Scott Judy teaches high school and coaches tennis in Davis School District. He was recently selected to be a Utah Teacher Fellow.
My teaching career has taught me a simple truth: students probably will remember less about history than how I made them feel in my classroom and as a person. Teachers are trained content experts but more and more are required to answer the call of nurturing student’s social and emotional well-being. Through personal experiences, I now realize meeting the social and emotional needs of my students should not be a reactionary practice. The next great step in education will not be the technology or pedagogy, it will be the proactive steps we take to make sure every student has a connected and trusting relationship with us as educators.
What One Student Taught Me: The Moment My Perspective Changed
Have you ever been called to the principal’s office?
I can still hear the crackled voice over the loudspeaker, “Mr. Judy… please come down to the principal’s office.”
I think I almost peed my pants when I heard those words. I thought I had a great rapport with my principal, however, this seemed all business and it scared me half to death. Something about the principal’s office scared me and I suspect I’m not alone. Being sent there represented defiance to authority. The principal was an authority who could punish me in ways I didn’t even know existed. I read the book, Matilda, and saw the movie. I was very aware of what an angry principal could do. As I made the lonely walk from my room to the office, I was sure something terrible was in store for me. But what? No idea.
As a student, I always enjoyed great relationships with my teachers. I would sneak in to my 7th grade science teacher’s class, just to talk basketball with him. Mr. Williams helped me understand why Rick Pitino and the Kentucky Wildcats were going to beat Jim Boeheim and Syracuse’s 2-3 zone and win the championship. My battles in every sport with Mr. Mederios, my PE teacher, were legendary in my mind. I wanted to beat him so badly at something, anything, because if I could beat him, well, I would be the top athletic dog. I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Throne. He encouraged me, respected me, and helped me understand physics better than I ever would on my own. These teachers shaped me and are a lot of the reason I became a teacher. I wanted to be a positive influence in someone’s life like my teachers had in mine. Yet, here I was, in the principal’s office.
Once inside, the principal asked me to close the door. The request gave me goosebumps out of fear. He let out a disappointed sigh and said he received a few calls about my joking behavior towards a certain student. The calls came from her lacrosse coach and her mom, and when the principal followed up with the student, she felt my teasing her about missing school for a lacrosse match went too far. As the principal finished his discoveries, I sat in quiet. I was trying to grab hold of the gazillion thoughts racing through my mind. I wanted to defend myself, but the words wouldn’t come out. For one of the first recognizable times in my life, I felt empathy.
This experience changed me as a teacher because it made me see something I never realized; my innocent teasing had some nasty side effects. I hurt a vulnerable student. It made me wonder how many other times I’ve made that mistake. I wanted to fix it, but how? How do you repair a burnt bridge with a student?
After a few days, this student finally came back to class. I tried to put myself in her shoes and the last thing I wanted to do was make her feel more uncomfortable. I talked to her before she came in, apologized more than I ever had in my life, and just waited in hopes she would accept my efforts. She did. She smiled and then apologized to me. Wait, what? Why was I deserving of an apology?
She mentioned she had a really, really rough day and my normal jesting had affected her differently that day. Instead of playful banter, my comments made her negative thoughts a hundred times worse. She knew I was kidding around with her and meant no harm, but she needed someone to support her that day and I missed every sign. I failed as a teacher to recognize the social and emotional needs of a student who needed me.
Another Change of Perspective
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve come across in supporting the social and emotional needs of students came from a retired baseball player, Steve Springer. At the 2017 American Baseball Coaches Association Clinic in Anaheim, California, Mr. Springer discussed the dropout rate of young baseball players with an audience of parents. The dropout rate spikes at age 12. Do you know why? Springer stated it is because the game of baseball is no longer fun for the kids. Why? The pressure of coaches and parents to be perfect and “the next big thing.” He encouraged parents to do something unusual after the game is over in order to keep it fun and retain young players: give your kid a hug and some ice cream.
As I sat in my seat, I remember my first reaction to this advice pretty clearly. “We will raise a generation of wusses if we do this. Players don’t deserve a pat on the back if they mess up, let alone ice cream. Players need to know and experience the consequences of their mistakes. Drowning sorrows in ice cream teaches no worthwhile lessons. Winners deserve ice cream if they had positively affected the game, but losers? Never.”
Do you see what happened? I did it again. I fell into the same trap. I failed to recognize the social and emotional needs of the youth in my care because I was more focused on myself and the consequences I think players should have, based on my own experiences and coaching paradigm. I lacked empathy. I had to change.
The Need to Be Proactive
More and more in schools we are seeing the rise of various mental health challenges such as stress, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. The American Institute of Stress states eight in ten students frequently experience stress in their daily lives. From the American Psychological Association, one in five deals with depression and over 25% of students take medications to cope with a mental health challenge. The statistic that really hits close to home is suicide rates. Utah’s Public Health Datasource cites suicide as the number one cause of death among teenagers and Utah is fifth in the nation for suicide deaths. FIFTH!
There needs to be a change in how teachers, administrations, and school districts support students. Utah has created a focus on things like high-stakes testing, citizenship competency, and advanced placement/concurrent enrollment courses. While those are noble causes (well, maybe not high-stakes testing), it is time to take care of our students in a different way. It is time to amend the Utah Educational Policies and make social and emotional learning a part of the state’s educational core.
During the 2019 legislative session, additional funding was given for student services, specifically mental health. The ongoing funding is a fantastic first step and will help expand services like SafeUT and the school counselor system. The SafeUT app provides real-time intervention and live chat for youth experiencing crises or suicidal thoughts and its appeal and scope can still be expanded with more funding.
As a teacher in this new era, the truth is we need more than money. I need help and training to better identify students with needs so I can help before a situation becomes a crisis. Give me the time and training to take care of my students beyond my core subject area and I can give you a higher functioning student who can deal with life and research papers. I don’t know how much a student will remember about industrialization, the fifties, or Reaganomics but I do want them to know that I love them and will help them with their struggles.