Thanks to two teachers at McMath secondary, the entire school community is working on activities that focus on mental and emotional well-being.
The idea, explains Andrea Phillpotts, was brought to life by a district grant for re-imagining secondary school learning. Phillpotts and fellow teacher Brittany Schiefer had been working on wellness projects in their own classrooms, but wanted to expand the initiative to the entire school. With the help of vice-principal Adrienne Goulas and counsellor Mark Pattern, the McMath team applied for the district’s grant and their application was approved.
Schiefer says her desire to integrate wellness activities came from concern about her own well-being.
“I live alone, I was very isolated, and getting back to work in September was truly overwhelming for me,” she explains. “I’ve always had a passion for mental health and de-stigmatizing things, so knowing for myself that I felt like I needed something, I translated that to ‘I bet the students need that as well.’ I wanted to introduce this from the beginning (of the year) to help all of us.”
Phillpotts, who runs the school’s outdoor education program, was already encouraging teachers to take their students outside to enjoy nature—as well as the ability to socialize in an area with more ventilation and space than a classroom.
Schiefer says being able to participate in the so-called McMath Cares Wellness Challenge helped bring about connection. The 10-day challenge includes an introduction day and one for wrap-up, as well as eight days in between for different wellness activities including yoga, colouring, reading, and outdoor exploration. Activities are roughly five to 10 minutes long, with a variety of options for each day.
“Every day has something different to focus on, and allows students to try new ways to deal with their overall wellness,” says Schiefer. “Giving them all these different options opens their minds to new ways to deal with their own anxiety, stress or overall wellness.”
The goal is for students to learn new tools that they can also use at home and after leaving high school. Next year, Phillpotts and Schiefer hope to expand the project to include other aspects of social emotional learning, including music therapy and other suggestions from teachers. Their goal is to normalize social emotional wellness in the classroom, making these quick activities a normal part of students’ days just as attendance might be.
Students have the opportunity to win prizes through a random draw that’s part of a feedback form, but the real goal is to teach students new tools to use in their everyday lives. Those who are learning from home through the district’s transitional learning program are also engaged with the school community through the website and social media channels. Students participating from home are encouraged to send in pictures of their participation and enter into the draw for prizes.
Phillpotts says the responses have been positive so far, with students feeling grateful that they can take time to think about wellness while at school and reflect on how they’re doing rather than just the curriculum.
“By taking (students) outside, spacing them apart, having them do some socializing, conversation, games, that’s so important these days,” she says.
And for teachers, it’s been a great tool to be able to use in the classroom, as well as a way to come together during a more distant year.
“I think it’s exciting for teachers—going in and connecting to the 35-plus teachers about this common activity they’re doing together has been very positive, so there’s been a lot of team building that way with all of us having a common goal. In difficult times, when people have a common goal they grow together and feel better about their situation. This has been one of the situations at McMath that’s helped people come together,” says Phillpotts.
Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel