Whole Girl Education conference takes time for mental health

The psychological health of minoritized girls in rigorous academic environments took center stage on day two of the national Whole Girl Education conference at Barnard College, with a conversation featuring best-selling author Rachel Simmons.

This year’s Whole Girl conference, bringing together school leaders, teachers and all types of educators of girls and gender-wide youth, is the first ever. The meeting was organized by the Student Leadership Network (SLN), a non-profit organization that helps young people from diverse underserved communities access higher education. It operates The Young Women’s Leadership Schools (TYWLS), a network of public schools for girls and gender-sensitive youth with thousands of students in New York City, as well as Young Women’s Leadership Network schools across the country.

TYWLS uses what they call the Whole Girl Education framework, which has four main focuses: early college and career awareness, STEM, health and wellness, and leadership. But an environment of academic rigor can put a lot of pressure on young girls, which was the focus of Friday afternoon’s plenary session.

Rachel Simmons’ conversation featured Simmons, whose first book, Odd Girl Out, is based on research conducted at the East Harlem School of TYWLS. She said it was crucial for teachers to ensure that young girls have, as she said, a systemic view – an understanding that a multitude of factors can shape an event. All girls will struggle at some point, and it’s important for them to realize that it’s not all their fault: a failed test may have been caused by after-school work or childcare responsibilities.

“If you don’t have that awareness, you lose that shield,” Simmons said.

Simmons also suggested that teachers be authentic with students so that students will be authentic with them.

“Don’t act like you have it all figured out,” she said.

Being a little vulnerable can create a psychologically safe environment for students in which they are comfortable asking for help—which for many students is an interpersonal risk. It’s important, Simmons said, to let them know it’s okay to be wrong.

Perfectionism is endemic among the students Simmons encountered.

“The overworking tendencies of these girls break my heart,” she said.

The question of how to create balance and stay mentally healthy is one that Simmons admitted she doesn’t have a full answer to. But she said self-care was essential and should not be understood as a reward or something incidental, but an essential part of everyday life.

“We have to model that, as educators,” Simmons said. “We are very bad at this. If they don’t see us taking a minute to do it, then it’s really hard for us to make it clear to them.

Setting boundaries is another essential skill for students, Simmons said, including learning to say “no,” say “not now,” and ask what they can deprioritize.

Simmons also spoke about her own work, which recently expanded to include adult women. Simmons has done leadership and executive coaching at PayPal, focusing on promoting women in the workplace, a program that will soon be extended to black and Latino workers.

“I can teach most white men how to advance underrepresented talent,” she said.

Simmons’ work centers on the idea of ​​sponsorship, a level of involvement beyond mentorship in which more experienced workers directly advocate for protégés, for example, recommending them for high-profile projects that could lead to promotions.

It’s a concept that can be easily applied to schools, said Diana Beltrani, a conference attendee who was previously vice-principal at TYWLS School in Brooklyn.

“If you’re looking at AP classes and who should take them, you might have students who won’t promote, but the teacher will know they should be in that class,” she said. These teachers can ensure that the student ends up with an opportunity.

The conference also featured more than 20 breakout sessions over its first two days, with a variety of themes. Some touched on administrative skills, such as how to hire new employees to retain leaders, how to understand your own leadership style and make it as effective as possible, and how to use national data sets to improve the education. Others have focused on using the Girls’ Global Bill of Rights as a lens for advocacy work, navigating black girls in white institutions, and creating trauma-informed spaces that promote healing. There were even sessions linking various skills to dance, improvisation and bucket drumming.

The conference concluded with a final series of workshops, including the importance of ritual in building connected communities, cross-class collaborations to build belonging, and ways to engage community in your classroom. The final keynote speaker was Dr. Bettina L. Love, William F. Russell Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, whose research focuses on strengthening public education through abolitionist teaching, anti-racism, and black joy.

Jon Edelman can be contacted at [email protected]

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