I’ve had the privilege of being a featured speaker a number of times, but I finally reached my personal professional goal of being one at the TIES conference in Minnesota last week. The reason it meant so much to me was because this was the conference that was the beginning of me re-engaging back into education. With a little help from George Couros and his book Innovator’s Mindset and my choice to want to be happy in my job again, I began the journey of coming back fully to education. For me, this was a huge goal to reach.
Ironically, since recommitting to the profession, one of my platforms has become educator re-engagement and mental health, which was part of what disengaged me to begin with. The TIES conference is a technology and learning conference, yet they still allowed me to do my session on educator mental health called The Show Must Go On. I was nervous being that I had presented there for the last four years and had always stuck to technology tools and learning and this was waaaaay out of the comfort zone for many people, especially being they were at a technology conference.
What shocked me was that these were my most full sessions. What then angered me was that they were so desperate to hear what I had to say about educator mental health that they prioritized it over the technology-focused learning they had been there for because we still aren’t talking about it enough to make talking about it okay. I even had a participant come up to me afterward and say, “I kept asking myself all the way here, ‘Why am I going to a mental health session at a technology conference?’ but I’m so glad I did.” I felt like the number of people who showed up for these sessions was a good indication of how we need to continue the journey of bringing awareness and support.
The thing is, I don’t have all the answers about mental health. Most of us don’t because we were never trained as mental health professionals. I can only tell you what we are doing in our district and what I have experienced. My goal is always awareness and education with the hope that we can take things on together. I do know that the more we talk about it with a solutions-based approach, we will destigmatize it enough to be able to move forward. We need to be comfortable saying the words depression and anxiety and psychiatric treatment and counseling. If I broke my leg and told anyone that I wasn’t going to the doctor, they’d tell me that is ridiculous and to go, so why don’t we do that same thing with counseling? What if when someone whispered to us that they were seeing a counselor we responded with, “I’m so glad that you’re taking control and seeing someone who can help you! That’s amazing!” instead of whispering back helplessly, “I’m so sorry you need to do that.” I’m not saying that having mental health issues is a good thing and should be celebrated, but I am saying that being brave enough to seek help for the places you need help (no matter what those are) is.
Currently, our district has set up a committee to work on mental health for both students and educators thanks to a state grant for mental health that we received. We were able to hire (part-time) a mindfulness coach and a mental health coordinator. We are in the process of adopting a mindfulness curriculum while still understanding that while mindfulness is amazing for the masses, it is not always going to be enough for adults and children with traumatic backgrounds and mental health issues. Therefore, we are learning more about trauma and what that means. And while we are working on screeners and supports for students and families like many districts, we are also working on support for educators which seems to be the piece some districts are missing. Our first challenge is pretty universal: how we get people to buy-in to the process if they don’t understand mental health and the impact it has on learning. Changing people’s minds is always a difficult undertaking, but if we want to be change agents we need to do the things that other people don’t want to do especially when they are difficult because that is how you create change.
One website that I wanted to pass on is called Anxiety Canada (those Canadians always seem to have it together). Not only is the information fantastic but the way it is laid out is amazing as well. They awareness, education, and strategies including how to create a MAP, or anxiety plan. While the site focuses solely on the different types of anxiety, as a district this may be what we use to model our own educator-focused support site on mental health issues.
I’m hoping as we get further down the road in this journey that I can continue to share what we are going, what we have done, what has worked and what hasn’t. In the arena of mental health, this is not a competition to out-do the district next to us in order to gain more students and therefore more funding. This is about being