UBC Okanagan researcher explores what it means for educators to ‘flourish’
May 21, 2020
Director, Graduate Programs
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
PhD, University of Saskatchewan
Master of Education, University of Saskatchewan
Bachelor of Education, University of British Columbia
Bachelor of Arts, University of British Columbia
“The heart of humanity is teaching and learning.”
“THE HEART OF HUMANITY IS TEACHING AND LEARNING,” says Sabre Cherkowski, an associate professor and director of graduate programs at UBC’s Okanagan School of Education. “It’s how we grow and improve. Everything we do is about teaching and learning.”
Early in Cherkowski’s career, she was a French and language arts teacher in the small town of Enderby, BC. As a new teacher, Cherkowski watched and admired how her colleagues worked together to build the school’s community — developing connections with students, colleagues, administration and community organizations — and it sparked her curiosity.
“I was really interested in how teachers were tapping into their agency and making a difference at a level that went beyond the classroom,” says Cherkowski.
But this wasn’t just happening in Enderby. When Cherkowski and her husband moved to Saskatoon —where she still taught French and Language Arts at the secondary level — she continued noticing the ways teachers worked within the system to make changes and improve school for everyone.
Although Cherkowski was early in her education career, she was inspired by witnessing these relationships evolve. She wanted to further understand how humans develop and connect in and through education, and decided to pursue a master’s degree in counselling at the University of Saskatchewan.
ONLY HAPPY ACCIDENTS
“I would say my research career launched in an ‘accidental tourist’ way,” Cherkowski says with a laugh as she reminisces about that day. “I have a friend who talks about being an accidental tourist in her own life, referring to how she seemed to ‘fall’ into these unexpected, unplanned but good things, and for me, I’ve fallen into a number of amazing career opportunities.”
Case in point: on her way to drop off her graduate application, Cherkowski stopped to ask a professor standing in the hall for directions to the Department of Educational Psychology.
That professor engaged her in conversation and wanted to know more about her research interests. After chatting for some time, he led Cherkowski to the office of the Department of Educational Administration— his department.
“He said ‘you need to come and check out our department,’ and I spent time talking with a few of the professors in the office,” says Cherkowski.
This chance encounter in a University of Saskatchewan hallway became a pivotal moment for Cherkowski, as she changed her application to pursue a master’s in educational administration and leadership on the spot.
“I delved into the land of theory — both organizational and leadership — and a lot of my original interest in educational counselling was reflected in what I was studying,” says Cherkowski with a smile. “I loved it. I soon realized my passion for theory, and specifically looking at how making change in education happens throughout the different system levels.”
Cherkowski’s graduate research offered her a glimpse into understanding how universities were impacting educational improvements. When the Department Head encouraged her to pursue a doctoral degree, it seemed like a natural next step.
At the time, educators had begun to formalize ways to foster collaborative learning amongst colleagues. Teachers would form professional learning communities with their peers to share ideas, seek solutions and focus on continuous improvements. Cherkowski decided to explore these emerging communities for her doctoral research.
“Professional learning communities really resonated with me, because they brought together leadership and professional learning. It was people coming together to learn in different and new ways,” says Cherkowski.
Her specific research analyzed what conditions create commitment to the organization in terms of professional learning. For her research, and as part of her doctoral degree, Cherkowski was often visiting schools and assisting with school reviews. It didn’t take long before she realized that being a professor was a perfect way to combine all her passions.
“I have a true love of learning — it’s part of why I love being a teacher,” says Cherkowski. “I found a real fit with my interest in theory and conceptual models, and as a professor, I’m able to continue being involved in academic research while also staying connected to teaching.”
INSPIRING HUMAN CONNECTIONS
“One of my first jobs was lifeguarding,” reminisces Cherkowski, “There was one student in particular who I remember teaching to swim from one end of the pool to the other without touching down, and when he finally did it by himself….” She pauses. “The memory still makes me almost as excited as I was that day.
“It wasn’t just about him making it across the pool,” she explains. “It was about all the opportunities that now opened up for him that made me so happy for him. He could now play water polo or join the other kids in the deep end at free swim. I think a lot of teaching is just about connecting with humans, seeing their potential, and helping them see it in ways that will allow them to grow.”
In recent years, Cherkowski has been exploring what it means for an educator to grow their potential, and how teacher wellbeing is an essential component to a positive workspace. Along with colleague Keith Walker from the University of Saskatchewan, Cherkowski developed a conceptual model of what is now known as “flourishing in schools.”
“Our research started moving beyond the idea of wellbeing as ‘being happy’ to learning what influences teachers who feel whole, engaged and fulfilled,” says Cherkowski. “We developed some conceptual ideas around what it would mean to look at wellbeing from a wholeness perspective.”
Over the last several years, Cherkowski and Walker have been interviewing and surveying educators and education leaders across Canada to learn how to create conditions that help people flourish.
“Teachers told us over and over again that they have a sense of flourishing when they’re working together with others to make a difference in their students’ lives,” says Cherkowski. “That’s why it’s so important for new teachers to build relationships wherever they can, and to do so in a way that extends beyond their career.”
Joined by Benjamin Kutsyuruba from Queens University, the next stage of Cherkowski and Walker’s research is to look at the education leaders’ role in developing their school’s community.
“What we’ve found so far is that the formal school leader is very important in creating conditions for these communities to build,” says Cherkowski. “Many of the stories people shared with us that involve laughter, lightness or enjoyment at work includes the principal or vice-principal as being part of the community.”
In recognition of her innovative research, Cherkowski received UBC Okanagan’s 2020 Researcher of the Year award for Social Sciences and Humanities in 2020.
When reflecting on her own community experiences, Cherkowski expressed gratitude for those who have invested in helping her find her way.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have found communities of colleagues who have supported, mentored and encouraged me,” says Cherkowski. “Those communities are an essential piece of how I’ve been able to do the research that I do.”