Thriving Faculty is a regular column highlighting individual or collective UBC Faculty who exemplify integration of health and wellbeing into their classrooms, research, departments and/or communities. Thriving Faculty support others’ health and wellbeing in addition to making a commitment to their own self-care. This column highlights personal and professional stories of Thriving Faculty.
Read an interview with Dr. John Tyler Binfet
Q. What are central challenges you face in your role as Faculty?
The principal challenge I face as a faculty member is ensuring all stakeholders associated with my research, teaching, and service have their needs met. I think a common challenge for faculty is figuring out the allocation of time to keep the relationships running productively to ensure that outcomes are met.
Q. Based on your experiences, please describe the relationship between student mental health & wellbeing and learning.
In the B.A.R.K. (Building Academic Retention through K9’s) Dog Therapy programme I see firsthand how students who are able to nurture their mental health and wellbeing have distinctly different experiences in their classes and in their overall campus life, than students who do not make their wellbeing a priority. Students who proactively and routinely make efforts to reduce their stress and safeguard their wellbeing engage in their coursework (thus leading to enhanced learning) and take advantage of the opportunities available to them on campus (e.g., participation in clubs and opportunities to establish and foster social connections).
Q. Please describe the role of your own mental health and wellbeing in your teaching, research and service to the community.
As my research examines the social-emotional wellbeing of students from kindergarten to first-year university, I feel a responsibility to ensure that I model, as best as I’m able, practices that support and nurture my own wellbeing and stress reduction. Just as my students are more engaged in their learning and able to take advantage of the opportunities available to them here on campus when they nurture their social-emotional health, I recognize that safeguarding my wellbeing enhances my ability to see my work in a positive light, to build relationships with a variety of stakeholders that help sustain my research, and to react to stress in ways that aren’t impulsive or entirely deplete me of my energy.
To nurture my own wellbeing I consciously do several things: (1) I make fitness a priority each morning as a way of starting my day on a positive note; (2) several times each week I try to go for coffee with colleagues as part of my work day; (3) I begin each lecture with music of some sort (and challenge my students’ perceptions of old professors who they don’t expect to be plugged into contemporary music!); and (4) I actively practice kindness and generosity within my workplace and within the community where I live as I know this generates positive wellbeing.
Q. What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as Faculty?
As much as I’m able, I strive to view my work and my interactions on campus through a positivistic lens. While I need occasional reminding, I strive to see the strengths that people bring to the table (versus immediately seeking deficits or weaknesses). This runs counter to much of my training where I sought to find fault or weaknesses in arguments/methodologies or to immediately identify areas for improvement. Striving to see my work and the many varied interactions I have with stakeholders through a positive lens allows me to identify the assets that people possess and bring forth. I then strive to build on these assets in ways that I think will produce good work.
Q. Are they any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote health, mental health and wellbeing?
As the director of B.A.R.K., I run intervention studies that see 34 community volunteer dog handlers and their trained therapy dogs come to campus to work with first-year students who self-identify as homesick and socially isolated. This work actively and directly promotes the social-emotional wellbeing of students (and of handlers through their committed volunteer work). In addition to the empirical evidence I see that supports the positive effects this work has on students’ wellbeing, I receive feedback every day from students telling me their experience on campus is enhanced via their participation in dog therapy sessions. One convincing outcome is reflected in students’ perceptions of the adults who care about them on campus.
Q. Are there any resources on campus that you have found to be helpful for promoting wellbeing for either yourself or your students?
The Faculty of Education at UBC Okanagan is spearheading the introduction of the programme SMART in EDUCATION. I have recently incorporated readings addressing mindfulness and how the practice of mindfulness can promote wellbeing, especially in socially-emotionally driven contexts such as teaching. The mindfulness training I’ve received via the SMART in Education program has also been a catalyst for me. As a stereotypical “Type A” personality, I’ve learned and continue to learn how to focus on the intentions and process of my work versus over-emphasizing my targeted outcomes. This has been a valuable learning pathway for me to investigate.
Q. In your role as faculty, please describe your experience balancing work-life commitments? Is there a metaphor that depicts this relationship?
Hmmm. This is a constant struggle as the demands of this job call me to work long hours, including weekends. I think incorporating community service into my research and work profile has been valuable to me. Working with volunteers and volunteering my own time to run drop-in programmes for students reminds me of the importance of relationships and of the importance of putting one’s mental health and wellbeing at the forefront of one’s agenda – it’s the foundation for everything we do!
Dr. Binfet is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. He is the Director of B.A.R.K., a programme designed to build academic retention through K9s (therapy dogs), Dr. Binfet also researches students’ perceptions of kindness.