What's the Plus?
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What's the Plus?

Turning a Secret Brown Bag Into a Toolkit

By Romana Mathews

Every day, I ask my high school students to put their feelings, worries, and stressors into my secret brown bag. Lately when leaving work, my bag is more full than usual. One note reads, “I am going through a lot with depression and I don’t know how to handle it. I wish that my family could understand other than thinking I always have an attitude.” Another reads, “I’m trying to find closure about the passing of my grandmother. Could you speak about different coping mechanisms or ways that could help me find peace about the situation. It would help me greatly.” While some notes are a little easier to deal with, others are too heavy for me to carry alone. The hardest letters to address are the anonymous ones, with no student’s name, just a cry for help.

Social isolation, paranoia of a forgotten mask, or the fear of possibly being exposed and the odds of exposing your household is a lot for anyone to consider. However, my students’ social and emotional needs did not just start. While new issues have arisen as we deal with COVID-19, my students have long faced many challenges that interfere with their ability to process their social and emotional needs and focus on learning. The pandemic only exacerbated the experiences of students living in our underserved communities as they continue to live with poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, to name just a few of the challenges.

My secret brown bag is the start of a longer process. To make each of my students feel comfortable, I give them an option to write their name if they want to talk. Whether or not their name is there, I write a response. For the students who want to remain anonymous, I share coping mechanisms. With each note, I ask myself how many more students need me that I am unable to reach. I need more resources and ways of helping every one of my students, whether or not they share their name in my secret brown bag.

To help my students, I need training and emotional support. To guide them, I find myself turning to counselors, Google, and my own life experiences. But what I really need is a playbook of resources, strategies, and techniques to share with them. Our state provides standards and targets to hit as a guide to high-quality instruction. This playbook would do the same for coping strategies, conflict resolutions, and support techniques for my students. The playbook will be a breath of fresh air to the educators in our state who are navigating many obstacles, including staff shortages in their buildings, low pay, student debt, and professional development unconnected to social and emotional learning.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with the members of our legislature’s Education Committee. When they asked me what my students needed, I told them that they need healthy, well-adjusted teachers. Having the right support, which includes a playbook of strategies and techniques I can use to help my students, would help me lighten my own load. The playbook could assist teachers by addressing their own as well as the needs of students, beyond the pandemic.

I need strategies to deal with the many challenges in the secret brown bag. The social-emotional playbook has the opportunity of becoming the tool we all need to help our students and build a better educational system for all.

Romana Mathews teaches Family & Consumer Sciences, Lifespan Development, and Dynamics of Human Relationship at Forrest City High School in Forrest City, Arkansas. She is a 2021–2022 Teach Plus Arkansas Policy Fellow.

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