By Kelsey Wiley
Ava sent me a message before class: “Tapping my foot trying to stay calm. The air is thick. I can’t breathe. My eyes fill with tears. My chest raises up and down as if I’m having an asthma attack. But it’s not asthma, it’s anxiety.” It was just 10:15 a.m. and already Ava’s third panic attack that morning. Ava had been on edge since I first met her back in September, flip-flopping between exhaustion and jitteriness on any given day. I knew that she has been dealing with severe depression and anxiety after Child Protective Services removed her from her home in January after she wrote an essay about her mother’s battle with alcoholism and her stepfather’s on-and-off molestation. Since then, she has been bouncing between family members’ homes that were far from warm and loving. When she finally arrived in class, her eyes were glassy and she trembled as she cried. “Ava, where can we go to make you feel safe?” Her response, “I don’t know,” broke me.
I forwarded Ava’s essay to our school social worker, because I knew that Ava needed the kind of help I couldn’t provide. The COVID pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis for our youth. Last fall, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry declared a national mental health emergency among young people and the U.S. Surgeon General has pointed out that mental health intervention is “not just medical, but moral.” Schools are places where our students ought to feel cared for and safe and yet, when a student is in crisis, I don’t have all the tools to bring them down from their crisis. This needs to change.
As educators, we need to not only take care of our students’ academic needs, but also provide mental health support for students like Ava. But how do we do this without the training to recognize the signs and risk factors for mental illness, to learn the intervention strategies, and to coordinate the support for students and their families? Such training for educators must be comprehensive and ongoing. In March 2021, Michigan Sen. Sylvia Santana introduced SB 321 that would address these very needs. After its hearing with the Senate Education and Career Committee, it received full bipartisan support from the Senate. If SB 321 were to become law, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and other local health agencies would be required to create state standards that include training for K-12 educators so that we can be better prepared to identify students in crisis and offer support. The House Education Committee must commit to hearing this legislation so it can move to the House floor for a vote, and hopefully move onto the governor’s desk.
In addition to SB 321, we should ensure that teacher preparation programs include training on social and emotional strategies so that future educators are prepared before entering the classroom. When I graduated from my program in 2018, I had little information on social-emotional learning. For me, as for most new teachers, the focus remained on content areas and classroom management. New teachers are told constantly that we need to cultivate strong relationships with our students, and I agree, but how do we do that when our children are constantly in crisis and we haven’t been fully prepared to meet their mental health needs? Teacher preparation programs should have at least one course that is solely focused on social-emotional learning and interweave such strategies and lessons throughout the program’s content and courses. We cannot allow our future educators to enter the classroom without such tools.
Michigan schools also need equitable funding for social workers, counselors, nurses, and school psychologists so that we can have more trained professionals on school sites. With a new state grant in place, districts can hire over 500 nurses, social workers and counselors to support our students across the state. In addition to the grant, we need to do everything we can to recruit more mental health professionals into Michigan schools.
In the end, my school was able to provide counseling for Ava, which includes weekly check-ins with her counselor and our school’s social worker who is now attached to her pending case with Child Protective Services. As she tries to weather the storm of bouncing between houses, I connected her with our school’s poetry club so she can find peace after a tough school day. I was able to catch Ava, but who else have I missed? If educators like me have more effective training and resources, there’s a chance that we can protect many of our students from going over the precipice. Our children really are our future, so we need to do everything we can to ensure that they are well.
Kelsey Wiley is a 10th grade English teacher at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, Michigan. She is a member of the inaugural Michigan Teacher Leadership Collaborative, a program for highly effective teachers led by The Education Trust-Midwest and Teach Plus.