As an educator, can you speak about what you’ve seen in terms of mental health issues with the kids you teach in the last year?
WHITE: There were glaring mental health issues that arose and that collectively we as a staff observed, from lack of socialization to complete social withdrawal and various forms of anxiety. Now coming back to school, we’re seeing separation anxiety as it relates to having to leave families and parents. We saw a lot of depression and issues related to self regulation. ADHD, while prevalent pre-pandemic, we know that trauma can exacerbate the impacts of ADHD. There were cases of refusing to do work.
In my classroom, it was important to establish a culture and climate where kids feel safe. There were many opportunities for students to engage with each other and talk about feelings. We had something called a “sharing circle” in our classroom where we would pause between instruction to talk about how we’re feeling. Also, in my classroom, we have a “peace corner.” This was encouraged by our school counselor: Every classroom should have a space where, if a kid is feeling overwhelmed, they can go to journal or, in my case as a second grade teacher, maybe they just want to hold a stuffed animal and then re-enter into instruction when they feel more balanced.
What are some coping strategies that can be taught to students, teachers or parents who are feeling overwhelmed?
CHARLTON: As a practitioner, one of my concerns is making sure that the teachers are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to cope with the stresses in education. They’re often not trained on how to do those things. They’re very focused and stressed and dealing with curriculum, and sometimes they feel like it’s extra work for them even though we know that it’s essential because of COVID. It has always been essential, but I think it’s really important that districts focus on using funding for wellness and to get teachers trained so that they feel comfortable.
I’ve seen students be re-traumatized and triggered because someone who teaches a core content subject didn’t have the skill set to do that emotional work. Teaching a teacher the specific skills and giving them a choice of skills because there’s a myriad of things that you can use. And then making sure we’re checking in with them to see if it’s working for them.
When everyone went back to school for COVID, there were a lot of these things that were mentioned, but not necessarily properly implemented because of time and space. And so if we’re truly talking about emotional wellness for teachers, we’re not talking about cramming more things on their plate. We’re talking about making sure that we’re creating space for them to think and to collaborate and to implement with intention.
What are some of the strategies that your district has used to address learning loss?
SPRAGUE: We had quite a bit of discussion and then our senior leadership in the district came to us with a kind of a crazy idea of hiring new teachers to do co-teaching in our K-3 classrooms. And then they added another 16 teachers. The benefits were incredible. And let me add to that we moved some of the support staff we had at K-3 and moved it up to fourth through sixth. I have not seen the end-of-the-year results yet, but midway through the year we saw incredible results from what we had the previous year. Students in math and reading were far below where they needed to be at the midpoint of the year, and with those additional teachers, we are now far surpassing where we need to be.
Why are teachers struggling so much and why is education such a difficult field to be in right now?
CHARLTON: A lot of it is teachers feel devalued in this work because they have not been humanized as the first responders that they are. We upheld our hospital workers and we praise them, but teachers were doing their job and they were at home with their families. They were displaced as well. And so they don’t feel taken care of. There’s the moral injury that’s taken place: Am I really valued in the work that I’m doing? Do I feel appreciated? Education has an uphill battle with meeting their emotional needs, not just telling them to meet the needs of their students.
WHITE: Teachers have struggled with deteriorating relationships with parents. I know that within our school district, it’s a real aim to engage families. We have a committee dedicated to family engagement and advocating for parent partnerships.
HILL: We really want to focus on culture. Starting with the staff’s mental health, which is going to then meet the needs of the students where they’re at in an urban, impoverished environment. There are a lot of outside forces that we don’t have the ability to handle or help with so we try to control what’s within our walls and that starts with providing a safe environment where students and adults feel supported, loved, and able to move forward and move past and all the trauma they’ve experienced over the past three to four years.
What is being done in your district to address teacher shortages?
SMITH: There’s this nationwide shortage, but I want us to also get away from putting everything on the shortage. People want to be valued, people want to be heard. I think one of the things that we can do more of is just listening to teachers.
One of the things that our district and our board had really pushed on was when teachers leave, are we doing real exit interviews? Are we finding out why are they leaving so we don’t see those same things come up when someone else leaves?
Now we’re doing check-ins at 30-day intervals. And it’s not a “we want to come in and catch you doing something wrong,” it’s, “I just want to come in and check on you.” Not how you’re doing as the teacher, but how do we just check on the person that is the teacher?
Teaching is a labor of love. But if you talk to a lot of the teachers that leave, they’re not leaving because they hate teaching. They’re leaving because they don’t like the teaching profession and all that comes with it.
We created a new Urban Teacher Academy with four of our local universities to grow our own. A large percentage of teachers in our district have only been here for one to five years, and then you have another large percentage that have been here 20 or more years. So then if you look at it and your forecast, how are you making sure you’re training up those teachers for the future?
Our board has been really pushing to do a better job of listening to teachers and asking what they need. And then on our end, how do we make sure that we support our teachers with what they need and make sure they grow?
HILL: We were able to secure blocks of time with mental health therapists for our teachers, free of charge. They filled up the blocks within a week.
We recently secured a grant with Wittenberg University here in Springfield, to kind of help grow our own. Why would we not create our own teacher programs? Why would we not focus on those high school kids that might have an interest in education and find them opportunities to pair with our veteran teachers and our younger teachers and really learn the field? And then we’ve created our own pipeline of people to rejuvenate, revitalize the whole field of education.
Also, I think one of the greatest detriments to us right now and education in general is the social media noise. People can hide behind screens and criticize educators, principals, board members, superintendents, and that causes an extreme level of stress on everyone and it really leads to why people want to leave.
What are some effective things that parents can do at home with their children to support learning efforts?
WHITE: First, I want to talk about how important it is that we keep an open line of communication with parents. I make sure that parents understand this is not a “Genea show” by any stretch. I want this to be a dedicated partnership as you and I partner together to enrich your child, so just making parents authentically feel that they always have a seat at the table. Doing that, taking opportunities to invite parents in, whether it’s to be a guest speaker or to share with teaching kids how to do a special craft, or sharing a storybook. Inviting parents in, making sure that parents are always aware of what it is we’re working on in the classroom so that what kids are being taught can carry over at home and parents can see and be a part of that enrichment.
CHARLTON: I think one of the things I learned as a parent that I didn’t learn until I was a coach was to just pay more attention. Don’t allow them to close off. Trying to eat dinner together, finding common family time where you’re checking in with them. And also making sure that you’re having conversation, whether it’s in the car, whether it’s on the way to school, but really checking in with your child so that you can hear how they’re showing up emotionally.
A lot of times, youth will pretend to be okay, but they’re not. And so I see a lot of that when I’m coaching students, their parents don’t have any idea that they’re really struggling. So making sure that you’re checking in with them. And let me ask the school for help or let me ask my doctor for help. Let me ask someone to help me with this child because they’re not going to be academically strong if they’re not emotionally strong. So as parents, I think our kids are easily distracted and we owe it to them to really check in with them. Physically, look at them, sit down with them, and check and make sure that they’re okay emotionally so that they can be better academically.