Skip to main content

The Hidden Work: Conversations on Mental Health in Education

With My Brother’s Keeper Chicago, we hosted a virtual Male Educator of Color affinity space for TFA Corps Members and Alumni featuring a panel of male leaders of color from across the education landscape. 

By Whitney Stoepel-Brewer

March 4, 2022

The Hidden Work: Conversations on Mental Health in Education Video Recap

Dr. Kenneth Nole: What would you describe has been your experience or knowledge of trauma amongst young men of color in the inner city? There's no age limit, but amongst just young men of color.

Johnny Reed: To answer the question, dear brother, my experience with stress and trauma, if you will, has been one of a human experience. I know we emphasize the notion of brothers of color or male educators of color, but stress and trauma is a human experience. And for me, it has been overwhelmingly stressful and equally triumphant as I still sit and stand with you all here today, not being a victim to the stress and trauma that I have experienced, but understanding how I've been able to leverage education and different relationships as a healthy coping mechanisms.

Johnny Reed: More specifically, as it relates to young men in education, I was a former educator at the Noble Network of charter schools at Butler College Prep. And I had an advisory of 17, 14, 15-year-old freshmen, and they experience stress and trauma on a daily basis. My experience with young boys in the inner city is firsthand, having coached young boys through stress and trauma and having experienced stress and trauma personally, as a Chicago native and also as a native of the Southside. My knowledge base is extensive, having studied trauma, mental health, clinical counseling, and also therapy, yet I am still learning.

Johnny Reed: Although I am a CEO of a national organization, I too am a learner of how to maximize healthy coping mechanisms, practice them consistently and recommend them to everyone, more specifically naming how to support individuals who are, who identify as boys of color and any individual who is non-gender binary.

Dalonte Burns: I think for me, I have personally experienced that and still do grapple with navigating the stress or trauma and silence. And Andrew, thank you for taking us through this exercise because one thing I continue to learn is really trying to learn how to listen to how my experience in certain space is in my body, because sometimes I may navigate this wave of thoughts and reactions, but like sometimes my feelings is lying to me.

Dalonte Burns: And I can go down that dangerous path of believing it, and then it manifests itself in my body. And I know for me, and I'll even go in deeper and saying for me, it stays right here. And that's something I'm learning for myself is when I experience that stress or trauma, my eyebrows frown and I like feel it and it's right here. And then it manifests as a headache, and I embrace it and I accept it as my truth and I sit with that in silence. That has been the case with working with some students that identify as male is that when you want to try to get them to open up and speak about their experience, they don't say anything.

Dalonte Burns: "Man, that's just messed up. Man, I don't care. It's whatever." And they sit with that. I was that boy and I'm like, "Shoot, I sat with that for years and I'm still navigating as a full-grown man with wife and kids how do I navigate that?" And how do I work with our youth to say, "No, we don't have to hold all of that in and allow that to become a part of our identity." How do we put ourselves in the position to release it and to speak, and to let it go, so we can have spaces to be and to not perform? Because sitting in this seat as a principal, I have to grapple with trying to perform and not be.

Dr. Kenneth Nole: Talk more about how do we grieve? As men of color, as educators in this space, when now we got to deal with parents, we got to deal with administrators. We got to deal with, if I can say this in this space, we got to deal with women in power and I'm not... Listen, I have a wife, I have a daughter, I have a mother. I submit to whatever authority that... But we have women in power that may show up with their traumas or whatever in a space.

Dr. Kenneth Nole: We have sexism in places. How do we as men of color and men educators, how do we get through not just the burnout, but depression, lack of motivation? When we're in the classroom as educators, showing up for our families and showing up for our wives and children, how do we actually do that? Johnny, Andrew?

Johnny Reed: The very steps of having this conversation can be traumatizing, can be triggering, can be overwhelming. It can be undeniably stressful. And I'm traumatized by having these conversations. I'm overwhelmed by having these conversations. I experience anxiety when I have these conversations, although they are extremely important, but I name that to further emphasize that I'm human and I experience these things too.

Johnny Reed: And subsequently, I've developed coping mechanisms to help me do both, and experience stress and trauma and still be triumphant. Knowledge and language, issue number one, as brothers of color or as people, sometimes we don't know what we don't know. And oftentimes, we are held accountable to standards that have not been taught to us. All right, from pre-K all the way up to adulthood, Planet Fitness, Equinox, Orange Theory, or even Gold's Gym or LA Fitness, we know physical health. We know PE, but ME, mental health has been absent from the education system since World War I, when brothers were coming back from World War I and Vietnam, they were saying that they were the individuals who were only experiencing stress and trauma, where in actuality it was when women started to explain that they were experiencing domestic abuse that conversation around stress and trauma really became popularized.

Johnny Reed: Secondly, the education system is rippled with inequities, but it's fundamentally flawed because it doesn't offer teachers the opportunity to understand how stress and trauma impacts themselves first as helpers, and then how they subsequently bring that into the classroom. Firefighters have trauma informed education integrated into their pre-service programming. Medical doctors have trauma informed education integrated into their programming. Police officers have trauma informed education integrated into their programming, but teachers don't.

Johnny Reed: Thirdly, let's talk about science and brain health. We have chemicals running throughout our bodies that oftentimes aren't discussed. When I get hungry and angry, cortisol and adrenaline are pumping to protect my body from fainting, but then that's not a good or a bad thing. That's a human thing. When I get happy, dopamine and serotonin tells me continue to do that. But when I've experienced stress and trauma from men, my body tells me stay away from men. When I've experienced stress and trauma or heartache from a woman, my mind, my body tells me to stay away from women, but who tells me that all emotions are valid, and here are a plethora of coping mechanisms to practice to rewire your brain? Science and brain health.

Johnny Reed: We love to look good. Physical hygiene is important. Each and every day, it's reasonable to assume we brush our teeth, we wash our face. We put on our swag, we wear our merch. That's physical hygiene, but rare is the occasion where we truly talk about mental hygiene, what would it look like if every day, you brushed your teeth and got your breath fresh, you cleanse your mind, your heart, your soul of the stress that you experienced yesterday so that you can move forward with a clean heart and clean mind today. Oftentimes, we're still carrying the stress and trauma of years past.

Johnny Reed: And that's the circumstance around grieving, having to understand how to let go of what was and make sense of who I am now, as I've become something I'm unfamiliar with. It's hard, myself included. I was traveling the nation, talking about stress and trauma in person and then COVID said, "You can't do that anymore." So I'm still grieving the reality of being in front of people, teaching around stress and trauma while simultaneously being pulled to deliver the message virtually and on a daily basis, I struggle, ridiculously. And it's music and conversations with loved ones and art that keeps me going.

Andrew Hong: Wellness, SEL, adult SEL. So you SEL across the board, whether it's the adults, the staff, or the students or the parents, all of the other stakeholders. I think people, it's the cool thing to do, and we say that we want to do it, but we don't really give it its due diligence to do it for real.

Andrew Hong: And it's like clicking on the ad if you're just going down a YouTube rabbit hole and it's like, "What? You think losing 50 pounds takes half a year? Well, I know this pill that'll like..." You know what I mean? We're all looking for that fake scam pill for SEL and wellness, and it just doesn't work like that.

Andrew Hong: We treat SEL regardless of what our words are, I think in our actions and our policies and our practices, it shows that SEL is the extracurricular when really, it needs to be the prerequisite.

Dr. Kenneth Nole: How do we speak up and speak out? How do we as men have outlets?

Johnny Reed: Sometimes we ask ourselves two questions. One, what's wrong with me? And then two, what's happening to me? What's wrong with me? That line of thinking is unhealthy. And it's damaging because it makes an individual think that, "Oh, if this is happening to me, then it can't be happening to anyone else." But if we ask the question of what's actually happening to me, the answer is that I'm experiencing familiar or unfamiliar emotions.

Johnny Reed: The first step is helping us learn how to identify the exact emotions that we are experiencing, emotions aren't positive or negative. They're light or heavy. When you think about that in that language, we can make sense of it. I'm experiencing anger right now. It's a light anger, so I can cope with it. But if I'm experiencing heavy anger, it may be debilitating to the point in which I can't take this test, to the point in which I just need a 30-second hug from my brother, because he's the only one who understands.

Johnny Reed: We have to be able to name what we're feeling. Name what we feel, and understand that emotions are sources of energy. If you're angry, you have to find what the source of that anger is, and if you don't have a place to put it, it will eat you from the inside out. Think of your anger as a tool. Think of your emotions as a tool or fuel, take that anger, put it into a space that fuels productivity. Oftentimes boys of color to be very specific take the fuel from their emotions and put them into drivers that produce unhealthy outcomes.

Johnny Reed: But if we give them a list of healthy coping mechanisms, music, art, building merch, learning how to be an effective teacher, teaching other people in their families how to identify their emotions, we'll have more emotionally intelligent individuals to help perpetuate a system where in which they can continue the process or conversation around, "You know what? There's nothing wrong with me. I'm feeling this and this is how I resolve it."