As I submit this blog, I am anxious to follow the high school students (and many of their parents) who will come together today in Washington to use their collaborative voice for influence as part of the “March for our Lives”. There are also over 800 events planned worldwide. With my ongoing hip injury, I will not be walking in an event but want to honor the efforts with this writing. Beginning in my second blog on December 16, “Starting with the students”, I have consistently gone back to the message of student relationships, the need for conversations with students and the attention that must be paid to the needs of students if we are truly about improving schools.
I have written about some of the conversations that I have had with students who have articulated the disconnect that they feel at school and their own desires to learn, to have a voice and to be understood. I believe this to be a critical factor in our world of education and I also feel that it is frightening to many educators. Sometimes, we avoid those conversations that are needed and we focus more on the curriculum to be taught, the assessments to be given and the accountability that is ever-present. In this sixteenth blog on school improvement, let’s look at the mental well-being of our students and how important it is for their voices to be heard.
As I was reflecting on what to write about this week, I read a post from edutopia.org titled, “In High School, the Kids Are Not All Right” by David Tow. Mr. Tow speaks to the same needs that I have seen in efforts to improve schools… attending to the mental well-being of our students. He suggests, that many times, we educators have used a strategy to try to support students that actually works against us… telling them to take some time to get themselves together and to get caught up on their work. I am sure that I used this strategy myself back in the days of teaching and when I think about it, how was this making a difference for my students? What great changes can be made when we basically tell someone to take time and get themselves together, oh, and while you are at it, get all caught up with everything that has stressed you out. Thinking about it now, I recognize that this is without support or understanding of what actually caused the concerns in the first place.
The real difference that I made was when I learned to talk to the students and honestly listen to what they needed, what they feared and what their dreams were. I know that once I knew how to do that, and was not afraid of the student voice, I was much more impactful as an educator.
One of the most challenging conversations that I have in schools is when I have to tell principals and teachers what students have to say about their school. It is disheartening for many educators to learn that they are not being as successful in meeting the needs of students as they think that they are or that the students are so aware of how bad things are going. As I have said before, we definitely don’t fool them but unfortunately, we don’t ask them enough about what would be best. I often suggest to the school leaders and teachers to consider holding regular small group or one on one conversations with students to ask their opinions, advice and seek their understanding. I see school leaders who take this on and do it regularly, and others, who try it once and never go back to the students. For many reasons, I don’t believe we have given students enough credit to voice their concerns and suggestions. As adults, are we afraid to do this? What barriers are really coming between us and understanding the students?
Tow writes about five strategies for promoting high schooler’s mental well-being. He suggests that we ask how they are doing… and mean it. Again, we are talking about authentic conversations taking the time to really listen and understand. Secondly, he suggests that we actually set times when students can talk to us… almost like office hours… we make ourselves available at specific times that they know about. His third recommendation is to remember basic needs first (Maslow’s). Academics can not be fixed when students are still without their basic needs being met. Help the students feel safe and grounded first before working on the academics. Tow’s forth strategy is focused on truly focusing on what is important. Is it necessary for a student behind to catch up on every single thing or what really are the essential learnings? And lastly, he suggests that we seek support and recommend students to the professionals when needed. As educators, we can not fix everything although, I know many, many who try to do that every single day. In a nutshell, we have to be all about the students…every decision maker, every educator, every person who has the opportunity to impact the life of a student.
The people gathering in Washington this weekend have taken the lead from the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who have been expressing their voice for the past month and hoping that we, the adults, will listen. They know that not all students have mental stability and well-being and they know that more work has to be done to create safe environments for learning. More conversations, more time to be understood, more attention to what their needs really are and adults who can take on the courageous decisions necessary. For communities, schools and nations to actually put the student first in their decision-making protocols requires bravery, time and now, a sense of urgency. Feeling safe and having confidence that your opinion and you are valued goes a long way in creating well-being for our schools. It is time.
So, this post is dedicated to all of the students, parents and educators, who this weekend, will try to make a difference in our world. Their concerns are real. To my good friend, Lissa Pijanowski and her high school daughter, Sadie, who traveled from Georgia to take part in the march, I am so proud of you. Travel safe and know that others are listening. Sadie, proudly hold your sign and know that your voice matters. You are our future.