Today is the National Day Without a Stigma, a day to mark mental health awareness by the group Active Minds, a student-led group that works for mental health advocacy and education. I’m lucky enough to work at a school with an Active Minds chapter and am impressed by how our community spends time talking openly about mental health and wellbeing. While many schools were off today for the Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day holiday, I plan to mark National Day Without a Stigma first thing tomorrow after the long weekend by reminding students how much they mean to me.
Last year I had the pleasure of working with a wonderful Dean of Students, Ms. Fiona Cope, who regularly asked us to write positive notes of encouragement to students and their parents. I had never been asked to sit in a faculty meeting before and write three positive emails to students or their parents, and I found the exercise to be quite joyful. I received several thank-yous from these students and their parents, especially those parents that rarely received positive communication about their children from teachers. It can be hard to remember your love for students and teaching, especially as the year drags on and we get into the thick of grading, assessing, testing, reporting and planning. Communication with parents and students often gets distilled down to the essential messages, usually to communicate problems or concerns, and so we rarely get to spend time giving written feedback to students or parents on how happy we are to know their children, how proud we are of some kind thing they did for a peer, or how hard they tried on an assignment. I found that taking the time to commend students for a job well done paid dividends to the students, who felt lifted by an adult noticing their contributions, and it also paid dividends to me. Just the act of commending them lifted my spirits, making me feel more gratitude for my job. It was a two-way-street of compassion.
“Compassion” is one of CEEL’s five Core Values, and we believe firmly that all learners, including educators, learn best when we feel understood, heard, and cared for. Compassion is a hot topic in education these days. There is the Charter for Compassion, targeting global cities, and initiatives like the Compassion Summit at the American Community School in Amman, Jordan, organized by Tara Waudby (a fellow CEELer!). All of these movements and organizations serve to reinforce the notion that every individual matters in a community — no matter how big or small that community is — and that we are like bricks, leaning on one another for our collective strength and solidarity.
Here are some essential questions that you can ask yourself this week to remind yourself that you are a compassionate, kind educator:
- What does it feel like to be a parent of this child?
- What does this child need? Can I (or someone) else provide it?
- Would I want to be a student in my own class? Would I want to be a student at this school?
- Does this student have unique needs that might be invisible to me or the system? (e.g. a student experiencing racism, a student with dyslexia, a Muslim student fasting during Ramadan, a student whose parents are going through a divorce, etc.)
- What’s one thing I can do today to get to know this student/parent/teacher better?
I give “Advice of the Week” every week to my students. It ranges from the silly (“Do something crazy — but not dangerous — once in your life”) to the practical (“Take care of your teeth; brush and floss daily”) to the serious (“According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 3 women will be a victim of sexual or physical violence in their lifetimes, usually by a partner. Be a part of the solution.”) I usually write the Advice of the Week on the board and talk a little bit about its context or tell an anecdote to bring it to life. Tomorrow’s Advice of the Week is courtesy of my husband, Dr. Juan-Diego Estrada, a psychologist and high school counselor. Based on Active Minds’ suggestions, he wrote our high-school faculty to encourage us to write at least one positive affirmation on the whiteboard tomorrow for students to see, phrases such as, “It’s OK to not feel OK,” “Courage is contagious,” “Be a stigma fighter,” and “You are worthy.”
Tomorrow, when my students come in to class, on the board they will see under the Advice of the Week heading: “You are loved.” I will spend some time reminding them of all the people in their lives who love them and are rooting for them, including me.
Take a moment this week to let your students know that you love and care about them, that their mental health and wellbeing matter to you. And like Dean Cope’s activity, I wouldn’t be surprised if doing so doesn’t only have a positive effect on your students; I’m fairly certain it will have a positive effect on you, too.
Uplifting and gratifying. We are often told as educators that students will seldom remember a specific lesson in our classes, but they will always remember how you made them feel. I feel compassion and kindness are some of the biggest lessons I can teach my students…along with a coherently written essay, of course.