When I was a kid, I would often imagine what it would be like to be invisible. I envisioned having the ability to go anywhere and do anything without people knowing it was me. Like any young child, my dreams were vast and full of imagination! I thought of amazing feats I could accomplish while being invisible like sneaking into a movie theater, being the best at hide and seek, or stealing a cookie from the kitchen without my mom seeing me. Okay so maybe these were not the most creative ideas, but they were what dominated my thoughts when I would tap into my imagination and pretend to be invisible. As I grew up I realized that being invisible wouldn’t actually be all fun. I remember going through high school and having moments in time when I felt invisible, as if life was happening all around me but I was not a part of it. Now as a father and educator, I have come to the realization that there is a growing trend in our young people today: students are feeling more invisible than ever before.
As a global society, we are more interconnected than ever. Yet adolescents today are reporting higher instances of depression and anxiety compared to any generation before.
Big Lie #2: I must be approved and accepted by others in order to feel good about myself.
How can this be? Students today are under societal pressure from the use of social media and media in general to act a certain way, to look a certain way, to “be” a certain way. Our students are entering schools with these struggles on top of adverse childhood experiences (ACES), which lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and the feeling of being invisible.
Adolescents are already in a transition period in their lives and dealing with everything that puberty and hormones bring with it. In the age of social media, and the focus those platforms bring to individuals and the "all about me" culture, students are increasingly being inundated with exterior expectations. A Pew Research Study found that 70% of teens ages 13-17 see anxiety and depression as a major problem in their peers. We need to bring more awareness to this issue and help people empathize with what students today are dealing with and how it is vastly different than most adult experiences when we were adolescents. “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Do you know who said that? The Greek philosopher Socrates wrote it around 2500 years ago. One reason students can feel invisible is when adults tell them that they know what it’s like to go through school. Students are told that the adults in their life have lived through what they are going through and that simply isn’t true. As a middle school kid, I didn’t have to worry about social media, cyberbullying, or the pressures of being involved in year-round activities. I think that we can all oversimplify the situation students are experiencing today. The reality is that many students have not been taught how to best cope with many of the situations that come up.
We need to teach students the skills of social interaction, the benefits of healthy media use, and we need to let adolescents know that we care about them. As an educator, I know some teachers acknowledge their students’ individuality by creating secret handshakes with each student and doing those handshakes as they enter the classroom. A friend of mine, Bryan Slater, created a check in Google Form for his students to complete each day so that he knows how they are doing and what he can do to help them. One of the middle schools in my district used Sawubona, a Zulu word for “I See You,” as their yearlong theme and they recently held a schoolwide assembly in which they highlighted the achievements and successes of students and staff alike, all based upon the theme, “I See You.” Each morning at my school, students are greeted by staff and fellow students as they enter the building. We smile, say ‘good morning’ or ‘have a great day’, offer a high five or a wave, and play some upbeat music to start their day.
So how can we help? We need to do a better job seeing each other. What I mean by that is appreciating one another and the value that each person brings. There’s a quote in my classroom that reads, “The keys to success: Keep going no matter what happens, and help others with their needs.” The time we give to things in our lives lets people know the things we value. At the beginning of the year in my classroom, I have students write down something they can teach me and every year I learn new things from them. They bring experiences and passions and knowledge that I can learn from, that we all could learn from, if we simply took the time to do so. One of the most personal things about us is our name. We take value from other people using our name. It pains me to think that there are students out there who go through an entire day and never hear their own name. They don’t hear it at home, from friends, from teachers, and they go home feeling as if they weren’t seen by anyone all day. They feel like they are invisible. Using their name, smiling, shaking hands, high fiving, fist bumping, waving, some sort of acknowledgment that we see them as individuals, we value them as people, and we want to hear their voice.
Greet your students at the door. Connect with them using the Four at the Door + One More strategy, which is Eye to Eye, Name to Name, Hand to Hand, and Heart to Heart.
Get involved in student activities. Go see a game. Watch a play. Volunteer at an event. Remember that some students might not have another positive, consistent adult in their life other than you.
Model character. We often expect students to know how to act even though they may have never learned how to properly show patience, forgiveness, honesty, or kindness. Show them what those character traits look like.
Names are important. Learn student names and use them when you can. You could be the only person that says it all day. Make those little moments count.
As a kid, I dreamt that my superpower was to be invisible. Now as an adult and an educator I dream for the superpower to help all students feel visible.
David Volke has spent the last six years in the Camas School District, teaching Humanities, ASB, and Leadership. He has had the luxury of serving as a Climate and Culture TOSA for his building as well as being a basketball coach and intramural advisor. He is a WACA certified leadership advisor, teacher counselor at AWSL's Camp Columbia, presenter for CharacterStrong, and was the 2019 Camas School District Educator of the Year. David lived and taught in Honduras at an international high school for two years after completing his master's degree at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife Lisa (a math teacher) have two wonderful daughters, Natalie and Stephanie. David wholeheartedly believes in teaching the whole child. He also believes that the best service we can be doing for our kids is to make them feel loved, respected, safe, and welcome.