College of Education senior instructs peers on student mental health

During the spring 2021 semester, SaraGrace Kimball taught a course on how teachers can support students’ mental health as part of a Penn State initiative to give undergraduate students an opportunity to design and teach their own courses. Class participants, from top left, are Fran Arbaugh, professor of education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction; Kimball; Valarie Hibbard; Emma Jacobson; Julia Rostcheck; Makayla Clemons; Madison Maney and Kevin Seipt. Credit: Screen captureAll Rights Reserved.

As an aspiring teacher and soon-to-be graduate of the College of Education, SaraGrace Kimball understands that mental health awareness is an important issue for all educators as they play an influential role in their students’ lives.

During the spring 2021 semester, she taught a course on how teachers can support students’ mental health as part of an initiative at Penn State to give undergraduate students at University Park an opportunity to design and teach their own credit-bearing courses.

Kimball, a senior secondary math education major with a minor in English, taught EDUC197: Supporting Students’ Mental Health for the first eight weeks of the spring semester through synchronous Zoom. While teaching the one-credit class, Kimball challenged her students to take an in-depth look at the literature surrounding how teachers can support students’ mental health. She said her goal was for her students to not only think theoretically but also to take away concrete methods to support their students’ emotional, psychological and social well-being.

“We’re really just brushing the surface on trauma-informed education and how students can support mental health, but I think it’s a really important start for the college to see the positive outcomes that can come from a course like this,” said Kimball.

Kimball developed and taught the EDUC197 course through Students Teaching Students (STS), an organization at Penn State launched in spring 2020 that equips and enables undergraduate students to teach an official course under the supervision of a faculty member. STS partners with both the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence and the Student Engagement Network.

Kimball’s faculty sponsor for her course was Fran Arbaugh, professor of education (mathematics education) in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, who was present at each Zoom class but muted and video turned off.

“SaraGrace had the whole class planned out before the semester even started,” Arbaugh said. “She was so thoughtful in how she constructed the sessions and in choosing the readings she asked the students to do.”

According to Arbaugh, one of the benefits for a teacher in the STS program is “being able to engage other Penn State students in discussions they’re really interested in having.” For the students, having a peer as an instructor encourages them to express themselves more candidly.

“I think having these kinds of discussions about K-12 students’ mental health with another pre-service teacher freed them up to talk about the things they really wanted to talk about,” she said.

Kimball said one of her main goals for the class was to create a collaborative environment in which the students would feel comfortable bouncing ideas off each other.

“It wasn’t supposed to be ‘I’m just talking at you for two hours,’ it was supposed to be a ‘we’re going to discover this together’ environment,” she said. “But it was hard to know how successful that was going to be in a virtual setting. And so I tried really hard early on to build connections and relationships.”

To accomplish that goal, Kimball practiced patience while taking a creative approach to teaching. She dedicated a class and a half to letting students get to know each other. She also used Zoom breakout rooms to divide the class into small groups, and students answered icebreaker questions and played games. Kimball also established discussion boards on Canvas.

“It’s all about variation for your students so that they’re not getting bored and they’re staying involved in the class,” she said.

Valarie Hibbard, a freshman majoring in elementary and early childhood education who took the Supporting Students’ Mental Health class, said she felt like she could be more up-front about her opinions in class with a teacher close to her age.

“We’ve likely shared experiences recently which helps to create this connection that a student may not experience with a professor 30 years their senior,” Hibbard said.

“Being in a class taught by another student is also encouraging to me personally because it shows me that I have the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself and help other students my age if I choose to work in the STS program in the future.”

While mental health awareness has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kimball said education researchers have only recently begun to devote more attention to that area.

“Of course, you see (mental health classes) in counselor education, but a guidance counselor and a teacher have a very different role in a student’s mental health,” she said. “And I think often educators are afraid to get involved in mental health because they don’t know the definitions of their role in a student’s life.”

Rather than simply lecturing her students about mental health, Kimball said she strived to “practice what I’m preaching.”

Each week, she started class with a proven practice that can support positive mental health, such as yoga, guided meditation or journaling. She also had representatives from Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) give a presentation to the class on ways to support students’ mental health.

“I think the more teachers understand what their role is, the more comfortable they are engaging in it,” said Kimball.

Makayla Clemons, a senior majoring in secondary social studies education with minors in history and sociology, said that Kimball’s class was helpful in “shaping how we will one day interact with students of our own.”

“I believe this class came to me at a perfect time,” said Clemons. “With the pandemic, we have seen mental health decline in many students who have switched to online learning. As a future teacher, it is important that I know how to help my students in the best way possible.”

A highlight of Kimball’s teaching experience, she said, was when one of her students asked her if she could adapt her course materials for an elective she wants to teach through a Penn State summer program.

“What makes me happiest about this course is hearing what my students are doing with it,” said Kimball. “The fact that people are taking this information and passing it on, that really means a lot to me and it makes me feel that the work I’m doing is important.”

Last Updated April 20, 2021