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The "Future of Learning" Must be Fun
The mental health crisis in education is being approached in all the wrong ways
Last night I read about a woman who “fell through the cracks” while in foster care in my hometown.
Please read her story and for even just 30 seconds, let the reality that far too many kids are still in this situation sit with you.
I knew after reading this woman’s story that I needed to write about Olivia. Or at least, what I remember about Olivia.
I remember being scared of her at first. She was only 14, but she already required the highest level of intervention and support that the foster care agency could provide. By the time we met, she had maxed out her time at a mental health facility in Toronto. The only one in the whole country that could offer some hope for treatment.
There was nowhere left for her to go. No one else could help her. So the agency rented an apartment in downtown Winnipeg and turned it into a 24/7 Olivia suicide-watch facility, staffed by two case workers at all times. I was one of those case workers.
I remember two of her social workers, the ones training me, seriously believing she was possessed.
I remember seeing a binder the width of a can of soda with files documenting her troubled past.
I remember how seemingly every emergency responder in the city (the police, the paramedics, the hospital nurses, the psychiatric pediatrician…) knew this girl, and how only a couple treated her with compassion.
I remember wondering if essentially locking a teenager who loved Justin Bieber in an apartment was the best way to help her heal.
I remember the agency telling me she had run away, into traffic, the last time she convinced a case worker to take her outside. She was absolutely determined to kill herself, by any means necessary.
I remember learning, first hand, what “by any means necessary” truly meant. On my first shift she tried to swallow the batteries from the tv remote. Just when you thought there was nothing left unlocked in the apartment that she could possibly hurt herself with, she would find something.
I remember her smashing a lightbulb and trying to stab herself with the shattered glass. I remember her running to the kitchen, taking the strainer from the sink, and holding it to her wrist.
I remember her pausing there, long enough for me stop her. Long enough for me to see her. I started to notice that as wild as she got, kicking holes in the walls, breaking windows, she was careful to never hurt me.
I remember believing there was some hope, even after she handed me a suicide note disguised as art. She wrote RIP Olivia and that day’s date, in pink crayon.
I remember I grew to love her. I truly truly did. She was so guarded and detached, but when a small smile would break through, it gave me some more hope.
I remember wishing I could just give her attention for something, anything, positive. She wasn’t in school. She had no friends. She had every thing she liked confiscated.
I remember pulling the blankets off of her after she’d gone to bed, and finding a confiscated bandana, returned to her by a case worker on the previous shift, tied tightly around her neck.
I remember being unable to untie the bandana, needing to wait for the scissors to be unlocked by the other case worker on my shift.
I remember the look on her face, gasping for air and vomiting, when we were finally able to cut the bandana.
I remember finishing that shift with her at the hospital, alternately screaming at me for not letting her die and screaming at me for taking so long to save her.
I remember wanting to go back for my next shift, and my boyfriend, who had much more experience with the agency, begging me not to.
I remember coming to terms with the fact that my presence was not what she needed. She liked me, and acted up more when I was around. I desperately wanted to help her, but I made her situation worse. Still, I felt like I failed her. Like I was yet another person to abandon her.
I remember crying uncontrollably every time I saw the bruises on my shins from fighting at the side of her bed to pull the bandana away from her neck.
I remember wondering for a long time whether letting her kill herself was the humane thing to do. That’s how bad it was.
I remember not noticing that this entire experience had completely faded from my memory until I watched a documentary years later and there was a scene of the main character re-enacting how he would choke people to death, and it all came flooding back. I ran out of the theatre to throw up in a garbage can.
The Optimism Gap
At the time I met Olivia (2011), it was shocking to me that reservations existed where ~⅓ of the children wanted to die.
The kids I worked with had no hope for the future. Why bother trying in school? Avoiding drugs or alcohol? Saving money? Dreaming of a different, better future? No one around them did; there was no point as far as they could see.
Now this crisis has come to America (I’ve seen a range of data about this, but the CDC reports that 20% of high school students report serious thoughts about suicide these days). Not just “underprivileged” youth, or kids in foster care, all demographics.
Kids today are not alright.
Those of us who are parents or working in the education field know there is a mental health crisis, but what’s less clear is how to solve it.
Many parents are starting to restrict social media access, which we know is a major culprit. And many districts and governments are throwing money at the problem: buying assessment software to identify and monitor at-risk youth; hiring therapists and social workers; investing in teacher professional development. NYC even just mandated mindful breathing exercises in all classrooms.
I feel like we’re approaching this crisis the same way we tried to help Olivia by locking her in an apartment.
If you can’t imagine a world without social media; if you don’t believe in your own ability to leave the house without your phone; if you only hear the stories of impending climate doom; if AI is taking over your parents’ jobs; if your parents and teachers are not alright; if you’re bombarded with stories about hate…it’s hard to imagine a future that excites you, no mater how many minutes you spend in mindful breathing exercises.
Unfortunately, most of the investments, “innovations,” and interventions I’ve seen introduced just ask students to further dwell on a situation that is out of their control.
First and foremost, we have to help kids have more fun.
Recess time has been steadily decreasing over the last couple of decades. Now the average elementary student gets 25 minutes of recess a day. Can you imagine only having 25 minutes of freedom in your day? It’s ridiculous that we expect more of kids than we do of adults.
Instead we have decided that instructional time is more important, so kids can do better on tests that AI can do for them. To get the type of job that they see making their parents miserable.
They know there is no point. Our kids are smart.
We speak a lot about the “opportunity gap” in education (essentially how students from disadvantaged backgrounds/under-resourced communities aren’t provided with the same opportunities as students from more privileged families), but not of what I’ve come to see as an “optimism gap.”
“My fun comes from optimism. At the root is love, trust, and a belief in people’s good nature. If you don’t believe that, I think it’s impossible to have fun the way I do.”
My partner told me this one night while “inventing” dinner (he doesn’t “cook”) and it got me thinking about the connection between hope and education.
Unlike most people, I don’t think the primary job of our education system is to prepare students for jobs. I believe the primary job of our education system is to protect and nurture the hope that every child is born with.
With hope, we believe we can learn, and do, anything.
With hope, we believe that people are good, and if they’re not currently acting as such, they can still change.
With hope, we believe that we can make the most of any situation.
With hope, we believe that we will ultimately be ok, even when we are not.
It’s not that hard keep hope alive in kids, we just have to actually make it the #1 priority. With every book that is chosen for class, every lesson designed, every piece of feedback delivered, every budget allocation, we should be asking: will this nurture hope in our students? How?
Do you know of educators or schools that are doing this right now?? Anywhere in the world? If so, I’d love to hear about them.
Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence. - Helen Keller