Editor’s Note: Lay Missioner Hannah Hagarty describes her shifted role within her Jamaican school community. Through this new “Healthy Mind, Healthy Body” class, she’s been able to appreciate those around her and dig even deeper into her faith as well as her community.
When I returned to Jamaica after being home in the states during COVID, I had to find my place in the school again. Teaching computers just wasn’t gonna cut it for me. I was thinking about the students on their devices all day everyday and how they need something else. Not academics, not computer related, something new and stimulating. I talked with my principal, Ms. Sherol Dixon-Lewis about teaching a holistic physical, psychosocial, wellness class. She loved it. She told me to give her an idea of what I wanted to teach the kids and then we could chat. I got my thoughts together and Aunty Hannah’s Healthy Mind, Healthy Body class was born.
There has never before been a guidance counselor at Alvernia Prep School. Mental health is stigmatized here in Jamaica. If you have any sort of mental illness and work with a psychiatrist you are “mad”. If you talk to a therapist you are “weak”. I was nervous about how my class was going to be received by the parents of my students. I didn’t want to cross any boundaries culturally that I wasn’t aware of, or make any parents get angry with me or their children thinking that I am passing judgment or that their child would be judged by coming and sharing with me. This has not been the case at all. I have been overwhelmed by the positive response. I teach all grades at the school. 10 sections, 197 students. The children love having a space to share how they are feeling. I just finished my first set of parent-teacher consultations and was affirmed that this class is important to the kids, and even the parents are learning from it too!
I start every class, every grade with a 2-6 min meditation. Then we do check-ins. I give them different prompts every day; ie. how they are feeling on a scale of 1-10, one adjective to describe how they are, how was their weekend, one good thing and one bummer from the week/weekend, etc. Then we go into the lesson for the day. We discuss a wide range of different topics: mindfulness, honesty, how to be a good listener, empathy, intentionality, breathing exercises, body awareness, vulnerability and courage, COVID and everything involved, virtual school, anxiety and how it manifests, coping skills, identifying triggers, healthy vs. unhealthy relationships, stretches/yoga, self esteem-confidence/self worth/self compassion, positive self talk, social skills, turning mistakes into opportunities and so much more. It has been so eye opening to have a space to talk with these children, but it can also be very taxing physically and emotionally. In talking with my spiritual director, she invited me while I am teaching to pay attention to my own thoughts and self care practices, and see what jumps out. Teaching is the best way to learn! I have been inspired by how open and honest these kids are in sharing with me in front of their classmates. The most profound thing that I have witnessed so far with my students is how they have grown in listening to each other.
When my class first started, I would call on a student to do a check-in, I’d listen and comfort, give feedback, laugh, whatever the appropriate response. Then I move to the next student. Everyone sat patiently for their turn to talk to Auntie Hannah. About a month and a half into my class I noticed a shift. Instead of only me responding to the student who was sharing, other students in the class started asking questions, comforting, affirming, showing EMPATHY. It was beautiful. The first time it happened was in one of my grade 1 sections, and I had to turn off my camera because I had tears in my eyes. All I really had to do was facilitate the discussion and sharing by calling on the next 6 year old that was about to move me to tears. Of course I chimed in but I let the kids do most of the talking. They had learned empathy. Now, my students love the check-ins; sometimes check-ins take almost the whole class-time and I don’t have time for my lesson! But I don’t mind at all, as long as the sharing stays focused. The students need space to share how they are really feeling. That is the purpose of my class. Healthy Mind, Healthy Body.
One of the most important parts of my job as the Guidance Counselor at school is to help make the students feel comfortable, safe, loved, heard. One way I was able to do that was through a virtual assembly for Reggae/Black History Month in February. The 26th of February marked Jamaica Day, and the end of Reggae/Black history month here in Jamaica. Only this time, it was celebrated in a new COVID-friendly way. Last year, it was cancelled. COVID just came about and the children were sent home from school, unsure of what was going to happen. 2 years ago, on my first Jamaica day, it was a CELEBRATION. Each grade, preschool through grade 6, spent all month preparing an act to perform at The Jamaica Day Assembly. Each class got a turn to go up on stage in the hall and show off to all the teachers and their schoolmates what they had been practicing all month long.
This year, we had to get creative. Instead of cancelling like last year, our principal wanted to try to give the children a little bit of “pre-covid feelings” She asked me if I could put together a virtual assembly for the school. I was a little hesitant because I am not Jamaican, and I don’t really know much about Jamaican Heritage or Reggae music. I definitely know more now than I did before I moved here two years ago, but still I wasn’t completely confident. I said some prayers to Jesus, asked for help, worked together with a colleague, and, with cooperation of all the classroom teachers, we were able to pull it off. While the students weren’t able to perform any acts, (mostly because we didn’t think of this virtual assembly idea until a day and a half before Jamaica day) we still instructed the kids to dress in their Jamaican best for virtual class. We told them we would have a surprise for them in the afternoon. In the morning before the assembly, I called in to every class and took pictures to be featured in the assembly.
Here is the collage of all the class pictures put together.
The virtual assembly was a success, and it was an important lesson for all of us. Even during these COVID times when everything is uncertain and uneasy, it is important to find ways to come together as a community and celebrate what deserves to be celebrated, recognize what should be recognized, and find joy and love in any way that we can.
Reflection Question: How have you been able to connect to your community in a creative new way during the pandemic?