An English Teacher Supporting Students With Mental Illness

So I am supposed to be looking at three websites (National C0uncil of Teachers of English, National Writing Project, and International Literacy Association) that are strictly for English teachers. I searched multiple phrases including the phrase “supporting students with mental illness” on all three websites and I came up with almost nothing.

I think that is a major signal to everyone about how little students with mental illness are actually supported. I mean, if I were to search “supporting LGBTQ students”, there are pages and pages about how to support them, which I must say is absolutely INCREDIBLE. Do not get me wrong, no marginalized group is better or worse than another; we are all in this fight together. I’m just saying, this is a very “underground” topic that does not seem to be considered a huge issue.

It is true that it is easy to look past the student who seems to “choose” to disengage from class, it’s easy to go into the teachers lounge and say “wow, that Billy Smith sure does not give shit about “The Great Gatsby”, it’s easier to ignore Weird Will when he talks to his “friends” in the back of the class all by himself, it’s easier to see Nervous Nelly stare blankly at her test and then give her a zero when you know she knows the material, and it’s easier to scoff when you ask poor Billy Smith why he doesn’t have his homework and he is slouched in his chair and won’t look you in the eye and shrugs his shoulders.

All of that is so much easier than to keep them after class for a couple minutes to ask them if they are okay, or “are you taking your medication”, they may just tell you “everything is fine I just hasn’t been getting enough sleep”. But at least if you did hold them back after class they would see that someone actually notices something is not right, they would see that someone actually cares.

So why are teachers not writing articles about how to help these students? Is it because it isn’t easy? Maybe. Is it because they choose to look past these students who wear long sleeve shirts during 80 degree weather? Maybe. Because if they did notice that the student who is always wearing that same black hoodie actually has scars going every which way on their arms, they would have to pick and pry at the student and ask what was the matter.

And that is hard, I get it. It’s difficult to try to understand them when you have no idea what is going on inside their head. There are voices in their heads that you can not hear and you don’t have to pretend you do hear them. You just have to let the student know that you do see them (the student, not the voices) and that things don’t seem to be going alright. You don’t have to be their councilor, you just have to be there.

The one thing I did find from these three sites was a post written by a teacher in 2013, a couple days after the Sandy Hook school shooting. This teacher wanted other teachers to “rethink being the ‘hero'”.

“It is not a sign of your failure as a teacher if you are unable to provide the type of environment our students suffering from mental illness deserve. You were not prepared for this.” “So gather your class around you. Share a book together. Share your favorite memories from the school year thus far. And share the load by asking for help and making it known that teachers need support and guidance when working with children who struggle socially or emotionally.”

We don’t have to be their hero’s. Doesn’t that take a lot of pressure off you? Just be there for them, show them you care, then point them to right direction. You don’t have to kiss their scars or walk them to the pharmacy to refill their prescription, just make sure they are getting the help they need.

So what can I do specifically as an English teacher? Well, I plan on having a journal time at the beginning of class so if they choose to use that as an outlet to describe what is going on their lives, that would awesome. I would use that as a chance to see if things are going okay or getting worse. I also would like assign a book that would make its’ readers aware of mental illness.

I also think that just as an educator, not specifically an English teacher, it is important to be vulnerable with your students. During my interview with Antero, he really stressed that being vulnerable and being yourself in class allows them to be comfortable and vulnerable themselves with you. I think that if I were share my experiences with mental illness will allow me to become an ally with these particular students in my classroom.


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