|| Sandra Woltas
On March 6, the Women in Leadership summit returned for the second year, and despite being virtual, attendees were treated to two keynote speakers whose talks transcended the distance to celebrate the leadership of Alberta’s teachers.
The summit kicked off with a provocative talk by Marni Panas, a diversity and inclusion expert who is known provincially, nationally and internationally for her advocacy for LGBTQ2S+ people. She was recently part of an expert panel that assisted in developing guidelines to support Alberta school boards as they created policies to ensure schools have safe and welcoming environments for LGBTQ students, families and staff.
Panas’s talk chronicled her life growing up in Camrose and eventually transitioning in her 40s. In a talk that was both humourous and heartfelt, she described her life as a young student to emphasize the important role teachers play in creating spaces where students can be free to be their whole self, especially if they don’t feel safe to do so elsewhere.
“[As a young boy], I never had the words to articulate how I felt,” she says. “All I knew was I felt at peace wearing my mom’s clothes, or my sister’s clothes. So I didn’t know who I was — but I could tell you who I was not.”
Research has shown LGTBQ youth are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide, and have a higher prevalence of and potential incidence for depression and other symptoms of poor mental health, including anxiety, low self-esteem, hopelessness and isolation. Isolation and loneliness are feelings that Panas knows well.
“I was born into a Catholic family… where gender roles were clearly defined and I inherently knew that deviating from those roles would be catastrophic for me. So as a child, you get really used to being alone.”
Now able to be herself openly, Panas knows what a difference having a teacher she could share her struggles with could have made to her. She urges teachers to pay special attention to these children.
“It takes no energy to be supportive,” she added.
Panas’s peppered her talk with group discussions about the barriers to leadership that participants see in education, and how the barriers could be addressed. When she finished, it was clear the audience was not ready for the end.
Advocate brings positive message
Summit attendees also heard an afternoon keynote by Sandra Woitas, a celebrated educator and advocate for disadvantaged children and families. A former director of the City Centre Education Project with Edmonton Public Schools, she has been given multiple provincial and national awards for her work addressing poverty, bullying and mental health in youth and families.
Woitas’s lively talk focused on how teachers (and women in particular) can continue to survive the pandemic by using tried-and-true techniques of leaders. She particularly emphasized the importance of supporting each other while being kind to yourself, focusing on the bigger picture and keeping negativity and hopelessness at bay. Down-to-earth, warm and funny, Woitas provided a boost of positivity for those feeling downtrodden by the pandemic. ❚
The full day summit was attended by roughly 225 teachers and administrators from across the province. The summit also included a number breakout sessions on topics such as financial wellness, advancing Indigenous women through education, building trust and using hope to build resilience. The sessions were recorded and will be available to all members through the Women in Leadership website, https://wil.teachers.ab.ca/.