NL·Point of View

How a 'Comfort Cove' helps a teacher and her students recharge

It started out as a respite for teacher Angela Dawe, who was on the verge of burnout. Now she’s recharged and sharing her “Comfort Cove” space with students at lunchtime.

Beanbag chairs and low lighting turn classroom into lunchtime retreat

Junior high teacher Angela Dawe was close to burnout last year when she came up with an idea to give her students a quiet and inviting space to hang out in during lunchtime. (Submitted by Angela Dawe)

It's really true what they say — a year can make a difference.

Last year, a colleague of mine and I coined a hashtag: #defeated. We didn't actually use it in any tweets, but it summed up how we were feeling within the confines of the education system.

We had a long list of concerns: the inadequately resourced inclusion model; large class sizes with complex compositions; chronic behavioural challenges; and dire mental health needs that continue to go unaddressed.

I needed a strategy for survival. I was feeling low and unhealthy. I was ready to walk out the door.- Angela Dawe

And there was more, including deficiencies in social supports for families and youth, incidents of physical violence against teachers, reduced time to teach some subjects and ever-increasing demands on teachers.

It all combined to take a heavy toll. 

I needed a strategy for survival. I was feeling low and unhealthy. I was ready to walk out the door and not return. This is not what any parent wants to hear from their child's teacher, and it is not what I want for myself, professionally or personally.

A student relaxing with a good book in the classroom that teacher Angela Dawe turns into what she calls Comfort Cove during the lunch hour. (Angela Dawe)

I dug down and brainstormed ways to be able to find the light to reignite my once exuberant and infectiously fun persona. Without quite realizing it was happening, I started eating by myself in my classroom at lunchtime. I dimmed the lights and listened to some quiet, relaxing music.

It was what was keeping me going. This time of silence, reflection, planning and recuperation from the stresses of the morning was powerful and somewhat rejuvenating. 

Eureka moment

One Saturday morning, I had a eureka moment. If I was benefiting from this quiet time — a siesta, if you will — during the middle of my school day, surely there were students who would benefit from such an experience as well.

I decided to turn my classroom into what I call Comfort Cove. Named for its connection to Newfoundland, and its metaphor for a safe and quiet haven for those wanting to escape the stormy seas, it became my new project. 

I initially brought in a couch that I didn't need anymore. I also brought in several pieces of lawn furniture and beanbag chairs that I garnered from a friend. I gathered crossword, logic, Sudoku and see-a-word puzzles, plus math sheets, colouring sheets and information on how to focus the mind through writing in a journal.

Teacher Angela Dawe brought this comfy seating into her classroom for junior high school students looking for a peaceful place to hang out at lunchtime. (Angela Dawe)

I created some slides that project reinforced self-worth, self-confidence, and basic mindfulness concepts.  I invited students into my Comfort Cove to share a quiet place at lunchtime. 

It was immediately successful. At the end of June 2017, I was honoured to receive an Educator's Innovation Award from the Newfoundland and Labrador Education Foundation. It came with a small grant that enabled me to expand and heighten the experience for what I call my Comfort Covers. To see the students benefit was just the kindling I needed for my fire. 

Positive feedback

Today anywhere from 10 to 20 students hang out in my classroom at lunchtime. They like to play with the sand tables, listen to music, read, close their eyes, play with the Rubik's Cube or the Etch-a-Sketch.

There is soft music playing. Some students opt to listen to their own music using earbuds. There is no talking. It's their choice if they want to use their phones to text or browse online. 

The students offer positive feedback each and every day. They truly appreciate this space, and make it known with their gracious words of thanks. 

One of the many ways students can pass the time in Comfort Cove. They're allowed to use their smartphones for texting or surfing the web, but the room is a quiet zone. (Angela Dawe)
 Here are a few of their testimonials: 
  • "I'm a pretty bookish, introverted person, and while I love hanging out with my friends, being around a ton of people for six hours a day, five days a week can be exhausting. Comfort Cove gives me a chance to go somewhere quiet, read my book or study, and relax so I can be better prepared to learn for the rest of the day."
  •  "Comfort Cove is perfect. It's calming and stressless. I get anxiety in big crowds which makes the cafeteria almost suffocating to be in." 
  • "What I like about Comfort Cove is it's a really quiet, safe space. I can take a nap when I'm tired. I like that I can go to escape the noise."
  •  "I like the crossword puzzles and logic puzzles. They keep my mind occupied."
  •  "Sometimes I just meditate and I don't feel judged."
  •  "It helps me relax so that I can concentrate in my next class." 

These quotes alone are enough to let me know that Comfort Cove is making a positive difference in the lives of my students and, in turn, is helping them socially and academically. 

Some of the many activities on hand for students who venture into Comfort Cove. It's a quiet place with low lighting, soft music and sand tables for students who prefer a calming lunch hour. (Angela Dawe)

The problems I noted earlier persist in the public school system. Comfort Cove has not solved this. I worry especially about behavioural problems, including the threat of physical violence in the classroom, and the impact on both students' well-being and their educational outcomes.

Major systemic issues need to be addressed. I'm talking about disrespectful attitudes, foul language in the classroom and a refusal to participate in classroom activities. Many teachers see these behaviours every day. 

That's a story for another day. Until then, you'll catch me practising mindfulness and recharging my battery in Comfort Cove. 

Angela Dawe teaches music, social studies and religion at a junior high school on the northeast Avalon Peninsula.