Angela Jerabek Selected as 2021’s Wisest Wonk

Jerabek selected as Wisest Wonk

We are excited to share that Angela Jerabek has been selected as 2021’s Wisest Wonk as part of Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s 2021 Wonkathon! Thank you to everyone who voted! If you missed reading the essay focused on reimagining teacher teams to address students’ mental health, check it out below:

“Grades are a good indicator of how a student is doing, but if you just look at grades, you miss a lot of things: social changes, friend-group changes, attendance, health, all of a sudden a student is getting too skinny. It’s like a puzzle, and everybody holds a piece of the puzzle so when we are all together, we can see the whole kid.”

—Janice Eldridge, Director of Schools, BARR Center

Over a year has passed since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the extended closure of thousands of schools across the nation. As districts plan and resource the safe reopenings of schools, students, families, and educators continue to face daunting tribulations from the Covid-19 pandemic. From months of isolation, fear and uncertainty, and varying levels of trauma, Covid-19 undeniably took a toll on most Americans—with specific harm to students’ mental health. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency room visits for children’s mental health concerns increased 24 percent for children ages 5–11 and 31 percent for children ages 12–17 from April 2020 to October 2020, as compared to the year prior. Unfortunately, for young people in the United States, mental health concerns are far from new or unique. Over the last several years, this generation of students saw record anxiety, depression, and suicide rates. In fact, one out of every five students are diagnosed with a mental health diagnosis—which most often goes untreated.

The ongoing youth mental health crisis in this country is something school administrators and educators know all too well. With scarce resources and qualified professionals, schools faced this ongoing battle even before Covid closures. Now, as so many others in unknown circumstances, school officials are challenged as students plan to re-enter their buildings in the Fall. With this in mind, school administrators, educators, and staff are faced with the daunting question: How do we help students and ourselves to connect, heal, and learn?

Status quo approach to student mental health

Currently, our education system narrowly focuses on a fragment of a student’s overall self—mainly academic and cognitive development. Issues linger concerning the role of districts, schools, and educators in providing and facilitating the appropriate mental health supports and needs of students. Is it the school’s responsibility to provide a comprehensive mental health framework? Is the mental health of students and staff central to the mission and goals of the school system? Research and practice would indicate “yes.” The intentional support of mental and emotional health positively affects students’ ability to succeed within the classroom, resulting in increased social-emotional skills, higher academic achievement, and decreased emotional and behavioral problems. Thus, students’ emotional and social health need to be considered as prerequisite to academics. Students must be seen as “whole” beings. Districts and schools should reinforce the importance of the “whole student” by acknowledging shared responsibility of student mental health as much as the other essential student supports and needs provided by schools.

Disrupting the system: A new approach to teacher teams

To disrupt the status quo, school leaders need to seize the opportunity created by Covid-19 to reimagine “whole student” support and the role of teachers within its framework. As an innovative approach, the creation of structured, cross-disciplinary teacher teams and meetings allows schools to leverage existing staff and resources to effectively address and maximize student learning and well-being. Teacher teaming in education is not a new concept, but the intentionality and structure of teams needs refreshing. Teachers too often work in “silos,” which promotes a singular focus on one’s own classroom and expertise. During teacher meetings, time and focus are reserved for discussion of curriculum, instruction, or specific subject matters. As a typical, standard approach in practice, this often overlooks the students, classes, and areas most in need. Taking away the siloed experience and linear focus of teachers will result in positive impacts on both students and teachers.

To capitalize on the potential of teacher teams and meetings for addressing the “whole student,” I outline below a set of recommendations to guide the creation, structure, and functions of effective teacher teams and meetings followed by policy implications for schools, districts, and educational policymakers.

Teacher teams and meetings: Multiple perspectives, holistic focus for student mental health

Whole student focus and considerations

  • Teacher teams discuss each and every student within cohort and/or grade.
  • Teacher team discussions focus on all levels of learners from “at-risk” to advanced. Students must also be identified for acceleration, moving average learners to a higher level, and moving advanced learners into more advanced coursework, such as advanced-placement classes.
  • Teacher teams are trained and supported to be attentive to the whole student and building relationships.
  • Teacher teams conduct root cause analyses of student concerns to understand the multiple systems and factors impacting the student and the student’s environment.
  • Teacher teams co-construct understandings of the students to fully assess and address students’ individual needs.
  • Teachers leverage knowledge of the whole student to impact classroom instruction and relationships by understanding student’s strengths.

Data- and transparency-based practices

  • Teacher teams collect, share, and analyze qualitative and qualitative data in meetings. Quantitative data includes grades, course assignments, attendance, suspensions, and standardized test scores. Qualitative data includes changes in the student’s appearance, peer group, demeanor, life events, information from family/peers, and student strengths.
  • Teacher teams discuss each student from multiple points of view to provide a range of perspectives and to challenge potential bias and stereotypes.
  • Teacher teams discuss each student by leading with the student’s strengths, and if needed, end with a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goal and intervention plan. The intervention plan is shared with the whole team and the student.
  • Teacher teams check on the status of each student intervention on a weekly basis, based on data collected, and either modify the plan or scale it to other students.
  • Teacher teams participate in training, receive coaching, and are equipped in continuous improvement practices to effectively collect and use real-time data.

Bolstering teacher efficacy and wellbeing

  • Teacher teams foster stronger relationships among teachers and other school staff.
  • Teacher teams report increases in knowledge about students and their learning or support needs, and strengthen teachers’ professional self-esteem and, ultimately, well-being.
  • Teacher teams report affirmation of knowing that their actions have a positive impact on students helps to foster educator resiliency.

Stronger teacher collaboration

  • Teacher teams report enhanced collaboration with other teachers and higher levels of self-efficacy in affecting students’ learning, motivation, and behavior through this team and meeting structure.
  • Teacher teams are cross-disciplinary cohort-based teams that break down typical department-level silos and foster collaboration among teachers and staff to better understand and serve students.
  • Teacher teams’ collaboration encourages teachers to be vulnerable and hold each other accountable, with meeting times being required and team members holding equally important roles within the meeting.
  • Teacher team relationships are reinforced through the collaborative nature of brainstorming interventions and developing strategies as a team.
  • Teacher teams with a shared lens, belief system, and vocabulary prioritize relationships and use of data to empower all individuals within the system including students, teachers, and other school staff.

Policy Implications for schools, districts, and educational policymakers:

  • Integrate professional time/adequate scheduling for teachers to meet during the workday.
  • Incentivize and highlight connections of mental health, social-emotional learning, and academics.
  • Adopt policies and programs grounded within the “whole student” approach.
  • Establish adequate and flexible funding for SEL-related practices.
  • Advocate for training and professional development opportunities to support student SEL.

*This essay was submitted as an entry in Fordham’s 2021 Wonkathon, focusing on addressing the question of “How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?”