Asking Questions that May Lead to Better Mental Health Support for Black Students and Students of Color

This blog post, like many of my posts, is my version of processing my own thinking and emotions “out loud” with others so I can learn and grow best. Please excuse how disjointed it may read as I try to put all my thoughts coherently together. With this post, I was fortunate enough that my good friend, Desmond Hasty, was willing to collaborate and co-process with me as the concept for this post was due to a powerful conversation we had regarding mental health and beginning the next school year.

In the area where I live, we have a large population of people who have immigrated here from Mexico. Some of them are documented, some of them are not. Some students’ parents have become citizens, some students are the first to have been born here. When there have been heated political discussion about immigration laws and deportation (regardless of how anyone feels on the issue) teachers in our area watched our Latinx students’ fear and uncertainty rise up. They couldn’t tell anyone how they felt because they were either unsure they should feel it or they didn’t want to get their family in trouble. Some of them didn’t even know what questions to ask to begin a conversation. Some of them became quiet and reclusive. Some of them began to show behaviors consistent with trauma. When the pictures of children in cages being separated from their parents began to cross the airways, things got even worse. It didn’t matter whether they were technically able to get deported or not, many feared for their lives and those of their family members. Learning about square roots and how to conjugate a verb doesn’t seem that important when you’re facing possible deportation and being caged. In the midst of this kind of upheaval, I witnessed the mental health toll that the situation was taking on our students and their families. I have never forgotten the looks on their faces. The way their parents seemed to age 10 years in a few months. It was like watching trauma every day unfold before my eyes.

I feel this same way about what has been happening in our country as of late with the murder of unarmed Black people by police officers, but particularly with the murder of George Floyd because the actual act (as in the video of his death) was so highly publicized. We know that racism all by itself breeds its own traumatic impact whether it’s systemic or specific experiences. The constant fear and hypervigilance that it takes to be Black or a person of color has to mimic the feelings of constant and ongoing abuse. We have never done nearly enough to address racism in our schools even though we are willing to begin to discuss mental health. We often address mental health as a way to moderate behaviors instead of a way to keep kids healthy and happy. 

In this article titled 4 ways to cope with racial trauma amid the coronavirus pandemic author Courtney Connley writes,

“Racial trauma,” according to marriage and family therapist Dr. George James, “is the physical and psychological impact, and sometimes symptoms, on people of color who have experienced racism.” This includes seeing and hearing about the deaths of George FloydBreonna TaylorAhmaud Arbery and countless others. It also includes feeling and experiencing injustices in everyday life through the microaggressions black people face inside and outside of work.“An accumulation of all of this,”…“creates racial trauma.”

So, as we move into next school year, there are some questions that we (Desmond and I) have been thinking about in regard to our Black students and students of color hoping that in highlighting these realities we may be able to support students more effectively instead of backpedaling. We definitely do not have all the answers, but right now, we do have a lot of questions. We also know that we haven’t thought of them all and I encourage anyone reading to please add to the questions and/or comment with thoughts. We feel like if we don’t answer these questions, more trauma will ensue.

How can we support Black or students of color who may be too young to have the vocabulary/words to express the worries they have and the questions they want answered?

How do we support Black or students of color who don’t feel like their schools are safe places (if they did feel that way before) due to teachers being seen as authorities (as are police officers) and not knowing if they can feel safe/will be protected by White teachers (perception of not being protected or feeling safe)?

How do we emotionally support students when they find their White friends may not be the anti-racists they thought they were? How do we support and understand their grief and also address the issue of racism?

How can we be more understanding of the trauma behaviors we may see increasing as school returns? How can we provide additional support, whether that be counseling services or otherwise?

Whether school continues online or not, will we see an uptick in student truancy that is rooted in fear of systemic racism?

What impact is having guards and school liaison officers going to have particularly if they are stationed with uniforms and guns? With incidents of school shootings, how do we balance the trauma that may be present between watching a police officer murder a man with safety measures that have been put in place due to armed intruders?

How, as a community, do we move forward with an anti-racist message? How are we going to communicate that being actively anti-racist is the focus of the district? How is the district going to react when someone openly disagrees in order to best support our Black students/families and students of color and their families? How are we going to recognize and address the systemic racism in our own districts?

I never claim to have all the answers but I have addressed mental health long enough to understand that there needs to be additional support offered to everyone. I think this help should address concerns starting from mid-pandemic, to going back into our schools, and well beyond that. Many of our Black students and students of color are going to have feelings and traumas that are heightened even beyond the systemic racism they experience daily. Beginning to address these issues is really just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully will be the catalyst to real change in the view of mental health in schools and the specific support that our students need.

Additional Resources:

Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom: A Resource for Educators by NCTSN

Racism as Trauma: Clinical Perspectives from Social Work and Psychology by Donielle Prince (ACES Connection Staff)

4 ways to cope with racial trauma amid the coronavirus pandemic by Courtney Connley

Resources to Support Children’s Emotional Well-Being Amid Anti-Black Racism, Racial Violence, and Trauma by Dominique Parris, Victor St. John, Jessica Dym Bartlett

The Return to School: Asking the Great Questions

When we think about this fall, the only thing we know for sure is that nothing is going to be the same. Our choices to begin school and determining the way we want to go can vary depending on everything from the number of community Covid-19 cases to typical class size versus the room size to the availability of technology. We had pandemic learning spotlight areas of equity that have always been present in education. Socio-economic disparity, the technology know-how/attitude toward education and background of caregivers, the tech-savviness and prior innovation background of administrators and teachers, and wifi access to rural areas, as examples, have always been challenges that we have needed to address. With pandemic learning, they just became more pronounced and now districts know they need to be considerations moving forward. We have learned a lot about what not to do, but are still unsure what the right answers are. Unchartered territory calls for unchartered answers.

I’ve spoken with districts who are trying to be as innovative as possible moving forward and who recognize that there is a fine line between changing everything up and overwhelming staff and students, and having the desire not to go back to the way things used to be. They understand that this could be our opportunity to do exactly what we have wanted to do in education: disrupt. When I think about our world right now in so many areas, I look at it as if we have taken everything we have and tossed it in the air. We have the opportunity to pull down only the best parts and put them back into place, and replace anything we don’t want with something better. The issue is that “better” can look different depending on the eyes of the beholder, and humanity doesn’t have the best track record of making awesome decisions when the stuff hits the fan.

In search of this something better, I have heard questions being asked that may indicate what seems to be the driving factor going into next year for some people. But as we seek answers to our wonderings, I suggest we also put our own personal-professional agendas aside and take some quiet time to really reflect on what our world has been for the last few months (and foreseeable future). Ask yourself if the questions you’ve been asking are the ones you want to drive the district/your classroom into next year.

Good Questions

There are definitely questions that still need to be addressed. These questions would be ones I’ve heard that sound like:

How can we get more devices to our students? More Wifi?

How are we going to fill the learning gaps for students who struggled/never attended pandemic learning?

What online platform/tools should we be purchasing in case we need to continue online?

How can we create buy-in for teachers to want to be Google EDU certified?

These questions are good. I feel like they are ones that can and should be answered after the great questions have been asked.

Great Questions

The great questions are the ones that pop into your head when you stop thinking like an organizer and start looking at the people around you and asking them how they are and how the decisions of the organization are impacting them. I have spoken with teachers and administrators who took pandemic learning by the horns and enjoyed the challenge of owning it. I’ve spoken to many more teachers and administrators, however, who were exhausted and overwhelmed by the end of the year. Teachers who have said that they can’t do that again and are thinking about leaving the profession because that’s not what they signed up for. Teachers and administrators who were working 17 hour days because they didn’t know how and weren’t equipped to set boundaries for online learning. Students who dropped out of school the second it went online. Frustrated and exhausted parents, especially if those parents were also teachers or admin. So, great questions, in my opinion, address these issues. The human issues.

How is the staff holding up?
I have spoken to very few teachers who haven’t said to me, “I finally got the chance to try (insert tech tool here) and was able to learn it, and I’m so (happy, excited, proud of myself) and that is absolutely AMAZING. If you had that experience I’m so happy for you. All things considered, that truly is quite an accomplishment. My concern is for the people who are also exhausted, and even if they enjoyed learning something new, have a bit of struggle in their heart for education after the massive shift that had to happen in a moment’s notice. I’ve written a few posts about it that can be found here and here. This is one of the questions that may need to be answered by actually looking at people. We don’t take the time to stop and notice very often.

How do we make people feel safe going forward?
It’s interesting to me how the meaning of safe has morphed within the last few months. We haven’t had to worry about active shooter incidents as much, but have had to worry about catching a virus. If a choice is made to return to schools in the fall, we will need to worry about both, unfortunately. This question is going to need to be broken down into many more questions, all of which are imperative to answer. How many students can fit on a bus if they are not wearing masks. If they are? What about the students who ride public transportation typically? Will parents be able to choose to have their child continue to attend school online if they are feeling too unsafe to send them? If so, what happens if the parents need to go back to work and the child must go to daycare? Are they going to be required to attend online sessions/get work done with a daycare provider? Will parents be required to wear masks in schools, and if so, where will they get one if they don’t have one? How are teachers going to teach classes if they have a pre-existing health condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus should they get it? How will our decisions impact our staff and students personally? As examples.

How are you going to increase staff’s baseline knowledge of trauma and incorporate embedded SEL competencies into online learning?
I was speaking to one of the districts that I consult with on a regular basis and brought up how SEL was going to be addressed in their online environment if either they needed to be online for next semester OR at minimum in the online program that they are creating. I was excited to hear that they had already contacted their purchased SEL curriculum company to find out how it could be morphed to being online (some of the videos were still VHS, for example). My question is, however, how can we embed SEL experiences into what we already do? I find that if a program isn’t embedded in learning that is already happening, it becomes the next typing program where it’s done when we have an extra 15 minutes to spare only. Also, understanding that SEL and “student engagement” are not synonymous terms and that SEL incorporates deeper competencies (see CASEL.org) is imperative.

In addition, if we return to the brick-and-mortar setting, the level of trauma experienced by some of our students along with the behaviors they might exhibit because of it may be increased. It is also important for educators to be able to recognize some issues with trauma within themselves or understand what vicarious trauma is so they don’t start to detach.

How are you going to fill the learning gaps in educator’s knowledge of online learning so they are more comfortable with online/blended learning?
And some of you may be saying, “Um, you just said asking for buy-in for learning was only a good question.” I sort of did. The difference being that sometimes this question is correlated to how can we make people better instead of the great question of how can we fill in the learning gaps of educators so they are more comfortable and less stressed in what they do. When we do the latter the former will follow as well as people will feel supported. While some may complain about mandatory PDs, the truth is that good professional learning opportunities teach educators what they need to do to do their jobs well, therefore taking some of the stress off the educator from the alternative of “figure out how to do it well because you’re a professional.” Professional learning should support areas for healthy growth and innovative thinking therefore making educators less nervous and apprehensive about getting online again or the necessity of offering a blended option in the fall.

The best questions we ask will always be human-centered. This is especially important in the midst of a crisis. I do believe that there is value in all questions we ask as all of them will provide a more proactive approach to any issue. The questions we ask and focus on, though, will not only drive our decisions but will also send a message as to what we value as a district, school, and classroom. By beginning with and focusing on human-focused questions we will not only be sending the message that our people are cared for and safe and we believe the best learning will grow from that, but we will be setting up an environment where educators and students believe that message to be true.

To learn more about educator engagement and mental health, check out my newly released book Reignite the Flames: Finding our passion and purpose for learning among the embers, the follow-up to my first book, The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning.

Educator Mental Health and the New Hot Topic

Years ago when I began speaking about educator mental health, I was met with a lot of blank stares and uncomfortable glances. When I began speaking about educator trauma and the impact of disengagement, I was told that people didn’t want to hear sad things, that educators shouldn’t have mental health issues and if they did, they certainly shouldn’t talk about it. I was told I was going to get fired or I was going to get someone else fired. I was turned down by online education article sites because the content wasn’t something they were “interested in sharing” and by conferences because it rarely fit their theme. But I believed in it wholeheartedly and secretly held onto the idea that it was my purpose and I was at least planting the seed of recognition and destigmatization. 

Lately, the topic of educator mental health has been blowing up. There are books and blogs and podcasts and articles written about educator mental health, adult social-emotional support, mental health issues, and burnout. The pandemic has highlighted the need to support teachers so they can best support students. The emergency learning and in some cases utter chaos that the move to virtual learning has caused has brought about a sincere look at the wellbeing of educators. And the part of me who has been trying to bring attention to this matter for years has finally felt vindicated! Like all the times that I had felt bad about myself because my message wasn’t well received or recognized as valuable is finally worth something. If you have ever been looked at like you were crazy more times than you were accepted, you may understand my point. 

Now, people who weren’t speaking about it before have been practicing their own vulnerability. Articles are being written in regards to the very topics I’ve been toiling over! There is the part of me that is rejoicing that attention to mental health is becoming a more accepted conversation to have (although I believe mental health issues are still off the table in many ways). However, there is the other little part of me that knows how education works. I’ve been in education long enough to understand the New Hot Topic in Education, and the trends tend to wear out and die down, sometimes with a lot of talk and very little action.

When I began speaking about educator mental health and mental health issues it was not because I could see the pandemic coming. It was because being an educator was already challenging and nobody was willing to recognize the toll it was taking. We were in the era of being “for the students” many times meant “at the expense of the adults.” Being an educator is also incredibly rewarding, don’t get me wrong. Living and loving your purpose can be one of the greatest life experiences. But, there has increasingly become an expectation that educators are willing to give up taking care of themselves in order to take care of others. Some may argue that this is not an expectation, but in doing so they’re ignoring the undercurrent of assumptions and martyrdom that are forever present. The pandemic was simply the cherry on top of many already burnt out people. This is not a new phenomenon and it will not go away when the pandemic is gone. This is not a trend. It is not something we can speak about now so people feel they’re heard in their greatest time of need and then forget it later when we move onto another hot topic. This is not a new concept. It is just one that we have been hiding from for a very long time.

My fear is that at the end of this pandemic we are going to settle into our new normal and miss the still present deer-in-the-headlights look that many of our educators are wearing. And in true educator fashion, their students will be doing well because the teachers will be giving everything they have to make sure of it. So, because the students are doing well we will forget to address the educator mental health AND mental health issues because the conversation never continued past educators are burnt out because of the pandemic

No. 

Educators are burnt out because teaching is hard. They also can be demoralized, traumatized, and be facing adversities that we don’t even understand all of which may require different support and coping strategies. Zeroing in on pandemic burnout is missing the bigger picture of how does this look in a month? In the fall? In a year? In five years? The pandemic did not bring on these issues. It only magnified the need that was already there.

Moving forward, the conversation needs to shift from the recognition of “this is what is happening” to the action of “this is what we can do about it.” Bringing attention to the issue is great. That is a fantastic start. This topic doesn’t need to be difficult anymore like it was years ago. We have a catalyst to push us forward and make changes. By bringing action to the conversation the topic of educator mental health, mental health issues, and addressing the whole educator can get teeth into our culture and can become an Expected Education Topic We Address instead of just a New Hot Topic in Education. 

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement, as well as ways to create action in the conversation, in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

The Little Journeys to Self-Healing

One of the reasons that I think mental health can be a difficult concept for some people to make sense of is because it’s so complicated. It’s so multifaceted that when we say to someone, “What’s wrong?” they may be able to start at a million different points in their life where the pain may have originated. And there are so many different moving parts to try to keep up with. For example, for me I have the regular mental health day-to-day stuff: practicing mindfulness, self-care, etc. But I also have the stress of the moment or stress of stuff that is coming up. I try to build resilience for challenges that are unexpected. But, I also need to deal with the pain and mental health issues caused in my childhood, as well as forgiving people who have hurt me, coping with the goals I haven’t met or practicing acceptance for all the things I want to be but I am not. I waver back and forth between trying to stay proficient in my mental health while trying to heal my mental health issues. And it feels like there are only so many things you can do at once.

There are areas I have become pretty close to understanding and accepting as my own. For example, I know my professional purpose. I can tell you that I support teachers because I believe that when we support teachers we best support students. I have known that for years. I know that I have a healing nature and that people feel comfortable enough to open up about topics they would typically feel uncomfortable discussing, hence my knowledge-base and experience discussing mental health. My professional purpose is solid, I feel. I have done the necessary reflective work to know where I belong. However, I also have other areas that need attention. My personal purpose, for example. I’ve been putting in a lot of work trying to figure that out lately. From the existential, why am I here to more practical what is my role in the things that happen to me? But, like mental health is multifaceted, healing and growing is as well. There is so much more than our personal and professional purposes. As humans, we are on multiple journeys at any given time to try to become our best selves. And I’ve found one of these journeys, for me, to be self-love.

This was a realization for me a few counseling sessions ago. I’ve been putting in the real work to try to actually heal. Not the healing that we sometimes do when we place feelings into a box and only sometimes revisit them like a photo album in our head and feel bad and maybe cry before we put them back again, but the kind of permanent healing that allows for forgiveness and to move on. And this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult and taxing and sad to relive old wounds on purpose, forgive people who probably don’t deserve it, and fill the psychological holes that they left and you feel like you shouldn’t be responsible for. It’s been one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done, especially since it is so much more comfortable staying in the anger and sadness where you’re used to. It’s like the epitome of “productive struggle.”

But, I’m roughly 42 years old and I’m just now figuring out that the way I feel about myself isn’t anywhere near healthy. It’s difficult to love yourself as a child when you’re constantly told how worthless you are, but to blame all of my feelings of unworthiness on my childhood would be short-sided because I have still had the choice to allow myself to feel this way up until now. And when self-love is your issue, it doesn’t matter when people tell you that you’re amazing or intelligent or a good person because in your head you have a million reasons why they’re so wrong and you will prove it if they just know you long enough to figure it out. And how can you love others correctly when you don’t even love yourself? All the times I’ve been jealous or unkind was because I couldn’t stand that I didn’t feel like I could ever measure up to what the other person was doing no matter how much I truly loved and supported them as best as I could.

I don’t think that what I feel is unique, although the depth of it and my willingness to admit it might be. But, one place I might be ahead of the game is that I know it and now that I’ve been able to name it, I can try to move forward and heal. What does that look like for me? It looks like learning to love my body now while understanding that I can both love it AND improve it. It looks like learning to accept that I will never be the best. There will always be someone smarter, kinder, wiser, better than me. But, also knowing how lucky am I to know these people and that I’ll be better because I do. It means knowing that I am capable of both keeping up with my mental health and healing myself from my past and I don’t have to choose one over the other.

These mini-journeys that we go on are just as important as finding our overall purpose. Sometimes I look at it like someone threw a 1000 piece puzzle on the table and told me I have a limited amount of time to put it together. But it can be done step-by-step. Find the corner pieces. Look for the edges. Match the colors. And eventually, it starts to become one clear picture. As more of the puzzle falls into place, we can feel more like we are supposed to feel when we are mentally healthy and able to be our best selves. It can take work, but nothing worth it is ever easy.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

How Chronic Stress Impacts Our Physical & #MentalHealth (With Coping Strategies)

Stress is any stimulus that requires us to change. Stress isn’t inherently bad or negative, but when it becomes traumatic stress or overwhelming stress is when we encounter problems. Sustained overwhelming stress over a period of time can have a negative effect on the brain and body. In the brain, sustained stress will decrease dendrites in the hippocampus which are connected to memory. The brain can also experience dendritic retraction and synapse loss in the frontal cortex where our supercomputer is housed. These changes lead directly to attention loss and decision-making impairment. Sustained stress increases frontal motor connections and decreases hippocampus ones. Our brain is rewiring itself to fight off danger and run away or to collapse to make sure we don’t get too traumatized by remembering every possible moment should we get injured.

This worked well when we were hunters and gathers and needed to be aware of the dangers all around us. However, our brain doesn’t understand that we don’t always need that in today’s world. Stress is everywhere. These changes can undermine neuroplasticity and our ability for our brain to function properly. 

The body reacts to chronic stress in a similar way. Your nervous system can be thrown into a survival strategy (fight, flight/flee, freeze/collapse) which can increase your heartbeat which raises your blood pressure and prepare your body to run, hide, or fight. Because muscles can be taut from the preparation, injuries and joint pain are more likely from the tension.

Extra glucose production to provide a boost of energy can increase the chance for Type 2 Diabetes. “The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate” can also aggravate existing ulcers and cause a surge in acid production in your stomach (Pietrangelo & Watson, 2018). The immune system, over time, begins to deteriorate, which not only leads to getting sick easier, but also lengthens the time to get better when we do get sick.

Our reproductive systems can be affected as well. Men may find that with chronic, sustained stress, their testosterone levels are affected, which can cause reproductive and desire issues, insomnia, and exhaustion. It can also cause emotional dysregulation including an increased risk of depression, reduced memory and concentration, and decreased motivation and self-confidence (Gotter, 2019). Women can also experience a loss of desire and their menstrual cycles may be affected, which can lead to reproductive issues. Chronic stress may exacerbate menopausal symptoms (Pietrangelo & Watson, 2018).

One of the issues I’ve dealt with for years is the fact that I don’t feel stressed until it hits me with brute force. That is a result of my childhood trauma and the fact that my body handles stress differently because my body is more accustomed to the feeling of it. I don’t get the feeling of an “adrenaline rush” as easily as others, and that’s why many times you’ll find people who thrill seek to be trauma victims. But that adrenaline also doesn’t allow me to feel stress in the same way, so I don’t have the ability to try to react to it, and yet it still causes the same turmoil inside my body. Just something for trauma victims to be cognizant of as you need to be more aware of your body and sensations that indicate high or sustained stress levels.

And you’re thinking, “Awesome. So now what?

The above information is to try to make it clear how truly dangerous sustained stress can be. Especially now, when we are dealing with so many changes and stressors, the chronic stress that people may be experiencing needs to be recognized and dealt before it becomes overwhelming.

Strategies to help fight chronic stress

Mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness and meditation are a way for your brain to focus on what’s going on in the here and now. It helps with spiraling out of control with thoughts of things that need to be done or future events that haven’t even happened yet. There are a few apps that are free for educators that aid in meditation. The most common ones are Headspace and Calm.

Self-care
Self-care is a way of taking proactive steps against stress. Although nothing will mitigate stress completely (it is the body’s warning system that something is changing), it does help the body be ready. I have written about the four types of self-care that I believe to be important and have a free educator self-care course available for more information.

Set healthy boundaries
Boundary setting helps us let others know what is an acceptable way to treat us both physically and emotionally. When it comes to stress, having established healthy boundaries can help empower you to make decisions based off from those boundaries and what you consider to be okay or not okay. For example, if you set a boundary for the amount of time you are willing to work so you have enough time for your family, having a healthy work boundary will help you say no to extra things that people may try to put on your plate. Boundaries are important to respect when it comes to other people as well. When they are clear and understood, it can reduce frustration between people and even improve efficiency when everyone understands what is acceptable and what is not.

Figure out how you process and communicate during stressful times
I have known for awhile that I process out loud. Knowing this information has helped me in multiple ways both personally and professionally. I am able to tell people, “I need to talk through this” and it helps me tremendously because I am able to get immediate feedback on my thinking. That also means that the people I gravitate toward during times of stress are my friends that also either process out loud (because they understand what I need) or the ones who are great listeners. During times of stress we often don’t have the energy capacity to look around and try to figure out what we need. That’s why knowing this information is vital to alleviate the stress of just knowing what to do when we’re feeling stressed.

Pandemic specific
Unfortunately, the longer that the pandemic lingers, the more likely chronic stress is an issue as we continue to adjust to the new normal. Here are a few tips to help with chronic stress during the pandemic:

  • Set work hours and take sick days (boundaries) – As a Technology Director it was a common misconception that I was available all the time because I was “always on” technology. It was not uncommon for me to get texts or emails late at night expecting to be answered immediately. In some cases, I’ve seen teaching morph into this during the pandemic as well. Even though you can be online doesn’t mean you should be. Set working hours. Set your email to automatically respond that you will return the following day during your work hours. Also, find out what your district’s current policy is for sick days and if you would take a sick day during the year, you should be able to take a sick day during virtual work as well.
  • In cases of overwhelm, start small. When I recently became overwhelmed I started struggling to get anything done. I started making myself a small list, and at one point it was four things: Start drinking water at noon (versus the massive amounts of coffee I was drinking), eat one healthy meal, go for a walk, and one work piece that I had to get done. Did I fall a little behind? Yep. But some things also started to fall off my plate that didn’t need to be done and I had taken them on anyway. Eventually, I was able to build myself back up to a normal work day and I had also managed to implement new habits.

Chronic stress isn’t something to be taken lightly, and the first step in fighting it is understand ourselves and how we think and feel. Developing a high emotional intelligence and true reflective skills are a huge part of preparing ourselves for times of inevitable stress. Sometimes that means taking care of it ourselves, but that can also mean going and seeking out professional help. Either way, to know our limits are going to be the first step in dealing with chronic stress.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

I am not a doctor. Claims in this blog have been researched and double checked by a doctor, but please check with your own physician if you have specific concerns.

Four of Many Reasons We Need To Talk About Mental Health Issues

A few years ago when I started openly discussing my own mental health issues, it was out of complete irritation that I felt like I needed to only talk about it in hushed tones to people that I really trusted. Dealing with my mental health issues made me feel less than, but the social stigma that accompanied them made me feel even worse, and at that time I didn’t need any help feeling bad about myself. I was tired of people dumbing down the impact of my anxiety to “just being nervous” or my depression to “just being sad” and implicitly or explicitly telling me to get over it. This was all difficult enough to deal with as a human, and when you added in the fact that I was an educator, it felt like it multiplied the necessity for secrecy by a million.

Or at least I thought. Until I started talking about it and others like me who were lurking in the shadows started whispering same here. That’s when I knew we needed to talk about it more, and here are five of the many, many reasons why.

You’re Not Alone
For me, one of the hallmarks of my mental health issues is to feel like I am all alone in whatever adversity I’m facing or in my feelings toward myself and others. That aloneness led me to believe that nobody understood me, and if I wasn’t careful I would wallow in that feeling. However, since making it my mission to talk about mental health issues more, I have said things like, “I have gone through my day with a smile on my face and gone back to my office at the end and cried because of the effort and sheer exhaustion I felt from acting normal when all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and not get out” and I have had people say to me, “Oh my gosh. Me, too.” And inevitably someone says, “I always feel like I’m the only one who feels this way. Everyone else seems so happy.” But, they’re not alone. My counselor told me once that if I was in a mall and all the people with anxiety had yellow shirts and all the people with depression had red shirts and all the mentally healthy people had white, there would be almost no white shirts. And that doesn’t take into account the multitude of other mental health issues. It baffles me how we can be so quick to judge an issues that are so prevalent.

One of the reasons I believe that people can feel alone even if they know that others may have the same mental health issue is because the way that we cope with symptoms or the way that symptoms present themselves may be different. For example, although I get on with my days, some people may need to spend time in bed during severe depression episodes. I have anxiety which can manifest itself in many different ways. Sometimes it is combined with fear and makes me not want to move forward. Sometimes it is an all-out panic attack where I shake and feel like I can’t stand or I black out or I feel like I’m going to pass out and sometimes I do, and sometimes there could be a trigger that just happened or it could have been from the day before and then there could be five different coping mechanisms that I need to try before it subsides. And all of that can happen in five minutes or eight hours. After each episode, I need to be willing and able to reflect and process on what just made the anxiety happen so I can better deal with it in the future. Constant reflection and adjustment. And because of that, because it feels sometimes that it is fluid, it’s difficult to ever feel on the same page as anyone else. But when I talk about it, there is always at least one other person who understands.

Destigmatization
One of the reasons I felt like I couldn’t talk about it was because of the way that having a mental health issue is going to be viewed by some people, especially since I work in education. I once gave a session on educator mental health to a group of community members. Afterwards, one of the gentlemen came up to me and told me he was very uncomfortable with me using the term mental health issues. And herein lies the problem. We are ok with discussing diabetes or a broken limb or kidney stones, but when we are struggling with mental health issues it still feels uncomfortable to other people. But, this is exactly why it’s important to continue the discussion and educate people on what constitutes mental health and mental health issues and the impact it can have on a person’s day-to-day that nobody else may be able to see.

Misunderstandings and Misinformation
In the area of mental health and mental illness the field of study is relatively new in comparison to many other fields of medical study, and there are still people who remember when we would put mentally ill patients into mental hospitals to keep them away from others. Because the field is so young, relatively speaking, there are still a lot of questions as to how things work (or don’t) and why people feel the way they do. We don’t really know, for example, why some people live with depression and some people get so depressed they take their lives. We don’t know why a child in a home who is abused may go forward abusing their own children while their sibling breaks the cycle and does not. We can’t predict why something is a trauma for one person but the same situation is not for another. There are still so many unknowns for science, it’s difficult for the general public to have the information. In the case of mental health issues misinformation can fuel the stigma and can contribute to people with mental health issues to feel alone and ostracized. Keeping ourselves educated and then educating others with what we DO know is the number one way we are going to help destigmatize mental health issues and clear up potential misunderstandings.

Responsibility
We all have a responsibility to have a general idea of what to look for in someone who may be experiencing mental health issues. Even during the pandemic there have been multiple commercials reminding us to check on others and make sure that they are safe. I believe we can be stronger as a community when we recognize and support each other.

However, as a person with mental health issues I am also responsible for myself. I may not be the one who caused my trauma, but I am responsible for the healing. I am worthy of healing. And part of that is understanding my own issues and how I can cope and move forward. It is recognizing when I need to reach out to people I trust for help and not sit back and wallow in the fact that they may not be reaching out to me. It is my responsibility to get help when I recognize I need it. I have come far enough in my healing to accept that only I know how I truly feel and therefore I hold responsibility for asking for help.

When we discuss mental health issues and work to educate people and destigmatize it, it allows people dealing with the issues more capacity mentally to deal with healing instead of constantly wondering if they are going to be judged for whatever it is they’re going through. If we are willing to talk about it we may be willing to support it, and that may lead to someone choosing to reach out for the help they need.

This blog post is one of a series on Mental Health Awareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here.

#MentalHealthAwarenessMonth and Defining Mental Health, Issues, and #SEL

A few weeks ago I was on a panel for mental health for #DigCitTO and about half-way through, one of the student panelists brought us back to basics. She said, “I just want to say that mental health and mental (health issues) are different. Everyone has mental health.” It reminded me of how we so often speak about this stuff and throw out these words, but I’m never confident that everyone is on the same page. This month, for Mental Health Awareness, I’m going to be moving from my once-a-week blog posts to one about every other day to address some common mental health and mental health issue topics. If you’d like to receive all of these posts to your email, please sign up for my blog.

My go-to whenever I start something new is to make sure that we have a common language around what we are discussing so we can be sure that when I refer to a topic, we all have a baseline of what it is. Right now, I’d like to define three common terms that I’ve seen used interchangeably that are actually very different: mental health, mental health issues, and social-emotional learning.

Mental Health
According to the WHO, mental health is defined as, “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Everyone has mental health. To address your mental health through self-care or mindfulness is the equivalent of addressing your physical health through diet and exercise. If you don’t take care of your physical health your body may start to fail to work as it’s meant to. The same happens with mental health which can lead to poor mental health or mental health issues.

Mental Health Issues
The term mental health issue has come about as a way to be more sensitive to those who struggle with them, but technically they are synonymous to mental illness, mental health disorders, or mental health conditions. They “affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors” (Mayo Clinic). Mental health issues can be developed from extreme, prolonged stress or trauma, but they can also be hereditary. In fact, having a family member with a mental health issue is the largest risk factor, although some argue that this is not only because of genes but also includes the repeated exposure (stress of living with, taking care of someone) to the mental health issue.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
According to CASEL (my favorite SEL organization for amazing information), social-emotional learning is defined as “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” I often see SEL used synonymously with mental health and it is not the same although they may have a symbiotic relationship. I also see SEL used synonymously with student engagement. SEL and student engagement are not the same thing. Although there may be a small piece of engagement in SEL, to define SEL as engagement is largely ignoring the most important pieces of what it actually is. By focusing on social-emotional learning and helping students and adults understand their emotions, make positive, responsible decisions and focus on positive relationships, we are giving them the tools to make decisions and react in a way that will support their mental health.

We are in a place right now where we are willing to talk about social-emotional learning. We are a little resistant to speak about mental health, but we will do it. Mental health issues or illness feels like it’s still off the table. Defining what we are discussing is the first step to understanding what we are really talking about and de-stigmatizing mental health issues.

Four Ways You “Should” Give Yourself Grace

It can be a bit overwhelming with all the “you shoulds” right now.

You should be working online, offline, harder, smarter, on technology, not on technology.

You should be connecting with parents, students, your teaching partners, teachers who know about technology and those that don’t, teachers who might be struggling, your professional learning network, lonely friends and family.

You should find time to disconnect.

You should work harder but don’t work too hard in case you burn out. You should make sure all the work still gets done though, regardless.

You should be positive.

You should practice self-care, gratitude, self-compassion. You should practice empathy for your students but not too much. You should understand what is within your control and let the rest go.

You should stick to a routine because that’s what’s best for everyone. You should be ok if the routine doesn’t get followed, even though it’s what’s best.

You should. You should. You should.

While so many of these statements are true, I find that the more I should be doing something, the more guilt I feel when I’m not doing it. With all of the things I should be doing right now, I’ve also discovered several ways I need to give myself grace when the “I should be doing…” turns into “I’m struggling to…”

Overwhelm
Being overwhelmed can show up with more symptoms than just the acute feeling of freaking out, although that can happen as well. Someone who is overwhelmed can procrastinate, avoid people, feel a lack of motivation, break their normal sleeping and eating patterns (particularly if they are a stress eater), and become easily angry or frustrated with things they may not have before. Pre-pandemic, my to-do list was a source of overwhelm, however, since the pandemic it’s not only my work that causes these feelings. It is the overall way that our life has shifted, the constant flood of information (especially since much of it is contradictory), and how I “should” be doing things that I am not.

When I get overwhelmed and find myself sitting on the couch staring into nothingness avoiding writing a blog post, I first try to let go of the guilt I feel for not getting everything done that I could possibly do. Then, I look at one thing I could get done on my to-do list. My deal with myself is that if I can check one piece off I can take a legitimate break and feel good about getting one piece done. It usually works for me and sometimes, once I get into doing the one task I feel the accomplishment with checking it off and I find a bit more motivation to get something else done.

Forgiveness
I have often spoken about my views on forgiveness of others but the additional time that I have had alone with my thoughts has made me keenly aware of areas that I need to forgive myself and my shortcomings as well. I’ve had to reflect on mistakes I’ve made and areas where I’ve failed, and let go of the guilt of letting people down or not being my best. Time wasted in being disappointed in myself is time that I could be improving myself, and the first step is forgiving myself when I believe I could have done better and realizing punishing myself won’t help anyone.

Also, forgiveness needs to come in the form of understanding that we are all doing the best we can do at any given time. If I need to take some time for myself because I am overwhelmed or burnt out, I need to be able to let go of my guilt in order to move forward.

Control
There are few things we have control over right now. We can’t control the pandemic. We can’t control when we go back to school. We can’t even control if students are doing their work, like, at all. And if you’re like me, if I can’t control something it feels out of control. While I would always recommend that we focus on the things we can control, the pandemic has made it even more important. We will drive ourselves crazy if we are trying to control the things that are out of our control right now. We do have control over the way we treat people. We have control over how cognizant we are of our safety and the safety of others. We have control over doing our best and recognizing that others are doing the same. We do not have control over other people and their actions. Let the guilt go when it centers around something someone else “should” be doing.

Uncertainty
I have been asked on several podcasts over the last couple of weeks what it is going to look like when we go back. My response is this: the sooner that we understand that nothing is going to be the same when we go back, the sooner we can be ready to adjust to the new normal. At the minimum, school at the beginning will not be the same. We will be grieving family members and school personnel that have passed away because we never had closure. We will be trying to acclimate students and educators back into day-to-day school and a structured, brick-and-mortar learning environment. We can guess what this is going to look like but we don’t really know. We don’t even have a good idea when we are going back. And when we do, will it be safe? How many more waves of sickness will happen before we can settle in and not worry about dying?

I have massive feelings of uncertainty toward the future and worse, how I can improve my own skills in order to help people adjust to a future we will be able to predict or have little preparation for. I sometimes feel guilty for wallowing in uncertainty and that I may not have what it takes to help educators and students when they need it. By letting go of this guilt and giving myself grace, I can focus on what I can do right now and have hope that I will be able to support others when the time comes.

There are so many things we should be doing and feeling right now. But, I think the most important thing we should do is allow ourselves room to be human. To grieve experiences that we will never have because of these unique times. To miss our students and co-workers. To understand that we are not superhuman and having a bad day is ok. To spend a few minutes wishing we could give someone we love a hug. Forgive ourselves for all the things we should be doing so we can move forward with less guilt about the things we are doing.

It’s Past Time to Recognize the Supports We Desperately Need

I swore when I left the classroom that I would not forget what it was like to be a teacher. It’s one of the main complaints I hear about administrators; “they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be us.” It was a goal of mine to never forget and to always remember that teaching is one of the most challenging (but rewarding) positions out there.

But I did. I forgot.

I always thought that for an administrator I spent my fair share of time in classrooms. I loved it. It felt like being a grandmother. I was able to go into classrooms, spend some time with the kids, even co-teach sometimes and it made me happy and then I was able to “give them back.” I always have loved the kids and felt like, especially as a tech director, I was able to see the best side of them (when I wasn’t dealing with technology infractions, that is).

But I didn’t get into classrooms nearly enough. I see that now.

My job now has me working in classrooms when I’m coaching more than I ever have and it has reminded me of all the reasons I became a teacher to begin with. The sense of vicarious accomplishment when students succeeded. The laughter that accompanies tangents from the curriculum that tend to happen when kids are comfortable and feel safe. The brief connections in the hallway that will earn you a smile later. There are so many things to love about working with kids. These things are still in existence every school I go to.

But I see now what I may have been missing before.

A first-grader beating his head against the desks and walls repeatedly because he didn’t know how else to express his frustration. A little girl screaming about how much she hates herself and how stupid she is because she couldn’t remember that after 19 is 20. A middle schooler with literally hundreds of permanent scars on his arms and legs from cutting. The boy sent out into the hall with his head in his hands between his legs looking defeated and like he didn’t want to be there. The school where the pick your battles management means that profanity in the hallways is a norm because at least they’re not fighting.

Good Lord, you guys. How did we get here?

Different districts across the country. This is not “those kinds of schools” or “those kinds of kids.” It’s not because of disengaged, lazy teachers.

We talk a good game about trauma and trying to recognize it, but even I wasn’t prepared for some of the blatantness of the issues. The boy who was beating his head against the wall, know the only thing that stopped him? A hug by an adult. A freakin’ hug.

What I forgot about being a teacher is how you’re everything to the students but aren’t provided with the professional know-how of being a child psychologist and doctor and some days flippin’ lion tamer. I forgot what it’s like to not be the grandparent but acting instead in loco parentis. And I’m sure that as a technology integrator and technology director and a consultant I’ve pushed my own agenda into classrooms where innovation and technology may have been the last thing on that teacher’s mind and yet they’ve still welcomed me and have asked me questions to grow. I knew this in my head. I had forgotten it in my teacher’s heart.

The way we have always done it isn’t working. It doesn’t address the current emotional needs of our kids. And I almost understand the desire to teach like it’s 30 years ago because I don’t remember things being like this when I was in school. Was I just that sheltered? I have no idea. But even though it may have been working back then doesn’t mean it is working now. And it doesn’t matter if it’s “not our fault” or if people think it’s parents or technology or disengaged employees or whatever it is. The fact is that our students are showing behaviors that I would venture to say we haven’t seen in this capacity before, and we have the responsibility to change what we are doing to support their needs. We need more professional learning in trauma in what has become a new era of behavior management and support to help teachers know what they need to do. We need support for teachers so they know that their mental health matters, too and they can’t be expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We need more support for administrators who are giving themselves over and trying to provide support but the very nature of how education operates can work against them.

And I don’t want to hear “I don’t want to talk about it because it’s too hard/sad/much.” There’s no room for that anymore. I’m so sorry it’s difficult for you. Imagine how it is for them.

I believe there is a direct correlation between teacher burnout, demoralization, and trauma to the amount of trauma behaviors that students are exhibiting. You cannot work on one without working on the other. As educators, we go to work prepared to protect students in a school shooting. We are prepared for the potential for students who are having meltdowns hitting us. We are prepared for things that nobody should need to go to work and experience. And within all this, we have students who can’t stop physically harming themselves because as a society we have ignored mental health for so long that it’s now an epidemic.

I consistently have both this hopeful gratitude towards administration and teachers for everything they do every day for kids. I believe that no matter where I go, people are doing the best they can with the energy and resources that they possess at that moment. I absolutely recognize that. But, until we are willing to take drastic steps to upend the way we have always done things, they are not going to change. Being reactive to behaviors instead of offering proactive support will constantly keep everyone in a state of being stressed and feeling behind.

I feel passionate and desperate for this message to get through. There needs to be more support and learning in the area of trauma and mental health and it need to be an all-encompassing priority. When THOSE supports are in place, then we will be able to better understand both our students and teachers and how to combat this issue in a more proactive environment. I don’t want to talk to exhausted, disengaged teachers anymore. They deserve to be engaged and happy. I don’t want to see kids with bruises on their heads and cutting scars on their arms and legs. Nobody should ever feel so bad and be in such crisis that they hurt themselves. I don’t want to worry about my own children and if there might be a gunman that decides to end their life at my kids’ schools and takes children and teachers down with them. This shouldn’t even be a thing.

We have passed the time for this to be a priority. We sat back for too long worrying about math and literacy scores and in the process have ignored how hard it is to be a human. I’m sorry I forgot what it’s like to be a teacher. It definitely won’t happen again.

On The Inside vs On The Outside

I have alluded to my childhood turmoil before in blog posts and go into a bit more detail in The Fire Within, but I often keep the details of that experience under wraps. The little bits of information I allow to leak are meant to induce feelings of empathy for anyone where you really don’t know what they’re going through – students or adults. So much of our existence is wrapped up in cycles of joy, contentment, heartbreak, and forgiveness and sometimes just the act of being normal is a heroic feat of epic proportions.

My family was a prime example of this. From the outside, we were considered to be an exemplar family. We fostered and adopted kids and did respite care. We had a small hobby farm with horses, goats, pigs, foxes, raccoons…even a monkey. The eldest by seven years, I was well-behaved in school, didn’t say a lot when I was younger, and I worked hard and received good grades. I could survive in school without a lot of assistance, so I was either praised for my work ethic or ignored completely. I was involved in clubs and extracurriculars. As I got older, we were even recognized as a family of distinction in the city where we lived for all the good we did with foster kids.

At home, we were often on edge. My brother had to wear a dirty diaper on his head because he refused to get potty trained. My sister was told to stand up and hold her nose against the wall for hours for not listening. Later, in a moment of terrifying creativity, my mother decided to start giving kids shovels and telling them to go outside and dig their own graves. She said nobody would miss them anyway. My mother and stepfather were later arrested on multiple accounts of child trafficking and abuse.

The psychological warfare that exists in abusive homes is the part that I feel we underestimate. My home wasn’t always violence and chaos. We had birthday parties and cake fights. We had loads of Christmas presents (even though my mother’s compulsion with cleaning wouldn’t allow us to play much with them). We laughed sometimes. That’s the kicker. As a kid, you never know when it’s going to go south. You just never know. And worse, you can’t tell anyone. You absolutely cannot take the chance that you say something and are taken away for two reasons. First, you never know when you’ll be sent back and the consequences for that. Secondly, I wanted a family so bad. It took me until I was an adult to understand that while I wanted a mom, someone who told me they were proud of me and to love me unconditionally, I didn’t necessarily want my mom. I couldn’t help her enough to fit her into what I needed as a parent, and eventually to move on with my life I needed to be okay with that. There was no other way I could forgive.

When I was in high school, I did go to the school counselor and told her just a bit of what was going on. She sent me home because we were such an amazing family that I had to just be making it up. I never made that mistake again. Hide, hide, hide it. Cover it up. Scream into a pillow. Pray.

Here’s why I tell this story. Recently, I was in a younger classroom where a beautiful soul of little girl was struggling. She had already left the classroom once, and so I decided to pay special attention to her to try to get her to stay. As I watched her, I noticed she was all over the place. It could have been mistaken as ADHD as she nervously fidgeted and struggled to get her work together, but to me it screamed trauma and the effects of a constant state of fight/flight. The students were learning how to use a tech tool, and to do that they had to answer questions about themselves just to practice. One of the adults in the room asked this one simple question: “What did you have for dinner last night?”

I have absolutely no idea what the background was of this student, but I do know what it’s like to try to hide what’s happening at home. When I looked at her, her face dropped and her brow furrowed. I thought she might bolt, so I made my way to her and by the time I got there, her head was hung and her eyes were a bit watery. I asked her if maybe she didn’t have time to eat the night before and began to silently curse the question in my head. Right before I was going to ask her to change the question to answer for lunch instead, her head popped up and she looked at me with a determined smile, too hard of eyes for a second grader, and said, “I had pork chops and green beans and mashed potatoes and…and…and…” It’s possible that day that my heart actually broke. I felt like saying, “Oh my little love, you could do great things with that resilience and determination. Just hang on to it a little while longer.” I choke up just thinking about it. Even though I had never gone without dinner – my sister had become a master macaroni and cheese maker – I felt that little girl was me. Struggling to be just enough normal to fit in. Hide, hide, hide it. Cover it up. Scream inside. Pray.

We can say this is a sad story and we don’t want to read stuff like this. That would be irresponsible and negligent to the students who are experiencing it – our colleagues who have lived through or are living through it.

The lesson here is twofold.

  1. Adversity makes us who we are. We can choose live in anger and resentment. Lord knows I have enough reasons to do that. I don’t because I choose not to. That means I need to sometimes forgive people who have no intention of saying they’re sorry because I don’t want to allow them to have that much control in my life. That also means I can use what I learned in the classroom with students and hopefully give them the support they need.
  2. Our students are going through things that some of us can’t imagine. Look at them. It would have been easier to get irritated with her for bolting from the room. It would have felt reasonable to send her to the principal when she blew up because nobody knew how a question like that would trigger her. But, she’s a child. A little kid. And worth our time, attention, and love.

As my work has turned to be more with educators and I have been diligently supporting them, it has become easier for me to notice the students and how little they are. How much they may have experienced in their young lives. I sometimes missed this when I was still in the classroom because I was so wrapped up in all the management of the initiatives and teaching the content and classroom management. This moment with the little girl gave me a huge reminder of how so many people are going through things that nobody else knows, and how we could use a little more empathy and humility with each other.