Elementary teacher explains why we can't keep using schools as band-aids for society's ills

Right now, the U.S. is engaged in deep debates about how to handle school re-openings in the fall in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. It's a question with no good answers, unfortunately. But the question itself is shining a spotlight on the various functions schools serve and what we've come to expect out of teachers and schools beyond just teaching kids—expectations that, when you see them all written out, actually seem quite absurd.

An award-winning teacher from Iowa, Alison Hoeman, has beautifully explained how society has dumped most of its failings onto the shoulders of schools and teachers, and now expects them to offer themselves up as tribute during a literal pandemic.



Hoeman wrote on Facebook:

"Society: In the richest country in the world, between 11 and 13 million children live in food insecure homes.

Schools: We can help..... Kids can eat breakfast and lunch at school, and in many places, teachers will spend their own money on snacks. For the most needy, we will send food home for dinner and weekends.

Society: Over 4 million children in the US do not have health insurance or adequate healthcare.

Schools: We can help..... we will bring doctors to do free physicals, eye exams, and dental treatments right at school. In many places, school nurses will spend their own money on sanitary supplies for girls.

Society: Over 17% of US children live without basic necessities.

Schools: We can help.... we will install washers and dryers in schools. We will hand out clothes, school supplies, shoes, and winter coats for free. Many of these items are purchased by school nurses and teachers.

Society: There are 5.5 million reports annually of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect of minors.

Schools: We can help.... schools will be safe places and teachers will be safe people. We will have some counselors, but not enough.... some therapists, but not enough, right in the schools. Teachers with minimal training in trauma will come to school early and stay late to mentor these children. Teachers will spend more time with their students than with their own children. Teachers will cry and sometimes crumble at the thought of not being able to do more for the innocent children in their care.

Society: Almost 25% of US children have parents that work past school hours.

Schools: We can help.... we will install before and after school programs in thousands of schools where kids can get another meal, get help with their homework, and participate in organized activities.

Society: Almost 14 million children in the US are obese.

Schools: we can help... Physical Education classes will be mandatory and we will incorporate lessons about healthy food choices.

Society: The US averages one school shooting every 77 days.

School: We can help... we will do lock down drills and train our students to hide and be quiet. And if need be, teachers will literally die for their students.

Society: We are in the midst of a global pandemic which our government has failed to control. Almost 130,000 Americans are dead and the numbers are rising, not declining, in many places. Because we have chosen to ignore, for decades, the racism, inequality, and discrimination that is at the root of all the aforementioned problems, we now need schools to reopen so that kids can eat, get healthcare, get clothes, shoes, and school supplies, be safe, be healthy, and be supervised. Oh, and so that they can get an education. It appears that COVID doesn't affect children, so let's go back to school.

Teachers: We can help.... of course we will help, that's what we do. We miss our students and want to be back at school with them.... but what about the 25-30% of us that are over the age of 50? What about those of us who are immunocompromised or live with someone who is? What about those of us who are pregnant... we still have very limited data on what COVID does to unborn children. Will you have PPE for us? Will you have hand sanitizer for us? What if we get sick, and don't have enough sick days to cover the time that we are out? What if a family member gets sick and we need to care for them?

Society: Wow, why are you suddenly being a bunch of crybabies? Before you were always willing to sacrifice your time, your money, your mental health.... and now when we need you, you aren't willing to sacrifice your health and possibly your life? But 75% of you are women.... and that's what we, as a society, expect women to do... sacrifice yourself for others.

* For decades, schools and teachers have been the band-aid on society's failings, because we care about children.... because we know that in society's failings, it is almost always the children that suffer the most. Schools and teachers are not responsible for, or capable of, the repair of our broken America. Make no mistake that going back to school has very little to do with education and much more to do with the other social services that schools provide... we need children's to return to school so that they are fed, cared for, and supervised... so that their parents can go back to work and participate in the economy. While it literally breaks the heart of every teacher in America to think of all of the children that they know who are not eating enough, not being well cared for, and not safe in their home, teachers will not be the lambs sent to slaughter because no one else cared enough to actually address the racism, discrimination, and inequality that is at the root of our problems, while schools and teachers were picking up all the slack and holding it all together with a band-aid that is growing very thin."

Since everything is already turned upside down anyway, perhaps now would be a good opportunity for us to reexamine how we as a society—one with a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people"—handles issues like hunger, poverty, child abuse, health and healthcare, working parents balancing childcare, etc. The fact that we've tacitly decided to address these problems through underfunded school systems with overworked teachers and school personnel is rather ridiculous. It's not fair to teachers, parents, or kids to expect schools to fix everything. It's high time to tackle our ills head on, with resources and experience and expertise that makes sense, and stop treating gaping holes with bandaids that weren't designed for such a purpose in the first place.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

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“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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