At a Tampa alternative school, one teacher says struggling students 'deserve the best'
Mandy Jensen often sees students with undiagnosed mental health concerns, and believes early interventions and stronger community ties would help.
Two years after the coronavirus pandemic began, teacher pay, school staff shortages, censorship, raucous school board meetings and restrictions on teaching materials and classroom discussions of gender have all been in the news.
WUSF recently asked for teachers to weigh in on their current challenges. Among those who responded was Mandy Jensen, who teaches English and performing arts at North Tampa Epic, an alternative school in Hillsborough County.
"The way I describe the environment that I teach in is that we are in the frontlines of the battle for the souls and minds of our children. Because our school is dealing with kids who are having problems behaving in regular zoned schools, they get sent to our alternative school. And I look at it as the tip of the iceberg. It's indicative of what's going on beneath the surface at regular schools. But we're getting the hottest part of the battle, so to speak," said Jensen.
"And our job is to educate these children, these students. And it's really hard to educate a kid when they're having mental health issues. Or when they're emotionally overwhelmed by what's happening in their lives, they are going to court dates, or they might be hungry, or they might be in foster care, or some might be in a group home or living in temporary night tonight care, or they're homeless, some of them. We do everything we can to help them at our school, we have a full time psychologist, social worker, ESC specialist guidance counselor. But even with all of that, we still are understaffed for the amount of issues that we have going on, on a regular day," she said.
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"And part of it is also that we have a lot of undiagnosed mental health concerns that early interventions would help on, strong community ties would help more. We also need to work in all areas of education on building ties between parents and teachers, so that we can work as a team. I wish I had a magical key to make things better. But I don't, because I look at it as a societal problem, a socioeconomic problem, there are cultural issues, in some cases poverty, broken families, dysfunctional families, things like that, or kids that just have made some bad choices and need to have a wake up call. Being in this situation makes me have to be an incredibly alert teacher and it is really causing me to hone my skills as a teacher because these students deserve the best teachers," added Jensen.
"Education, to me, is a calling. It's not just a profession. So I couldn't see myself doing anything else. It's not glamorous, but I do have a lot of hope for this generation. I grew up in the 80s when bullying was considered normal. And when I work with these young people, every day I see change. I see things that were tolerated in my day that are not tolerated. Now, I'm not saying we don't have a long way to go. But I will say that I think that this generation of young people are going to see positive things because of how they look at the world differently."