I want to thank all educators.

Whether you are a teacher, an administrator, a coach or anybody who works with youth to empower them – thank you for what you do every day.

I have never been in a school I didn’t like. I’ve never felt that our students aren’t capable of succeeding. I’m a huge fan of education and those that work tirelessly every day – teaching, inspiring and motivating our young people to see what others see in them.

But there is another side to this coin…

I have met people in education that shouldn’t be in their roles – people in over their heads with poor leadership and communication skills. These individuals lack the ability to manage, lead and inspire – and for these and many other reasons, many school communities do not have the right teams in place. When this is the case, morale suffers, and the school’s culture and climate are out of balance.

This becomes a trickle-down effect and impacts the students directly, hindering their ability to learn in a safe, challenging and nurturing environment.

Last week, I had a tough day – probably one of the toughest days I’ve had in my more than two decades working with schools and communities.

Because of the sensitivity of this post I will not mention the school community where I was working. I would never want to embarrass anybody or make anyone look bad.

SCHOOL CLIMATE: SOMETHING WASN’T RIGHT

I arrived at this middle school at 7:20 a.m. to meet with administration, counselors and school leadership. This is common practice for me when I come in for a full day, which usually includes presentations, one-on-one sessions with students and speaking to teachers and other school staff. There is usually a parents and community presentation later in the evening.

The principal had previously worked at an alternative school in another district where I had once come to speak. This was the principal’s first year at this middle school, and they decided to bring me in. A full day wasn’t really enough time, but now I can’t imagine being there for a second longer.

After we spoke for a few minutes that morning, I knew I was in for a challenge – and it wasn’t necessarily the students that were going to be the issue. It was the adults.

Right away, I asked about school climate and culture. I asked about morale and the relationships between students and staff. The response I received was very concerning.

We then headed outside to greet the students as their parents dropped them off. I would safely say that eight out of 10 students barely acknowledged the morning greetings from the principal. There were no other staff members to be seen. By contract, they don’t have to be onsite until 7:40 a.m. – the same time that students start to arrive.

This is a problem.

I believe all teachers should be on campus – in their classrooms and ready when the students arrive. I would love to see teachers in the halls, greeting students with smiles and welcoming them with music, high-fives and laughs – but even saying that is bound to anger some educators, who live and breathe by their contracts.

I don’t believe in school contracts or tenure. If you teach for these reasons alone, you’re probably not in the right profession.

A teacher has the opportunity to shape the minds of young people every day. It’s their influence and their presence that can make a lasting impression – changing the attitudes, behavior and choices of these students. Teachers and all staff members need to be seen consistently to help the students see the importance of being engaged and present.

It was in the drop-off zone that I realized there was zero pride in the school property. There were no signs, the lawn looked shoddy and the façade was as boring as last night’s protein shake. If we can’t take pride in our property or show up to greet the students, why would we expect the parents and students to be proud to come to the school? This all matters.

It was soon past eight a.m. and parents were still lined up do drop their kids off. School had already started. One student being dropped off late was the child of a school board member – and the principal disclosed that he dropped his kid off late every morning.

If it’s not important to you, then why should it be important to others? Kids see right through this kind of hypocrisy.

I didn’t detect any enthusiasm during the morning announcements – just a phony attempt at school spirit, which I am sure had no chance of motivating any of the students or staff.

Before the assembly, less than 350 kids entered the auditorium, but there was no order about this – no formality or structure. They sat all over the auditorium, but mostly along the back. I changed this right away, but I shouldn’t have had to. Administrators should not have had to do this either. Where were the teachers? Where was the initiative to prepare these kids how to act in an auditorium with a guest speaker?

Why should students listen and buy into a speaker’s message if the staff isn’t doing the same thing? This was perplexing. How are we supposed to show our young people the difference between right and wrong and teach them responsibility if we’re not present?

It was obvious that many of these teachers were miserable in their jobs and clearly despised some of the students for their behavior. If teachers betray an underlying sense of dissatisfaction and are not at their best, how can they be expected to teach? They should find another job, because they are not making this a safe and friendly place or creating an environment suited to learning – or giving the kids a sense that they matter.

As a youth speaker and mental health educator, I am expected to be 100 percent engaged. As a man living with mental illness, I have to do the work every day in order to be fully present. If not, the students pick up on it.

Show up. Do your job. Be present. Don’t ever let a child think you don’t like him or her. Don’t be a victim. You are an adult. You know better. Do better or resign, because you’re bringing others down – both within the administration and among the students.

I didn’t want an introduction. I just wanted to be plant seeds, be a positive influence and provide teachable moments to the students in grades six through eight – and I don’t do too many middle school assemblies.

I took the microphone and within twenty seconds I got their full attention. Then they tried to play me like they play their teachers. That wasn’t going to happen – and I wasn’t about to speak over them. I could have dropped the mic and sent them back to class, but I wasn’t going to do that.

The students will act in the way that you allow. That’s the problem. If you need them to stop acting up, tell them firmly but respectfully. If you respect them, they will respect you. Touch the heart and the mind will follow.

Today’s teens ask two questions:

  1. Can I trust you?
  2. Do you care about me?

I got their attention for a quick second but lost it as some students wanted to act silly to get laughs from their peers while using me as the target. They do this. They’re young teens, and this is why I don’t do many middle school assemblies. I don’t have time nor the energy for this.

I stopped completely, put the microphone down and spoke softly. They heard me, and they knew right then that I meant business. They respected what I had to say, and it was clear in my manner of speaking that I respected them. We came together, and for the next two hours you could have heard a pin drop. They were absolutely amazing.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Before the school year started, the eighth graders lost one of their peers to suicide. More than two months later, you could see that this heartbreaking incident impacted the students and teachers to their very cores.  

I didn’t want to leave pieces to be picked up after I left. I knew that if you get one middle-schooler crying, it usually becomes a snowball effect. I wanted to address the issues they were facing, but I also wanted to talk about overall mental well-being in middle school, motivation, resiliency, grit and doing the right thing. I knew I was going to have to work hard while keeping it simple because I had a tough audience in front of me.

When I finished my talk, I couldn’t believe how many students came forward with thank-you’s, hugs or to ask me for a photo with them.

Earlier, I offered index cards for students who wanted to write down their questions for me in case they were afraid to speak up in front of their peers. I was amazed by the number of great questions I received. Teens want help. They don’t know how to talk about their feelings. They don’t feel trusted or validated in their thoughts and feelings. They feel they’re always being judged and don’t want to burden others with their problems.

This is where things get difficult. How do we help if we don’t know they need help? It’s easy to notice obvious red flags or unusual behavior, but only if we are aware and present in their lives. See something, say something. Know something, do something.

It’s late October. School has been in session for about 2.5 months.

In that time this particular school has had over 600 discipline referrals, 1 completed suicide, 13 long term mental health referrals, (this month alone), 10 fights, two staff members resigned, and more than a dozen school-reported (credible and serious) bomb and shooting threats.

This is just what I remember during conversations. I know there’s more – but the kids were amazing.

Several students signed up for one-on-one conversations. I was only able to meet with three of them because of time constraints – but they were aware, courageous, strong yet vulnerable. They displayed maturity by asking for help

But the issues were real and very serious: Strong suicidal ideation, homicidal ideation, self-harm, self-medicating, suicide plans in place, weapon in their possession, dark journal entries and more. In one instance, I was ready to call the police for back-up but was able to deescalate and control the panic attacks and rage.

I had two successful conversations with parents and a mandatory mental health assessment where one student was required to provide a doctor’s note before returning to school. That was great because it was necessary.

I had to have a tough conversation with one parent who did not want to hear what I had to say, even though their child displayed very serious suicidal and homicidal ideations. This wound up with phone calls to police, family services and social services. This was a non-negotiable situation.

THE UPSHOT

I was exhausted, and it was a really tough day. School morale is at a low point. School culture and climate need some serious help. One day wasn’t enough, but the counselor and administration told me I needed to shake things up.

I didn’t intend to, but I certainly shook things up. It needed to happen, and I believe in the leadership at this particular school. They have their hands full and a huge challenge ahead of them. They need help. I’m deeply concerned that If things don’t change, I’m afraid the state will come in and take over.

All in all, I’m proud of these kids today. Parents: if you see red flags, you need to do something.  You need not put blame on the school. Step up and be a parent.

It’s not easy, but I get to do and say what others can’t do or say. It needs to be said. It needs to be done.

There are far too many people with titles telling other people what needs to be done – but there is zero accountability and no consistent action, no forward motion.

What is the cost of losing another child? Ask a parent who has lost a child.

I will keep in touch with this school community and help however I can. I know today won’t be my only day. I’m invested in them.

For more information about the Jeff Yalden Foundation, click HERE

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