This school year has been incredibly difficult for so many reasons. Teachers needed to learn new ways to reach their students, including learning management systems and virtual conferencing. For those of us with technology flowing through our veins, that wasn’t the difficult part. The difficult part was figuring out how to maintain relationships with our students when roughly 50% or more of them were at home 100% of the time. We had video conferences, we sent emails, we made phone calls, and some of us set up face-to-face home visits when appropriate. Much of the relationship between student to teacher hinged upon whether or not students or parents kept the lines of communication open. Those who reached out more tended to have an easier go at their education this year. And there were those who did reach out, but they struggled for different reasons.
As a high school teacher, one of my responsibilities (outside of actual teaching) is to help identify when students are struggling. This might include when a student is struggling with addiction, when there might be abuse or neglect at home, or when there might be a mental health concern that needs to be addressed. Because so many of my students were at home this school year, identifying those areas became incredibly difficult and nearly impossible. I can only imagine the problems that went unidentified and untreated this year because many of our students across the country lost their ability to be at their one safe place: school.
Throughout this school year, it has been brought to my attention that some of my students struggled with severe depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. A few of them wrote about their depression and anxiety as a way to heal from their crises. A few of them talked to me about it in class or in our video conferences. Sadly, at least two of my students were in the hospital this year because of suicide attempts and/or suicidal ideation. And another turned in a suicide note for an assignment due to stress and anxiety. Thankfully, all of these students have gotten help, but it still breaks my heart that this school year made many of our students slip through the cracks, unnoticed and alone.
During my senior year of high school, I dealt with my own battle of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. I missed at least forty days of my senior year because my panic attacks were so severe that I developed an eating disorder focused on controlling my environment and my body. Fortunately, my family helped me to get help early through therapy and medication. I am blessed to say that through the support of my family and friends, God’s grace, and therapy that I was able to graduate on time with my class despite the number of days that I missed.
Given my own personal circumstances during my senior year, I cannot imagine going through a mental health crisis in the middle of a pandemic without the daily encouragement from my friends and teachers. Even though my home life was very encouraging and loving, part of my recovery was due to my classmates who listened to me when I just needed to whisper, “I’m having a panic attack.” I am so appreciative of my teachers who wrote countless passes to the bathroom or to the nurse’s office when I just needed to step away from the stress of every day. And I am more than happy that on my good days when I went to school that I had the distraction of my classes to get me through.
There are so many people to call out as heroes this school year. Educators and our school communities did the impossible this year. We taught in so many different ways that were new to all of us, but we maintained high expectations, we demonstrated grace and patience, and we kept our students, ourselves, and our families safe. This is nothing short of a miracle!
But I also think that our students are heroes. They overcame adversity that none of us would ever expect our children to face. They developed grit when they struggled to even care about their education. They reached out for help when they were having a crisis. They did the things that they needed to do to get through. That is heroic given the circumstances that each of our children faced this year.
We have a lot of work to do as we look forward to the 21-22 school year. However, I believe that we have learned how resilient we can all be. I believe that we have gained essential skills that are necessary not just in the classroom, but in life. Grace. Patience. Integrity. Grit. Humility. We have learned that we need each other to get through, so let’s continue to lean on one another. And let’s celebrate all of the amazing things that our children did this school year to get through and to thrive. They are the heroes of the 20-21 school year!