Amy Benson speaks at George-Little Rock

Northwest Area Education Agency education consultant Amy Benson spoke to the George-Little Rock High School teachers during a professional development session focusing on youth mental health and ways teachers can positively impact students.

GEORGE—Before Amy Benson left George-Little Rock High School on Friday, Sept. 13, she made sure the teachers understood how important they are to their students.

Benson, an educational consultant with the Northwest Area Education Agency, spent the afternoon with the district’s high school teachers talking about youth mental health and ways educators can positively impact their students.

One of the main points she emphasized was the importance of creating connections to students so they feel comfortable in the classroom.

“If you learn nothing from me this year, I hope you learn a couple things. I hope you learn that kids cannot learn if they don’t have those relationships, if they don’t feel that connection to you,” she said.

“Kids cannot learn without that. Kids need to feel that they are safe in your classroom and that they belong with you. Not only safe but that they belong.”

Benson said the No. 1 goal for teachers every day should be to make their students’ day.

“Every day, make their day,” she said.

Benson pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found suicide to be the second leading cause of death for Iowa youth and that the number of Iowa teenagers who have attempted suicide has risen by 50 percent the past six years.

“Our students need us more than ever,” she said.

At the beginning of the professional development session, Benson had the teachers introduce themselves and share who their favorite teacher was growing up and why.

After everyone had gone around the room, Benson noted how nobody said they liked their favorite teachers because of how well they taught their subject but because of how much they cared for their students.

Nick Long, the district’s industrial tech teacher, had said his high school English teacher was his favorite since she put in extra time to help him succeed.

“She took extra time,” Benson echoed him. “You hated that subject. Can you imagine if you would have had no relationship with her? How bad you would have really hated that subject?”

She also spoke about protective factors that research has shown make a difference in the lives of children. The most important factor is that kids have one caring, trusted adult in their life.

“Does not say if you have four or five, ‘Wow, your life must really be good.’ Nope, all they need is one,” she said.

Benson later shared 10 ways teachers can develop positive relationships with their students. A few examples included tapping into students’ interests and treating them with respect. She also had the teachers share how they make connections with their students.

Family and consumer science teacher Sheri Stratman said she spends a few minutes at the start of each class to see how all of her students are doing. Other teachers said they attended their students’ extracurricular events, spoke with them in the halls and found common interests with their students.

Another main point Benson stressed is the need for teachers to adopt a trauma-informed view of students who act out or seem uncontrollable. In doing so, teachers seek to understand the underlying reasons why students are misbehaving rather than simply punishing them for their behavior.

“There is obviously a need here that is not being met. They’re reaching or acting out or reaching out for that,” she said. “Maybe they don’t have an adult they can trust in their life. Maybe they have difficulty regulating their emotions.”

Benson asked the teachers to discuss possible stressors their students face every day which may reveal why certain students act differently than others. Some of the stressors the teachers said included social media, having abusive or alcoholic parents, living in poverty and feelings of anxiety and as if they don’t belong.

George-Little Rock teachers talking

George-Little Rock High School math teacher Thomas Vigdal and K-12 vocal music teacher Tim Mauldin discuss possible stressors their students face every day.

Even though some students face more barriers to academic success than others, Benson said teachers must still believe in all their students the same.

“We have to believe in our students, and they have to know that we believe in them.”