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Archive for July, 2017

Seeing some 400 teachers and school service providers flooding into the Halifax West High School auditorium on July 20, 2017 was an eye-opening experience. In the middle of the summer, they committed time to a two-day conference focusing on child and teen mental health. Led by Dr. Stan Kutcher, the Mental Health Academy was filling a real need in the school system.

With the news full of stories warning of a “mental health crisis,” teachers in the K-12 system are feeling anxious and more conscious than ever of their role in the front lines of education.  What Dr. Kutcher’s Academy offered was something of a tranquilizer because he not only rejects the “crisis” narrative, but urges classroom practitioners to develop “mental health literacy” so they can “talk smart” with students and their parents.

The fifth edition of the Mental Health Academy, initiated in 2006 by Dr. Kutcher, studiously avoided adding further to the noise and sought to advance teacher education in mental health using evidence-based research and programs.  Stress can be good and bad, Kutcher reminded us, and we need to be able to distinguish among the three types of stress responses identified by the Harvard Center for the Developing Child: positive (daily), tolerable (regularly) and toxic (extremely rare).  Instead of pathologizing “stress” as “anxiety,” what children and youth need most is “inoculation” to help build a more robust stress immune system.

While the incidence of teen mental health problems is not appreciably different than it was fifty years ago, we are far better equipped to respond to the challenges in and around schools. The MH Academy amply demonstrated how much more we know today about adolescent brain development, school staff self-care, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance addictions, and teen suicide.  Educating teachers about that research is the real purpose of the Academy.

Mental health disorders are serious and teachers are well-positioned to assist in early identification. About 1 in 5 people may experience a mental disorder during adolescence. If left unrecognized and untreated, they can lead to substantial negative outcomes in physical and mental health, academic and vocational achievement, interpersonal relationships, and other important life experiences. Despite this tremendous burden of mental health disability, youth requiring proper care still do not receive it from childhood through to adulthood.  Lack of knowledge, presence of stigma, and limited access to care all serve as barriers to addressing mental disorders and alleviating the daily challenges.

Promoting Mental Health Literacy (MHL) is Dr. Kutcher’s mission because it is an essential component of improving individual and population health and mental health outcomes. As most mental disorders can be identified by age 25, schools provide the ideal location in which to implement interventions that can be demonstrated to improve mental health and life outcomes.  Good MHL programs tend to exhibit four components: : understanding how to obtain and maintain good mental health; understanding mental disorders and their treatments; decreasing stigma; and enhancing help seeking efficacy (knowing when, where, and how to obtain proper care.

A recent Canadian study of some 10,000 educators, cited by  IWK Health researcher Dr. Yifeng Wei at the Academy, found that over 90 per cent of teachers lacked adequate preparation for responding to mental health issues.  That is startling when one considers the fact that the survey uncovered some 200 different mental health programs being implemented in over 1,000 Canadian schools.

Systematic evidence-based reviews of the most popular mental health programs are not that encouraging.  Four such programs, including two based upon “mindfulness, “Learning to Breathe,” and “Mind Up,” analyzed using the GRADE System, were found to be mostly ineffective and judged not ready for widespread implementation in schools. “Good intentions,” Dr. Wei stated,” do not translate into beneficial outcomes for children and teens.”

One curriculum resource, the Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide, researched and developed by Kutcher and his research team at Dalhousie’s Medical School, shows more promising results. It’s not a “packaged program,” but rather a full curriculum taught by the usual classroom teachers in Canadian secondary schools. Survey data collected before, immediately after, and 2 months after implementation of The Guide showed that students’ knowledge improved significantly when the program was delivered by their regular teachers.  Embedding a classroom resource, delivered by usual classroom teachers in usual school settings is proving to be far better than utilizing any number of the commercially-marketed mental health programs.

What’s contributing to the widespread public perception that we are experiencing a “mental health crisis” in and around our schools?  Why are classroom teachers so motivated and committed to responding to mental health issues?  Why are education authorities and school districts so quick to snap up the latest program in mental health, student behaviour modification, and suicide prevention?  What’s the secret of the recent success of the the Canadian Teen Mental Health Curriculum Guide? 

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“Mini-crises” in Canadian K-12 education come and go, but some leave a lasting aroma and continue, quite unfairly, to shape public perceptions of teachers and the entire school system.  Across Canada, the mere mention of “Drake University” and “bird courses” evokes vivid memories of Nova Scotia’s 2014-15 raging controversy over five hundred experienced teachers finding a loophole and securing certification and salary upgrades by taking DVD video courses (including many in coaching) through the Extension Department of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) leadership rallied to the defense of the Drake University course registrants and that made matters far worse, in the eyes of close education observers and the informed public. How and why the NSTU leadership felt compelled to come forward to defend such inappropriate actions was the fundamental question addressed in my March 2014 AIMS research report, Maintaining Spotless Records, co-authored with Karen Mitchell, a Nova Scotian who served as a member of the Ontario College of Teachers Governing Board from 1997 to 2005. In that report, we showed that the Drake University controversy was a symptom of a bigger problem – the fact that “teacher oversight bodies were for the birds” in Nova Scotia and a few other Canadian provinces.

The infamous Drake University “bird course” fiasco simply will not go away. A June 2017 teacher arbitration case only demonstrates, once again, that the province’s teacher’s union still does not get it – cutting corners and taking ‘quickie’ courses is no way to ether enhance teacher professionalism or improve graduate teacher education in Nova Scotia or elsewhere.

Labour arbitrator Eric K. Slone’s recent arbitration ruling on the Drake University DVD courses upheld the NSTU’s claim that former Education Minister Karen Casey erred in rescinding prior approvals of the aptly labelled “bird courses.” All it really proves is that such bodies exist to enforce the terms of the contract. Carefully reviewing the 59-page report, we clearly see how the union utilizes the process to achieve its ends. It’s made easier when the Education Department mounts such a feeble defense of the Minister’s actions.

The essential facts are clear: From January 2008 until February 2014, a surge of 546 teachers secured approval from the then Registrar of Teacher Certification, Paul Cantelo, to complete Integrated Programs based upon Drake University video correspondence courses. On April 15, 2014, following a CBC-News investigation report, Minister Casey advised former NSTU President Shelley Morse that the Department would no longer recognize such courses as “approved studies for an increase in teacher certification’ (i.e., teacher salary upgrades). Upon further investigation, the Minister announced on March 3, 2015 that the Department would no longer recognize such programs to be completed after that date and would require the candidates to complete their studies through a recognized university, pre-approved by the Department.

That sparked a “policy grievance” filed by the NSTU objecting to rescinding prior approvals and led, eventually to hearing from April 4 to 12, and the arbitration award released on June 19, 2017. The testimony makes it clear that the deck was stacked in favour of the union.  Six hand-picked teachers who took Drake University DVD upgrade courses testified that they found them of value, including two who already held Masters of Education degrees.

Former Executive Director of the Centre for Learning Excellence, Monica Williams (PhD, St. Francis-Xavier, 2014), attempted to defend the Minister’s actions and provided fresh evidence supporting claims that the courses “lacked rigour,” but was deemed, by the arbitrator, to not be an expert.  She left her position in July 2016 and is now a member of the provincial Inclusion Commission. None of the leading faculty of education experts, including MSVU professor Robert Berard and SFX Physical Education professor Daniel Robinson, were even called to give evidence.

Part of the problem for the Department is the revolving door of departmental responsibility. The Registrar who actually approved most of the courses is no longer with the province and now working at MSVU and the architect of the provincial Teaching Excellence agenda has also moved on to other responsibilities.

The arbitrator claims that he is not evaluating the quality of the courses, but then accepts anecdotal evidence from Drake U course teachers and uses it as the basis of his ruling. Why he did not insist upon expert testimony on the validity of the courses is hard to fathom.

The whole Drake University “bird course” episode is a truly sad spectacle.  Some five hundred Nova Scotia teachers found a certification loophole and utilized it to secure certification to upgrade their salaries by between $6,000 and $8,000 annually. The Minister and her Department investigated and found those courses deficient in four critical areas, as reported to a Ministerial Advisory Council.  Williams, the former Director in charge of Teacher Excellence, was appalled at the quality of the applications, the “lack of rigour” of those courses, and the fact that most, if not all candidates, secured perfect scores.

Claiming that the labour arbitration was a victory for anyone is just as preposterous as the claim that video correspondence courses offered by the Drake University extension department are in any way equivalent to legitimate graduate courses in our region’s universities.  What a sad day it is for the profession when this decision is celebrated as a win for anyone.

What does the Drake University “bird course” fiasco demonstrate when it comes to the state of teacher professionalism? Why would a provincial teachers’ union stake its credibility on defending the actions of such teachers?  Is the Nova Scotia labour arbitration ruling representative of decisions emanating from such proceedings?  What’s standing in the way of teachers standing up for higher standards in defense of the profession? 

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