The Teacher’s Role in Student Mental Health.
Hopefully, we’ve all had teachers in our lives that made a mark. A positive mark. The kind of teachers that stepped beyond academics and paid attention to our mental well-being too. The type of teachers who refused to view us as a number of the system and took the time to learn about who we are.
Now I know we live in a numerical world, where our scores and marks determine how we are ‘seen’ and what we will be.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in testing well for one’s personal goals. But more so, I advocate the importance of rearing good, kind, healthy human beings. A success that isn’t measured by your ability to memorize and repeat.
I am lucky to have crossed paths with one of the special-kind and unfortunate to have experienced many who were straight-up textbook teachers. One’s who regurgitated knowledge in pursuit of our retention.
But let’s shine the spotlight our those gems that deserve recognition.
So I’ll take you back to 2006. The year I met a teacher who had a lifelong influence and shaped me into the person I am today. I’ll spare you the details. But for a 9-year-old, I went through two significant changes in under a year. I had recently experienced the loss of my father and shortly after moved from South Africa, my home, to the UK. I know what you’re thinking, how bad could it be? And yes, it ended up being a magical adventure. But as a youngin, I was leaving all I had known behind. Soldiering on~ these changes had directly impacted my well-being but, still, we move. There were more factors at play though the gist was that things were rough.
The English school year begins in September, so I started school in the middle of year 5 (Grade 5). Hands down my worst academic year. I know it’s primary school but as a kid who valued scholarly achievements, it was dismal. I couldn’t keep up with the workload and the pressure I felt of being a new immigrant, fighting off old stereotypes. The school didn’t ease that transition. I felt the weight of having to start all over again, making friends, learning an advanced curriculum, and proving myself. I guess the latter was self-inflicted, I burdened myself with the feeling of needing to prove I deserved to be there. There I was trying to catch up while my teacher failed to recognize anything beyond my substandard marks. She chose to ignore the reflection or deeper meaning behind those numerical values. Zero guidance, zero understanding. She gave me ‘just another dumb foreigner’ vibes. Class dismissed.
For many kids, including me going to school brings comfort, structure, and safety. But this particular year, I dreaded every day. With low self-esteem and no classroom support, I felt useless. Feeling overwhelmed and constantly overlooked, I struggled in silence and counted my days.
Until year six arrived and changed the game. In some way, I had to experience the bad before appreciating the good. This year I was blessed with a teacher who saw something in me. He saw my potential and took the time to cultivate an environment where I could unlock it. Mr. Squillario not only noticed my academic potential but my sporting talents too. It was at a PE class where we played cricket that my boost of confidence grew. Mr. Squillario instantly observed my capabilities, I finally felt accepted among my peers. In South Africa, sport was and is an integral part of the schooling system. My talents arose from countless memories of playing cricket with my older brother and Gran. One PE class had taken me back to a moment of pure bliss. I felt like a kid again. Turn’s out, Mr. Squillario saw something shift in me too. The next day he handed me a letter for country cricket trials. He told me to hand it over to my parents and that he believed I had a good chance.
At the time, I was in my head, thinking this was something way out of my league. I was just a little Durban girl, ‘what business did I have in an English county team.’ I pushed that letter to the bottom of my bag, but he was resilient. Each day he would ask me, “Did your parents sign it yet?” with a nervous mumble, I would reply with an excuse. All while knowing the letter sat pressed between todays’ lunch and tomorrow’s homework. But he pushed. After school, he followed briskly behind and spoke to my mother. Unimpressed and caught off guard, my mother assured him she would take a look at it. I, of course, was reprimanded for withholding information and the embarrassment that ensued. I guess a part of me was struggling with self-doubt and the idea of incurring additional expenses/pressures on the fam. But whatever he said made her sign that form. With a bottle of water and my talent, I showed up at trials. I immediately became intimidated by girls with name-branded gear and already formed cliques. Over the trial period, it stirred a hunger in me. I was losing too much that I needed to win. I wanted this opportunity, knowing I had someone who believed I was worthy of it. I had never felt a sense of belonging like I did when holding a cricket ball. When that letter arrived to congratulate me on making the Middlesex County U11 Cricket team, I owed that success to Mr. Squillario.
Moral of the story Mr. Squillario saw me. He gave me a shot that no one else could or was willing to. He unlocked a beast mode in me that left all inadequate, insecure feelings behind. He opened up a door of possibilities and believed that I could achieve anything. I excelled in my schoolwork again and made the squad each year after that. I played club, academy, and county-level cricket for eight years, winning Jack Petchey awards and competing in the London Youth Games. I had arrived. I went from playing with my family in the flats to training at Lords Cricket Ground, because of the impact a teacher had made. The achievements, though rewarding, didn’t match what he shifted internally in me. My mindset, my emotional and social well-being had changed for the better.
He gave me a start in life, a chance at my new life in the UK. He believed in fostering a supportive atmosphere, a classroom that developed our emotional, social and academic competence. He focused on the whole student and appreciated each individual. It is that type of teacher who acknowledges their role is more than the formal description. He took the initiative to facilitate a mental health, friendly environment. He made us feel like we could talk about our emotions and helped us regulate them. Despite the school’s lack of support, he went against the norm and became a mentor, counselor, and educator all in one.
Teachers play a crucial role in their student’s mental health often becoming the only role models outside of a child’s home. They spend countless hours with children and watch them develop, putting them in a prime position of often detecting mental health problems that interfere with day-to-day functioning. Though diagnosis cannot be made on their part, observations can assist with early intervention.
The classroom can be a space for emotional expression, in some cases something that isn’t an option at home. Teachers form an example of healthy, appropriate adult behavior which children will internalize and model. They shape our mindsets. In essence, a classroom is a powerful place and with the right teacher, it can change you for life.