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Milton Keynes AL development conference: April 2019

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 29 Apr 2019, 11:53

I usually go to the AL development conferences that take place in London and the South East of England. I’ve never been to on that has been held in Milton Keynes before, since they have always been held at locations that have been roughly connected to the former regions. It makes complete sense to have one at the university campus since it gives tutors the opportunity to visit the place where everything happens and it is reasonably easy to get to.

What follows is a quick summary of an AL development conference that took place on Thursday 4 April 2019. The conference had a series of opening presentations, followed by three parallel session. 

Unlike some of the other conferences, this conference had a particular focus that related to the university’s Mental Health Charter. Particular themes of the day included: promoting good mental health in the OU, the role of the student voice, student mental health, and mental health strategy and policy.

Opening session: careers services

I arrived just in time to attend the end of the opening session, which was presented by Claire Blanchard from the Enhanced Employability and Career Progression (EECP) group which has teams in Manchester, Nottingham and Milton Keynes. 

Students can also access something called the Career and Employability Services (CES). Claire commented that students might study for different reasons: a career starter, a career developer, or a career changer. Increasingly students study for career change and development. The EECP group has something called an employer engagement team, carry out research and scholarship regarding careers, and offer guidance about embedding employability into the curriculum. 

Echoing a recent employability conference I attended, I noted that “all employees of the university has a responsibility to help with student employability and career progression”. To offer practical help and guidance for students, the university also runs an online careers fair, where specialists offer guidance through webcasts and webchats.

More information is available through the university’s careers pages.

How can we best support our students with their mental health needs?

The first workshop I attended was by Deborah Peat, Head of Strategy and Quality Development. I understand that Deborah was responsible for mental health strategy and poliy.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as: “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. A point was made that we all have mental health.

In the university, 24k students have declared a disability. Out of that figure 10k have declared a mental health difficulty. An interesting statistic is that 1 in 4 of people are affected by a mental health difficulty in a year.

Importantly, mental health is also considered as a priority for the UK Government Office for Students, which has led to the creation of the University Mental Health Charter (studentminds.org.uk) A point that was noted that the proposal are more suited to face to face university than distance learning institutions like the OU.

So, what kinds of resources can students gain access to? 

There is a service called Nightline which is available through the student’s association (OUSA), which is supported by trained volunteers. There is also a pilot service called the BigWhiteWall which is a service used by 30 other HE institutions. BigWhiteWall is defined as “a safe online community of people, for anyone who is anxious, down or not coping, who support and help each other by sharing, guided by trained professionals”.

BigWhiteWall has four areas: talk chat, bricks, guided support and ‘useful stuff’. The talk chat section is a bit like forums. The guided support section offers short courses for things like coping with anxiety or stress. It isn’t, however, a service for students who are in immediate distress.

Towards the end of the session we were shown two different scenarios, and asked to discuss how, as tutors, we would respond to each of them. Actions included taking time to talk to students who were expressing concerns, but also taking time to tell our line managers about any significant issue that may have arisen. An important point is that tutors can also draw on the university employee assistance programme. 

As an aside, students (and associate lecturers) can also access the university booklet Studying and staying mentally healthy  (PDF). It’s quite a short booklet, but it’s certainly worth a read. 

Critical incidents: work and well-being, sharing best practice

I’ve run this session on critical incidents a number of times before, and every time it has been slightly different. 

A critical incident is described as a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice. The session began with a number of definitions from a number of different authors:

“The critical incident technique consists of a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behaviour in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems and developing broad psychological principles.” Flanagan, cited by Spencer-Oatey, H. (2013) Critical incidents. A compilation of quotations for the intercultural field. GlobalPAD Core Concepts.

“For an incident to be defined as critical, the requirement is that it can be described in detail and that it deviates significantly, either positively or negatively, from what is normal or expected”. Edvardsson, cited by Spencer-Oatey, 2013.

“A critical incident is an interpretation of a significant episode in a particular context rather than a routine occurrence.” Bruster, B. G. & Peterson, B. R. (2012) Using critical incidents in teaching to promote reflective practice, Reflective Practice, 14:2, 170-182.

I began by asking everyone who came along to the session to think about their own tutoring practice to identify a critical incident. When they had done this, I asked them to discuss them all within a group, and then choose one to share with the whole of the workshop session.

I really enjoyed the discussions that emerged. We shared experiences and strategies that we used to respond to some of the difficult situations that we had been collectively faced with. 

Reimagining our teacher identifies in the virtual learning environment

The final session I attended was facilitated by Sara Clayson, Staff Tutor from the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport. 

Sara asked us all a question: “what does it feel like to move from face to face to online teaching?”

The answer was: it can be emotional since we’re moving from interacting with other humans to interacting via computers. We were asked further questions: why did you choose to become an associate lecturer? Did the perceptions (of the university, or of teaching) influence your decision to become an AL? What was it like when you started teaching?  

Reflection is, of course, an integral part of teaching. This means that there’s a question of how we reconstruct our identity when more of our teaching. In some respects, the university is providing tutors with training about how to teach online without explicitly acknowledging how this affects our identity as teachers.

We were given a short activity to complete. We were asked: how would you explain your teaching approach to a student?

Here’s what I wrote: “My role is to guide. Everything you need has been provided in the module materials, or on the university websites. You do your own learning, and what I do is facilitate your access to that learning. So, ask questions, send me updates, and treat me as a sounding board. I want to hear from you about what you’ve been studying, what you’ve found interesting, and what you’ve found challenging. Use assignments to show me what you have learnt, and if there are any gaps, I’ll do my best to tell you what they are”.

We were asked to think about how to answer further questions: what kind of tutor do you want to be in the VLE (virtual learning environment)? Also, how can you be the tutor you want to be in the VLE? And finally: what barriers do you need to overcome and what possibilities are there?

Sara left is with some resources, highlighting research by Anna Comas-Quinn, specifically a paper that has the title: Learning to teach online or learning to become an online teacher: an exploration of teachers' experiences in a blended learning course  (Open Research Online) and the website HybridPedagogy.

Reflections

There was a lot happening during this conference. There was a session about inclusive practice and understanding disability profiles, working online with students with hearing impairments, information a repository where tutors can share resources, how to best work with the student support team (SST), and how to provide excellent correspondence tuition. It was a shame that there were only three parallel sessions!

From my perspective, the reminder about mental health resources was really helpful. I also really enjoyed Sara’s session about teacher identity. This isn’t something that I think about very much. I feel that identity and professional practice are linked to other related ideas of respect and autonomy. 

The opportunity to discuss what our teaching identity means, and to be presented with a set of reflective questions that could help us untangle the idea further was really thought provoking.

In the middle of all this was the important question of: how can I get better? This, I feel, is what good professional development is all about.

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Mental Health: a bit of perspective

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In the October 2018 edition of the associate lecturer newsletter, Snowball, I wrote the following paragraph: “When I got to the beginning of October, I sat down after a hard day of emailing and suddenly thought: “Is this what burnout feels like?” I had caught myself looking at my Outlook inbox and couldn’t find the mental energy to open up and process another email.”

In 2015, I wrote the following in a blog post that reflected on the closure of the university’s regional centres: “I’m a pretty young guy. I can deal with stuff. I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for stress, but I’m beginning to suffer from change fatigue. I’m beginning to get tired and have started to think ‘what have I got to do now?’ and ‘when will thing settle down to a steady state?’  The issue of change fatigue was something that was mentioned by another colleague.  I’m feeling the strain, and I’m getting tired.”

I had another moment like this a couple of weeks ago, but it had a slightly different character. Rather than feeling unable to open up yet another email, I realised that I was becoming increasingly grumpy. There was another aspect to my grumpiness: I also felt a little ‘flat’ emotionally. 

I then realised that I had spent three very busy and very full days at the OU campus (I’m a home worker, so it’s always a bit of an ordeal to get to the head office), plus I had worked a whole Saturday on a quite demanding TM356 Interaction Design teaching event, that also took place on campus. In between all those days, I was working at home, on my own; just me and my laptop. I suddenly realised that my “very busy week” might have had influenced my grumpiness.

I then realised that I was in need of a holiday.

Staff tutor session

On 26 February, I went to the usual STEM staff tutor meeting. The first part of the meeting was all about general university updates: new colleagues, updates about the new tutor contract, clarification about the university strategic objectives, and something about the new IT systems replacement. The second bit was different; it was all about mental health.

The second part of the meeting was facilitated by Stephen Haynes who is from a charity called Mates in Mind which has its origins in the construction industry. 

Stephen presented what was described as a ‘whistlestop well-being tour’. He began by asking us some questions: “how are you doing?”, “why don’t we talk about mental health?” and “what do we mean by mental health?” 

A simple point was made that: we all have mental health, and it’s important to think of things in terms of ‘mental fitness’. A point I noted down was: one can have a diagnosed mental health condition but can have good mental health (which was a theme that came out of another session I attended in London, which I'll mention later on).

I made some notes about something called a ‘stress response curve’, which illustrated the difference between stretch (which is a good thing), and strain (which is a bad thing). If there’s a lot of strain over a period of time, then there’s a risk of burning out.

Stephen gave us some facts: suicide in the education profession is higher than the national average, 300k jobs are lost every year due to mental health issues and 44% of all work related illnesses are due to mental health issues (unfortunately I don’t have the reference for this, but it might well have been in Stephen’s presentation). Also, 1 in 5 of us are anxious most of the time.

I noted down 5 ways (or actions) that can contribute to positive well-being. These were: connect with people, be active, give, keep learning, and take notice (ironically, I didn’t note down what ‘take notice’ means, but I assume it means to take the time to be aware of ones surroundings).

I was also interested to hear that one of the biggest drivers of employee well-being is having a good line manager. This point made me stop for a moment: I’m a line manager.

As well as being a line manager, I’m also a home worker. I made a note of a set of potentially useful tips: consider your posture and work environment (my posture needs to be better), don’t multi-task (I try not to, but there are always distractions; I need to put my mobile phone in the other room when I really need to get on with some ‘thinking work’), use a web cam when you participate in remote calls (this way I’m forced to not work in my pyjamas and be scruffy), take the time to check in with others (I miss my colleague Sue, who has recently retired), look out for each other, look out for yourself, and take the time to listen. 

Like many institutions, the university has something called an employee assistance programme or scheme; telephone support that any employee can access at any time. I have to confess that I’ve never used it. Apparently, counsellors that support these programmes can readily say: “if only I had spoken to him or her sooner”. I never used that service since “I never thought I was that bad”, but looking back, I certainly feel that there was a point in my life where I could have benefited.

One of the biggest take away from that whole session was that phrase: “if only I had spoken to him or her sooner”.  The assistance service is there to be used, and there is no reason that I shouldn’t use it if I feel stressed or upset, or down, or anxious, or emotionally “flat”. Not even a misplaced sense of ‘masculine pride’ or sense of ‘coping’ should prevent me from chatting to someone. This, I felt, was a very helpful take away point.

Resources

After the session, I remembered that I had seen a couple of resources on the OpenLearn website. One is called Work and mental health, and another has the title: Exercise and mental health

A few years back, a Mental health awareness day (OU blog) event was held in the London regional centre. During this event, the theme of mental well-being was discussed. I also remember being shown a video called I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube, World Health Organisation), which also featured in our Staff Tutor session. I remember the biggest take away point from that day was the importance of choosing to do things, or to participate in events that are positive for mental well-being.

This takes me onto the final resource, a blog summary about a Home working workshop, that was organised by HR (OU blog). One of the main messages I took away from this event was pretty stark (I’m not going to tell you what that message was, but I’ll mention that it is in the section that is about setting and management of boundaries). 

The second take away message was simple, pragmatic and helpful. It was: ‘make sure that you plan your own down time’. Thinking back to my opening paragraphs, I think this is something that I need to get better at doing.

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Mental health awareness day: London regional centre

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 28 Feb 2019, 12:08

Every year the London region equality and diversity group runs an event.  Over the last two years we’ve run an event about ‘place, location and travel’, and have held an event about creative aging.  This year, the group ran an event on 13 November 2014 about mental health and well-being.  The day was split into two parts.

Part 1 : Participative display

A couple of months before the event we erected two display boards in the university café area.  These boards were to form what we called a ‘participative display’.  Each board had a slightly different purpose.  One board was all about sharing stories, experiences and acknowledging the contributions that people who have mental health issues have made to society.  The second display board was all about ‘resilience’; things that we can all do to ensure that we maintain good mental health.  The rear of this first board was also used to share more factual information about mental health issues.  We put up papers and articles.  I remember there was one article from Science magazine about the prevalence of depression.

When the boards had been put up, the group sent an email around the office telling everyone what the boards were all about, and how everyone might contribute.  To get the whole display, a couple of group members ‘seeded’ the display by adding some broad headings, some thoughts and some initial ideas.

The email messages and the ‘seeding’ did the trick.  As the months passed, different contributions were made.  The contributions included information about writers, academics and performers.  Other contributions had a slightly more personal tone; these were stories of people who had been touched, in some way or another, by mental illness.  The board became a catalyst for sharing.

Part 2 : Mental health and wellbeing

On the day of the event, we had asked a university colleague, Emma Greenstein, to come and speak to us.  Emma works for the university disability advisory service as the university mental health adviser.  Her job is to work with staff to help to offer support for students who have mental health difficulties.  I’ve had to chat to Emma a number of times and she has helped me out on a number of occasions.

Emma intended that her talk was to be interactive.  A part of her talk was to bust some myths, introduce us to some facts and terminology.  Emma introduced us to a model called ‘the mental health continuum’.  This was a simple model that had two axes: one axis that goes from 'diagnosis of mental illness' through to 'no diagnosed mental illness' (I should also mention that the model is about rating the severity of a mental illness).  The other axis goes from 'flourishing mental well being' through to 'poor mental well-being'.  (I have read that this model comes from a paper from Tudor entitled, ‘Mental Health Promotion’).  Here's a diagram that is pretty similar to the one that Emma used on the day:

Mental health model diagram

The model enables us to think beyond diagnostic labels, which can easily over simplify things.  A really interesting point that was raised was that we can all experience mental health difficulties.  The term ‘difficulties’ can mean feeling worries or anxiety, through to the experience of feelings of grief or loss.

Another interesting point that was made (and also emphasised) was the differences between people.  Emma said: ‘If you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia, you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia’.  It was a phrase that I’ve heard before, but in relation with students who experience different conditions.  Its use in this context emphasised the importance and need to treat and consider everyone as individuals.

During the session we were shown a short video:  I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube).  The video comes from a book that one of my favourite friends had once shown to me.  It’s a book that one of my colleagues had also brought along to the session.

We returned to the mental health continuum where we were asked two questions: ‘where are you now?’ and ‘where have you used to be?’  It didn’t take me too long to identify two points in two different places.  There was an important point here: that we can move between different points on the continuum.

On the subject of change, we were introduced a series of three short films that were made as a part of the recent Time to change campaign (campaign website).  The first film has the title speaking up (YouTube).  There are two other clips: you can recover (YouTube), and stronger, better, person (YouTube).  These videos are pretty short and pretty watchable too.

If we can place ourselves on a continuum, then a related question is: what can we do to promote our own resilience?  We were directed to a site called Mind Apples (mindapples.org) which I understand was created by a web developer.  The idea is really simple: there’s a lot of talk about the importance of eating five fruit and vegetables per day.  (I do struggle to do this, mostly due to the overabundance of cake that there seems to be at the OU office in London, but I’m not complaining!)  If we consider doing five good things for the body, why shouldn’t we consider doing five good things for our mind?  The idea is: what five things make you happy? Or what five things should you be doing that could make a positive difference to your mental well-being?  The website phrases it in a better way by asking: ‘what do you do regularly to take care of your mind?

A point I noted was that our actions and choices are important.

Final thoughts

At the end of Emma’s session, something really interesting happened: colleagues who had made contributions to our participative display were asked whether they wanted to say something about what they had added.  This gave way to a series of amazing impromptu talks about a range of different issues, worries, concerns and experiences.  Everyone took the time to listen. In that space and situation, what was said was both important and interesting. In an atmosphere of respect and mutual support, we began to talk about mental health, mental well-being and resilience.  Suddenly, these subjects didn’t seem so hard.

After the talks, we all broke off for some lunch. The equality and diversity group had made a special trip to the supermarket to buy some bread, cheese, salad, some juices and other goodies to accompany awesome home-cooked food that some of our colleagues had prepared. There seemed to be a consensus amongst those of us who helped to run the event: this had been the best, most challenging, and most useful event that we had run. Our participative display worked.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Emma Greenstein who commented on an earlier version of this post, and all my colleagues who worked on the event and made amazing contributions.

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