Thriving School Psych Thriving Students

This Week, with Debbie Downer

Husband is so great. Whenever there’s a news show about education, he TiVos it for me and we watch it together. Even on our 1st anniversary, while vacationing, he noticed that CSPAN was covering an education debate and we watched it together. He even lets me yell at the TV, and pauses for my commentary. Now that’s true love, right? So many times, I would love to hop in the TV and shake the politicians who don’t get it.

Case and point: This morning,“This Week with Christiane Amanpour” had its yearly education debate. I say yearly, because they NEVER talk about education on these shows except for the one week before school starts. Education gets the shaft in coverage on the news. So this morning, I got all excited for my 8-minute segment about education.

Then, Arne Duncan, Education Secretary opened his mouth. Allow me to summarize:

We need to do what works and not do what doesn’t work!

Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers added,

We should start doing what works and stop doing what doesn’t!

Michelle Rhee, chancellor or DC schools:

We should keep good teachers and get rid of bad teachers.

AAARRRG. I suppose it is hard to get to anything of substance in 8 minutes, to their credit. There was some banter about teacher evaluations and student performance that had some actual substance, but if I was left with only stupid talking points. Mind you, none of those talking points mentioned mental and physical health as a component in student achievement.

*Dusts off soap box*

People. You can’t learn if you don’t feel well emotionally or physically. You can be the best teacher in the world, but if your students come to you with trauma and bad health, you have a greater challenge. Poverty is no longer a sentence for underachievement, but it certainly makes things harder for teachers, who have to be teacher, social worker, mom, educator, and advocate. What is the incentive for teachers and school psychologists to work in poorer schools, with less resources and more challenges? I mean, other than the obvious great sense of civic pride, social justice, and great cocktail conversations (e.g. “Today I talked a kid with a knife down from a flagpole. How was your day?).?*


The politicians just don’t get it. They aren’t at the schools every day, trying to close the achievement gap from a janitor’s closet or shoddy classroom with outdated computers that don’t print, and no materials or support. Wake up, people. As my dear Internet BFF Mrs. Mimi says, “You can’t fire poverty, so they fire teachers.” Are there crap teachers I wish would go away? Yes. Are there super teachers who should get paid CEO salaries for all they do? Yes. But blaming the teachers is not right. So, what should we do? I don’t want to be all Arne on you and say “let’s be innovative and do new things!” and have no substance.

My answer is simple and biased.

In high poverty schools, hire more mental health professionals. It’s a simple Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs situation. If you don’t have your primary needs of safety, food, health, and belonging, you are less free emotionally to learn. Think of a time when you just found out a friend or family member died. Maybe you have a time in your life when you were a victim of a crime—think of your emotional state. Or even think of a really difficult time in your life when you weren’t sure if you could pay your bills. Did you feel free to sit down and read a novel for fun? Were you inclined to do algebra algorithms to soothe yourself? Or did you need support from another human being to get back to functioning normally? Well imagine you are a kid with trauma or worries and you don’t have strong coping skills or an adult to support you. You are not ready for learning. Often, our teachers in poor areas become de-facto counselors as well as teachers.

I am always struck by the contrast between my poorer schools and my more affluent schools. Each year, I return to school by going to my multiple sites and sitting in on professional developments. Year after year, in the poorer schools, we talk about sparking motivation and a sense of safety and belonging in students, and we try to garner outside resources we could pull in to help our students. In my schools in affluent neighborhoods, we talk about new composting programs, new PTA-sponsored programs, and how hard it is to show improvement in test scores when the majority of the school is already at the top.

Is anyone else depressed? So sorry to be all Jonathan Kozel on you. I’ll leave you with this palate-cleansing image:

Now, we go forth and do the good work that we know makes a difference. Even if our test scores don’t always show it. Oh, and grab yourself an awesome spouse who lets you rant about education all the time. It really helps.

*Awesome side note: At my reading for The Teachable Moment, a presenter overhead an audiance member say, “Wow, I had no idea school psychologists were so…gritty.” Spread the word. We are full of courage and resolve. Also, covered in grit.

Sharing is caring!

Comments on This Week, with Debbie Downer

  1. Angela says:

    Gritty, I love that. 🙂

    At my former (urban) school district, many principals have elected to cut guidance to half-time or ALTOGETHER. It's an absolutely mind-boggling move, considering that school psychologists are usually assigned to 5 schools and are only present one day a week to do testing. That leaves the full burden of caring for the mental health of impoverished children on…classroom teachers, which means time away from instruction…

    I'm preaching to the choir, I know, but I just don't see mental health professionals as expendable in even the tightest financial times. It IS akin to cutting a classroom teacher. Maybe worse.

  2. Dana says:

    I am relatively new to your blog, but this post touched me. Why? Because I have a 14 yo son who started his freshman year in a therapeutic day school (at my district's expense) *because* (in part) there was ONE school psychologist for his middle school of 600+ students – 30% of those eligible for free/reduced price lunch. My son was given 15 MINUTES of time with the school psychologist once a month (per his IEP). She was saddled with a huge case load and an administration who expected her to side with the best interests of the school, not the student.

    I do what I can as a single parent to bridge the gap between school and home, but my son's emotional needs cross those lines and I cannot provide for them at school.

    I agree – the problems with our educational system are not all about the teachers and the test scores. We seem to be missing the the ability to see beyond that – to care for the whole child at home and a school.

  3. luckeyfrog says:

    We just recently acquired a Title I Parent Liason to take over tasks like keeping track of attendance (and calling homes when there are problems) so that our counselor didn't have to spend so much time with paperwork and could spend more time with kids.

    We have also been able to provide school supplies to our students, and in many cases outfits that fit the dress code, because of generous donations and some of our school funding. When you see the relief in their parents' eyes, it's worth it.

    A local church also sponsors the kids by sending home bookbags full of food every Friday to families in the free and reduced lunch program.

    It makes me so happy that in many ways, our community and school have responded to students' needs. Sure, some people are worried about abusers of the system, but most people seem to figure that a few people abusing the system don't outweigh the many kids that are fed when they wouldn't have been otherwise.

    It's absolutely worth it.

  4. Sioux says:

    Educators' backs are being broken, with all the things that are being loaded onto our list of responsibilities.

    With the drive for collecting data and pre-testing and post-testing and intervention (to help close the achievement gap), there is no room for any temper tantrums or grief over a dead aunt or worry that mom might get beaten (again) by her boyfriend. None of that stuff is on the state test, so fuhgeddaboudit. Get back on schedule:Review time is 1:20-1:35. Let's move on…

  5. Amy says:

    BINGO! There's a push for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in schools, which to me is boggling in and of itself because I thought this was always the aim/goal in schools. While I agree poorly performing schools need funding, ALL schools need funding. To improve test scores you need to improve kids' lives. In this day in age kids come to school more overwhelmed, stressed, frustrated, and confused than ever before and yet the people trained to address these issues are fighting to maintain their jobs. School staff that perform well and work above the call of duty are rewarded with extra responsibilities; nothing in any way positive in its support. There's too much time and paperwork dedicated to CYA activities rather than proactive interventions that help students, their families, and staff.

  6. Adriana says:

    Great post, Rebecca! Totally agree. I see so many great teachers at my school who have great lesson plans and enthusiasm in teaching, but they get lots of pressure when their students' scores aren't improving. it makes me sad sometimes to see a great teacher not having the one-on-one time to help with a kid who have lots of family problems and are already a few grades behind.

    Has there been research studies showing how students' performance improve when there are more school psychologists assigned at a school? This may show to the politicians the effectiveness of putting more funds into mental health.

  7. Tara says:

    Rebecca–I like this post. I'm a school psychologist in NC, and this year the full-time therapist in our day treatment program was "reassigned" due to budget cuts. Then today I learned that our RtI guru was also reassigned due to cuts. So, guess who gets to wear all the hats? Me. I'll do my best, but it takes a village to raise a child, you know?

  8. Tara says:

    So, I totally cut and pasted a chunk from your blog (giving you props, of course) and blabbed about it. Hope you're cool with it.

  9. Rebecca says:

    @Tara: I'm cool with spreading the word that we need more mental health in the schools! 😉

    @Everyone: Thanks for your comments. It is nice to know I'm not the only one out there thinking it's crazy to have 1 school psychologist for 3-5 schools.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *