On April 29, 2016, two hundred educators and school personnel from multiple districts in the Bay Area attended the sold-out Success in Schools: Making the Connection Between Mental Health and Academic Learning Conference. Acknowledge Alliance is thrilled to have hosted this event in partnership with the San Mateo County School Boards Association and the San Mateo County Office of Education. It was a powerful day of learning and conversations to better our school communities. Jean served as a panelist and shared her lessons from the field in her years of experience.
Lessons from the Field:
Jean Hamilton, MFT and Resilience Consultant, Acknowledge Alliance
Here’s what I most want you to know as you think about the connection between mental health, academic learning and success in schools.
My comments come from 16 years as a Resilience Consultant, from facilitating many Teacher Resilience Groups and from being a therapist.
1. People come first
2. Relationships matter
3. There’s strength in community
4. Listening is a healing act
5. Oppression blocks learning
6. Teaching and learning are inherently joyful activities
#1: People come first. All the other points follow from this one. What does this mean and how do we use this as a guiding principle in our work in schools? What would decisions look like if we put people first? What would educational policies be like if we started from how they impact people and put people first?
People are human and humans have certain inherent characteristics: we want connection. We come into this world looking for it, expecting it. Humans are cooperative—by nature. We like each other. We want to work together. We are caring and enjoy showing that care and affection for each other. We are infinitely intelligent, like coming up with new, creative, flexible solutions to any of our problems or challenges.
People have feelings. Good feelings and painful feelings. We’ve all experienced hurt of some kind: loss or grief, fear, loneliness, being left out, physical injury or pain, embarrassment or shame, trauma and the list could go on and on. Feelings and our ability to think flexibly are what make us human.
In making the connection between mental health and academic learning, it’s important to remember that there’s a connection between feelings and thoughts. How we are feeling affects our thinking and how we learn. How we are thinking affects our feelings. They are intertwined.
Young people learn when they are feeling good about themselves. Teachers teach best when they are feeling good about themselves. This is where we want to put our attention if we are to help young people be successful in school: learning how to deal with our own feelings so we can better help young people deal with theirs.
#2: Relationships matter. Our work at Acknowledge Alliance was founded on the belief that, next to parents and families, teachers spend the most time with young people and that if we support teachers and the other adults in schools, this would directly impact the lives of young people in positive ways.
One of the protective factors highlighted in resilience theory is that if a young person has at least one caring adult who knows them, has high expectations for them, communicates a sense of belonging, recognizes their strengths, and gives them opportunities to be themselves, express themselves and their strengths, this builds resilience and the capacity to face challenges with self-awareness and confidence.
We took this theory and applied it to building relationships with the adults who work in schools.
As a resilience consultant, this is what I do: I get to know teachers. I listen to them. I acknowledge their strengths; I tell them what I see that they’re doing well; I value them, I appreciate them, and, perhaps most importantly, I like them.
#3: There’s strength in community. Humans are meant to be together. We want to be connected to each other, to community. We want and need a sense of belonging to something bigger than our individual selves. Community gives us purpose, provides space for people to know who we are, helps us to count on and lean on others when we need to, and it gives us a chance to show up for others, be the support someone else needs. Classrooms and school communities offer this opportunity—for all.
#4: Listening is healing act. Listening brings about change. Listening is a collaborative act. It is an act of empathy. (These points reiterate some of what Ross Greene was talking about earlier this morning.) I believe that if we truly learn how to listen to each other, keeping our own “mental health issues” out of the way, that’s when healing can begin to take place.
Listening communicates that you trust the person you’re listening to, that you respect them, and that you care.
What if we taught others to listen, to be fully present with and to give aware attention to each other? Classrooms would look different. And so would our schools.
#5: Oppression blocks learning. Understanding what oppression means and how it operates in our world, in our schools, is vital. This means that understanding how classism, racism, adultism, and the oppression of young people, to name a few, work to separate and divide us from one another is crucial to thinking about how to create optimum environments for learning.
Oppression is the mistreatment of one group (usually the dominant group or the one with power) by another based on some characteristics of that group. It also involves the allocation of and access to resources. Dominant groups receive the resources; the oppressed groups do not. I’m thinking particularly about class and race. These oppressions operate in all our institutions and, for sure, in our schools.
In my mind, we can’t separate out any thinking about mental health issues from how some of these forces are at work in the lives of young people, their families and their communities. Racism and classism exist. Adultism and the oppression of young people exist. These are the key oppressions operating on young people in our schools today. We need to understand the link between how someone feels about him or herself and the affects racism, for instance, has on them and/or their people.
I believe that work to eliminate oppression is liberating for all of us. We recover our full humanness and a sense of our connectedness to all other human beings.
#6: Teaching and learning are inherently joyful, pleasant and fun human activities. I can’t leave this panel today without making a comment about the true nature of teaching and learning. As humans, we love to learn. We want to learn. We are curious as a species. We like taking in new information about the world, making sense of our environment and the universe around us. This is enjoyable and fun. If we can clear the hurts and painful emotions out of the way, the love of learning, and of teaching, can emerge more fully.
Here’s a note from one of the teachers I’ve worked with in a teacher group. It illustrates the power of listening, connection, caring, and resilience:
"The most beneficial part of the group was building relationships with my colleagues. There is something very important about teachers connecting with other teachers since very few people truly understand what we go through as teachers during the school year. Therefore, being listened to and heard by those who live it and get it was very beneficial for me.
I built resilience and realized that I was not alone in my struggles. I learned that I needed to take care of MYSELF, too, in order to take care of my students at school. I learned that whatever feeling I was feeling was OKAY and should be recognized and addressed. I use this on a daily basis with my students."