“We ain’t teaching these kids s—,” a teacher-friend lamented via FaceTime. “I am tired of teaching to a test. This isn’t real learning!”
This school year has been unlike any other. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, students and teachers have completely overhauled how they learn and teach. Technology has been an integral part of this learning curve. And to account for this shift, teachers have worked harder than ever to compensate for this massive alteration in learning environments, including but not limited to: more brain breaks, less homework, increased student supports and frequent social-emotional check-ins.
Aside from free coffees, email GIFS and sappy social media posts, where is the recognition and support of teachers’ commitment to education? Now, more than ever, students and teachers alike need support to improve or maintain their mental and emotional well-being.
But, rather than reading the room, education leaders are still basing curriculum decisions on standardized testing. And while studies have shown the importance of mental and emotional well-being in the long-term life outcomes of students, neither have been prioritized by school leaders. SEL, social-emotional learning, is the framework implemented on many K-12 campuses that focuses on teaching students awareness of social and emotional health, in addition to teaching students positive, sustainable coping mechanisms for maintaining SEL well-being. Adding SEL as a central academic standard for students is critical to creating and sustaining successful, empowered lifelong learners who go on to become productive citizens.
STAAR, also known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, is a four-hour exam that evaluates students in grades 3-12 on their academic growth. English Language Arts and literacy are the primary subjects of data-driven conversations between teachers and administration on most campuses, because students overwhelmingly struggle to read, write and comprehend. Marginalized students, namely those who attend Title 1 schools, tend to fail the most. One could argue that lack of funding, teacher quality and disadvantaged home experiences contribute to standardized testing failure.
Surprisingly, although millions in funds are annually invested in STAAR preparation, testing and re-testing, STAAR fails to capture the social-emotional learning growth of students. Essentially, SEL can be compared to the content and curriculum for a gym class or a health class — yet, it is still rarely given its own class designation. Students are mandated to take physical fitness and health courses, but SEL is presented to them indirectly, through “embedded” teacher practices.
“Growing up, schools did not teach, educate or even acknowledge mental health within an individual who was experiencing any sort of trauma,” said a former Pennsylvania foster youth, current mental health professional and mother of two elementary-aged students. “It was never a therapeutic environment for mental or emotional health. I never had someone ask, ‘Are you OK?’”
So, how do STAAR and SEL connect? Well, we are still in the COVID-19 pandemic! The well-being of students and school staff is an everyday struggle with people dying daily and many schools continuing both in-person and online learning. Educators are teaching twice as much, with half the resources. Frankly, this is exhausting, and no one seems to truly care. Aside from our physical health, the mental and emotional aspect of working in education during a pandemic feels dire, to say the least. I have read too many stories of people choosing to end their lives, rather than face another day in the classroom — which speaks volumes.
When thinking of this strange school year full of unprecedented circumstances, I cannot help but recall something one of my varsity cheerleaders once said to me after realizing she’d made a mistake: “I was wrong and strong!” The mental and emotional health of staff and students should be the No. 1 priority of schools right now. Instead, statewide testing has us powering forward — and all I can think is that Texas education leadership is decidedly wrong and strong in every possible way!
Data is not driving the choice to keep schools physically open — a decision that is not in the best interest of anyone in school communities. Now is the time for online learning and trauma-informed education — teaching tactics that account for the present sufferings of our students. Now is the perfect time to use the lived experiences of this pandemic to educate students on the importance of maintaining holistic health, to encourage therapy, to support healthy coping mechanisms and to demonstrate reasonable ways of processing the overwhelming realities of growing up during such uncertain, unsafe times. Compound the current public health crisis with Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as ACEs, and you have a recipe for educational disaster with no intentional, proactive and preventative measures in place.
What keeps me up at night the most is all the students who are or will become involved in child welfare. Having spent 17 years in foster care, during which time I attended about 10 different K-12 schools, I know that mental and emotional health is not being taught or demonstrated, especially before this COVID crisis.
“None of my schools taught us anything about mental health, emotional wellness or trauma. I went to three different high schools. And health class taught about condom use and basic hygiene. And at that point, I don’t need you to tell me how to comb and brush my hair,” said Stacy Johnson, a former foster youth and current child welfare professional. “As you get older, there’s this stigma that follows you, because no one normalized social and emotional health at a young age.”
Frankly, most teachers and school staff struggle with basic mental and emotional health and wellness practices. Notably, most educators are not credentialed to execute social-emotional learning courses. School leaders should adequately equip teachers with the training and skill sets required to be mental and emotional safe spaces for their students, because students deserve qualified professionals. Let the teachers teach. Let the school counselors provide therapy. And let the school social workers provide resources.
Teachers are not martyrs. The emotional labor expected of teachers and school staff is egregious. The emotional manipulation of educators and the disgusting exploitation of teacher dedication to their students is shameful — and we need to address this epidemic and radically dismantle it with best practices for appropriately servicing the whole student. The data supports it. The pandemic has revealed a need for safer educational practices. Student achievement on standardized tests and on their general reports cards is at an all-time low. And teachers are leaving the profession daily. The mental and emotional morale of everyone is rapidly declining. Texas Education Agency, it’s about time you learn when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em!