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In 17 years of teaching, I shudder to think of the number of essays, poems, and stories I’ve read or graded. It is part of the territory I suppose. The majority of the time, the pieces are normal. Then, there are those that make one's blood run cold.
I honestly do not remember the topic of the writing assignment, most likely something about overcoming obstacles or something similar since 7th grade tends to focus on that theme. I read the student’s piece where she included a narrative example of a girl facing life with an abusive parent, and how the girl in the story could not go on with it anymore and wrote a suicide note with plans of how she would complete the action. Her essay continued about how we can help young people in these situations and such. Then the very last line, in tiny print, she put, “just so you know, the events in the story happened to me last night - all of it.”
When I read that, I immediately called our school counselor and shared the essay with her. Within moments, my student was called down to the counselor’s office and later taken to the local psychiatric pavilion for observation. Part of me felt relieved she was in a “safe” place but worried she would hate me for “turning her in”. Several months passed till I saw her again. During that time, she received help, was removed from this dangerous situation, and placed in a better one. When she returned to my classroom, it was only to say goodbye and thank you for taking her seriously. I am not naive to believe all's well that ends well, and my student received her perfect happy ending. I do believe if I had not intervened, it would not have ended well. For every student I manage to notice, there have been hundreds that slipped past me.
I’ll be the first to say that English teachers tend to come across these situations more often than other subjects as the nature of our content - writing. I mean, it could happen in a Math class, but not very often. Yet, I believe all disciplines need to be aware of changes and such a student may be going through - especially in the time we are in.
Students may not be able to voice aloud that they are anxious, but there are several other cues suggesting to this:
- Depression or anxiety.
- Anger, irritability, or restlessness.
- Feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated, or unfocused.
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much.
- Racing thoughts or constant worry.
- Problems with your memory or concentration.
- Making bad decisions.
Young children often complain of having a “tummy ache”, and we sometimes dismiss it or downplay it when in reality this is their way of saying they are anxious about something. As parents and teachers, we need to take this seriously and ask questions getting to the heart of it. Yet realize this too, your child/student may not miraculously open up to you right away or at all either. You need to take steps in easing their anxiety, but realize it may not just totally disappear. The article, How to Help a Child Struggling With Anxiety. speaks of ways to help and the biggest takeaway from this piece and others is that healing takes time.
While every subject area teacher can be aware of those signs mentioned in the article above. The one that stands out to me in this list is “unmotivated” and “unfocused”. How often do we write that off as having ADHD? What if that child is struggling with something deeper? Yet, most children have trouble verbalizing their fears too because I believe they feel we do not care. With many of my online tutoring requests, parents have been stating “my son or my daughter is unfocused and not motivated to read”. Almost all of these kiddos are learning from home due to the pandemic. I am not a trained LPC, but in connecting dots, I wonder if the students are really struggling with the stress and anxiety of their current school situation?
I’ve always struggled with anxiety in various forms. Most recently, I realized I have some agoraphobia defined as the extreme or irrational fear of entering open or crowded places, of leaving one's own home, or of being in places from which escape is difficult. I know I am terrified of crossing bridges over bodies of water and driving across huge highway systems with the mix master formations. I just did not know the name for it. A few years ago, I drove, by myself, to Dallas to meet my husband and visit our children living there. His flight home had a layover in Dallas, so he thought he would stay and have me drive there, spend time with the kids, and return home together. Home is a 6-hour drive to the Texas Panhandle on a long, lonely stretch of highway - till you hit the Dallas area. Well, I wanted to go, but I did start to panic. I worried I would get lost, have car trouble, be found dead on the side of the road, etc.
I had to take baby steps and talk myself through the drive - then I hit the outskirts of Dallas with their complicated highway system. Plus, I had left after school, putting me in Dallas after dark - another fear of mine primarily because I do not see well in the dark and … bad things happen at night. I had to pull over to the side for a moment to do some relaxing breathing to calm my heart back down before ascending the portion of the highway that reached into the sky. The only thing that really helped me - breathing, lots of prayers, and focusing on the end goal of seeing my family. I proceeded on with the journey successfully and really felt a sense of accomplishment when I pulled into the driveway of my son’s home. Do I still freak out on those highways? Yes, I do, but I’ve learned how to manage the anxiety I feel. These are the tools children/students need a way to manage their anxiety.
We need to be aware and offer help if at all possible even during our time in remote learning. During the Spring semester, I noticed one of my young ladies, who typically turned work in on time, always bubbly, and such had started to not turn work in - at all. Her friends mentioned she would not respond much to texts or phone calls. So, I reached out and called her. This normally extroverted child was struggling with isolation as her parents both worked outside with their jobs leaving her home alone. She worried about them and felt very alone. I did what I could do, but recommended some outside help for her family. Sometimes that’s all we can do. Maybe schools can be the ones to schedule an open door/open video session with the school counselor for students? Or schools could provide some other form of mental health support for students?
Teachers do wear many hats, but counseling is one we often wear but are we truly the ones qualified? I do have a tender heart and have spent many an afternoon after school listening to students pour their heart out to me, but I always try to encourage them to seek help. I tell them I feel obligated to inform their parents especially if I feel their life is in danger. I am not saying to not listen or be that shoulder to lean on for your student. Just know your limitations.
Of all the changes the educational system has endured in the past due to the pandemic, providing mental health support needs to also be at the forefront of needs in our schools. Do not turn a blind eye to the needs of our students or our staff. This year has taken its toll on all of us. We all need healing and support today and into the future as we will see the long term effects of this in years to come. It just may just require some baby steps towards the healing process.