Courtesy: Ellen Dahlke
Students participate in a circle during which they check in about how they are doing at the start of Ellen Dahlke's English class at the Fashion, Art, and Design Academy at Oakland Technical High School

In the United States, we’ve mandated that our children spend a massive chunk of their waking hours in school buildings — “significantly more” than our “international peers.” When Covid-19 sent us all home, opinion columnists soon warned that we’d better get our children back into school buildings for the sake of their mental health.

The problem is, teachers are not mental health professionals, and schools can’t or won’t budget time (which is, as they say, money) for meeting kids’ mental health needs. So here we are, five months back in the buildings full-time, and we teachers, with little of the requisite expertise in doing so, are inadequately caring for children’s mental health.

Excuse me, but duh.

A lot of my 10th and 11th graders are failing classes because they can’t figure out why they’re not motivated to do anything at all. Many are skipping classes to try to problem-solve together, sometimes getting into serious trouble because they don’t know how to heal themselves, either.

Twice this semester, students have walked out en masse, protesting administrators’ lacking responses to rampant sexual harassment and assault. Though the pandemic is obviously a significant stressor, the need for wider access to mental health care has been pressing since before public schools even existed, particularly in communities targeted now and historically by systemic state violence (e.g., intergenerational poverty, racism, police brutality, forced separations from family, etc.).

Of course schools are failing to address mental health needs. First of all, our schools have never, on any kind of mass scale, even tried to care for children’s mental health.

It’s not that teachers don’t want their students to thrive, but not enough of us have nearly enough know-how required to nurture healing. I’ve worked alongside teachers with widely varying levels of skill and willingness to address complex grief and trauma. But even if more teachers developed trauma-informed instructional strategies (and we should), time spent with a good teacher every week is not the same as time spent with a good therapist. We meet different needs. Our children deserve to be challenged academically, but wellness comes first, so they need both. They deserve both.

For fifteen years, I’ve been teaching children and adults in schools, prisons, and teaching colleges. In truth — and with deep respect for those who Covid has taken and for those who loved them — I’m having my best teaching year ever; sheltering in place afforded me time to read, think and collaborate with my teacher-friends from across the years and the country. And still it’s way beyond the scope of my expertise to know what to do when a child runs away from home in the midst of a psychotic break. I don’t know how to initiate a child’s healing when she’s been brutally raped at lunch. I’ve had to respond to both, and honestly countless more, traumatic events in my students’ and former students’ lives in the last five months.

I’m so cosmically tired — there’s an exhausting moral injury that emerges when you know the kids under your protection are neither safe, well, nor thriving.

I’d desperately like to stay in my lane and let a whole other field of professionals do what they do — because they devoted the years of study and practice to subjects like psychology and public health administration. School leaders need to have the courage to ask for help from folks with the expertise we lack. We should also be prepared to give up some of our time with kids; as it stands, shameful numbers of them are rotting away in our classrooms, while largely helpless adults attempt to offer them something useful. Adults who do know what to do exist, so we should invite them to work in our buildings.

The financing particulars aren’t in my wheelhouse, but I wish the folks who make the big money decisions would also make big changes in how they manage children’s time. Our children need a lot more time with mental health care workers – therapists, pediatricians, psychiatrists, life coaches, mentors, trusted community elders, restorative justice facilitators, social workers, etc. Maybe the kids only come to school for four hours a day. Maybe only certain days of the week. Maybe keep the school day eight hours, but invite nonclinical folks to move right into our classrooms as collaborators.

State-mandated instructional minutes and A-G requirements (not to mention transportation and space-usage logistics) do present challenges to radically changing school schedules; so again, I’m asking leaders to please have the courage to disrupt the status quo (which has never worked anyway).

School district and public health administrators need to coordinate better, sharing the responsibility for our children’s welfare instead of asking teachers to be healers.

•••

Ellen Dahlke teaches 10th and 11th grade English in the Fashion, Art, and Design Academy at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland. A version of this commentary was first published on Medium

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  1. el 6 months ago6 months ago

    Bravo. We really need to be funded to have a full time mental health professional - not just an academic counselor - on every K-12 campus, at some appropriate ratio. I know we can come up with plenty of things for them to do. Kids who need these services don't need to be pulled out of school for 3+ hours in order to transport them to a therapist's office; kids who need these services are … Read More

    Bravo. We really need to be funded to have a full time mental health professional – not just an academic counselor – on every K-12 campus, at some appropriate ratio. I know we can come up with plenty of things for them to do. Kids who need these services don’t need to be pulled out of school for 3+ hours in order to transport them to a therapist’s office; kids who need these services are not necessarily Medicaid eligible. In some communities, there are very few therapists who treat kids available at all.

    In addition to individually working with kids in need, I’d love to see them lead group activities about bullying and about healthy social interactions. I’d like to see them teaching kids about managing anxiety and knowing what is reasonable to expect them to handle and deal with alone, and what is past that. I’d love to see them simply normalizing getting help with social, emotional, and behavioral problems.

    These would be wonderful adults to have on campus, supporting students and teachers. It has been very frustrating that we cannot use Covid money to fund such a program, nor is the base grant sufficient to support it.