May Is Mental Health Awareness Month
By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
MAY 12, 2020 – Emily Fedel teaches students with special needs at Brunson Elementary.
Watching a teacher work with her sister as they were growing up inspired Fedel to become an Exceptional Children teacher.
“I have a sister with special needs, and I saw the incredible work that the teacher did with her,” Fedel said.
Plus, helping others is one of Fedel’s passions – and one her gifts.
She know how important it is to see a child as a person and understands they respond to that.
“It starts with a mutual respect of students as people,” she said.
Certainly others in the school system – teachers, school counselors, social workers and more – have similar passions and gifts, and, as part of the district’s celebration of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, some of them were invited to talk about their experiences and knowledge.
People in departments throughout Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools have worked together to come up with ways to promote mental health awareness.
One way they are doing that is having Fedel and others share their knowledge and perspective by writing a “Spotlight” post for “Psyched About School,” a blog on the Psychology Department’s web page.
Each week, the “spotlight” will be put on a different group.
Fedel’s post this week focuses on teachers.
On Wednesday May 20, a post by School Social Worker Hollie Gomez will focus on parents.
The final post on May 27 will focus on students.
Other activities planned this month include “I Wear Green” days. On Mondays, people are encouraged to wear green shirts to show their support of mental health awareness, and, at the end of the month, a video montage of people wearing green is planned.
Shannon Dobson, who is the Lead Behavior Support Coach for the Exceptional Children Division, coordinated the district’s planning for Mental Health Awareness Month.
“It was a collaborative effort,” Dobson said.
As a member of the district’s Integrated Behavior and Education Support Team, (IBEST). Dobson is based in the offices at City Market. She grew up in the area and went to West Forsyth High in the ninth and 10th grades before moving to Surry County and graduating from high school there.
Her master’s degree in education includes a concentration in behavior issues. Over the years, she has learned that disruptive behavior is a sign of something underneath and she works to find the source so she can help.
“Behavior is like an iceberg,” Dobson said. “It’s what is below the surface that matters.”
If she discovers that a student’s family is dealing with not having a home, she begins seeking way to do what she can to help.
Sometimes people equate being mentally unwell with being mentally ill.
That’s should not be the presumption.
She wore a green shirt this past Monday and will be wearing a green shirt on the remaining Mondays in May in support of everyone doing what they can to support the wellbeing of students, teachers and everyone else.
“I hope that we generate that awareness that it’s mental health for all,” Dobson said.
“The goal of Mental Health Awareness Month is twofold - to educate the public about mental health and to eliminate the stigma many associate with mental illness," said Corliss Thompson-Drew, the Director of Psychological Services.
“Key to this is to provide information that increases knowledge of mental health, help people recognize and be sensitive to someone who has a mental health challenge, and teach them how to provide support and access to needed resources and services. Mental illness is a public health issue that deserves the attention of us all.”
Eva Bishop, who is the School Counselor at Jefferson Elementary, took responsibility for writing the blog that focuses on students.
Before becoming an educator, Bishop worked in corporate America as an investment counselor. The death of her oldest son’s best friend prompted her to think about how short life can be and to say to herself, “You should do things you love to do.”
She went to work on a master’s degree in School Counseling.
She and her husband, Kishon, have three sons. Colton just graduated from college. Shad is a junior in high school, and Campden is a student at Jefferson Middle.
Each of their three children have distinct personalities. For starter, one is an introvert and another is an extrovert. In working with them, she knows it’s important to learn how to best help each of them based on their personality.
That and having three children at different places in life and who are taking different approaches to learning at home helps her see other students’ lives from different perspectives as well.
She also understands some of the challenges that today’s world brings for young people.
Gone are the days when the only people who saw a child miss a catch at a baseball game were the people there. Now that dropped ball can spread across social media and be seen by many, serving as an even greater source of embarrassment.
Bishop has already completed the article for the post on May 27. One of its focuses is how students can support each other.
Her article also includes tips on helping students in today’s circumstances.
She enjoyed writing the article and enjoys writing in general.
“I think it’s one of the most cathartic things you can do,” Bishop said.
Fedel has been teaching at Brunson for four years. She and her husband, Matthew, moved up from Florida when his work brought them here. They have a young daughter named Nora and another on the way.
When working with students, Fedel said, it’s important for the teacher to treat the student with respect and be open to what they are saying.
“Be a good listener.”
All of this can be done while teaching, she said. “Social and emotional learning can be seamlessly integrated into the curriculum.”
When a student is discouraged, a teacher might say, “I know you feel like giving up right now.”
It’s also important to help students develop good coping strategies.
Fedel has found that, sometimes, having all the students form a circle can be an effective tool. Although a student might feel uncomfortable at first, a circle can serve as a good tool for communicating because, in a circle, everyone is equal.
Creating a space in the classroom where students can go to calm down when they’re upset can be valuable. Depending on the age of the student, such a space might include stuffed animal or bottles filled with beads or other items. When the bottle is shaken, watching the beads float this way and that can help them relax as they watch them.
Marie Yacinthe teaches eighth-grade English language arts at Philo-Hill Magnet Academy. People have recognized that she has a gift for connecting with students and helping them grow socially and emotionally.
Yacinthe was born in Haiti and lived in Miami before coming to Winston-Salem to attend Winston-Salem State University. She started her teaching career in Guilford County. It’s her first year at Philo-Hill.
From the start, Yacinthe worked to establish herself as a teacher who – while holding students accountable for their actions – wants them to know she cares. Students soon learned that she is there to listen when they are troubled.
While working to help them feel better, she looks to find the source of their distress as she talks with them.
“There is always a story behind it,” Yacinthe said.
For one student, it was the family losing their home. For another student, it was learning that a relative had been taken off life support.
In cases such as the student who had become homeless, she refers them to the school counselor for additional assistance.
With students with discipline issues, she may say, “Let me show you a better way.”
Seeing that you care can lead to dramatic transformations. One student who tended to nod off during class became an animated learner who loved to go to the school library, wanting to know how many books he could check out.
“I am happy when I can help them solve an issue,” Yacinthe said. “I do get joy from that.”
Kendra Mabry is an English teacher and a Literacy Specialist at Glenn High. She has taught in the district for 20 years. Before joining the staff at Glenn five years ago, she taught at such middle schools as Southeast Middle and Atkins Middle (now Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy).
Her husband, Gene Mabry, is the band director at Southeast.
She grew up in New York state. She regularly visited family here in North Carolina and, when it was time to go to college, she headed to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Mabry spends a lot of time getting to know her students. She talks to them as an equal and works to keep them encouraged. And, over time, she came to be known as someone who speaks up for students.
“I do advocate a lot for my students,” she said.
And, at times, she may serve as a mediator when an issue comes up – sometimes between a student and a teacher.
“What could we do to make this work for everyone?” she will ask.
People throughout the school play important roles, she said.
“It takes a village to support our students. Some of the counselors in Student Services play a big part in putting all the pieces together. The pieces students share with me connect to pieces those counselors may have. This helps me to know my kids and become more intentional not only academic approach but in my general approach.”
Jessica Hurst teaches third grade at Whitaker Elementary. She is in her ninth year there and taught at Meadowlark for nine years before that. Before taking time off from teaching for her family, she taught in Davidson County and is in her 26th year as an educator.
“I have learned over the years that the kids learn better when we have a good relationship,” she said.
She starts each morning by having students sit on the carpet and talk about what is going in their lives. Learning that a grandmother isn’t feeling well can enable her to take good care of the students during the rest of the school day.
For this story, Hurst wrote a few “notes” that she shared:
“Relationships with students are a foundation of my classroom. It’s about connecting with the students. Supporting my students emotionally is integral to teaching and learning. It is hard to think clearly and make good decisions in the midst of a challenging situation. Social and emotional skills become even more important. Kids need to feel safe, loved, respected, and valued.”
“My role as an educator is the same. Carrying familiar routines over to an online environment has been comforting to students. Academics are important but equally important--the social and emotional development of my children had to continue in some way.”
“We are a ‘Leader in Me’ school. In regards to SEL (Social Emotional Learning) wellness, we have learned that we can separate what we can influence and what we have concerns about and then focus most of our time on what we can influence.”
"The shift to full-time online learning has brought change and challenges. Prior to school closing, we started our day with morning meetings. In an online environment, we use Google Classroom to communicate virtually.”
"I have continued my weekly parent newsletters, written personal letters to each of my students, held virtual class “get-togethers”, read books to them online, and offered to have lunch with the students comfortably--social distancing (allowing us some one-on-one time together.)”
“I am just a piece of this puzzle.”
At Whitaker, the principal and other members of the administration, along with the school counselor, teachers, member of the PTA and others have worked hard to see that everyone stays as connected as possible, she said.
“Our school has done a phenomenal job of staying connected with our Whitaker family.”
So have people at other schools and in departments throughout the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system.
To read Emily Fedel’s post, go to Social Emotional Learning.