By Michael Piccirillo, Ed.D, CASDA Executive Director
The contention that the structure of public education mirrors a factory model is not new. Typically, this reference is stated as a criticism of the current public education system. Yet, despite this criticism and the efforts of some forward thinking leaders to implement changes, the system remains virtually intact. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has magnified many flaws in our system of education, especially its inflexibility, which has hampered efforts to address the mental health needs of students and educators. The historic rigidity of this system, especially regarding the use of space and time as resources to meet the mental health needs of students and adults has been profoundly damaging. If we truly value the current and future mental health of our students and teachers, much will need to change.
Simone Biles, Olympic Gold Medalist, has been leading a movement called The Power Of Pause. In mental health-focused ads sponsored by Powerade, the Olympian challenges the cultural stereotype that to succeed in life one must push through adversity to achieve at all costs despite the toll it takes on mental and physical well-being. Biles' courageous choice to bow out of the competition and place her mental health before the pursuit of gold at the most recent summer olympics in Beijing, China is a powerful message for our students. We, the adults, would best serve our students and ourselves by demonstrating the kind of courage modeled by Simone Biles. I am suggesting a universal disassembling of the structural and cultural barriers contributing to and exacerbating rising frequency and intensity of student and adult trauma in our school systems. Structural barriers such as a school day dictated by bell schedules and cultural barriers like the harmful promulgation of the mythical American archetype of the “rugged individual,” need to be interrogated and replaced.
Through CASDA’s newly-created Mental Health Provider Roundtable, we have had the honor to speak with a variety of school-based mental health providers. Since January 2022, the start of the roundtable, from all of the conversations I have been privileged to participate in, one takeaway is clear: we need to structurally change our conceptions and use of space and time in schools. In one particular session, CASDA facilitators shared a strategy for providing teachers with mental health breaks during the school day called “Tap In Tap Out.” Simply put, if a teacher needed a moment to compose oneself during a class period, a colleague who is predetermined to be available could be contacted via text to relieve the classroom teacher for a few minutes. Aside from the logistics of determining who would be available to provide relief, this sounds like a sensible and beneficial strategy. However, when shared with participants of the roundtable, there was a sentiment that this would not work in certain schools as it would not be supported by building leadership. If adopted, this strategy is an example of one opportunity to modify structure and change culture to support the mental health of adults.
In “7 Ways to Make Teaching a More Sustainable Profession” by Katy Fraber, published in the January 15, 2020 edition of Edutopia, the author addressed the growing exodus of teachers from the profession. She offers seven strategies leaders can deploy to support teachers: Protect basic needs; Build belonging; Build a supportive culture; Create space for reflection and joy; Build trust; Show vulnerability; Model wellness. Keeping with the focus of this quarter’s CASDA newsletter on using the resources of space and time more effectively, leaders can create space (a literal place for adults to go in the school) and time (“sacred”, i.e., uninterrupted) during the school day for teachers to access. Why not do the same for our students? Intentionally creating space and time for adults and students to take a break from the stressors of the day sends a clear message about what is important.
Throughout 2021-2022, CASDA has created spaces for educators to speak with each other about issues they care deeply about. Whether it was our free “What’s on Our Minds” virtual series or other free virtual series like “Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Schools” or “Trauma-Informed Education in Rural Schools,” we have had the good fortune to be present as educators shared their hopes, fears, and insights related to the most significant issues of our time. As we look to the future, CASDA will continue to provide spaces for educators to collaborate by continuing to offer our most popular free workshops and to add some new spaces with the Fall 2022 launching of the free virtual series “Let’s Talk Everything Teaching and Learning.” Coming full circle, through our offerings we hope to continue contributing to and pushing the conversation directed at changing school systems. The mental health and well-being of our students and educators is at stake.