For University of Lethbridge Faculty of Education alumni Dan Grassick (BSc/BEd ‘02), personal wellness and gratitude hit especially close to home.
After graduating, Dan taught in Calgary for ten years before being hired as an executive staff officer in the Professional Development department of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) in 2016. Dan’s work with the ATA includes supporting teacher education programs in Southern Alberta; assisting with the planning and operations of teachers’ convention programs; and assisting with the diversity, equity, and human rights portfolio.
Two years ago, Dan spent four months in the hospital fighting a body-wide bacterial infection which caused them to lose control of the muscles and nerves. After being released from hospital, Dan had to learn how to stand and walk again, a process that even two years later has left them without the full strength in their left leg and upper body.
“I let my work consume me. Until my hospitalization I was sort of aware that I wasn’t totally healthy and wasn’t making the best choices, but I kept prioritizing my work over my health,” says Dan. “When I woke up in hospital, I realized it was time to recheck my priorities and develop some work-life balance.”
Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Dan has been carving out time twice a day to go on long walks with their newly adopted dog, Ahsoka. Taking part in regular outdoor activity, even at a slow pace, is a wellness practice Dan credits as helping them be more mindful, present, and resilient.
I do presentations on how beneficial it is to go outside as part of workshops with students on wellness and mindfulness, but I was totally ignorant to the fact that I needed to take this medicine myself. All the advice I was saying to everyone else, didn’t used to apply to me, but it for sure did. I learned this the hard way.”
Q. What activity would you say contributes most to your personal sense of wellness?
Right now, it’s definitely having a dog. I’ve had two dogs in my teacherly life, and the first one passed away three or four years ago. I was just so busy with work at that point, that I didn’t think it was the right time to get another dog. That was a mistake. Having a dog at home would have forced me to take care of them, which sneakily would have made me take better care of myself.
After being hospitalized and having to learn how to walk again, I was determined to get a new dog as soon as I was physically able to safely walk outside on uneven and icy surfaces. As it turned out, the perfect timing for me to get a dog coincided with the onset of pandemic and everyone in the province looking for a COVID puppy of their own. After a multiple failed adoption attempts, I finally found a new companion in Okotoks. On April 30, 2020, I met an 18-month old rescue dog, which I named Ahsoka Tano after the Star Wars character. She’s the furry love of my life and my current roommate and workout partner.
There's this Japanese term “shinrin-yoku”, or “forest bathing”. For a long time, the Japanese have known that if you are feeling stressed or unwell, you simply need to go for a walk in a forest and you will feel better. And it's true! It drops your stress hormone levels and increases your clarity of mind. There are all sorts of studies that have confirmed this.
I was just living a life before I was hospitalized where I was just not going outside, I would just come home and collapse on the couch. But now at least twice a day Ahsoka and I go on these fun walks. Sometimes they are just a couple of kilometers around the neighbourhood, and sometimes they are longer, off-leash hikes. Partly it's for her, but it's also for me. Not only are we both benefitting from this fresh air and exercise, but I’m resetting myself internally when we go for these walks. It’s part of a wellness practice that I had lost touch of since my first dog passed away.
Q. How do you think that has benefited you as an educator?
Some of the advice I always give to student teachers or pre-service teachers is that in addition to all of the things they might be thinking like “how do I get a job” or “how do I become a better teacher”, right off the bat they need to develop some sort of wellness practice or habit to take care of themselves. When I had my routine of walking my dog, it was one of the things that really worked for me as an educator.
When I’m out with the dog there are all sorts of valuable metacognitive things that are going on in my head. In the morning, I’m planning my day and visualizing what is going to happen. It’s not the sort of meditative process where you are trying to clear your mind, but it's being mindfully aware of the day that’s coming which helps me be present and prepared.
And then at the end of day, no matter what's going on, the dog walk helps me reset and recharge. No matter what's on my mind, no matter what I have to do later, for that time it's just me and Ahsoka. While I walk, I put aside the things that required my creative energies, like lesson planning or finding solutions to help kids or teachers at school. My little mental coffee percolator keeps dripping away on these things as I walk, and I often find that great ideas and solutions occur to me naturally over the course of the walk, even though I’m not actively thinking about them.
I have adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) so although I hate the routine of walking twice a day, Ineed the routine. There will always be work to do at school or the office. If it is truly important some work can even come home with me. But now, I have two standing appointments a day, one at 7 AM and one at 5 PM that I have to schedule around. My dog walk time with Ahsoka is firmly blocked in my schedule.
Q. What would you say you are most grateful for at this moment?
I can’t give you just one. I’ll give you three. Of course, the first is Ahsoka, my dog. But she’s an extension of my family which is who I’m truly grateful for. My whole family are teachers, helping professionals, and health care workers, so because of the pandemic, we’ve been taking the COVID restrictions really seriously. I have a twin sister, my best friend and former womb mate, who I haven’t seen except on a screen for two years now. Making the effort to keep in touch with family is something that I really try to do, and I’m grateful for those moments. When I woke up in the hospital, my sister had flown in from Quebec, my brother from Fernie. It was just this reminder that family is so important. I understood it at a theoretical level, but I never really felt it to that extent before. Certainly one of the goals for myself coming out of the hospital was to do a better job of connecting and reconnecting with family and friends. A lot of my long-term friends are in Calgary, and my work requires me to be based out of Edmonton. And that’s been tough. It’s hard to be so far away from loved ones. Even though it's hard to see them right now, they are the reason I get up in the morning, they are the thing that my heart beats for.
I also have to say, unequivocally, how grateful I am for excellent health care benefits. That might be a weird thing to say, but you don’t realize how important these health benefits are until you really need them. I was able to stay in the hospital for four months without having to sell my house. My parents didn’t have to sell their house. I was paid to stay in the hospital, and when I came back I was working part-time which allowed me to work up the endurance to handle the physical demands of my work again. Unionized professions like teaching and nursing all have excellent health care benefits. I’ve got a lot of gratitude for all of the folks before me who suffered, picketed and went on strike to get teachers in Alberta the benefits that they have today.
Finally, I’m alive today because of amazing nurses. doctors, and health professionals. The time, energy and care they took to help me get better literally saved my life. I am so appreciative of the hunches they followed, the creative approaches they took, and their teamwork. My heart aches for the ongoing impacts of the pandemic on their holistic health and wellbeing. They fought for me and I’m now ready to support them however I can.
Q. Do you think that your sense of gratitude has shifted since the COVID-19 pandemic began?
I’ve known I’ve had ADHD since I was in Grade 6, but I’ve always been fine and able to cope well enough. But the last two years have been really hard, working without being able to cross physical paths with people, and it’s caused me to learn a lot more about all the elements of the disorder. One of these aspects is a drive for external validation. I never thought I needed external praise, but now that I don’t cross paths with co-workers, supervisors, and teachers in the field on a daily basis, and the only communication I do get from people is by email, the lack of emotional connection, support, and appreciation has really weighed me down. I started to develop the feeling that nothing I did was good enough, that I wasn’t productive, that I wasn’t valued.
Once I had this realization and found out that this is actually a symptom of ADHD in adults, it caused me to reflect on who I was when I was at my best. One of the things that is an innate part of who I am is acknowledging others and showing gratitude. There’s a book about “Love Languages” that I will never read but keep getting told about, and, as I understand it, I show and value acts of service and support and the giving and receiving of gifts and words of affirmation. When I was teaching, I would sometimes buy a bouquet of flowers and hand them to one person with the idea that they would keep one and pass the rest on to someone else and acknowledge something they were doing. I probably did these things when I needed a pick-me-up more than anything else, but my thinking was that if I was feeling a little down in the dumps then my colleagues probably were too and I could do something to make it better.
The pandemic has caused me to reflect on the person that I used to be that I really liked and who was holistically healthy and happy that I’ve sort of lost touch with. So I’ve been a lot better in the last few months about trying to acknowledge people for the little things and showing gratitude.
Q. What advice would you give to young educators who may be having difficulty during these challenging pandemic times?
Schedule time every day for a walk and a think. And everyday thank at least one person for something they are doing, or even just for being present or doing “enough”.
We’re going to be feeling the psychological impacts of COVID for quite a while. It’s not going to go away. It will get endemic at some point, but in the meantime, teachers and healthcare workers and their families are still going to be suffering under this huge compassion fatigue from this emotional labour of just giving and giving.
The sort of people who get into teaching and health care and these sorts of helping professions, they really want to make the world a better place, and they will take on everything. And they’ve been doing that for almost two years now with the pandemic, and they are just getting worn out. So in my role, although I’m not working directly with teachers or students anymore, any little thing I can do to put wind in the sails to remind people that they are seen and valued, matters more than ever. And if I can do that and it gets noticed and sort of spreads among my colleagues and co-workers, and that care and attention that we’ve spent looking after students can get redirected towards each other, we’re going to be okay.
Writer: C.J. Tuff
Photo courtesy: Dan Grassick
Faculty of Education Wellness and Gratitude series:
• The Link Between Wellness and Gratitude: Dr. Robin Bright
• Wellness and Gratitude: "It’s honestly been a rollercoaster," Brae Clowes (BA/BEd ‘21)
Faculty of Education Wellness Initiative series:
• The Faculty of Education WELLNESS INITIATIVE: Supporting a Focus on Health and Well-Being
• Wellness is Keeping Active, Both Mentally and Physically, Brae Clowes
• Wellness is The Joy of Cooking: Dr. Jeffrey MacCormack
• Wellness is Feeling Productive: Sally Leung (BA/BEd '17)
• Wellness is About Writing: Teri Hartman (BA/BEd '02, current MEd student)
• Wellness is Spending Time Outdoors: Dana Visser
• Wellness is Stillness: Jane O'Dea (dean emerita)
• Wellness is Coping with Stress Through Art and Music: Jenn Pellerin
• Wellness During the COVID-19 Experience, PSII, and Staying Connected: Kelsey Shoults
• Wellness is Being in the Moment: Kenneth Oppel
• Wellness is About Having a Consistent Routine: Alex Funk (BEd '17)
• Wellness is Spiritual: David Slomp
• Wellness is Ranching: Danny Balderson
• Coping with COVID-19: Harnessing our Natural Stress Response
• Coping with COVID-19: Loneliness
• The Intersectionality of Faith, Mental Health and Wellness for Racialized Populations During the Pandemic
For more information please contact:
Communications, Dean's Office
Faculty of Education
University of Lethbridge
Learn more about the Faculty of Education: Legacy Magazine (2008-2019)
Twitter: @ULethbridgeEdu Website: uleth.ca/education
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