Understanding the Students In Front Of You: The role Mental Health and life outside of school plays in how students “show up.”
This year has absolutely been the most challenging year as an educator. Don’t get me wrong, year one as a teacher was hard! Heck, honestly every year comes with new challenges. But this year was a completely different breed. Think about it, as a result of Covid-19 many students were home for two years straight attempting to learn virtually. That alone came with huge challenges for students not only academically but also mentally and social emotionally. While last year schools went back to “normal instruction,” which was in person, according to the “Mayors Management Report” put out in 2022, 41% of students were chronically absent. So basically, over these last three years, an enormous amount of learning has been missed for one reason or another. As a result, transitioning back to school as we knew it has really been a challenge, seemingly impossible for not just teachers but also students.
A few months ago I did a PD (Professional Development training) with my team and I titled it “Classroom Management,” because several teachers had come to me with concerns about behaviors they are experiencing in their classes. From my observations during walkthroughs (short visits in the classrooms) and conversations with students and teachers, I felt like there was a huge disconnect between teachers and their students. Working in a school full of black and brown students, it’s important that we see, or attempt to see, the whole child and not just the student in front of us. Oftentimes, we focus on what a student is or isn’t doing in school, forgetting that they are a person outside of school like us who may be facing some challenges that they need help navigating through.
I started the PD with a role play. I asked for two volunteers, one who would play the role of a teacher and one who would play the role of a student. Each of the volunteers were given a description that only they would see. The teacher was told to engage with the student how they see other teachers engage under the given circumstances (because of course none of us would engage in such behavior 😀.) All teachers who were not participating in the role play were asked to write down their observations throughout the demonstration.
The Teacher’s Description: It’s the time of year where we need to begin preparing for Regents exams. Jennifer has been coming to first period about 15-20 mins late off and on for the last few weeks. It’s frustrating because she has been missing the instructional portion of class therefore when it comes time for students to practice independently, she can not do the work.
The Student’s Description: Mom and dad have been fighting for weeks and it makes it hard to focus while at home. In some of their arguments you have heard the word divorce come up. It’s really been stressing you out and lately you have been having a hard time sleeping at night. By the time you fall asleep, it feels like you have to get up and get yourself ready for school. Today you get to school and feel way too exhausted and mentally drained to do any work in class.
ALRIGHT… ACTION!! The teacher begins to teach and the student walks in and is paying attention for the first few minutes and then puts her head down. The teacher notices and walks over to the student and bangs on the desk and tells the student to wake up. The student responds saying “stop banging on my desk.” The teacher then reminds the student, in front of the class, that they are failing the class and can not afford to sleep in class. The student lifts her head off the desk for a few moments, showing obvious frustration, and then eventually lays her head back down. The teacher then walks back over to the students desk and begins to shake the desk, and begins to hover over the student,waiting for the student to lift up their hear and again reminding her that she can not afford to sleep in class. END SCENE.
I gave the teachers a moment to finish writing their observations and then asked them one by one to share. EVERY SINGLE TEACHER talked about the student’s body language, having her head down, “obviously not interested in the class,” how disrespectful it was of her to not follow the instructions given to her and raise her head, yelling at the teacher for banging on her desk. I had to sit for a second and really take a moment to identify and acknowledge what was happening, what I was hearing and what I hadn’t heard. As I was about to share my thoughts I decided to let the “student” share her thoughts and what she saw/experienced.
She stated all of the things she experienced, in just that short time, that were problemattic.
The teacher initially engaged her aggressively by banging on her desk
The teacher, in what felt like an attempt to embarrass her, shared that she was failing the class.
The teacher stood hovered over her, and was standing very close in her personal space.
When they didn’t get the response they were looking for, the teacher began to shake the students desk.
NOBODY SAW ANY OF THAT! NOT ONE PERSON. All they saw was an uninterested disobedient student. It really made me think, are we as educators so blind at times that we can not see the error in our own or colleagues actions? Are we so perfect that all we can see is our students' imperfections but not our own? It was evident that I was on to something with this PD, because in order to be a great educator you have to be reflective. Whether it’s in regards to your lessons, interactions with others, or your own actions. If you can’t see the issues with problematic behaviors of those around you, how can you identify your own?
The student then shared with the teachers the description that was given to her. I used the student’s scenario to open a discussion on the why’s behind the behaviors. Yes it is important that we address behaviors that are deemed to be inappropriate for a school setting. But how can we truly address these issues if we don't get to the root of where the behaviors are stemming from?
So I decided that since we are fresh out of the pandemic, or are we, to provide them with some statistics. We were all math teachers so numbers is the one thing we definitely understand and resonate with us. I pulled data from the ABES (Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey) run by the CDC, that focused on the effects of Covid-19 on high school students. I focused on black and hispanic students, as they are the majority in our school.
I read each one aloud and paused for a moment in between. Not only for the dramatic effect, but also to remind them to look at the percentages as a number out of 100 students. Out of 100 of the students they have in their classes everyday, 10 of them may have attempted to commit suicide. Out of the 100 of the students they have in their classes everyday, 32 of them could have gone hungry because there wasn’t enough food in the house. It was really hard, even though I knew the numbers already, to read them aloud because these are things and feelings that our students are really experiencing.
Sometimes when you talk statistics with people, they think well I don’t know what the population of people they surveyed were. Or those don’t apply to my students. So I took it one last step further, and shared some information about students who we do have in our own building.
Student #1: Both parents are deceased
Student #2: One or both parents are on drugs
Student #3: Mom walked out on them as a baby and the are being raised by a relative
Student #4: Works everyday after school to help financially support their family
Student #5: Was molested by someone close to the family when they were 8
Student #6: Lost several close family members due to Covid-19
Student #7: Just moved to America and doesn’t know the language well
Student #8: Lost 2 friends due to gang violence in the last year
Student #9: Has to get their siblings ready for school in the morning and drop them off to school
While I know I took a while to get to my point, the point is these kids are going throughhhhhh it! THEY ARE STRUGGLING MENTALLY!! Not only were many of them behind academically prior to the pandemic, the pandemic itself has put them even further behind. On top of that, these kids have life outside of school. Just because they walk into the school doesn’t mean their problems don’t go away. Just because you think you are teaching an engaging lesson, doesn’t mean they won’t have other things on their mind that might prevent them from being able to focus in your class.
When we as adults have a lot going on, we have a hard time bringing our best self to the table. Just as our problems don’t just go away and leave our thoughts, neither do our students’. This year alone, we have had several students lose a parent, some of whom were their custodial parent. Imagine losing your mother or father and coming to school and your teacher is on your case about the work you are missing because the quarter is about to end and they need to update their grades. Imagine going home everyday to abuse, and your teacher is complaining about your inability to focus in class. While these scenarios are not everyone’s story, unless you take the time to investigate the why behind the behaviors you are seeing, you do everyone a disservice.
And to be clear, that investigation doesn’t mean interrogating the student. It should start as simple as communicating with the student your concerns and giving them an opportunity to let you know what is going on. Not so you can feel bad for them but so that you can understand, empathize, and work with them. Investigation could also be simple reaching out to the counselor and explaining the behaviors your are concerned about or experiencing from the student and asking if there’s anything going on that they know of that could be contributing to what’s happening. It could also be reaching out to the parent, and doing the same thing. “Hey Mrs. Jackson, I’ve noticed the last two days, John has been having a hard time staying awake in class. I find myself waking him up several times throughout the class period. I want to make sure he does well, but that will be difficult for him if he isn’t awake in class to learn.” This gives the parent the opportunity to speak to what could be the problem, and then follow up with their child.
In a nutshell, many students are going through it mentally and emotionally in and out of school and what they are going through or have on their mind will directly impact how they show up in your classes. Classroom management starts with understanding the students that are in front of you and ends with leading with grace and empathy. We have to understand that whatever students have going on outside of school has a direct impact on who they show up as in our classes. All behaviors good and bad stem from something. If we don’t take the time to understand what that something is, we do the individual student, the class and ourselves a disservice.
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