Opinion: Pay more attention to mental health than to test scores

University of Georgia professor urges districts to use summer to assess how teachers and students are faring
A UGA education professor says: ‘I’m hoping that the issue of mental health is among those educational priorities that will get reimagined as schools break for summer, no matter what school looks like in the fall.’

A UGA education professor says: ‘I’m hoping that the issue of mental health is among those educational priorities that will get reimagined as schools break for summer, no matter what school looks like in the fall.’

University of Georgia education professor and frequent AJC Get School contributor Peter Smagorinsky wrote a guest column for the Get Schooled blog two years ago that went viral and continues to draw readers. In that blog, he addressed what he and many others educators call the key to learning: relationships.

His guest column today deals with the need for schools to confront student mental health, even more so now amid a pandemic that pushed classrooms online.

Among his many awards, Smagorinsky earned the Horace Mann League's 2020 Outstanding Public Educator award. The league gives the award to an educator who has supported public education throughout his or her career.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Just before COVID-19 hit the fan, I wrote an essay on the Hall County, Georgia, schools that was scheduled to appear in Get Schooled. It featured their initiative to pay more attention to their students’ mental health than to their test scores.

Once the virus took off and everything shut down, the essay got set aside, and understandably so. Since then, the focus has been solely and rightfully on what to do during these strange and frightening times.

Although my pre-Covid feel-good essay on Hall County’s mental health priority was jettisoned, mental health has emerged as a critical social and educational topic during the crisis. My contact with my University of Georgia students throughout the shutdown has found many of them struggling with mental health issues. Many of them had pre-existing conditions of anxiety, depression, and other mood and neurological challenges that were ramped up by their return home.

The home is often celebrated as a sanctuary from the world’s ills and evils, but many homes are very insecure. Some of my students left their college dorms for homes characterized by abuse, alcoholism, crowded quarters, anxious and frustrated parents, and other sources of stress and fear. Others developed anxiety and other challenges when cut off from friends and social lives and forced into baby-sitting or home schooling duties with their younger siblings by parents who were deeply stressed by demands of their own.

Dr Peter Smagorinsky

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The news has begun to report on the mental health issues that have become amplified by the crisis. People are fearful about their health, their finances, their friendships, and other forms of security that they have taken for granted. There are residual effects as well.

According to one report, "the pandemic could lead to 75,000 additional 'deaths of despair' from drug and alcohol misuse and suicide due to unemployment, social isolation, and fears about the virus." There's a lot to be fearful about these days.

Meanwhile, schools are making tentative plans for fall. UGA is planning for both classes and football. There are already frat parties revving up, some with predictable results. My own anxiety concerns how the actions of others will affect our ability to open campus in just three months, when increased socializing may produce a surge of a virus that has yet to peak.

And so, the virus has produced a secondary global health crisis, one following from people’s emotional state during a time of unprecedented fear and danger, both from the virus and from our fellow citizens. That crisis is one of mental health, and no amount of swabs or contact tracing can reveal its spread.

Which brings me back to Hall County.

The district’s motto is “The Most Caring Place on Earth,” and they try to align the conduct of their school with this value. Hall County is quite remarkable in emphasizing people and their lives, founding the educational program on the emotional needs of the people who make up the school community.

At the school's 2019-2020 fall faculty orientation, Superintendent Will Schofield spoke about the importance of human relationships, above all else, and how everything educational follows from developing and fostering productive relationships within the district. The district's emphasis is on making school a place that nurtures students and helps them see value in attending school and persisting with their education, which is conceived of as extending far beyond the curriculum.

Doing so requires attention to students' mental health, as Gainesville Times reporter Kelsey Podo wrote last fall about a Hall County district initiative focused on students' mental health:

Step one started with listening to students

"A kid who's in their seventh house in the last three months and has a step dad that's beating them and a mother who's addicted just doesn't care much about advanced algebra," Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said during a board meeting on Nov. 18. "It's not that they don't want to learn advanced algebra, it's not even on their radar screen. We came to the conclusion. I said, 'Kevin [Bales, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning], we're going to do this.'"

Lanier College & Career Academy’s Student Services Liaison Joy Schofield is quoted in the news article as observing: “There are kids having issues with depression, different types of abuse, anxiety, divorce, sexuality issues, relationship drama — so many issues. It’s just overwhelming to see the sheer number of issues our kids are facing every day and see it all in one place.”

That place is school.

As part of its mental health initiative, Lanier College & Career Academy asks students what they think, what they have experienced, and what they need. In one activity, students were asked to complete the following sentence: “If my teacher really knew me, they would know…”

Among the answers:

If my teacher really knew me, they would know how much potential I have if someone just gave me the chance. I could help guide others in the right direction and also myself, but it's hard when you lack hope.

If my teachers really knew me, they'd know that I've been verbally abused all my life and treating me unfairly makes me feel like I can't do anything.

This initiative was undertaken last fall before everything changed. The shutdown has forced a reconsideration of how schools operate, from questioning the need for standardized tests to making the provision of meals a major priority. I'm hoping that the issue of mental health is among those educational priorities that will get reimagined as schools break for summer, no matter what school looks like in the fall.

This summer might provide an opportunity for schools to follow Hall County’s lead and assess their students’ and teachers’ mental health status, both in school and at home. Collecting data has often come in the form of test scores and risk factors that affect test scores and grades.

Hall County is trying to address something different, and very important: the emotional state of its students. The only change I would make would be to extend this inquiry to teachers.

With summer just about here and school off for most of its students and teachers, now seems to be a good time to step back from the crisis and take stock of how people feel about their education and the social environment of schools. This environment has long been known to affect student achievement, and, I'd add, their overall development as people. Hall County has asked its students how they feel about school, and has used their answers to help them plan for students' emotional and academic growth.

Undoubtedly, some students might use the occasion for pranks and crank responses. My sense from Hall County, though, is that most students took the opportunity to provide information about their home, school, and social lives that has helped the administration be responsive and proactive, and to make mental health a priority.

It’s the sort of thing that can be done online, which I offer with the understanding that some students would have limited participation because of poor access to the internet.

This effort would need to involve a reformulation of school culture. Mapping the findings onto a corporate approach to schooling would produce an awkward mix and would warp the findings to fit other priorities. Rather, the collection of data would need to promote cultural change toward greater understanding of how people's emotional states and mental health makeups affect their affiliation with the institution of school.

“The Most Caring Place on Earth.” I’d love for that motto to extend to the whole state of Georgia. Talk to kids while they’re out of school, and ask them how they feel and how they are experiencing their lives. What they tell you might help broaden the nation’s understanding of the role of school in society, and of the lives of the individuals who go there to teach and learn.