I have remained largely silent, at least in online conversations, regarding the recent mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Over the course of the last few days, I have had a variety of emotions that have included deep and pervasive sadness, anger, hopelessness, and fury, to name a few. I have been unable to sleep, and when I have finally slept, I have woken up and felt a deep and immediate sadness that has made it impossible to fall back asleep.
Full disclosure. I feel I compelled to say the following: I am ANGRY. I am PISSED OFF. I am SCARED. I am DEPRESSED (thankfully, not the kind of depression where I need to take anything stronger than melatonin and valerian root). Yes, I am all of these things. And, I am working at really being ok with feeling how I feel and not self-medicating. I have learned from previous experiences that although my emotions can be difficult to handle, I would rather feel the way I am feeling than self-medicate in order to numb or dull my emotions. My emotions are telling me to ACT. And also, today, I experienced JOY (feeding my daughter- she was laughing), CONTENTMENT (on a walk), and LAUGHTER (talking with a friend on the phone).
I have followed other people’s postings and thoughts regarding the tragedy. It has been difficult for me to put in to words how I feel, but now I do want to contribute to the larger conversation from my perspective as a mom and a teacher.
I am a public school educator and work at a small public high school south of Seattle, Washington in the Highline School District. Our school is comprised of students from a variety of backgrounds. About 70% of our students meet the federal free and reduced lunch guidelines. I am also a parent of a one year old daughter. Here are a few things I am thinking about as I try to formulate my own personal next steps in response to the tragedy:
I must act.
It is not enough to say I support gun control. I am reminded of the difference between saying I support something and actually “acting” (i.e. doing something). See Jake Tapper as he questions White House Press Secretary Jay Carney about gun control: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/12/freedom-mental-health-and-guns-todays-qs-for-os-wh-121712/?fb_action_ids=10151297457471067&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_ref=.UM-TUsc-_Oc.like&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=288381481237582
I have voted, but I have not been vocal. As of today, that is changing. I have signed a White House petition and plan to write my local representatives. If anyone has other suggestions for how I can get involved in this effort, please please please let me know. Email: email@example.com
The events at Sandy Hook have changed me.
I do not know personally any of the victims of the murders at Sandy Hook. But those kids might as well be my own students. Those teachers could be my friends, or they could be me. I am changed because of these events. I have heard people say things like “It’s like it’s not even real and it was just a movie.” Nope. Not a bad movie; Not a bad dream. I am not going to pretend this didn’t happen. I am not going to drink red wine and take an Ambien and try to forget about it. (That was my coping mechanism after the Aurora movie theater murders).
Schools can be designed to help students be “well.”
Some of the response to the Sandy Hook murders has focused on the mental health issue in the United States. We certainly need much better mental health access in the United States. Schools can be part of the solution.
In 2005, I began working with high school students in the Highline School District just south of Seattle, Washington. I have had a variety of positions including: student intern in a Social Studies and English Language class, teacher’s assistant in English language, substitute teacher (all subjects), classroom teacher (grades 9-12, Social Studies endorsement, specific focus on project based learning, internships, and parent engagement), English language teacher, and college and career counselor for students at our school.
I could write for way too long about my specific work at my school, Highline Big Picture, but right now I will specifically focus on some of what I want to write about I’ve seen related to mental health.
Some of our students come from poverty–stricken homes, and some students have been experienced domestic or sexual abuse, homelessness, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, or other trauma. I have counseled students about these sorts of events over the course of my work in the Highline School District. Because our school is small, and because we focus on the sense of belonging and connection that is often lacking in traditional schools, some of our students that face mental health issues such as depression, suicidal thoughts, or thoughts of rage towards others are able to heal in this environment.
I will say, though, that there is no magic solution. Here are some conditions I think that have some potential for healing students:
- A total and complete acceptance for wherever a student is, emotionally, physically, and/or academically
- A commitment on the part of adults to put emotional needs ahead of academic ones, or to figure out what might work best for the individual student
- An approach that works with parents, and lots of individual parent conferences (at least 3 per year where parents are a part of the learning team and authentically assess the student)
- An emphasis on students being only compared with their own best work and being assessed narratively instead of through grades that may compare them with other students
- Students being mentored by adults in the community that are in fields that are of interest to them
- Students who mentor younger students (middle school or elementary school) and teach what they know, thus building self-esteem and knowledge acquired in a field
- Students who exercise leadership, a passion for learning more about things they care about, and commit to giving their voice when it comes to real and authentic decision making at the school level
I feel strongly that there are certain components of our typical high school that are not addressing these skills that would lead to a stronger, more positive self-concept. I do know that mental health issues are a huge problem at the high school level. At our school, we partner with agencies that work with student on a myriad of wellness related issues. I do not believe that counseling alone is the answer. When we have parents, teachers, students, families, social works, mental health counselors, and community mentors on board, we are approaching solutions. This is what my school does well.
We work with students to combat the pervasive sense of isolation and disconnection. The problem I think has gotten worse. When I first started teaching in 2004, no one had access to an iPhone and texting was pretty rare. In the past few years, many of the teachers and students have smart phones and access to entertainment and technology in the classroom. This can contribute to the larger problem of isolation and lack of connection.
Therefore, we are charged with an even higher mission: We must have our schools be a place of community with focus on skills such as leadership, mentorship, community experience, and depth of knowledge as key components of the curriculum. This means re-thinking the way we “do” schools.
Students need to learn how to read, write, and think numerically, of course. But, in what context? We need schools that teach students how to work together, think critically, be leaders, lead younger students, and connect with people in their community in fields that they care about. As Brene Brown has said, “We are hardwired for community and connection.” http://www.amazon.com/Daring-Greatly-Courage-Vulnerable-Transforms/dp/1592407331/ref=sr_1_fed0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1355809396&sr=8-1&keywords=daring+greatly
Let our high schools be a place where community and connection can exist and thrive. We will begin to address mental illness in young teens when we are able to accept one another for who we are, and start from that place in building curriculum to teach students. I am always a little skeptical when I hear teachers tell me they are writing curriculum before they even know their students. What if the curriculum was based on what the students think they need, instead of what we as the adults think the students need? What if our approach to school was based on meeting students where they are at, instead of trying to force them to be something they are not? What is school was a place of belonging, love and laughter instead of high stakes testing, fear, and “trying to fit in”? What if teachers could advise, coach, and love instead of grade and demand, thus instilling competition? What if assessments encouraged further growth instead of encouraging comparisons and a need to compete?
I do not have the answers for curing students that have mental health problems. However, I do think we have some significant evidence to suggest that we know that we can change the school’s role in order to help students who may have mental health problems such as depression, suicidal thoughts, oppositional defiance through community building, leadership, connection and belonging at the high school level.
The further work…
I am committed to working towards two end goals: One, to ensure we enact stricter gun legislation so that we can help ensure the safety of our citizens. Two, to help our schools to create a sense of community and belonging and to help students foster a strong sense of self through leadership and community experience, connections to adult mentors in the community, and authentic leadership experience with younger students. If you want to join me in either of these efforts, be in touch with me via Facebook, this blog, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
All my heart and love goes out to anyone impacted by the tragic events last Friday.