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The Privilege of Teaching in a Mental Health Setting

by Emily Cullen

When I tell people that I am a teacher in a youth mental health treatment centre, I get some interesting reactions. They range from shock and disbelief, to disgust and judgement, to frank curiosity. Interestingly, people seem to frame their reactions in a series of questions which reveal some very interesting perceptions and misunderstandings of mental health. I would like to share three typical questions and my responses with you.

1) "Mentally ill kids are dangerous! Aren’t you worried that one of those kids will try and kill you?”

No, I am not worried. This is a good question as it gives me a chance to counter the misperceptions created through Hollywood movies and news reports that individuals suffering from mental illnesses are dangerous and violent. While some students who are struggling with their mental health may behave in ways that can seem scary or inappropriate to those who are not familiar with them, these behaviours rarely become aggressive or violent. In fact, I would argue that I feel safer than I might if I worked in a typical high school simply because of how small and tight knit our school community is. I know my students and they know me. I know if their history includes violence, just as I know who has been abused, neglected or has faced other difficult life events that may make them more prone to volatility. Unfortunately, my colleagues in typical high schools do not always have that luxury with their students. This knowledge and the relationships that I have make me feel incredibly safe in my classroom and with my students.

2) “So, is your school wild and out of control every day?”

Not normally. My day-to-day work is not that dissimilar from the work of any special education teacher. I spend a lot of time developing individualized education plans for each of my students to help them reach their unique academic goals. I also work closely with psychologists, social workers and other professionals to ensure that my teaching in the classroom helps to move my students towards achieving their social and emotional goals as well as their academic ones. This is a great question because it reveals that people are interested and concerned about how we manage and treat mental illness in our community.

These two questions demonstrate curiosity about what goes on in a mental health treatment classroom and why a teacher would choose to make their career in this setting. They lead to my favourite question:

3) Why do you teach in a mental health treatment classroom?

For me, it is because I believe in education for all; no matter what the student’s ability or disability. I do it because it challenges me; it makes me a better teacher and a better person. I do it because I love the results – I love seeing some of the dramatic transformations that students make in the course of a semester. Sometimes they change from a person who could barely speak and make eye contact, into someone who can performs in front of the class or at school assemblies.

In teachers college, a professor once told me that, as a teacher, you should consider yourself lucky if you feel like you REALLY impacted on the life of even just one student over the course of your career. I feel lucky every day because I know that the work that I (and my colleagues) do at Lutherwood impacts the lives of our students every single day. And that is why I proudly teach in a mental health school.