I will never forget his first day of public school, a day imprinted in my memory and immortalized. I still can see his determined little face as he rushed past me, worry lining his wrinkled brow as he motored toward the outside steps, coming directly from the bus, those thin legs stomping up into the house -- him, wanting nothing more than time and space between us. No pleasantries about the day or small offerings about what he enjoyed most.
Not a word.
He would have (nor could handle) none of that foolishness.
To be honest, this experience was not the first time I had really seen visibly the effects of anxiety on students. In middle school, an acquaintance of mine had committed suicide, after having gone around the school the afternoon before saying his last goodbyes, unbeknownst to all of us standing there in that dimly lit hallway.
Additional to that extremely traumatic experience, I had watched classmates and friends struggle with academics and social interactions, exhibiting signs of anxiety and stress in the process. I also had observed students in the schools I attended acting out in frustration and despair to the boundaries they experienced within the school setting.
Further to even this, when first acting as a substitute teacher and then later as a permanent teacher, certainly I witnessed many examples and scenarios of students dealing with stress and anxiety, behaviours and emotional exchanges manifested in different ways and exhibited through varied means of expression.
And then, going back to my own childhood experience, I had dealt with the cruelty of bullies myself (both children and adults), their work the daily humiliation of taunting and teasing me about my physical appearance, along with targeting anything else they sensed was a weakness in me. All of this: contributing factors to a lifetime of ever-worsening anxiety troubles and growing emotional heartache.
There is really nothing kids want more than to be liked, to be accepted for who they are.
But somehow, someway -- being the parent of that little boy I mentioned above has made the anxiety and related mental fatigue of school more personal to me than any of those previous experiences ever could have done.
Being a mother has made it unbearable.
Now, having been that little boy's mother for 16 years, I certainly have a vested interest in understanding signs of anxiety issues in students. Particularly, yes, because I see anxiety and stress in my own four children. But also because I want to understand these two forms of mental exhaustion as they can be observed in the children I work with and teach.
I make mental notes about what students and children around me say, filing away the information for later, when I can write and think about those special shared moments in the quiet and solitude of my kitchen. I study the writings of various reputable others who have put emphasis on the daily work of care, and I talk to counselors, therapists and trusted colleagues about the tender issues surrounding children/teens and mental health, always inquiring how I can nurture emotional well-being into its full potential.
What I have realized time and time again is something so profound, it is actually simple. There is really nothing kids want more than to be liked, to be accepted for who they are. It is the greatest way we can care for children, for youth: we must show them they matter.
Mere days ago, I stood in my newly-decorated classroom and read silently the individual names of my students for the upcoming school year. As I carefully placed desks into groups and arranged clusters for working partners, I let my mind wander. I wondered about them, those young learners I would soon be meeting, some for the very first time. The final thought I kept coming back to in my reflections was how very much each of these students will come to depend on me to find something in them that is valuable, to find things of worth within each of them that will serve to ignite their passion and desire to be their best selves.
And at times, these students will also need me to be their advocate and support, especially when they cannot see the potential in themselves that I already know to be there.
Caring teachers know by intuition what needs to be done.
It has been only days since the school year began again, a time when I receive my first correspondence from students, as recorded on various "first-week-of-school" worksheets we complete. Today, a young student told me that the one thing he wanted me to know about him, that I might not already know, was that he was "nice." What he doesn't know about me is this: I already knew -- knew that he was more than nice, he was incredible.
What matters to this little guy, and to all the others as well, is that we as teachers and like-minded adults care about them. Kids come to us from different situations, some difficult and turbulent in nature and others quite stable and healthy, but all come asking us to notice them. Our job then is take them where they are and let each child know as soon as they walk into the school yard, that they matter. They must know that we are rooting for them.
Our care will show itself in many ways -- evidenced in our ability to adapt lessons to learning styles, evident in our best teaching practices, evident in our passion for our those subjects we teach, passion for listening to the students tell us what they already know. Our care will also be visible in the ways in which we place priority on what is truly important. We will know from moment-to-moment whether that priority is to be placed on the lesson at hand or focus turned to a specific child who just needs some TLC and a listening ear. Caring teachers know by intuition what needs to be done.
What we're all about is the kids. We've got their backs. We are there because we care.
And it is this constant care and the interest shown that students remember most about teachers each school year... and continue remembering long after they have graduated and moved on.
A legacy that outlasts lesson plans and course material each and every time.
Frame Of Mind is a new series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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More From Frame Of Mind:
- To Teens In The Darkness: Tomorrow Needs You, We All Need You
- Mental Illness And Teens: It Impacts Every One Of Us
- How I Discovered My Strength In The Throes Of Mental Illness
- Why I Talk About My Depression (And You Should Too)
- Losing My Daughter Taught Me The Importance Of Empathy In Mental Health
- Understanding Teen Suicide Helps Make Sense Of The Heartbreak
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