Thriving Faculty is a monthly column that highlights UBC faculty who exemplify the integration of health and wellbeing into their classrooms, research, departments and communities.
Based on your experiences, please describe the relationship between student mental health & wellbeing and learning
We know that students do their best when they are mentally and physically well. We have control over what we do in our classrooms and how we create a positive learning environment. We can show students – especially those in first year classes – the need to be organized, have a plan, keep on task. This will help them reduce their stress later.
But we do not have control over many aspects of student life outside the classroom and those things are likely the reasons students struggle with success. What we can do is reinforce the importance of a balanced life and provide them the encouragement to seek help. We can direct them to resources or even make that first contact with someone who can help them.
If my students are mentally unhealthy, what kind of classroom environment does that create? Both instructors and students have a role and a responsibility to create the best experience possible.
Are there any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote health, mental health and wellbeing?
As part of a research study of “The Impacts of Increasing Student Empowerment, Engagement and Social Connectedness” I talk about wellbeing, ask them clicker questions on three themes (empowerment, engagement and social connectedness) to provoke discussions and show videos how sleep, what you eat and other factors are important. All students need a brain break during class, so why not spend a few minutes talking about these things? As models and mentors, if we show them we are thinking of these things too, it won’t be a social taboo for them to do the same. And it’s okay to reach out for help – recognizing what you need it is an important step in empowerment.
Are they any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote health, mental health and wellbeing?
In addition to the study above, I am fortunate to be part of the first UBC Wellbeing Faculty Cohort. Our goal is to reach out and engage the university community to understand the link between faculty and wellbeing. Our principles are based on the Wellbeing Initiative Guiding Principles at UBC, but overall be a catalyst for change. The formation of this group is especially timely as in June, 2015, UBC participated in shaping the Okanagan Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges. However, being able to reference the charter is not enough. We need to enact change and help shape the priorities at UBC. That is why we are currently recruiting more faculty participation to seek their thoughts and opinions. What do they see as a priority for wellbeing?
What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as Faculty?
I don’t think I have always been a good role model for thriving but that is why it has become more important to me as the years pass. Sometimes “thriving” meant using a trial and error approach. I think that as faculty you are just supposed to know how and what to do. We often don’t know. During the term, we are so preoccupied with the fast paced treadmill of academic life, we sometimes forget to stop and reflect. How am I feeling? What is my mental state and is there something I can do to improve it?
I have learned – unfortunately from some negative experiences – when I needed to ask for help. And also to keep asking for help if the first thing doesn’t work. I know eating right and exercise helps me in my mental state as I feel stronger following through on seeking out resources. Lastly, surrounding me, the wonderful family, friends and the amazing colleagues I have at UBC is truly a way to perk up and help me get through those stressful times.
In your role as faculty, please describe your experience balancing work-life commitments? Is there a metaphor that depicts this relationship?
This is probably going to sound corny but as a child, I used to love riding on the teeter-totters at the park. Sure, it was fun to go up and down but I always had more fun trying to balance in mid-air with my partner. If my partner left, then – down – I would crash. And that wasn’t so much fun. So, I like to think that this “partner” as the important aspect of the life-work balance. The partner can change (family, friend, work resources) but it’s always important to be able to have something lift you when you’re sinking down. No one can truly balance in mid-air all the time, but we CAN get the lift we need.
Karen Smith is a lecturer at the University of British Columbia in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology, Vancouver, Canada. As a full time instructor at the undergraduate level, Karen has actively contributed to science education research projects with the UBC Flexible Learning Initiative (http://flexible.learning.ubc.ca/), Questions for Biology Concept Inventory (http://q4b.biology.ubc.ca/) and the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/).
In addition to coordinating and teaching a large first year cell biology course, she has been involved in many microbiology courses, teaching in lectures and laboratories from first year to fourth year. Karen is a Senior Faculty Fellow for UBC’s Imagine Day and Jump Start – an international student orientation program. She is also an executive member-at-large for the Faculty Association and Mentor/Advisor for the Integrated Science program. In particular, she is interested in promoting wellbeing at UBC as a member of UBC Wellbeing Faculty Cohort and is one of the lead researchers and instructors of an on-going wellness project in the classroom called “The Impacts of Increasing Student Empowerment, Engagement and Social Connectedness”.