Friday, October 26, 2018

The Connections Between Suspension and Teacher Mental Health?

The Division of Early Childhood conference is wrapping up, and I am still mulling over one of the statistics I heard at the first session I attended: Teachers of children who are suspended are more likely to report feeling depressed. 

This sentence tells me so much, and has been rolling around in my brain as I attend all the other sessions on engaging students, inclusion, and positive behavior practices.

1) Suspension is about us, not the kids. We suspend kids when we don't know what else to do in a specific situation. We suspend when we feel helpless.

2) Teachers who are in the classrooms where kids get suspended are not in a good place, most likely due to school structures in place. I'm making a huge jump here, but I suspect their depression comes from being overworked, stressed, and feeling helpless with what's going on in their classrooms.

3) We can talk about good practices all we want, but until we have teachers in a place where they mentally feel they can implement best practices, we aren't going to make changes.

4) It's not just about our relationships with kids - it's about our relationships with teachers.

5) Why are teachers feeling depressed? There is so much on teachers right now. I don't know what change needs to be made, but I truly believe if we want to improve education for all kids we have to make a massive practice shift in the field. What we're doing isn't working for kids, but it isn't working for teachers either.

In another session about cultural responsiveness an audience member commented that perhaps teachers with young families should pause for teaching for a bit, because it is too hard to balance having a family and being an effective teacher. This hit me in the stomach, because in so many ways it is true. The demands we put on teachers make it hard to balance family life. Expecting a teacher to go into the home of students after working a full day is seen as normal for the younger teachers without families (as long as they don't have another job...) so when mothers or fathers start to push back on the extra work they are seen as "ineffective". Obviously we don't all believe this, but the statement reflected a truth.

We expect effective teachers to dedicate themselves and their identity to the job so that they reach all kids and families. Once we see our self-worth through the lens of our teaching job, we are shaken to the core when we have a challenging student. We turn inward and decide we aren't good teachers, or we turn outwards and assume there is a problem with the student. Neither assumption helps anyone.

The teaching profession AND how our culture approaches the profession encourages us to connect our identity to our job. We make salary and time sacrifices for our students and the public tells us we are heroes (while not matching that statement with true respect).

Something has to give. Telling teachers to practice "self-care" puts just another item on their checklist, and makes them continue to feel like a failure when they don't get to self-care in the midst of all they are being asked to do.

I don't know what the answer is. Individually we can put up boundaries and provide quality instruction, practices, and relationship building experiences inside those boundaries. I feel there needs to be more system shifts here, but I don't know what they would look like.

Presuming Competence with Our Colleagues

I’m two days into the three day Division of Early Childhood conference and I have to tell you, I am EXHAUSTED. These first two days have been packed, with limited time between sessions to process what I’m hearing. It’s exciting to hear about the current work in the field, what is about to be published, and what research questions are being pursued. Yet it also feels a bit like it’s impossible to keep up. So much is swirling through my head right now. 

It’s always fascinating to talk to practitioners across the country to hear how practices, trends, and terminology varies from place to place. Because we typically work within only the constructs of our school or district, we often assume that what we are being told is best practice is what is considered best practice everywhere. Or, to be even more specific - We often assume the terminology we use to describe best practices is the same terminology used everywhere.

Even though practices may look the same, what I find the more I talk to people across the country is that the terminology we use to describe those practices is not. It may change depending on what program or philosophy our county has invested in, what trainers we’ve seen, or the background of our university professors. 

The greatest problem I’ve seen in this is that we make assumptions that we are right. The terminology we are using is what describes one certain practice, and that when an educator doesn’t show that they recognize a certain term or researcher, that the educator is somehow not as good as us. “They don’t even know what X is…” is a phrase I’m not unfamiliar with. 

I am continuously shocked by how big the field is, and how many different studies exist around similar topics. And it should be this big. We need a spectrum of ideas, and research studies again and again proving techniques that work and don’t work. It keeps our profession inquisitive and making sure we are serving the needs of the kids around us. 

We talk a lot about presuming competence in our students, but we don’t always do it with our colleagues. We assume that because a teacher doesn’t recognize a particular term or practice, or that a teacher approaches a behavior in a certain way, that the teacher isn’t as good, competent, or informed as we are. 

It is exhausting to attempt to keep up with the research, and to try to understand how certain practices overlap. So let’s be kind to each other. Let’s listen to one another’s educational backgrounds, and learn more about what practices we bring to the table. In order to collaborate effectively, can we openly talk about what each practice, theory, and “research based best practice” brings to the table, and whether or not it will be effective in this particular situation? Can we stop implying “I”m right because research says ….” And instead engage in genuine dialogue over practice and research?

These are scary conversations, because they often imply that the practices we’ve been taught - the ones we’ve been using for years - aren’t always “right”. But here’s the secret - nothing is ever “right” in education. When we get caught in “right and wrong” we stop responding to the kids and critically thinking about what’s happening in front of us.