Mistakes and errors? Let them face them. Perfectionistic students aiming for unrealistic standards? Remind them what really matters. Those who are facing immense anxiety and crippling depression? Relate to them any way you know how.
I saw her.
Sitting in the front row of my fifth-period class. Typical student. Paid attention for the most part, but always seemed a bit zoned out.
When she wrote about her life story in my yearly memoir assignment, I wasn't surprised. Trauma, abuse, mental health, and pain were written not with words but with actions and faces. I thought anyone could recognize that she needed someone to care. To listen. To offer a helping hand, even if it meant sacrificing half of my lunch period. I guess not all teachers feel that way. I'm thankful for the ones who do.
As I approach my fifth year of teaching, and my fourth year specifically teaching in a public school setting, I'm reminded year after year of the things my students teach me. I know that sounds odd as the teacher, but I'm serious. And especially because I'm an author who writes about young adult mental health, you wouldn't believe the lessons I've learned.
Going into this school year, there are three things that I want my students to know about mental health. And if you're a teacher, I would encourage you to help your students know these three things in your classroom as well:
1. You're Seen
I know it sounds obvious. Letting a student know they are "seen," when you have 180 kids on your roster, and zero free time sounds exhausting. It can be, but it doesn't have to be. So what does "being seen," mean? Let me provide an example:
Because I teach English, I have the divine opportunity to read what students write. Mind-blowing, I know. But beyond the poor grammar, inability to write full sentences, or use of slang, there is a person who is longing to be heard, and often willing to share themselves if you'll just take a minute to listen. And perhaps it's also the kids who write nothing, sometimes, that speak the loudest.
Every year when I read my student's memoirs, I cry. But not for the reason you might think. While some, if not most of them, are sad, full of horror, or traumatic experiences, there are many that also long to be noticed. They might be known as the weird kid, the band kid, the shy kid, the kid who never gets in trouble, the kid whose parents got a divorce, the kid who decides to come out, etc. And even for those who've never experienced a single day of trauma or mental health struggles, they deserve to know that they are seen by you. And why you?
A recent study conducted by Education Week (2022) notes that teachers spend roughly 27 hours a week directly teaching and interacting with students. And for me personally, I know that number is closer to 35 hours a week when you factor in leading Bible study groups, after-school activities, or opening your door for an extended time during the school day. With 180 contact days typically contracted per year, that's over 1,053-1,365 hours a year teachers spend with students.
As John C. Maxwell so famously wrote, "Students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Isn't that the truth and beauty behind the best teachers?
Making a student feel seen means taking the time to comment on their memoirs (and I'm not just talking about structural feedback), and asking about their daily lives. For example, while I do grade their essays and glance at daily/weekly journal prompts, I also make it a point to find out their interests. Do they play a sport? What's their favorite food? Do they watch a particular show I can integrate into a lesson example, or comment on? Making these connections daily make students feel seen. And of course, if you ever have particular concerns about a student, reach out to them and the necessary resources (if needed and appropriate).
As a woman of faith, it's clear to my public school that I believe in the power of God. And sometimes, His power and guidance towards a particular student that needs encouragement, hope, or a cheerful word is all I'm going off of. But He's never steered me wrong. And just as my Father in Heaven makes me feel seen and known, that's what each of us teachers is called to do for those we teach. Even the ones we can't stand.
2. You're Not Alone
The second comment that I would encourage teachers to let their students know is that they are not alone. While it sounds cliche, there is overwhelming evidence that most students suffer from mental health struggles alone for two reasons: 1. They fear what others will think, so they keep it to themselves, and 2. They believe the enemy's lie and that there truly isn't anyone else out there that would understand what they are going through. Despite the reality that they know they possibly aren't the only ones experiencing this tragedy and pain, their mind convinces them of just that. And they definitely don't want to talk to their parents or counselors whom they believe won't understand.
A survey conducted by K-12 Dive writes that even though these students are suffering, they also believe their problems aren't big enough concerns to bother someone with. And if they did, they surely wouldn't understand. But this is where teachers have a unique opportunity to make a difference.
While we may not always be able to verbally say, "You're not alone," (which is still a good idea, by the way), our actions can reflect this. For example, I love to make real-life connections with my students in most of the lessons I teach. So when we learn about the Holocaust, racism, or mental health, for instance, I directly relate that to the real world and what they may be experiencing. It sounds simple, but it truly can help students to know that someone else understands what they're facing (even if it's people from books they don't know)!
3. There's Nothing Wrong with You
The third and final tip I have for teachers to encourage their students is to remind them that there's nothing wrong with them. Many, if not all students will suffer at some time from low self-worth or thinking that because they are suffering, something surely must be wrong with them.
As a student, I thought that something was wrong with me because no one ever asked me out. I fell into a dangerous eating disorder and longed for anyone to ask if I was okay. But because I remained silent, no one ever knew. I suffered alone, but I wish I wouldn't have.
As a college student, I believed this because no one shared my passions. I struggled to make friends and feel a sense of belonging. It wasn't until a professor took the time to talk with me that I began to grow wings and fly.
As a young adult, I continually asked God what was wrong with me when my anxiety and depression didn't magically cease. I still wrestle with this today.
But if I have learned one thing that I wish I knew then, it's that the power of letting others know that nothing is wrong with them speaks wonders.
Mistakes and errors? Let them face them.
Perfectionistic students aiming for unrealistic standards? Remind them what really matters.
Those who are facing immense anxiety and crippling depression? Relate to them any way you know how.
Today's generation is in a crisis of mental health because not enough people care. Not enough people reach out. Not enough people take the time. Will you? The NEA (2022) pens these words, and it's my prayer they will impact you as they have me: "The bottom line on student learning today is this: “You can’t teach if you’re not addressing mental health."
A Call to Teachers Today
There is power in reminding students, all students, that they are loved, chosen, and valued just the way they are. Even if they are a superstar in your class, and even and especially if they aren't.
If you've caught on by now, you'll probably realize that these three tips aren't always simple statements you can tell students. And while you might be able to sneak them in here and there, the fact of the matter is that they are experienced. Students will know that they are seen and not alone because of how you interact with them. Students will know that there's nothing wrong with them because they feel validated, heard, and cared for by you.
The greatest gift we can give our students is not the concepts we teach them in the classroom. As an English teacher, it's not found in the beautiful pedagogy, lexicon, or Greek context words with hidden meanings. And as an author, it's not even found in the poetic phrases I conjure up or the books I'm in the process of writing.
The greatest gift we can give our students is genuine kindness, patient time, and resilience that can only come from the Lord. Genuine kindness because students can spot a fake like no other (so if you don't really care, don't waste their time). Patient time because your patience will be tested, and your time will be limited. And resilience from the Lord because it strengthens those of us who needed to hear these things when we were in their shoes. And just as He faithfully saw us through, we will faithfully and wholeheartedly see them through to the end.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Jacoblund
Amber Ginter is a teacher, author, blogger, and mental health activist who resides in the beautiful mountains and cornfields of Ohio. She loves Jesus, granola, singing, reading, dancing, running, her husband Ben, and participating in all things active. She’s currently enrolled in the Author Conservatory Program and plans to pitch her book: Mental Health and the Modern Day Church for Young Adults, soon. Visit her website at amberginter.com.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
Photo and video Credit: ©SWN Design/©GettyImages