Updated: Feb 28
In 2001 before attending law school, I spent a year volunteering as a Special Education Assistant at an elementary school in Israel. I received some training over the summer and showed up to work in September, excited to start my first full-time job and make a difference in the lives of students. I was assigned to a group of eight students, who needed some help with English as second language and Math, and I started teaching them in a small classroom setting. It mostly went well and I enjoyed the challenge. I do recall though some odd moments that made me worry about the mental health of some of my students.
I remember a 10-year-old student, who was working diligently on an assignment in a quiet classroom. At that particular moment he heard the buzz of a fly near him. He ran out of the classroom yelling that he couldn’t excel in his assignment, while being distracted. I ran after him and convinced him to go back to the classroom. I wondered what, if any, mental disorder this was. Perhaps he was just under pressure at home to always produce excellent grades? What could I do to help him?
His grades were dramatically improving, so by definition he didn’t need any extra help from me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of any available resources to assist me in making his studying experience more enjoyable and less stressful within the classroom setting.
More challenges were on their way. There was another young volunteer who was assigned one-on-one classes with a few of the most challenging students at that school. I often found her crying at the teacher’s lounge. I used to ask what was wrong almost every day and she used to tell me that Adam (not a real name), an 11-year-old student, was biting her and refused to cooperate. She told me he was obsessed with Pokémon and would not let her change the subject of their conversations.
His younger brother Matthew (not a real name) was not aggressive but was ranting and not listening, and made her cry too. Matthew still struggled with reading and writing at the age of 9. Both brothers mostly failed their studies. Eventually my colleague left her position out of frustration. She shared with me that she had no suitable resources to support their special needs or to support her own mental health as an education assistant. She concluded the mission was impossible and suggested to me to focus on staying safe during classes.
Her students were assigned to me in addition to the students I already had and honestly, I was nervous. I was taking driving lessons at that time from a seasoned and reputable driving instructor several times a week and we often chatted about the topic of teaching when we got stuck in traffic jams. He used to say I should try and help those students by using the most important tool a teacher has – patience.
As his student, I appreciated his patience when he was teaching. I had decided to be extremely patient with my students and see where it led me. On my first day teaching Adam one-on-one, he refused to learn and said that he would make me quit my job. He seemed used to doing that. He was also unable to hold a pencil and write. Then he went on a rant about Pokémon that lasted for an hour. He showed me his Pokémon cards and a favourite Pokémon Gameboy video game. It felt like he was obsessed with this fictional world and I had no available tools to help him.
Then I remembered why I wanted to teach for a year before going to law school. I recalled myself at his age. I was interested in fiction and in writing. School had felt boring, until my teachers pointed out to me that writers need knowledge to write. Then I started studying diligently and really enjoyed school. I wanted to show Adam too that learning could be exciting and relevant. So, I came home that day and started watching Pokémon for the first time. The things Adam told me about them made sense.
At least he was logical and coherent. Very knowledgeable, in fact. The next day his behaviour repeated itself, but I adjusted my own behaviour. I started asking him questions including Pokémon terms. I was amazed that he knew the answer. I suspected that he could benefit from doing work on a computer. I was right. He got Bs on tests I gave him online, while he was failing regular tests. And when I rewrote his tests to include Pokémon in each question – he got even higher marks. He really appreciated my efforts and the icing on the cake, as I told my extremely-proud driving instructor, was that he never bit me. Eventually Adam seemed happy to be learning.
His younger brother Matthew was another story altogether. Cheerfully hyperactive, he was considered simple and didn’t have any friends. As I tried to teach him, he would not stop acting. He would tell me jokes he made up on the spot, leaped on top of the desk and pretended to be one of the characters in the stories I read to him. He refused to touch books, because they were boring to him. I appreciated his active imagination and felt that it was a shame not to put it to good use.
It seemed that getting to know the students better and catering to their own individual interests with a lot of patience paid off. They were less frustrated. They were happier. Their mental health improved. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell the story about the nice summer visit to my driving instructor. He had already passed away by then.
One day he didn’t show up for one of our last classes. I found out later in a newspaper that he had committed suicide. Looking back, he was indeed acting agitated and didn’t look well in our last class. I still regret not asking him how he felt that day and what was going on with him. That tragedy was humbling and made me want to better understand that aspect of life – mental health.
As I proceeded to attend law school and develop a legal research career, that eventful year resonated with me for years to come. Several years later another tragedy happened. My favourite law school professor committed suicide. Life taught me that you can’t help everyone you know stay mentally healthy. You can only work towards your own mental health goals. Then you can open up about the things that help you reach those goals.
That being said, in education settings you sometimes have a unique opportunity to offer some people tools to become more content and more fulfilled in life. Mental health is a state. It changes. It evolves. It’s always work in progress. We all have to work on it in every stage of our lives. I think when promoting mental health at schools – the more resources are out there – the more empowered students and teachers can become to have those conversations with each other.
Today I hardly know anyone who doesn’t struggle with mental health to some extent at some point of their lives, myself included. Nowadays a lot of people get psychological and/or psychiatric help and are able to continue living ordinary or even extra-ordinary lives. The more I open up to people in my life about my mental health struggles, the more they open up to me about their own mental health struggles. And I realize – we’re not just chatting aimlessly by opening up. We’re supporting each other, creating safe environments and perhaps even saving lives. We’re showing people an alternative to substance abuse, addictions and in some cases – suicide.
When I moved to Canada in 2009 and turned to writing, I chose to write in plain English that both children and immigrants can understand, while emphasizing topics of diversity, the environment and mental health in articles, poetry and novels. There are some resources on my website under the title “projects” that can be used to start conversations about mental health. I hope to continue uploading more materials in the future.
I chose to offer materials as resources because I understand the challenges teachers face with catering to the mental health needs of their students, especially when they themselves might be facing some sort of mental health challenges of their own at some point. As a sci-fi author I also think that the future facing humanity is both exciting and very unpredictable. Would people live, compete, collaborate and integrate with machines? Would people face climate chaos and severe climate anxiety? Would there be wars over natural resources? Would humans become interplanetary species? Teachers prepare students for the future and I feel fortunate to offer my support to teachers and students, who need resources to discuss topics of mental health.
Link to her article on The Teacher App: