I didn’t know a lot about her, but I knew this for sure.
She hated me with every stare down as I walked through the halls, with every glare when I entered one of her classes, and with every silent meeting in my office – me talking, and her projecting her hatred without saying a word, without cooperating in any way.
Once she stood up and punched at my face, expertly grazing my cheekbone so it didn’t cause damage, but it sent the clearest possible message.
I asked the school counselor what I had done wrong, what I had done to deserve such hatred. She said, “Oh, don’t worry about her. She hates everyone”.
Don’t worry? If a 14-year-old hates everyone with that intensity, it is a huge cause for worry.
Recently, while waiting to board a flight, I opened a free copy of the local paper – and there was her face, older but unmistakeable. It was a selfie she had taken in happier times, her devilish smile betraying the torment that was under the surface.
The words below the photo did not mention suicide, but they didn’t have to. The two babies she adored were now without a mother.
As any educator would, I began to wonder if I could have done more.
Mary Jean Gallagher often says that our job is to teach. We are not social workers. Our job is to ensure that children learn.
Catherine Montreuil emphasizes that no child in our classrooms can be stuck. It is our responsibility to ensure that every child learns. We don’t have to do it alone, we can get the supports we need to ensure learning happens.
Some of our kids need more than we can give. It doesn’t mean we stop trying. The structure of our schools makes it so difficult for some of our children to be successful.
I can no longer do anything for her, but I can keep working to make sure her babies enter an environment that embraces all cultures, respects and encourages all learning, and provides all the supports that all children need to be successful.
Recently, there was an uproar about math scores in Ontario. The media called the results of the PISA test “a crisis” and quickly blamed schools, teachers, the education system, and anyone else related to public education.
Yesterday, we learned shocking statistics about the state of students’ mental health in Toronto District School Board. The response? Train the teachers better to deal with students who have mental health issues, and train the students how to better deal with stress.
This past year, I was fortunate to work with Robert Dunn and Steven Katz on a research project which used case management techniques to deeply study the reasons why students were not attending school, and therefore not succeeding in graduating. The experience reinforced the observation that complex issues require complex solutions, and blanket strategies to address problems in schools are seldom the best practice. I learned a great deal from our intense study, and the underlying impact of student mental health on learning was front and centre.
In June, the results of the 2011 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey indicated that a much larger percentage of Ontario students have experienced serious head trauma than previously thought, as many head injuries are not reported to adults. The impact of head trauma on long term success in school and in life is an area that still requires further research. Essentially, there are three groups of traumas. About half of the head traumas experienced by Ontario students come from sports injuries. Some traumas are the result of motor vehicle accidents and accidents in daily life, but a surprising number of self-reported head injuries appear to be directly related to alcohol and drug use, and to achieving poor grades in school (St. Michael’s Hospital, 2013). The most recent data suggests that one in five Ontario students (grades 7 to 12) have experienced a traumatic brain injury.
Adolescent brains have yet to mature. There is concern that traumatic injury during brain development can have a lasting impact on cognitive functioning. As well, after one concussion, research shows that it takes less force to have a second concussion, and the impact can be much more pronounced. There is evidence that multiple head traumas can lead to substance abuse, mental health and physical health harms.
As educators, we need to be aware of all aspects of brain injuries. Most importantly, we need to understand how to prevent concussions. OPHEA guidelines for preventing and responding to head injuries are available to teachers and coaches. Prevention is the only cure for brain injury. Thinkfirst.ca, a new amalgamation of a number of organizations committed to preventing injury, is another excellent source of information on preventing and treating brain injury.
But the recent information that so many of our “at-risk” students may also be dealing with concussion symptoms requires a new level of understanding of the progression and long term effects of serious and/or multiple brain injuries. Dr. Charles Tator, Canada’s foremost expert on brain injuries, identifies over 50 initial symptoms of concussion, and another 50 that may appear days, months, years or decades after a concussion.
Dr. Tator reports that there are tens of thousands of concussions in Canada every year. He is clearly astounded that as a society, we still support blows to the head in sports, and that we see hockey fights as entertainment. In his recent discussion with Paul Kennedy on the CBC Radio One program “Ideas”, he describes the patients he sees, the victims of our complacency around violence in hockey – those talented young men and women who may never be gainfully employed, or who die as a result of their injuries.
I am really struck by the story of Catherine Vipond’s last year. I’m not sure if it is because I have watched her race her mountain bike for many years, or because I know how easily it could have been the story of my own son’s life, but I can’t get it out of my head. A cyclist, racing at the world level, pushes the limits, crashes, and sustains a head injury that sidelines her not only from her sport, but from much of her life. It’s tragic, and it is too common.