Proudest moments from the classroom — and they have nothing to do with test scores
Photo by Jonny Mansfield on Unsplash

Take a second and think about your favorite teacher. Regardless of how long it's been since you stepped foot in a classroom, it's likely that you have fond memories of one teacher, or several, who made a lasting impact on your life. They went above and beyond because they cared, supported you through challenging times, and inspired you to reach for your dreams.

For Celina Lee, now a career coach, lawyer, and author, it was her eight grade English teacher, Mr. Weiss, who stood up for her when she didn't know how to stand up for herself, and helped her find her voice.

Courtesy of Celina Lee

"I was tortured by ongoing bullying when I was in middle school because I had come from South Korea and didn't speak English well," said Lee. "One morning I went to see him to tell him it was just impossible to finish all the homework, including an essay he had assigned. He listened to me with patience. Then he looked me in the eye, and with intention, he said, 'Celina, you can do this.'"

Several days later, to Lee's amazement, Mr. Weiss declared in front of the classroom, "We have a wonderful writer in our class. Celina, why don't you read your essay out loud for everyone?"

"I was stunned," said Lee.

She finished reading her essay and the class applauded. Many years later, this moment still sticks with Lee.

"After that day, school wasn't so bad anymore. His belief in me changed the way others saw me, and how I saw myself. It took just one instance of encouragement at a critical moment to make all the difference."

Teacher satisfaction undeniably comes from students mastering a curriculum, but educators also derive tremendous fulfilment in "ah ha" moments or life lessons that mold students into strong, tolerant, confident, and happy people.

Adam Cole taught choir at a Georgia middle school until 2006. His proudest accomplishment even today: helping students overcome interpersonal challenges and reach their true potential.

Photo courtesy of Adam Cole

"In addition to getting my kids ready for all their choral performances, I felt an obligation to work on their self-esteem and confidence," Cole said. "We had a tradition that in the last five minutes of every class, anyone who wanted to could come up and perform whatever moved them. This was a great experience — not only for the most outgoing students, but also the most shy."

Cole remembers one student in particular:

"I had a young man who started with me in sixth grade. He was a nice kid, friendly, and a little uncomfortable socially. It was clear he wanted to be outgoing and charismatic, but had no idea how to be," said Cole.

Over the course of three years, Cole would coach the young man on eye contact, posture, and presentation.

"By the eighth grade he was nothing like the kid I met years before. The thing that made me happiest was that, when he came up to the front of the room, he was charismatic. Any time I can see firsthand how powerful our work actually is, it makes me proud, and it makes me want to fight for us and for our students."

Although teachers may be tempted to shrug it off as "just part of the job," these moments are truly special. The attention and commitment given to each student to help them grow ties teacher and student together in a transformational way.

For veteran educator Allison Bruning, helping a student embrace her cultural identity created a lifelong bond.

Photo courtesy of Allison Bruning

Bruning was teaching second grade in Fort Stockton, Texas when she learned one of her incoming students was Mary*, a sweet girl, but very shy and struggling with Language Arts, who happened to live on the Navajo reservation.

"I could tell something was bothering her. Even though she was very nice, she had a hard time making friends," said Bruning.

Eager to help her student, Bruning met with Mary's mother and learned that Mary had struggled on the Reservation as well, wanting nothing to do with her cultural heritage. Mary was in a school where she, her sister and her parents were the only Native Americans.

"I felt it was very important for a student to master his or her first language before trying to conquer a second one," said Bruning.

To help Mary connect with her heritage, Bruning assigned her a special project where she would have to learn a new Navajo word each week, then present that word and its meaning to Bruning every Friday. Over time, Mary's appreciation for her culture and language grew. She learned more Navajo words and, in doing so, was also able to increase her English Language Arts ability as well. Mary's confidence had developed to the point where she asked her teacher if she could give a demonstration to her class about her culture, dressed in her traditional Navajo clothes.

Mary's skills advanced quickly; soon she was reading above her grade level and returned to the Navajo reservation at the end of the year where she continued to thrive. She graduated with honors from high school last year and is now in college.

"Culture is very important and is lost forever if it is not passed down to the next generation. I was proud to help a child appreciate her heritage. And I was even prouder to have been invited to her high school graduation last year," said Bruning.

Incredible and inspiring teachers are all around us. But today's teachers often do not have the resources and support to tackle issues that students face, such as mental health and wellbeing.

That's why Walgreens has launched WE Teachers to provide teachers with tools to help their students thrive. Special learning modules developed in partnership with the ME to WE Foundation and Mental Health America provide no-cost training to help teachers navigate the tough social issues into the classroom, including youth violence, diversity and inclusion, mental health and wellbeing, poverty, and bullying.

Teachers have more tangible needs as well, as it's not uncommon for educators to spend their own money to purchase classroom supplies.

Through Walgreens WE Teachers Award, part of WE Teachers, you can nominate educators who go above and beyond like Mrs. Bruning, Mr. Cole and Mr. Weiss to receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. At least 500 nominated teachers will receive a WE Teachers Award. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, visit walgreens.com/metowe. Teachers can apply, too.

When you shop back to school at Walgreens, you're joining their commitment to support teachers and schools across America. When we support teachers, the future is brighter for all of us.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

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.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“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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