In High School, the Kids Are Not All Right
Not long ago, I lost one of my first students to suicide. Although the student was no longer in my class or even at the school at the time, I was overcome with the usual wave of emotions: tremendous sadness, intermittent despair, and compulsive frame-by-frame replays of every interaction between us and our teachers. I was devastated by the loss. Those who knew the student and his family, as well as myself, were devastated, as was the rest of the world, which I believed the student would contribute to shaping.
I was tormented, and I continue to be haunted, by the thought of a similar tragedy occurring among my frazzled and worried pupils. And the recent surge in teen suicides in my neighborhood has brought this worry to the forefront of everyone’s mind.
The lives of the high school students I teach are constantly being encircled by social pressures and expectations: high-stakes testing, the looming shadow of college admissions, the fiercely competitive school system, the painful process of figuring out who you are, and the ubiquitous desire to be accepted by your peers, to name a few. Combine this with unseen pressures such as broken or fragmented family lives, emotional or physical violence, and abuse, struggles with substance abuse, legal problems, and the wide range of issues faced by the many immigrant communities across the country, and you have the makings of an unsustainable period of mental anguish. Since then, the continual strain has forced me to deal with student sadness nearly every day and to assist individuals who I believe may be on the verge of self-harm to cope.
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There are numerous options available to students who are suffering from mental health issues—most of them are aimed toward college students or—more tragically—at elementary and middle school-aged youngsters. The few resources that do provide solutions geared to high school pupils are either overly intellectual or so general as to be completely ineffective in their intended purpose. My notes from the dual certificate and master’s program reveal inconsistencies and a severe lack of clarity, which I find aggravating when reviewing them. Things like teaching positive management practices and building emotional competency, educating employees on mental health issues, and encouraging social support are examples of strategies.
Because I am a practical teacher, I do not find this particularly beneficial. I also see two common—and often ineffective—mental health treatments employed to assist high school students who appear to be experiencing difficulties daily in my professional life. Take some time to relax and then get caught up on your work. If the advice is expressed differently, it is almost always a variant on a subject that has been established. Students are encouraged to take the adolescent equivalent of a personal day and then complete their assignments as needed. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone. It’s something I’ve done myself.
In my situation, it was dissatisfaction that prompted me to look for better answers. With the help of recent conversations with mental health professionals I trust, with colleagues who have a long history of putting students’ mental well-being first—and of course with students—I’ve compiled a list of strategies that classroom teachers can use to not only treat the symptoms of students’ mental health problems but also to address the underlying issues.
5 STRATEGIES FOR PROMOTING HIGH SCHOOLERS’ MENTAL WELL-BEING
1. Ask, “How are you doing?” and mean it. For the past six years, I’ve greeted my high school pupils with a handshake and a variation on that question as they walked through the front entrance of my school. If I detect an issue, I might inquire, “Really?” or “Are you sure?” Students should be reassured that someone adult in their life is concerned about their well-being, and the data strongly supports this point of view, in my opinion.
Although students do not always answer truthfully, their responses might indicate a great deal about their true mental and emotional well-being. I go through my class roster after each student has finished the warm-up and note whether students were sad or otherwise unwell at the time.
I believe it is a good goal to seek out one meaningful check-in with every student throughout an ordinary month, regardless of how they appear to be doing. The instructor will have established a meaningful one-on-one relationship with the student, and the student will understand that the teacher is concerned about their well-being. Furthermore, it is simple and inexpensive in terms of time investment, yet it can offer significant results.
2. Establish office hours. This is a policy that I’ve adapted from some of the best teachers I’ve had the pleasure of working with: Establish regular office hours and make use of them to speak with students regarding a variety of topics other than academic issues. Using the scenario above, I will aim to meet with each of my students once per semester at a time that is convenient for them outside of class time and utilize the meeting to learn more about who they are, what their academic goals are, and any other problems they may have. Most of the time, these conversations progress into the more significant ground; most of my students simply want or require someone with whom to communicate. The biggest criticism is that this will take a significant amount of time, which I agree with. It takes a lot of time, but I believe it is worthwhile.
3. Keep Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in mind. It may seem cliche to point this out, but during all the testing and grading, we must keep in mind that mental health always takes precedence over academic accomplishment. Students who do not feel grounded, protected, or healthy are unable to perform at their highest levels. Alternative approaches that allow students to feel encouraged and competent first—and then consciously and explicitly increase the difficulty and complexity as needed—should be considered instead of creating an environment that runs at 100 percent tough all of the time I strive to adhere to a form of curricular minimalism that includes lots of guided and autonomous low-stakes practice, which culminates in a manageable set of summative assignments for students.
4. Take into consideration what is important. I’ve discussed makeup work with some former and present coworkers on some occasions. When a student fails to complete an assignment on time, many believe that the student should be held responsible for completing it as soon as they are able after returning to school. Others advocate taking a gardener’s method, which involves trimming the content down to its most crucial branch. Teachers must assess what work, what skills, and what benchmarks are genuinely important for student success when a student is absent.
Even if I disagreed with a colleague’s suggestion that not all assignments matter and even those that do matter don’t all matter the same, the theory has lots of merits, and I encourage you to consider it. Whenever a student falls behind in his or her work, consider eliminating assignments or cutting down the work. Most essential, explain to the student why the exception has been made. They will appreciate the clarity and sensitivity, and the majority of them will respond by exercising greater discipline to achieve more manageable goals shortly.
5. Enlist the assistance of professionals. When compared to the support, tools, and advice provided by experts, even the finest efforts of teachers pale in comparison. The importance of getting to know your on-site school psychologists or mental health counselors (if you are lucky enough to have them) or finding those very crucial names and phone numbers cannot be overstated, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. The sensitivity, care, and ability to identify underlying issues far beyond my knowledge have impressed me in every mental health professional I’ve encountered in education. They also explain the connection between a student’s case history and my observations in a way that is both useful and crystal clear. Although teachers are trained to be self-sufficient and avoid seeking aid from those outside the classroom, we are not mental health specialists, and so require this type of assistance.
And don’t forget to engage in conversation with someone. This final technique highlights the need for self-care. I’ve seen teachers look just as punch-drunk as students, sometimes suffering from the same anxiousness and depression. Teachers must make an attempt to converse with their students, especially given the adage that “each classroom is its kingdom,” which is still largely true today. A teacher who is burdened with the difficulties and tribulations of their hundred or more students—as well as their struggles—will not have the mental space to be a compassionate, alert, and successful shepherd.
Whether it’s in small doses with a spouse or significant other, structured sessions with a therapist, or even informational conversations with colleagues, getting those feelings and thoughts out of your head will make you more capable of responding to the needs of others.