Editor’s Notebook

March 2, 2018 Dennis Theobald

Wellness: A Contested Term That’s Here To Stay

The word “wellness” first makes an appearance in the English language in the 17th century, but its popular use can be traced back to the early 1960s and the publication of a collection of papers by American statistician Halbert Dunn under the title High-Level Wellness. In the decades following, the legitimacy of this word, both linguistically and conceptually, was questioned by the harrumphing guardians of the language, even as the word came into more common use across a variety of media and in a variety of contexts. Today, though, wellness is a ubiquitous organizing principle, value, metric and objective embraced by organizations and individuals alike.

With such a recent provenance and broad application, it should not be surprising that wellness remains a contested term. In his article “Being Well in Canadian Schools” which appears in this edition of the ATA Magazine, my colleague Phil McRae points out that wellness, in the context of the education system, is a “usefully ambiguous notion,” rather like ”21st-century learning” and “personalization.” He does not intend this to be a compliment.

Indeed, as he and J-C Couture observe, the very ambiguity of the term wellness creates much opportunity for mischief on the part of the usual suspects—those agencies and private interests wanting to dump yet another accountability on top of teachers and schools with the inevitable goal of measuring, marketing and ranking wellness as an indicator of success.

In her article “Battling Myths and Breaking Down Barriers,” Jen Janzen similarly illustrates how the promise of wellness is used to market all manner of modern-day snake oil. In our desperate pursuit of wellness, it seems we are all too willing to open our wallets and close our minds to critical analysis, all in the hope of finding a magical short-cut to better results.

But while McRae, Couture and Janzen sound cautionary notes about the potential to advance decidedly unhealthy policies, programs and products using the rhetoric of wellness, they also acknowledge that the term does invite a broader consideration about what is important in the lives of students, teachers and the public and, furthermore, that there are proven strategies to improving our individual and collective well-being. It is precisely this broader consideration that is reflected in the remaining content of this issue.

For example, Chris Fenlon-MacDonald of Ever Active Schools focuses on “connectedness” across the school community as a determinant of wellness that is at least as important to student well-being as physical activity, mental health and heathy eating. Wellness, he argues, is fostered when the school environment builds relationships of trust and caring so that students believe they are valued and supported as individuals and as learners by their peers and the adult staff.

Shelley Magnusson writes about the Association’s partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association to promote Healthy Minds, Bright Futures, a program to raise awareness among teachers, students and the public about the importance of mental health. As with so many issues, the Association was early on the scene when it identified the impact that various mental illnesses and disorders were having on students, particularly those in junior and senior high schools, and chose to make this cause the focus of its social responsibility program. It is gratifying to see that where Alberta teachers led, so many more community groups and corporations have followed.

Of course, wellness in a school setting cannot ignore teacher wellness. In this issue, I am delighted to include an article by Kelli Littlechilds, the chief executive officer of the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan. The majority of teachers will be familiar with the ASEBP as their benefits provider, but what they may not realize is the greater role the plan is playing in advancing workplace and employee wellness as a Canadian and North American leader in promoting comprehensive wellness through innovative, cost-effective and collaborative approaches. As a not-for-profit cooperative venture of the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the Alberta School Boards Association, the ASEBP focus on wellness makes business sense as well as human sense.

I would be remiss if I did not include in this edition of Editor’s Notebook a special note to the one person whom I can guarantee will have read all the way down the page to this point. Gordon Thomas, having become executive secretary of the Alberta Teachers’ Association in 2003, decided in 2009 to take on the role of editor of the ATA Magazine. After nine years as editor, and more than 33 years of service to the Association, Gordon has retired but has explicitly threatened to continue monitoring this publication closely. Best wishes my friend, and be well.

Also In This Issue