroom community where there is space for courageous conversations, and it is essential that activities are inclusive and focused on the strengths of the communities.
What are the pedagogies and practices that you feel are most effective in supporting and reaching our students who may need wellness supports, especially due to the pandemic?
When the pandemic began in March, teachers across Ontario worked tirelessly to create responsive and inviting virtual learning spaces for their students. Unfortunately, these endeavours continue to be layered with issues such as inequities due to access, dated technology tools, and marginalization related to a lack of special education programming, cultural barriers, and unyielding systemic mandates. The very essence of what children need in order to learn was swiftly removed. It was replaced with a virtual learning model whereby technology took the lead rather than walking alongside pedagogy that we know works best for students. As months passed, students lost interest in synchronous sessions and distanced themselves from their virtual classroom and peers. Families scrambled to augment children’s learning with at-home work as best they could, but the disconnect grew and students’ wellness was diminished.
What have we learned? What could we consider differently? Teachers need to endeavour to find meaningful and personalized pathways of learning with their students. Using the same framework mentioned earlier about “being the creator of relationships,” teachers need to utilize ‘outside the box thinking’ and accessible technology tools that forge pathways of connections between students and themselves. This can be achieved through practices such as shared journaling, emotional check-ins, show-and-share moments, mindfulness activities, movement breaks, passion projects, student-teacher conferencing, small group choice activities, and multimodal, asynchronous tasks such as blogging, drawing, monologues/dramatizations, audio/video recording and peer responses, and family scavenger hunts.
Leading from the perspective of wellness and giving space to co-regulate with students during face-to-face screen time is also important. If students have limited technology access, teachers can pick up the phone to speak to a family to discuss how best to engage their child. Together, teachers and parents can craft a personalized learning plan that best suits the strengths and needs of the student. This is particularly beneficial for students with special needs as a whole class approach to teaching may not align to the teaching strategies outlined on the child’s IEP. As Latremouille et al. have said, the ripple effect of reaching out to a family, and connecting with the child can have many unforeseen benefits, such as improved student wellness and re-engagement in online learning. It also provides a focus on equity, diversity and inclusion, whereby students growth is amplified as teachers are more attuned to the barriers individual families and students face. By repeating this process with other families, teachers begin to create a rich tapestry of learning that centers itself again in the powerful image of the child.
More about Dr. Keith's Research
Dr. Keith has partnered with Dr. Kimberly Maich from Memorial University to co-author a book on K-12 school-based mental health case studies with an international perspective to be published in the Spring 2021 by Rowman and Littlefield. This book highlights case studies of students from around the world and provides insights into how mental health is perceived by school staff from various countries. The book draws parallels to Canadian school-based mental health supports while honouring the varying international practices of supporting students’ wellness.
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