by Marrin Scalone, LUV Editor
“I was shocked… I realized my biggest challenge was not going to be difficult math concepts. I know that I’m really equipped to teach math. I know how to love kids, but I just felt like there had to be something more.”
Amy began her 29th year of teaching math like any other. No stranger to a challenge, this group of students under Amy’s care were particularly struggling in math subjects. Their data was set to make or break her school’s standardized test score quotas, and that pressure that weighed over Amy as she was swept into the rush of September. To plant early seeds of participation and purpose within her classroom, she created an icebreaker activity for the ninth-grade math students. It was a prompt that seemed simple and effective:
What number is important to you and why?
Amy shared some light examples that helped paint the picture of who she is, “An important number for me is two because I have two daughters.” She explained further as she handed out the blank pieces of paper with suns for the kids to fill in their numbers, “It could be a special date, you know, something with meaning.” When she collected their work, it was clear these students had no trouble in coming up with significance in their lives. The blank pages were soon laden with the darkness, hurt, and traumas her students were experiencing. Some of the numbers chosen represented the date a parent passed away, the date of their parent’s incarceration, the year they first began using substances, the date they first began self-harming.
This was the beginning of Amy’s LUV Story.
“I was shocked, I realized my biggest challenge was not going to be difficult math concepts. I know that I’m really equipped to teach math. I know how to love kids, but I just felt like there had to be something more.”
How could she expect her students to prioritize math when their lives were laced with the weight and darkness of adversity, poverty, and mental health crises? Not to mention the continued and ever-present social, emotional, and academic impacts of COVID-19. Amy explained to me a critical component of the pandemic’s classroom impact, “Normally, schooling is the great unifier of the classroom- you’ve all done the same things. Now, even that is unfamiliar. You might have had some students online, some in person, some behind in curriculum or some ahead. There’s also depression, anxiety, fear, and just shared loneliness.”
With the intrinsic strength of loving her students, and the courage of acknowledging she needed support, Amy made a decision that would change her life, her student’s lives, and her community forever:
She asked for help.
Community Heart Activation
Without knowing what would be possible, or what resources were out there to guide her, she knew these students desperately needed to experience a change. She confided in a fellow community member over dinner, who suggested Mental Health First Aid to Amy. This suggestion gave Amy what she needed most: a place to start.
She connected with Laura Roberts, former Prevention Specialist with Hanover County Community Services Board, and now Suicide Prevention Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services.
“She was such a good listener. It was so refreshing. Somebody heard. She was activated. I think that’s a key word for all of this for me… there are plenty of people that will come alongside and walk with you. But there are very few people that will activate and do something.”
There were logistical obstacles to conquer, requiring Amy’s persistence and grit of self-advocacy. Finally, their training was approved; she and her fellow teachers began their road to healing. What they were greeted with on the day of their training soared beyond Amy’s expectations. The room was filled with concerned and caring members of the community across a wide range of disciplines; fire rescue, faith-based leaders, andn the CEO of The McShin Foundation, A Virginia-based non-profit devoted to addiction recovery services.
“What we did that morning… I can’t even tell you how pivotal it was. We all sat in a circle and each of the community leaders described their role. Then we all started to share our hearts one by one. Almost all of us ended up in tears because this burden is heavy and it’s real.”
Together, this opportunity allowed Amy and her fellow teachers to pause and regulate with one another. No change was possible until they were given the space to share a collective deep breath together and process the secondary traumas they’ve experienced this school year.
“No one can stop and listen in the education setting because we’re all so busy trying to carry what we’re individually assigned. To come together to carry one another’s burdens was something we were never able to do- and honestly to do that was enough. By lunchtime, every one of my colleagues said this is the best professional development we’d ever done. And by that point all that had happened was we’d been heard.”
Amy explained that the Mental Health First Aid curriculum was great information, but really they all knew those things intuitively. What had been missing, though, was building the community capacity to implement the practices within the training. When the staff burnout was too high, the baseline information and practices couldn’t be efficient.
“We needed the heart activation,” Amy noted.
Connection Through Commitment
The momentum from Amy’s community didn’t stop that day of training. The community response highlights a critical component of creating lasting, systemic change: follow-through. Months later, Amy received a shower of love, gifts, and support from the McShin foundation, including gifts for the classrooms, gift cards, and a Christmas card celebrating their transformative work. The Fire department also hosted a candy drive throughout their stations and county offices for Amy’s school. The faith-based members who attended stayed connected with Amy and asked for an Amazon Wishlist from the teachers for needed classroom items.
Amy and I talked about the depth of these gifts, and how they were so much more impactful than just the items that were received. A box of goldfish or a pack of stickers was suddenly a message of activation and support from the community. The love behind them reinforced for both the teachers and students that they were not alone, and this was a community lift. The students eventually began asking which snacks and rewards were “from the community”, and would open the care packages together as a group.
“As we got closer to end of year testing in spring, I had made a list of all the challenges the kids were facing. I had a student with a monitor on house arrest, students in the court systems, returning from homelessness, experiencing familial terminal illness, parental incarceration. There were threats of suicide every day. That was the dynamic of the classroom.
Then I would say, hey, today we’re working for reward today. And it was this weight of these heavy things matched with ‘who wants a sticker! Who wants goldfish!’ It felt like there was leveraging power with just being able to feed them when they were hungry. To give them a treat would just lift their spirits, it lifted the burden of this heaviness.”
The classroom was suddenly infused with more games, positive reinforcement, and In turn support, love, and trust. Using the tools from Mental Health First Aid training, Amy implemented Hallway Talks into her room, where students could ask her to step out of the hallway and privately disclose their struggles.
Because of the increased connection and safety Amy cultivated in her classroom, her students’ capacity for learning skyrocketed. By the end of the year, test scores soared and almost everyone in her class passed the standards of learning tests, surpassing all projected results.
At the root of Amy’s story, and the transformation that took place within her school, began with her undeniable strength and self-advocacy. Her persistence to ask for support when met with complex adversity, trauma, and mental health challenges of her students led to a community-wide net of care and intention.
I asked Amy what her biggest piece of advice would be for teachers coping with an increase in levels of adversity and trauma exposure in the classroom.
“Teachers are taught that you can manage your room by yourself, you decide how the year is going to go. But that’s not the truth, there is so much more at play outside of the school day, and you need to pay attention to that. Then decide, what’s the most important thing? What’s in need of a shift? Reach out. Don’t give up looking for help.
As you navigate, look for people that are willing to be activated with you.”
We also talked about the importance of de-prioritizing academic, score-based goals when dealing with students in crisis.
“On paper, we weren’t addressing [scores], but because we poured into them and we met them where they were, gave them snacks, encouragement, talked when they needed someone to listen. All of that was setting them up for success in ways we had no idea.”
Amy hopes to continue these conversations between schools, teachers, and communities on mental health and adversity in the classroom. She’s eternally grateful for the support from Laura Robertson, her school system, The McShin Foundation, and her community for the most transformative 29th year of teaching she could’ve imagined.
To contact Amy Gordon, please reach our to her via email at email@example.com.
To learn more about Mental Health First Aid, visit https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/.