On November 20th, I posted a video on my Instagram account (@TheStoppelsShow) that was a brief introduction to this blog post. I've been busy, so I didn't get right down to it, but here I am now. About a week before I posted the video, a student at my school died, and while it was never confirmed to me that he died by suicide or not, it got me thinking.
Mental health is a really important issue to me, for personal reasons, and I'm always thinking about ways I can change my practice to promote mental health strategies and conversations. But the education system is broke! In saying that, believe me, I know that even the best education systems can't do much about chemical imbalances in the brain and that mental illnesses are not easy to "cure." But I think we, as education professionals, can be doing more to promote mental health.
High stakes one-and-done evaluations in a culture where failure is not an option. Sitting down quietly, in rows, being polite and respectful, asking permission to go to the washroom, in classrooms where the focus is on the teacher at the front of the room and on the evaluations, and not on the students in the room, is what is wrong with the system.
My question is: How does the traditional classroom promote mental health? My answer is: It doesn't.
Students enter the classroom, sit down, get told to put their phones away and pull out a paper and pen(cil) because the class is about to start. Then the slide show goes up and students either fill in the blank worksheets, or copy the notes word for word while the teacher talks about the things on the slides in an effort to "synthesize" the information for the students that are sitting so quietly and politely and trying to ignore the phone that is buzzing in their pockets because they don't want to get in trouble and have their phone taken away. The teacher asks the class a question, and everyone waits for the smartest kids in the class to answer because never mind answering a question wrong on a test, who wants to answer a question wrong in front of the class? How embarrassing! This is how teachers guide class discussions...but it's not a class discussion...it's a discussion in class. Some kids are engaged, some kids are waiting patiently for it to be over so they can get on with the slide show and some tune out and disengage completely. Sometimes, this needs to happen. But not every. single. day. And not even most days. Once in a while, sparingly. I have found, in my experience, that when students have to sit and take notes once in a while, they are more likely to understand why.
What are we, as teachers, doing to help our students develop strong mental health habits? Talking about it isn't enough. School boards have initiatives, and governments say they are funding schools for mental health, but nothing in changing in the classrooms. Okay, some classrooms are...but still, most aren't. Courses that are designed to promote rote memorization to be successful on a multiple choice test, or fill in the blank, or true or false that is a "one and done" affair, with no other options or opportunities to demonstrate learning, I would argue, only promotes stress and cheating. Courses that are designed to collect academic evidence to assign a number grade and rank students against one another promotes anxiety and plagiarism. When students know they are being compared to their peers, that promotes embarrassment and behaviour problems. If students are asking "why do we need to learn this," why are we not taking a look at how we're doing things?
I think the answer to that question should be painfully obvious to the student, and I think that that answer needs to be plainly stated by the teacher before the students have time to wonder. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that having a sense of purpose really improves mental health. And I'm just going to say it, I don't have a lot of research or academic journal articles that have been peer reviewed to back all of this up, but I do have a lot of personal experience that I've gained by looking at and listening to the people I serve on a daily basis, my students.
Some characteristics or virtues that I think help improve mental health are courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline, integrity and grit. All of these, lead to a strong sense of agency. Drs Paul Napper and Anthony Rao wrote a book called The Power of Agency, and I really believe that it's the answer! It's all about agency. Learning techniques to manage stress, overwhelm and anxiety is useful, but if we really want to improve our own mental health we need to go further than that and develop a strong sense of agency so we can live life on our own terms.
We need our students to be less afraid of making mistakes and of taking risks. We need to provide opportunities for them to try things and fail, and to grow from those failures. We need to provide opportunities for them to begin to believe in themselves so that they develop the courage to try new things and to prove to themselves that they actually are capable of amazing things.
We need to give our students opportunities to produce. To be industrious. To be faced with a problem and to come up with a reasonable solution on their own. We need to give them something to accomplish and allow them to celebrate that sense of accomplishment. The world needs more producers and less consumers. And they know it. But they haven't been given many opportunities to produce and contribute so they often don't even know how to get started. They need to be given opportunities to figure out on their own how to get started and not just follow instructions.
This is another way, in my mind, of saying 'confidence'. We need to provide our students with opportunities to make decisions for themselves so that they can learn that they can make good choices. They need to be in safe situations where if they make the wrong choice there are few repercussions so that when they find themselves outside of education, they can have the confidence, and the resolution, to know how to make the right choice and to believe in what they are doing.
Students need to be given opportunities to try things without the teacher's guidance. Safety of course is the first consideration, but outside of that, they need to be able to prove to themselves that they can start something on their own and see it through to the end. While collaboration is a very important skill (especially in the 21st century), they need to know that they can be alright on their own and be successful on their own terms, not someone else's. Parents play a role in the development of all these characteristics, but especially in this one.
Students need to be given opportunities to realize that even if the work isn't the most fun, or interesting, it might still need to get done. But when they have a sense of purpose, developing discipline becomes easier. And then, when the going gets tough, students will be able to recognize that they may need a little more discipline to make it through a more challenging, or mundane, task. Developing this characteristic leads to a stronger sense of self-reliance, resolution and courage to boot.
Originally I wanted this subtitle to be 'honour', but I changed it to integrity because honour wasn't enough. We want our students to be honest, cite their sources, produce their own work, etc. But we also want to provide opportunities for our students to do the right thing and to feel that sense of pride. Having integrity, means taking pride in one's work, but also giving credit where credit is due. It is also about acknowledging the work of their classmates or group members and sharing the rewards. It's about stepping aside when someone has a better idea, and about celebrating and promoting those ideas and differences. Integrity is about pushing for the success of the group and only accepting the best of one's self and also of the people with whom they are working.
As demonstrated by the work and research of Angela Duckworth, grit is having the power of passion and perseverance. We need to give our students opportunities to develop a sense of grit by giving them voice and choice in our classrooms so that they can make a decision and have an opportunity to see it through. There will be times when students will not be passionate about what we are learning in class, but they need to be given the chance to persevere through a challenging task nonetheless. Persevering and being gritty doesn't mean never quitting, it means quitting when the time is right. Working through problems, or tedious, mundane tasks requires perseverance, and sometimes one must (as they say in the military) "embrace the suck," but being gritty is knowing when it is time to revisit the drawing board to try a different way to reach a goal, or even change a goal.
Developing these characteristics in our students is going to help them maintain their mental health in the short term, and improve it in the long term. As a teacher, transparency is key for this to be successful. Students and parents need to know that the focus is not necessarily on the curriculum, but on developing characteristics and skills that are going to help our students here, now, and always.
We live in a crazy time! Some call it the age of information. But whatever you want to call it, the need for a change has never been greater. Academia is not the only option for success any more. I didn't mention it above, but having an entrepreneurial spirit (which includes all the characteristics above) is going to get our students farther than ever. We can't wait until the universities change their system in order the change the system at the high school level. Changing the way we teach, and reach our students will not hurt them. Project based learning (which is how I try to develop the skills listed above in my class) does not mean students are going to have lower grades. They are going to be learning everything they need to learn, but they are also going to be learning things that are going to help them (again) here, now, and always. I find that with Project Based Learning, the curriculum is used as a vessel to help develop the characteristics listed above and when a person has had opportunities to develop those characteristics, they will have a very strong sense of agency and therefore be less stressed, less anxious and less overwhelmed, and thus mentally healthier and happier. And when students are healthy and happy, they learn.
Another positive point for project based learning is that it is, more often than not, a much more active way of learning. Students are standing, and moving, and working with their hands. They are not passively acquiring information from a board or a slide show. They are not doing practice problems that drill something they did earlier in class. They are activating so many more parts of the brain to think outside of the box and to moving and manipulating. They are using their brains, which in turn, stimulates their brains.
The above blog post was written from a classroom teacher's point of view. In previous blog posts and instagram or Twitter (@TheStoppelsShow...just like Instagram) videos that I have posted, I talk about the important links between physical and mental health. It's insanely important to be intentionally active everyday and get outside as much as possible. Physical activity helps with the chemical side of mental health, while the education system I was talking about here, does nothing for mental health. Again, physical health is paramount to mental health, but this article was just about the education system. And there's a strong possibility that this is going to be a topic I will revisit!
Thanks for reading!