A Teacher’s Perspective: Creating Safe Spaces at Home and School During Times of Transitions
by: Kate Cabigao, guest blogger
Quality education in the time of a pandemic has been extraordinarily difficult to offer and attain these past two and a half years due to the increasing prevalence of anxiety, depression and stress amongst students, parents, teachers and the school administration. Because of this, mental health is gradually moving into the light and now a top priority in many schools, educational institutions and universities.
One of the greatest human needs in the world is to be seen and heard, and that is what we all yearn for now more than ever. With constant changes in health and safety protocols and classroom and work set-ups, at this point, the main goal should be to help all those affected, most especially students, adjust little by little. After all, mental health has a direct relationship with academic performance.
The first step is to acknowledge and appreciate where students are coming from. That means holding space for them and giving them the permission to feel. Begin by gently opening the conversation to them. And ask: “How are you feeling?”
As a teacher myself, I have observed that although a few students are able to answer the question above with more ease and confidence, most just don’t have the words to communicate how they’re feeling because of the limited amount of words there are to describe emotions in everyday life. My job is to break the stigma in expressing feelings by facilitating honest discussions and encouraging students to identify and verbalize their emotions. Below is an emotional vocabulary list to refer to, which provides multiple words for students to choose from in describing each feeling in more depth:
Practicing this kind of dialogue will naturally set the stage for a non-judgemental space in school and may even spill over to the home. If students are able to diagnose how they feel more deeply, they will be able to more effectively communicate what they are feeling to those around them: teachers, other education stakeholders, and parents. And when the latter understands, they will be able to understand how students feel more deeply and take appropriate and meaningful action from there. Thus, by expanding our emotional vocabulary, this will lead to more healthier discussions and ultimately, cultivate an affirming, nurturing, and inclusive environment for all.
Making small adjustments in conversations can create lots of room for students to share what’s been happening to them as well as serve as an opportunity to sit with their thoughts and feelings, acknowledge their own state, and learn to talk about what has long been considered to be taboo. So, in light of creating psychological safety in the classroom, I’d always remind my students to come as they are, and that I am here for them if they need anything. As a result, every class, there would be a few students who’d immediately open up about what they’ve been grappling with: usually social anxiety, burnout, and lack of self-motivation. And interestingly, sometimes, just listening, reflecting what you hear from them, and validating their experience is more than enough for them. All they really want is to be heard and to see themselves reflected in course content and their school’s mental health campaign. What I try to promote is that it is okay and smart to ask for help. As for students who are not ready to open up just yet, supportive statements are what we ought to shower them with in the meantime.
As Psychologist Kay Vardeleon once suggested, to be able to take this further, teachers and schools could integrate the following accommodations for students with identified mental health needs to be able to work around challenges more easily:
Not requiring cameras to be turned on during online class, especially for those with social anxiety issues.
Mental health breaks: time off to rest and nurse panic attacks, for those struggling with anxiety
Change the way a child completes assignments and tests e.g. in small segments for those with attention challenges
Change the learning environment e.g. letting kinesthetic learners move more
Support for care: time off to attend appointments for those seeing mental health professionals
Regularly ask check-in questions
Based on my six-month experience as a teacher in PAREF Rosehill, as small as it may seem to have made these slight adjustments in my words and conversations, I can conclude that it made a significant impact on the overall mental health of my class and the ways we feel a sense of belonging. What I learned from my students is that credibility is dependent on how you make them feel. Relatability is what ultimately draws them in and gets them to do the work. Earning their trust and respect follows suit. At the end of the day, given the times, it is more important to uncover than to cover. However, holding a standard is still vital, but better done with compassion. It is, therefore, not about changing what a child is learning, but how a child is learning. It is about removing barriers and providing support, specifically equal access to learning.
The same thing applies at home. In the family, it is crucial to have allies who can lead and moderate discussions on mental health and well-being for students to develop a strong security base and enough safety to explore.
All this goes to show that there is power in having at least one supportive adult in a young person’s life. It is critical to his or her sense of well-being, connectedness, confidence, ability to navigate through adversity, and to effectively adapt to change and thrive. Allowing a child to express their wants and needs makes a world of difference. That is how trust is built and how students will be able to hone their ability to communicate. For all that goes unseen and all that goes seen, what students remember most about school is how much their teachers cared about them.
Amidst all these transitions, from online to face-to-face to blended learning, being a teacher in this day and age is, admittedly an arduous job, but nevertheless incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. I’ll always be grateful to my students for giving me a chance to transmute pain to purpose, to turn adversity into opportunity as well as personal setbacks into big comebacks. Nothing ever goes to waste because I am able to pass on everything I’ve learned through the years. Through them, I am able to live out my purpose – that is to be the person I needed when I was younger. Many are the paths to recovery and growth as what might work for one may not work for another, but where we meet is on this road to learning where I am committed to interjecting kindness and compassion in the way that I talk about myself, mental health and others for them to be able to internalize empowering messages. And that is how I lead and serve in all my authentic glory.
Kate Cabigao is deeply spiritual, loves love, loves to learn, and values perspective. She graduated from NYU Steinhardt with a major in Education Studies and a specialization in Global and Urban Education. Currently, she is a teacher in PAREF Rosehill and a writer. Her life goal is to help those around her make the most of what they are and do have by sharing her story and holding space.