Patrick recently completed 2 years as principal at Nathan Barton Elementary School in School District #92 (Nisga’a) in B.C, where he has been one of six district liaisons for the WellAhead initiative. School District #92 (Nisga’a) is located in the Nisga’a Nation, in the Nass valley in northern British Columbia. The everyday practice that this WellAhead team is implementing is Talking Circles. We hope this interview shines a light on some of the practices shaping the WellAhead initiative.
Answers are paraphrased for brevity.
What makes Nisga’a unique?
I spent most of my career teaching in Surrey, the largest school district in British Columbia. It was quite a transition going from the largest school district in the province to the smallest. Nisga’a has a small village feeling; people are more connected to each other than in a big city. There’s a real feeling of intimacy.
What makes you excited to go to work everyday?
I’m excited to have the opportunity to work with young people. You can clearly see how these kids are growing and changing. I’m grateful and enthusiastic to be a part of that, even if it is only in a small way.
When did you begin integrating wellbeing in your teaching / work?
I have always incorporated wellbeing in the way I teach. I was an instructor (and later President) of the Taoist Tai Chi Arts in Surrey. I would teach the kids in my school a little Tai Chi each day. Later, I would teach them about global issues; like let’s look into farmed salmon and how that impacts our environment. Or read a story with a principle in it and have them write a story about it.
How has teaching Tai Chi to kids changed the classroom dynamic?
I think the class feels more connected – it feels more like a team. [When they’re doing Tai Chi], they’re mindful of one another and they feel like we’re a part of something. Without this practice, the classroom can feel a bit disconnected – like we’re individuals out for ourselves. When we do Tai Chi, however, there’s a real difference in mindfulness – there’s more sharing and more “letting someone go to the fountain first”.
We’re also prototyping the Talking Circles practice in Nisga’a. You can see this practice is helping students learn how to articulate their feelings and how to be a good listener. They’re building resilience and empathy. Those are really important life skills. At the same time, they’re learning what it means to be part of a community and how to be a citizen. This is a priority for our district.
How do you think your work on wellbeing has impacted your students?
I think that being intentional about wellbeing creates space for children to feel relaxed enough to be themselves. When they are relaxed, they can show those qualities such as empathy. When they feel relaxed and expressing themselves, they become more confident. And they laugh more.
This question gets into good discussions around “What is Learning?” and “What is engagement?”. Engagement is supposed to be fun! When students are relaxed, they naturally enjoy the learning process. This inevitably improves learning outcomes.
We sometimes have discussions in our district on whether we can have less [for students to do]. It’s a question of quality over quantity. Does a student need to write 100 essays or can they learn that skill by writing 20 really good pieces? Is doing thousands and thousands of multiplication questions really effective?
These are big questions that are really important to ponder. So, if you reflect on teaching, what is the one thing in education that you would want to change?
I would make creating good citizens a top priority and design a curriculum based on that framework. Instead of teaching just scientific facts, how can we also teach science to get them interested in growing healthier food? How can better math skills help them be better citizens? What would that look like? Ultimately, it’s about giving students the technical, social and emotional skills to help make the world better.