School counselor and author of Middle School Matters, Phyllis Fagell, shares important understandings and suggested mindsets for teachers to be exploring as they approach the remainder of this school year, summer programs and next fall. Her specific examples from her day to day interactions with students provide great insights.
You can contact Phyllis at https://phyllisfagell.com/ or follow her on Twitter: @Pfagell
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding. And my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate coach and support their learners.
Steve: 00:31 Supporting students’ emotional needs as they return to school. Whether it’s now, for a summer program, or looking ahead to the fall, teachers are responding to students who have experienced something that none of us as educators have ever experienced in our own schooling backgrounds. Joining us today on the podcast is Phyllis Fagell, who currently works as a school counselor, as well as providing therapy to children, teens, and adults in a private practice. She’s the author of a book titled, “Middle School Matters,” and a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines with columns for parents and for teachers. So welcome Phyllis. Thanks for joining us.
Phyllis: 01:28 Thank you for having me.
Steve: 01:29 I’m wondering if you could start us off with some discussion about the impact that this past year has likely had on students.
Phyllis: 01:42 I don’t think there is anyone, teacher, parent, student, who hasn’t been deeply impacted by this past year. Everybody’s life just was turned inside out and upside down overnight and if anything, we have seen the incredible resilience that students exhibit, I think even given the uptick in mental health problems, anxiety, depression, perfectionism, phobias, excessive worrying, even given all of that or avoidance or school refusal, I still think that we have seen how remarkable kids are and how quickly they adapt and change to different circumstances, because it’s really hard to overstate just how much they’ve been through.
Steve: 02:26 So I’m wondering if you see similarities and differences when we’re thinking about the younger, early childhood kids, elementary, then the middle-schooler and then looking at teenagers, what’s likely to be similar across the board and other things that are different?
Phyllis: 02:48 Academically, I am seeing that the younger elementary students are having a harder time learning on Zoom, paying attention on Zoom without that feedback from the teachers. Older students are able to adapt to learning online much faster. In fact, some of them have even done better. They’re able to work at their own pace, they’re not having to navigate quite as many social interactions over the course of the day, which for some, can be overwhelming. On the other hand, for older students, there has been a real reluctance to turn on the video camera, which makes it harder for teachers to gauge understanding, to see when a student is confused, for kids to feel connected to their peers. I have a lot of middle schoolers who would like to be on camera, but because it’s an age when kids are so self-conscious, they’re not willing to turn theirs on if the other students don’t turn theirs on and that’s been a major issue in terms of helping students stay connected and engaged in the material.
Phyllis: 03:35 The middle-schoolers also are more likely to appear disengaged from learning and a lot of parents and even a few teachers have expressed concern that it might be hard to get them excited or enthused about the content again, but I don’t think it has much to do with the academic content. I think it has to do with the fact that kids don’t have a lot to anticipate or look forward to because of the amount of uncertainty we’re wrestling with. And if there is less to look forward to with anticipation, with positivity, they can sometimes come across as flat and that extends to school. And so I’ve been reminding teachers not to personalize when students seem less engaged, they’re less engaged universally and across the board.
Steve: 04:28 Yeah. The teacher’s interpretation of that then leads to how the teacher responds. So it’s kind of like a double whammy.
Phyllis: 04:41 Definitely. And middle schoolers to begin with, don’t always respond to teachers in a way that leaves teachers feeling a sense of warmth and connection. Middle school teachers are a unique breed because they really have to understand the developmental phase and understand that a child who is embarrassed might lash out or a child might be prone to misinterpreting an interaction as negative that actually is quite neutral. And so teachers have to be particularly conscientious with tweens to make sure that their body language, the words they choose, how long they pause before they answer, that all of that is in alignment or a middle-schooler is going to be very quick to go straight to the negative, particularly now, because everybody’s sensitivity is heightened. We have masks, we have social distancing, we have hybrid situations and cohorts, and nobody is at their peak.
Steve: 05:34 I had a chance to read an article that you had written and you you included in it, some suggestions for for teachers and I’ve pulled a couple of them. I’d like to just play them back to you kind of one at a time and have you respond to them with with a little detail. So one of the ones that really caught my attention and I’ve actually shared it with other folks since I’ve read it in your piece, you use the term to balance between predictability and novelty.
Phyllis: 06:13 Yes. So in the wake of a trauma, and there is no question, this past year constitutes a trauma, kids do crave consistency, predictability, routine. If every morning you have a joke of the day, or if you have a quote of the day, continue to do that. Kids need to know what to expect, especially because they’re marinating in so much change. But on the other hand, and this goes back to this idea that kids seem flat, or that they seem disengaged. They don’t have a lot to anticipate. They don’t have a lot to look forward to. And we want to be finding ways to infuse fun, some levity, some laughter into the classroom. The examples that I can offer from my own school because of the need to have smaller cohorts, we had to turn both our cafeteria and our gym into classrooms. And so the cafeteria has these two open air classrooms, open ceiling classrooms.
Phyllis: 07:10 And periodically the teachers will allow the students to write notes on paper airplanes and fly them over into the other cohorts classroom.
Steve: 07:18 [laughter]
Phyllis: 07:18 And in the gym, the classrooms each have a basketball hoop. How often do you have a classroom with a basketball hoop? And so sometimes they ball up the quiz they just took and they throw it in the basketball hoop, or they do a contest that ends with throwing a piece of paper into the basketball hoop or a ball into the basketball hoop. And these are just small ways to add some fun to the situation. One of our advisory teachers always asks a different student each day to bring in a joke and kids love to make adults laugh. In fact, one of the sixth graders shared with me the joke that she brought in the other day, it was “what do you call two octopus who look exactly the same octopuses who look exactly the same?” And I said, “what?” And she said, “itentacle”, which was just great. And we want to be giving them opportunities to just lighten the mood and for us to laugh too. I think teachers have been through so much and they too also really benefit from some fun and some novelty.
Steve: 08:18 Yeah. I just listened to an interview with some teenagers who were asked to make their suggestions as to ways that teachers could best cause their engagement. And there’s something about humor and and I guess the novelty fits in there that the kids interpret as the person being real. So even a joke that the kids see as ridiculous, there’s a sense that the teacher is making him or herself vulnerable and there’s a piece of realness there.
Phyllis: 09:05 I think that’s a hundred percent accurate. I spoke to an eighth grade teacher at a public school in the area where I live, near me in Silver Spring, Maryland and she told me that she tells her students that she has struggled in the past with mental illness. She tells them that she has a therapist. Her students even know that her therapist’s name is Manuela and she will share anecdotes from her conversations with Manuela. Now, every teacher isn’t going to be comfortable disclosing that level of personal information, but it’s authentic for this teacher to do so. And her goal is really to communicate to the kids, I’m fighting to get through every day just like you are and I’m a helper and I’m fighting for you. And the students as a result, are really quick to share what they’re going through.
Phyllis: 09:53 So she’s had a student tell her that they were struggling with insomnia. She’s had a student explain that the reason she comes to all of the classes and participates in all the lectures yet never complete an assignment is because she’s too anxious to get started. So she was able to help that student get some mental health support. She had another student who came in one day and said that his father had COVID. And it was a significant disclosure because his grandfather, and the class knew this, had recently died in El Salvador of COVID. So they understood why this would be such a huge issue for this student. And the class stopped everything to support this kid and to talk about it. And I think that is something that we want to make sure we’re doing as students return or as we’re on Zoom, because no-one’s going to learn if they are in a heightened state of anxiety, they have to feel that connection, that warmth that teachers like them before they’re going to engage in the learning.
Steve: 10:53 Yeah. A word that you used here caught my attention. It’s authenticity. So the students seeing their teacher as authentic, I guess, brings a more authentic response back from the student.
Phyllis: 11:08 Yes. I had a seventh grade student tell me that she was sick of adults, teachers and parents saying to her, “you’re going through a lot.” And I said, what would you like them to say? And she said, I want them to say we’re going through a lot and emphasize that we’re all in this together.
Steve: 11:26 Powerful. Powerful.
Phyllis: 11:26 That empathy piece is huge.
Steve: 11:28 Yeah. Thanks. Another another one of the suggestions that you made in the article was the need to tamp down pressure.
Phyllis: 11:38 Yes. And even in pre-pandemic times, I’ve often told parents who were anxious about their child’s achievement that nobody performs better because they think the stakes are high. And right now, I think our goal should be to ensure kids can demonstrate their learning, whatever form that takes. Some might want to make a diagram, some might want to do an oral presentation, some might want to write a book report, some might want to take a quiz. I don’t think we should get caught up in the details or be rigid. This is a time to offer grace and flexibility. Nobody knows their student’s full backstories, but as a counselor, I can tell you that pretty much everyone has something going on. And if we want to keep them engaged, if we want to keep them excited about learning and feel connected, we want to make sure they feel confident. And it’s kind of like that student who said that she wanted to participate, she wanted to be part of the class, she wanted to do well, but she was too anxious to get started on her assignments. We need to take a deep dive and figure out what’s going on with our students and give them an opportunity to feel that sense of accomplishment, to feel that they can master the material.
Steve: 12:48 And one last one, you talked about the importance of relationships. And I think you’ve labeled both relationship between teacher and students, but also student to student.
Phyllis: 13:02 Yes. I think it’s hard to overestimate how critical it is that students have someone that they trust, that they have a person in the school. I had a teacher at a school recently say to me, I did what you said. I asked the students who is the person that you would go to in times of crisis? And I even asked them the same followup question you told us to ask, which was, if you can’t come up with someone, please come talk about it with me. And a student couldn’t come up with someone and she did come and say to me, I couldn’t come up with somebody who I would go to in a crisis. So now what do I do? And I said, well, that student just told you that you are you’re her person. You are the person that she would go to in a crisis.
Phyllis: 13:51 And so self identify as a helper, let her know that if you can’t, you’ll find the right person to help her. But right now, I think we want to be making sure that no one’s falling through the cracks. A counselor may or may not be the one to spot that somebody is in emotional distress. There’s just such a high case load for counselors. I think the average across the country is more than 400 students per counselor. It could be that an art teacher sees that a student is drawing really dark self portraits. It could be that a child writes about depression in a poem in English class. It could be that a paraeducator sees a kid standing alone outside during recess. There are a lot of different ways that we can see that a kid is struggling. And as teachers, as counselors, as administrators, we all need to be communicating and talking to one another so that we can share that information and problem solve together. Maybe find a student a mentor if they need one.
Steve: 14:44 Yeah. Paying attention is what I’m really hearing there because it’s too easy to be overwhelmed with everything and miss clear signals that are there for us.
Phyllis: 14:56 Yes. And sometimes it’s really obvious. We just went back to full-time in person today. So before today it was K through
four was here in the morning. Five through eight was here in the afternoon daily. And as of this morning, our middle schoolers showed up too first thing in the morning. And most of them were super excited. I asked them if they had had to press snooze on their alarm, I had wondered if we would have a hard time getting up in the morning and most of them actually said, no, I couldn’t go to sleep at all. I was so excited. We get to eat lunch together. The cohorts are now allowed to mix outside. It feels more normal. And there was this joy actually that was permeating. And yet there was one student who came out of the car crying. And that was a very – it doesn’t get clearer than somebody crying, that they’re struggling. And it’s not hard to tell when somebody is really joyful, but there are a lot of different emotions in between crying and joyful and we want to give kids opportunities to express them and to problem solve with us so that we can help them get through the days, especially now as they’re returning and they’re going to be exhausted, it’s going to be a hard transition back.
Steve: 16:02 Well, Phyllis, thank you so much for for joining us today. I’m wondering what’s the easiest way that people might be able to connect with you with other questions that they might have?
Phyllis: 16:18 I’m very active on Twitter. My handle is at @pfagell and my email address is on my website, which is phyllisfagell.com.
Steve: 16:28 Okay. Well, we’ll be sure to put your your website in the, in the lead in to this podcast. So thanks again.
Steve [Outro]: 16:40 Thanks for listening in, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me
your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.