Seriously, What’s the Difference?

Jeanette Lukowski

It all began with an article from The New York Times titled “The Community College / ‘Real College’ Divide.” The article was part of an assessment tool being used by the community college for whom I was an Adjunct English Instructor that fall semester of 2016; the Assessment Coordinator was asking all teachers of Composition I to use a set of common articles in the beginning of the course, and again at the end of the course. I had two sections, so agreed to help.

In December, then, as my Composition I students were working through the assessment activity during our last day of class, I read Kristin O’Keefe’s article for the first time. Published on The New York Times’s blog in February of 2015, O’Keefe seemed inflamed by comments made by “an educator explaining criteria for high school graduation…to her audience of parents and incoming freshmen: ‘here’s what you should take if you want to go to a real college – you know, not community college.’” Although I was not as annoyed as O’Keefe appeared to be, I was intrigued by the suggestion of there being a “divide” between the two types of schools.

I have a personal history with both 4-year universities and community colleges.

I grew up in Chicago, moving to Minnesota when I was in my twenties. While living in Chicago, I attended both community college and university; I also attended both types of schools in Minnesota, before receiving my B.A. as a non-traditional commuting mother of two young children.

My teaching credentials also encompass a wide array of experiences, from traditional classroom experience at both universities and community colleges to online teaching for each type of institution.

What, I wondered specifically, is this “divide” O’Keefe refers to?

When I met with the Provost several hours later to discuss his invitation to teach additional courses for the community college during spring semester (I was already committed to an adjunct load for the year with a four-year university seventy-five miles away), I asked about my ability to use the same textbook for the spring semester Composition II course as I would be using with the university’s equivalent course. Since many of the community college students transferred to that particular university, I would see if I could unearth this suggested “divide” in northern Minnesota.

The Provost agreed to my proposal; my rather informal, semester-long “assessment project” began.

*          *          *

The first challenge I faced was to align course syllabi for a M/W/F fifty-minute class with a T/Th seventy-five-minute class.

Additionally, the university ran on a fifteen-week class schedule, while the community college’s course would last sixteen weeks.

Oh, and their Spring Break weeks occurred at different times.

I wasn’t given much time to dwell on these matters, though, since there were only two weeks of “break” between the community college’s semesters—and the office personnel who do the printing of syllabi and ordering of textbooks close for official holidays like Christmas and New Year’s.

Again, because this was an informal assessment project being pulled together in a hurry, I made no firm plan of how to track the “data” I would be collecting; I simply made notes on one of the many legal tablets I carry around with me from class to class. Some notes were made while students were freewriting in class (to use Peter Elbow’s term), and some more notes were made while I sat alone, holding formal office hours on one or the other of the campuses.

The journal entries that follow are observations of and conversations with students I have had the pleasure to meet and work with over the years, and the correlations I choose to draw by way of possible connections.

*          *          *

Week 1:

The first day of every course, no matter where I am teaching, runs pretty much the same way. I hand out the syllabus, run through introductions and such, and—if time allows—have students compose an in-class journal entry.

The second day of class, the university students received a “fresh” version of a lecture, while the community college students received a more polished, practiced version of the same lecture—followed by class discussion about the set of essays they were assigned to have read for homework.

The class discussion with the university students the next day began with a similar opening question, but followed an entirely different trajectory, as all such conversations are apt to do.

*          *          *

Journal from February 9, 2017:

Conversation styles are throwing me this week. I have been having an impossible time getting the [university] students to talk—while almost the exact opposite is occurring at [the community college].

Tuesday, for instance, I was “lecturing” the class about the highlights of chapter 3 in our textbook—“Arguments in Media,” or whatever. [Female student] was answering every question—with her deep, loud voice—and never raised her hand.

When [male student] in the second row opened his mouth to contribute (also a deep voice, but not quite as loud), he was almost “silenced” (drowned-out) by the building lull of conversations going on behind him. Now, usually there are two groups (pairs) of young women talking all the time—but this day it was all three back rows?

I regularly practice two distinct types of teaching styles with students: Lecture Mode, when I instruct students about the serious matters I would like them to know from each portion of the textbook, and Discussion Circles, when we collaboratively explore the many nuances of writing in published essays. Pedagogically speaking, Lecture Mode is the time when I convey the many “rules” of writing (in this particular case, the ways academic arguments are constructed, and how to locate—then cite—all sources used according to MLA style), while Discussion Circle time is used to examine the many ways a variety of writers have incorporated argument(s) into their work.

When I am “imparting knowledge” during Lecture Mode, students sit in their regular rows or columns, depending on the configuration of each specific classroom, and while I neither require nor request it, most students will automatically raise their hand if they have a question or want to offer a comment. By contrast, when it is time for Discussion Circles, I ask students to arrange themselves in such a way that no one has his or her back to another student; they are invited to contribute to what I hope becomes a hearty conversation, the only requirements being that they respect our right to disagree with one another—and they don’t take the “debate” out of the classroom’s conversation.

Although I have heard about teachers who use tools such as a talking stick to maintain order within the discussion circle, I have never felt the need to micro-manage the conversation until this particular class at the community college. For reasons I could not fathom at the time, too many of my group of twenty-eight community college students were maintaining their rigid behaviors from high school: playing with their cell phones while I was in Lecture Mode and chit-chatting with their neighbors whenever the spirit moved them. (Discussion Circles made cell phone use during class too obvious for all but one of my most defiant students, but we as a class chose to ignore her bad behavior, and all breathed a collective sigh of relief on days she was absent.)

The twenty-five university students, on the other hand, would pretty much rely on five of their classmates to speak, no matter what the topic, or how the seating was arranged. I tried everything short of standing on my head or placing electric shock buzzers in their chairs, but there were literally only two days when I heard most of those students speak in class: the first day, when I asked them to introduce themselves, and the last few days, when each student was asked to give a five-minute informal presentation on the topic of their final paper.

Pulling teeth.

*          *          *

Journal from February 16, 2017:

What if the “difference” between a four-year university and a community college is nothing more than the difference between a city and a small town?

  • Everyone knows everyone else at C.C., vs. larger populations of Univ.
  • Many more opportunities at Univ.—since kids “live” on campus, vs. commuting from home to C.C.
  • People attending Univ. “move away” from home—perhaps staying in Univ. “town” after graduation, vs. C.C. students who have no intention of moving (part of reason they are at C.C. in first place?)
  • Students are focused: four years to completion (perhaps five), vs. C.C. students who fit college in, when they can, around other life events
  • Activities are focused on-campus—students don’t have tons of contact with off-campus locations early in their “careers” as students because many lack transportation, vs. C.C. activities taking place in a commons-area (high traffic)—or in partnership with an entity in the community (since most are commuting to the typical small—one-building—campus)

*          *          *

Journal from March 3, 2017:

While it is not scientifically proven, student athletes in each institution seem to have different foci. At [the community college], student athletes are being imported from other states—and the school seems to make extra “accommodations” for those students. (Academic struggle means withdrawing from the course just days before it ends, rather than letting the student fail?)

I have also read / heard about the “one-and-done” student athlete rule / philosophy at [the community college]; attendance is lax, attention to skills-learning in the classroom doesn’t seem to matter.

[The university], on the other hand, has presented me with two young men who have placed academics first. Both are “from” small towns in Minnesota (Roseau for one, Detroit Lakes for the other); one plays basketball for [the university], while the other decided to drop his hockey career for academics.

In the news, at the very time I was drafting this essay, a family of basketball players was under the lens of scrutiny. Although I have no connection to either the family or the institution, my retired teacher mother asked me the night the news broke, “How do those young men think they can get away with theft like that?”

I simply replied, “They weren’t thinking, Mom,” because I had seen similar attitudes of nonchalance from other student athletes.

I have had the opportunity to teach some very fine, honorable student athletes. Just as all teachers are not cut from the same cloth, students athletes run the gamut as well. But that incident brings the question back around for me: are colleges holding all students to the same level of academic rigor—whether athlete or musician, artist or writer?

*          *          *

Journal from March 14, 2017:

This morning, my clear-headed thought was that [the community college] teachers are focused on teaching a specific set of skills—but perhaps overlook the importance of critical thinking. [I had overheard a community college instructor giving students oral exams in the office space we shared. The instructor’s technique was problematic for me.]

Skills aren’t always “transferable” from one discipline to another, and students never think about using many of the skills beyond the immediate classroom.

Critical thinking, on the other hand, could/should be part of everything they do, once mastered.

Anyone can learn to use a computer; anyone can figure out a way to memorize “data” like the Periodic Table in chemistry; anyone can be taught the rudimentary skills of cooking, playing an instrument, or even learning how to dance. But THINKING, especially CRITICALLY, that takes a whole new layer of…changing computer keyboarding skills to programming, transforming a student into a scientist, a master-chef, a talented musician, a prima-ballerina.

Critical thinking raises the bar from proficiency to mastery. It makes one self-reliant. It allows us to problem-solve, not just monitor or identify that a problem exists.

My class(es) and I were also reading a novel this semester, an activity I like to include as part of their expanding look at published writing. I approach it like a book club rather than a literary analysis, and ask the different levels of classes to engage with the novel in differing ways.

This semester’s selection was T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, because it allowed us the opportunity to engage in some of the nation’s hot-button topics (immigration, the wall between the U.S.A. and Mexico) without the extra layer of political affiliation (the book was published in 1995).

One of my students at the community college—a young woman who had been home-schooled by what I assume are very conservative, Christian parents (based on conversations I had with the student throughout the semester)—was stunned by the compassion exhibited by the Mexican immigrant male towards his wealthy, Caucasian male “rival” at the novel’s end. While I no longer recall her specific words, I remember the feeling of euphoria accompanying me on my seventy-five-mile drive home that afternoon; oh, happy day, her critical thinking skills were developing!

*          *          *

Journal from April 2, 2017:

The hammer falls hard on the position essay.

 [The community college] problems include two students presenting papers written for another class (one talking about her experience at [XYZ] Community College? Another using the I-Search final paper she wrote for me in Comp. I, complete with multiple online sources viewed in Dec. of 2016), and one young man who turned in a paper with the clear statement, “women like me…”

Ugh.

Students are often still childlike; children test boundaries. Each semester, no matter where I teach, I tend to run across a student who blatantly plagiarizes a paper. This discovery was recorded so specifically because I was sitting on campus, either grading in my office between classes or silently fuming in the library with my students while they were independently researching for their final paper.

Each college has a specific protocol for handling plagiarism. I publish the institution’s specific language in my course syllabus, “punish” the student based on the infraction, and pass the information up the chain-of-command if deemed appropriate.

After that, I entrust the administration with the situation—never inquiring about their decision—just as I hope they trust me to continue to do my job without interference.

*          *          *

Going back to O’Keefe’s, “The Community College / ‘Real College’ Divide,” she writes of a “divide” between “people who believe in community colleges, and people who dismiss and even diminish them.”

I do not know where O’Keefe lives, nor what region she is writing about with regard to this article—but I know what I heard when my children were each introduced to their high school in Minnesota. The high school’s guidance counselors promoted a very specific set of courses for students who tested well in the years leading up to ninth grade, making them “college ready,” while the students who had not tested well were simply given a plan to graduate.

Is that the “divide” O’Keefe means?

When I look into a classroom of students each semester, I do see a different set of people depending on whether it is a community college or a four-year university; I also see a difference in student population with the time of day, regional location of the school, and current state of the nation’s economy.

The similarities vs. differences I observed this one semester in northern Minnesota were:

  1. The community college students were younger than what I encountered in another community college in another time and state. Without asking for their Name, Rank, and Serial Number (although three of them shared specific information about being sixteen years old in their writing), I ascertained that approximately half of my community college students were enrolled through their high school’s Post Secondary Enrollment Option (meaning they were driving over to the community college for a class or two while still engaging in high school curricula and activities). By contrast, I don’t recall a single PSEO student being in the university class, so the maturity level of any topic discussed was always higher in the university than the community college.
  2. Most of the PSEO students were attending the community college without a clear sense of purpose. Without a defined career path / major in mind, the PSEO students were working in a vacuum of sorts; their work was unfocused and random when compared to their university “peers” who were working towards a very specific goal—and already had enough knowledge about their field from which to prepare a decent academic argument.
  3. Finances seemed to dictate the students’ attending college. Since the local area had recently experienced an economic recession of its own, many of the students were identified as First Generation college students. Were they attending the community college as a way for their parents to avoid the financial burden in a year or two? Were they attending the community college because they couldn’t find a “good paying” job in the area? Were they attending the community college because the local high schools were cutting budgets by hiring fewer teachers / offering fewer courses? If one is offered an athletic scholarship to a top-tier program, or has parents who are financially supporting the venture, students tend to gravitate towards universities; if students are coming from homes where money is a concern, and/or students are paying for it themselves, community college tuition is often a more affordable way to complete those “core” courses most Bachelor’s degrees require.

Yes, there are tangible differences between the four-year university and a community college—reputations of specific programs, athletic team classifications, and the variety of Majors/Minors each can offer—but a “divide,” as in a chasm, or to separate into opposing factions? No.

Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive to the term “divide” right now, thanks to the divisive nature of the language many people in positions of power are using.

To borrow from Karl Marx, “Nothing can have value without being an object of utility.” So I challenge us all—as teachers, and as students—to focus on the value our education has brought into our life. The use will deem it a quality education.

A Few Confessions of an English Teacher

Alexandra Glynn

Preparing for classes rouses up the guilt again. I teach writing, but I don’t do what I tell my students to do. I plagiarize, in a sense, all the time. I don’t read articles; I skim them enough to make them seem read. And when I write, I really don’t consider any of the items that my textbook says to consider when considering audience.

Scorn not the plagiarist. If you are not plagiarizing, you are not reading; you are not bringing ancient music to our modern hearts. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself, as I browse through books looking for something someone wrote that I can put in my sentence, to cast the glory into it and dart a kind of luster into it that I could never fabricate on my own. I tell my students not to plagiarize, but I do it. If I haven’t knitted in some of the poets, the way the psalmist weaved through some of Moses (Botha 1) into Psalm 119, [1] I haven’t really said anything, and certainly haven’t said anything that is commonly thought but never so well expressed.

And I have a two hundred second rule for reading articles. I allow myself two hundred seconds per article and look for what argument the writer is making (fortunately, this is almost always in the beginning of the paper), then for what kinds of words they use, and based on those two data points, I decide whether or not I will look for any good quotes in the article. Then I cast almost all the articles aside, like lords lain low. And yet I tell my students to do diligent research, not to be lazy, and to carefully consider what they are reading. I console myself with Hegel, whose words I skew to mean that one should read “prefaces and first paragraphs” (43), and only those. [2]

And finally, I ignore large segments of my textbook, which right now is Bullock, Brody, and Weinberg’s Little Seagull Handbook. For example, they suggest that in considering audience, we consider which audience we want to reach, their background, their interests, demographic information, what they “already know—or believe—about [my] topic,” and the like. I skip all this, and only take the last suggestion: “How can you best appeal to your audience?” (W-1c 3). And I answer it the same for everything I write: I can best appeal “by patterning of sounds.” Everything else about my audience, which I am always telling my students to consider—faithfully referring them to the second book of Aristotle’s Rhetoric—I ignore it all. I only care that the members of my audience have a “Dr. Seuss gene” and they are caught by patterns of sound.

And of course, I would never advise my students to do anything like this. How would I dare? For what am I doing? Teaching them to chant the music like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong? Or training them all to be Shakespeare, who “was not a genius” but rather “he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well” (Forsyth 1). It often seems like I am lazily and lotus-like laboring to bleed out all the “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” that Orwell feuded with. But meanwhile, I know that “the will to produce citizenship through the teaching of writing is strong” (Wan 28) and that since it is probably also true that “the teaching of writing involves the teaching of ethics and ethical language practices” (Duffy 230), I ought to spend all my time ensconcing my students in citizenship and ethics, or at least grammar. So I do this. I do this for their practicing of writing what I would not ever do for myself. And meanwhile, at a few moments during the sixteen weeks, like attempted flashes onto the inward eye, I slip unconscious crooks into the psyches of my students, hoping they will be enchanted into the poets, and after class, turn to them. For don’t they already do this in their music? Isn’t it true that a human being “is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody” (Shelley)?

Unresolved on this, I go to prepare for classes again, a hypocrite, pondering all these things weak and weary. And I consider that I am a poser, consoled only by the thought that not all my colleagues are such actors. That I am in a noble profession, in a place where, as the poet says, “walls come down, / valleys rise, / bridges stretch outward” (Kurtti 9).

Notes

[1] The full quote: “By alluding to, borrowing from, rephrasing, and reinterpreting segments of the Torah, Prophets, wisdom literature, and Psalms, the author of Psalm 119 created a new authoritative text by replicating and re-contextualising what must have been considered to be authoritative texts in his day” (Botha 1).

[2] The full quote: “Should anyone ask for a royal road to Science, there is no more easy-going way than to rely on sound common sense and for the rest, in order to keep up with the times, and with advances in philosophy, to read reviews of philosophical works, perhaps even to read their prefaces and first paragraphs” (Hegel 43).

Works Cited

Botha, Philippus. “Interpreting ‘Torah’ in Psalm 1 in the light of Psalm 119” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 68.1 (2012).

Bullock, Richard, and Michal Brody and Francine Weinberg. “Writing Contexts” in The Little Seagull Handbook. Norton 2017, pp. W1-5.

Duffy, John. “The good writer: Virtue ethics and the teaching of writing” College English, vol. 79, no. 3, 2017, pp. 229-250.

Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence. Penguin, 2013.

Hegel, G. F. W. Phenomenology of Spirit [1807]. A. V. Miller (transl). Oxford U Press, 1997.

Kurtti Pylvainen, Sandra. “Close Reading.English Journal, vol. 104, no. 4, 2015, p. 9.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language [1946]” orwell.ru. Retrieved from http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/.

Shelley, Percy. “A defense of poetry [1840]” PoetryFoundation.org https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69388/a-defence-of-poetry.

Wan, Amy. “In the name of citizenship: The writing classroom and the promise of citizenship” College English, vol. 74, no. 1, 2011, pp. 28-49.

Works Plagiarized

Addison, Joseph. “The Spectator No 421. Thursday, July 3, 1712.” The Spectator. Retrieved from http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/addison421.htm.

McKay, Claude. “Invocation” in Selected Poems. Dover, 1999, p. 23.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Raven” in The Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. G. R. Thompson (ed). Norton, 2004, pp. 58-61.

Pope, Alexander. “An essay on criticism.” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69379/an-essay-on-criticism.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Song to the men of England” in English Romantic Poetry. Stanley Appelbaum (ed). Dover, 1996, pp. 149-150.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Lotus-eaters [1832]” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45364/the-lotos-eaters.

Wordsworth, William “I wandered lonely.” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45521/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud.

Wordsworth, William. “Scorn not the sonnet” in English Romantic Poetry. Stanley Appelbaum (ed). Dover, 1996, p. 58.

 

Listening to the Silence: Addressing Anxiety Disorders in Our Schools

Abby Rosen

As teachers, we ask a lot of our students. We demand not only respect for our authority, but curiosity, effort, and perseverance in the face of failure and humiliation. They also ask a lot of us: content mastery, understanding, and the ability to constantly adapt to new challenges. Usually, students rise to our expectations with ease, as we do to theirs. But others struggle with grades, motivation, and self-esteem, while teachers face student disengagement, isolation, and—too often—burnout. Some students receive Individualized Education Programs to accommodate their learning challenges. Others who fail to meet our expectations are deemed lazy or unwilling, but a quieter but equally vicious cause is often at the root: anxiety disorders. Anxiety in teens is increasing (Schrobsdorff), and our schools have a responsibility to pay as much attention to these silent struggles as they do to the louder, more disruptive ones. Without proper training and ongoing support from mental health professionals, too many students and staff will continue to suffer and slink away from our schools in silence. Just like I did, until now.

Everyone has experienced anxiety—butterflies in the stomach or nervous excitement—but it also manifests as intense fear and behavioral paralysis leading to avoidance or social isolation. In other words, for those with clinical anxiety disorders, the butterflies never go away. They flutter from the moment you wake up until the second you fall asleep, coloring every thought you have and decision you make, sometimes making it impossible to act or ask for help. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. One in eight children have an anxiety disorder, but according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, eighty percent of youth with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not receiving treatment (“Children and Teens”). These illnesses exist just under the surface and are compensated for or hidden, so others don’t know until it dramatically impacts that person’s life. Oftentimes, people like myself don’t even realize they have an anxiety disorder for years. They just think that they were made to overthink, worry, obsess or panic. People with anxiety disorders look at others being happy, taking risks, meeting deadlines, and achieving their goals with wistful envy. They also watch as others receive attention and care for their outward issues while they continue to quietly deteriorate. I’ve seen it in my own eyes and the eyes of my students in every classroom I’ve ever entered.

As far back as my memories go, so does my anxiety disorder. Most flashbacks play out like TV reruns because, like a studio audience, I sat still while my peers moved around me. I always wanted to know the rules of the game before I started to play, and I insisted everyone else adhere to the letter. In a lot of ways, I was lucky. My anxiety manifested itself as perfectionism, which served me well in school. I got good grades and was well-respected by teachers. No one noticed me struggling because why would they? Lots of my friends battled openly and viciously with self-injury, eating disorders, depression and suicidal ideation. Like many mentally ill teens, they did not want to tell their parents, so we spent hours online talking about their issues without any real progress being made. It brought us closer together, but this secret keeping harmed everyone involved. Over time, their behavior alerted concerned parents and school staff, leading to offers of therapy and school accommodations. This did not cure them of their mental illnesses, but it did allow them to deal with these issues in tandem with the social and academic problems their illnesses caused. I, on the other hand, told myself that my problems weren’t “bad enough,” and I stayed quiet. This allowed my anxiety to fester, and I graduated high school more anxious than ever.

Once I started college, I received my generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis, and I decided to pursue teaching to spread my own love of reading, the one thing that always quieted my mind. My teaching classes were full of people like me: INFJ’s bursting at the seams to help others, spread a love of learning and support each other through the next few years of teacher training. Again, I excelled in the academic aspects of my program, but I was wracked with constant worry. While others asked questions about “best practices for advanced students,” I stopped myself from asking things like, “What do you do once your students realize you’re incompetent?” The closer we got to student teaching, the more I realized that we were all about to be handed real classrooms full of real students who we really had to teach. While this concept terrified me, it excited my classmates and I felt the familiar divide of mentally healthy and mentally ill pushing me away from the otherwise like-minded people I once related to. The more stressed I became, the more I retreated into myself despite all the people around me reaching out to help. I saw this same retreat in a number of students during student teaching, but I didn’t know how to teach them and help them at the same time. I could have turned to my cooperating teacher for help, but I wanted to be seen as competent no matter what. Instead of committing my energy to becoming a better teacher, I gave in to the feelings of helplessness that came from being unable to help everyone and myself at the same time. Once student teaching ended and I got my degree, I told myself I’d done my due diligence, but teaching just wasn’t for me.

After only a year working in retail, I had enough distance to see what happened to me and to my students. School stress can compound feelings of anxiety and depression, as does isolation and self-doubt. School is a minefield for an anxious person, whether they are teaching or learning: lots of people in narrow hallways and cramped classrooms; unpredictability; forced social interaction and class participation; pressures to achieve, befriend, perform, and behave according to ever-changing rules out of your own control. I always expected to look around and see my colleagues fighting the same losing battle against these forces, but they weren’t. No one talked out loud about struggling mentally. The closest anyone got was joking about being Jekyll and Hyde before and after their morning caffeine. A mentor of mine once told me that I would “suck as a teacher for three years.” If I could just accept that, she said, I would be fine. Though she knew me well, I don’t think she knew just how hard it was to know I sucked for three minutes. I imagined my struggling students felt the same way. They saw themselves falling behind while others excelled without any signs of distress. This learned helplessness was enough to almost knock me out of the profession entirely, so it is no surprise that it claims so many students as well.

During our college courses, teacher stress was discussed but typically met with generic advice like “focus on your hobbies” or “find a healthy balance between work and home life.” For teachers not struggling with anxiety or depression, these things are still difficult to implement. While those platitudes are enough for some, others who struggle with boundary setting and emotional management are left with no real advice or strategies to deal with the onslaught of new stressors. Most of the long-term teachers I knew weren’t cold and jaded from the work they did; they just drew clear boundaries are stayed within them, insisting that others did the same. For others, like myself, the ability to define the line between my job performance and my self-worth would eventually prove to be too much. Before I even got my own classroom, I imagined myself failing over and over and over again if anyone ever gave me the chance to ruin my own classroom someday. All the while, I typed sincere cover letters and perfected my resume to trick some poor school into believing in me more than I believed in myself. It worked: I found my first job. It was a high school focusing on credit recovery. These students, I thought, knew what it’s like to struggle. Maybe, I thought, we could learn how to overcome our demons together. I reminded myself that my desire to help others was stronger than my inability to help myself. I told myself that my experience with anxiety gave me an advantage.

When I got hired, I shared a room with a math teacher. The two of us, both young white women, handled upwards of 70 “at-risk” students, managing their credit recovery, classroom engagement, and access to school and government resources. All teachers on our school’s small staff ran advisories, but our motley crew was a little different. We got the more “delicate” students, as one administrator put it, who struggled with mental health, addiction, identity, personal and social issues. At first, I held my roster of “fragile” students like a mother hen. I talked with them when I should have been differentiating my lesson plans, but the connections I made were more valuable than my planning time. Unlike my lessons, which often felt ineffective at best, I knew that these talks were significant to my students and to myself. Then, the world outside of my room started to seep in. I couldn’t keep an eye on all of my students at once. I had to teach. After parent calls, chasing down transcripts and missing credits, taking attendance and making sure they got to (and stayed in) class, I spent the rest of my time lesson planning in what little silence I could steal. More days that not, my carefully planned lessons dissolved within the first five minutes. When I wasn’t teaching or planning, there were always students waiting for help or to talk about today’s crisis. Every twenty, ten, or even five minutes I spent talking to one student meant another chunk of time I couldn’t give to the other thirty or to myself. I felt myself getting overwhelmed, but I had support, momentum, and I could feel myself making a difference. I was open with my students about my own struggles, and they trusted me and respected my honesty. They confided in me about their addictions, pregnancies, financial hardships, sexual assaults, self-harm, and gender identity issues. Some talks required mandatory reporting, and others only required me to listen and let them know they were heard. Those moments are what I think of after more than a year away from the classroom. Those are the things I worry I may have given up too soon.

But those moments were often shattered by thrown chairs and slammed doors. The sound a fist makes when it hits a wall. Or a window. Or someone’s face. The noise a human head makes when it hits the ground. Noises I never knew growing up. Those are the things I remember when I question why I left—why I can tell the difference between happy-loud and angry-loud from a mile away. Why multiple loud voices at once now trigger panic attacks. Why I look around a room sometimes and identify all the things that could be used as a weapon. This violence, anger, and chaos I witnessed for the first time at 24 was nothing new to my fellow staff members. When I, still shaking, told my co-workers about the fight I got caught in the middle of on my first day, they listened but were not impressed or appalled. They told me about students wielding weapons, ripping each other’s hair out and the full-scale riot that broke out the year before I started. I was horrified by how casual this all seemed to them, but this is not unique to our school. 11.5 percent of Minnesota teachers were threatened with physical violence by a student and over 6 percent were physically attacked (Zhang, Anlan, et al.). One year in my district, a student choked a teacher unconscious, resulting in permanent brain damage. I knew teaching was going to be stressful, but these were more than occupational hazards. These incidents would be reasonable grounds for leaving any “normal” job, but instead, they were elements of a normal Tuesday. After only my first week at school, I had already faced a reality that felt harsher than I could handle, but once again, my inner turmoil was deprioritized by constant crisis.

One day, during a PTSD-induced altercation, one of my students, “Mark,” threatened his girlfriend and two staff members who tried to intervene. As a result, he was not allowed back in the building without a restorative justice meeting. Mark was an otherwise quiet and respectful student who rarely participated in class despite performing well on most assignments. At 9:45 the next morning, I got a call Mark’s mother. He drove forty-five minutes with no heat in his car to pick up some work and have his meeting, but he was not being allowed in the building on his own. Sitting in his car in single-digit temperatures, he called his mom to let her know that he was done. He was at his limit. He was threatening suicide. His mother told me this was my fault. I was his advisor, and I was responsible. I was reviewing a chapter in a book with a student who could only make it to school one day a week, but I had to put my phone down, run outside without my coat and try to calm this student down. Our social worker was meeting with another student with others waiting outside to speak to her. In this moment, I’d never been more aware of the fact that I chose teaching over psychology. All I could do was throw promises at his brick wall and hope something got through. I begged and pleaded with school security and our intervention staff to let him in. This was, after all, life or death. After he was allowed back in the building, I returned to that student patiently waiting at my desk. I wiped my tears on the way up the stairs, and we all tried to pretend we didn’t know what just happened. Mark was admitted to the hospital on an involuntary psychiatric hold later that day. Only two hours later, a student I was very close to joined him in the same psychiatric ward after confiding in another staff member about her suicidal ideations. She’d tried to come see me earlier that day, but I was too busy. There was only one of me, after all. Despite all this, I still had five class periods full of students waiting for me. I felt, perhaps for the first time, what my students felt every day: overwhelming emotional stress coupled with the pressure to perform perfectly in front of a room full of people. I don’t remember the lessons I taught that day, but I will never forget the look of despair on Mark’s face or the pain in his mother’s voice telling me it was all my fault.

Before I started teaching, I thought PTSD only happened to war veterans and refugees. Though we covered it in my college classes, it was only one on a long list of disorders whose percentages seemed too low to worry about in mainstream schools. Yet a fifth to a half of all children will experience a significant trauma during childhood. Three to fifteen percent of girls and one to six percent of boys who experience trauma develop PTSD as a result (“PTSD in Children and Teens”). The rate where I worked was significantly higher than that, and studies have shown incidence of PTSD in as high as half of students exposed to interpersonal violence (Kletter, Hilit, et al.). Those students who had a PTSD diagnosis were very open about it because it clearly explained their issues with anger, impulse control, trust, and low tolerance for chaotic environments. At their most violent and disruptive, many students were in the throes of a PTSD-induced blackout. However, my quieter students also struggled with PTSD every day. During class, students would often get up and leave the room without explanation. In a more typical school environment, this would be frowned upon, but, as a school filled with students fighting any number of mental battles, we understood the need for self-regulation. Most students would eventually rejoin the class, and when I asked them afterwards why they left, they would tell me that they just needed a minute away from the distractions, the topic of discussion, or the other students. These students were punished at previous schools for exercising a coping skill that some adults never master. After living for years without any professional mental health help, these students learned how to navigate a world that fundamentally misunderstands and reprimands them for the very things they can’t control. I found myself frantically googling “PTSD in teens” on my lunch break and crying. By creating lesson plans including loud noises, close quarters between students, and even topics directly related to past trauma, I was unwittingly re-traumatizing my students. At the very least, by not having all of the information about this serious mental health issue, I could not create curriculum specifically to combat it.

I tried over and over to see how we, with our limited resources, could have prevented this crisis and others like it, but everyone was doing above and beyond what they could. We, like many schools across the country, just didn’t have the bodies to attend to everyone’s needs at once. In a school of hundreds of students, many with at least one significant mental illness, it felt impossible to approach every situation without doing harm to someone. No matter how much training I’d received, I often had nowhere to turn with new questions as my understanding of these and other anxiety disorders evolved. That said, I was privileged to work at a school so hyper-focused on students who struggle with mental illness. Though we only had one social worker and one rotating psychologist for 400 students, they did all they could. A large number of our staff worked exclusively on conflict resolution, security, student retention, job placement, and skills training. I’m fortunate to never have experienced the threats or the actual violence that others in my position did, but that didn’t stop the fear. I still feared for my safety on the off chance that one of my students turned on me. In desperation, I turned to our social worker for advice, adding another body to the already heavy weight on her shoulders. I felt guilty but was desperate for professional advice. My direct supervisor, a fellow teacher familiar with mental illness, emphasized the importance of self-care. We were given ample paid time off because our administrators knew the burdens we shouldered could not and should not be compensated for with sick or vacation time. When I needed to leave after a particularly rough day, as long as my work was done and my obligations covered, I didn’t have to explain myself. I still lied and told my colleagues I had migraines to avoid telling them that I was just overwhelmed. For overworked and overstretched staff, there is still pressure to handle it all with quiet grace. I told myself that our students were the ones with real problems, and I didn’t want to become another liability.

Unfortunately, the people most likely to help others are the most harmed by doing so. Many of my students with their own mental illnesses spent hours and hours supporting other friends in crisis because they knew what it felt like to be helpless. Like us teachers, they diverted attention away from learning to stand with their peers in corner of hallways, talking them down or talking them up. Taking on this emotional weight without any outside support can be overwhelming and compound existing mental health issues. When it comes to mental illness, the desire to help is constantly met with the reality that the impact you can make is limited by the amount of energy you can contribute. There is always more to do and only so much time in the day to do it. I found myself talking to students on my school-sanctioned Facebook page late at night, just like my students did for their friends. No matter the day I had, there was always someone who needed me more than I needed myself. This constant giving of self is seen as dedicated, compassionate and admirable, but the true impact of overextension is not talked about enough. Students in crisis and teachers aren’t the only one being hurt by this. Because of limited time and resources, the students who weren’t “needy” didn’t get any attention. Students who were excelling were left to fend for themselves on independent projects with little supervision. I didn’t have the time or energy left to make sure that they were getting extra resources because I was too busy playing therapist instead of using my position in the classroom to support my students in other ways.

Eventually, the reality set in that I was not a professional. I was not qualified to give advice. Without proper mental health training, warning signs go unnoticed. We are expected to be mandatory reporters, but we are unable to provide real, in-the-moment advice or guidance. Though teacher-student relationships are valuable, they are not a replacement for qualified mental health professionals. This is why providing mental health support at school is so critical. We have the opportunity to embody the community ideals so many schools are based on. By providing in-school therapy, opportunities for restorative justice, and avenues for safe self-expression, we can lift up our students in ways they may never experience outside our walls. We need to encourage students and teachers to speak up about their experiences, or let them whisper them to someone safe until they are ready to speak aloud. And when they do, when our students speak up and make the brave choice to let their mental illness see the light of day, we need to embrace them. Give them English credit for reflection on their experiences. Let them write about the history and treatment of the mentally ill in this country. Teach them what neurotransmitters are and how they affect mood and behavior. Because those struggling with anxiety disorders are often ashamed, they are unlikely to bring up the topic themselves. It is our responsibility as educators to shine light on the darker parts of our students’ lives and do what we can to help. Our students want strategies to deal with anxiety and depression. We constantly restrict and criticize cell phone use, but what is the first thing most people do when we get uncomfortable in a social situation? People lose interest or feign apathy when they do not understand something or feel up to the challenge in front of them. These aren’t “deviant” behaviors that need to be punished out of our students. These are clear indicators that the current climate is not working for them, and they are looking for a way to cope.

Though it is far from a comprehensive solution, I had great success implementing a teaching unit specifically focusing on mental health. It was by far my best-attended and most-engaged-with unit during my two years in the classroom. Students made posters about specific mental illnesses, highlighting statistics and little-known facts about these common but unspoken ailments affecting them and their peers. Many of them chose to research a mental illness that personally affected them. Each poster included information about the illness and a call to action. “Talk to someone!” “It’s okay to be sad!” and “See your advisor for more information” peppered the walls and prompted productive discussions. I don’t believe that making students make posters will change the face of mental illness in our schools, but I know it raised awareness. Students opened up to me, other teachers, and their advisors about struggles they faced or saw people they loved facing. Teachers came to talk to me because they knew I understood how significant mental health issues are today. Even though we, as a staff, saw countless powerpoints on the high prevalence of PTSD, emotional behavior disorder, anxiety, depression, antisocial personality disorder and more, our students didn’t. I don’t think they knew just how many of their peers shared their hidden burdens.

Often, mental health issues are only addressed after they boil over. Students receive counseling, diagnoses and support only after they’ve disrupted a class or come to blows with another student. It is possible, however, to stop these mental health issues from becoming crises. Mental health education should be a mandatory part of the curriculum for students and the subject of continued staff development for teachers. When something is stigmatized, it only stays that way because people feel more comfortable leaving it unsaid. Only after I named my anxiety and depression was I able to start fighting back. Only after we acknowledge the existence of mental illness in our schools can we join hands with our students silently fighting alone. But acknowledgment isn’t enough. In the battle against mental illness in schools, numbers matter. We need to know which of our students are struggling, and we need mental health professionals proportionate to that number. Without awareness, mental illness will remain a silent killer. Without continued support from professionals, staffs with good intentions will still fall short of students’ needs. By removing boundaries to mental health access, making necessary accommodations for students, and destigmatizing mental illness, we stand a much better chance of keeping struggling but passionate students and teachers in our schools where they belong.

Works Cited

“Children and Teens.” Learn From Us, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children.

Kletter, Hilit, et al. “Helping Children Exposed to War and Violence: Perspectives from an International Work Group on Interventions for Youth and Families.” Child Youth Care Forum, med.stanford.edu/content/dam/sm/elspap/documents/A48.pdf.

“PTSD in Children and Teens.” PTSD: National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 1 Jan. 2007, www.ptsd.va.gov/public/family/ptsd-children-adolescents.asp.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright.” Time, Time, 27 Oct. 2016, time.com/magazine/us/4547305/november-7th-2016-vol-188-no-19-u-s/.

Zhang, Anlan, et al. Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2015. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, 2016. Web. 31 Dec. 2017.