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An Insider's Look at Students' Lives

As a school counselor, Barbara J. Kiernan got an inside look at the complex issues with which teens cope. Using composite characters, she wrote a book about those issues to let kids know they are not alone and to give insight to teachers about students' lives. Included: Suggestions for ways to support students.

As a school counselor, Barbara J. Kiernan spent a lot of time listening to students. On one level, she wished she could share with other educators the family issues, stressors, anxieties, and responsibilities with which so many of today's students cope. Many also attended schools in buildings with conditions that affected their (and their teachers') health.

So Kiernan took some of the situations her students faced and assigned them to fictional characters in the book She included in the book questions for students and a workbook they can use to help them take charge of their personal and academic lives. The book also has more than 300 resources, with Web sites and toll-free numbers, where young people and their families can seek further information or assistance.

Health professionals, environmentalists, and organizations that are concerned about young people also contributed messages to Behind the Wall.

Kiernan is hopeful that the book will help empower young people and at the same time, encourage educators and other adults to improve learning and living conditions for today’s students.

Dr. Anthony G. Picciano
Barbara J. Kiernan

Education World: What inspired you to write this book?

Barbara J. Kiernan: After leaving my counseling position in 2005 because of environmental issues at school that threatened my health, I decided to write a book to reveal my experiences and observations behind the school wall. I believed that by raising awareness, others would share my concerns about the health and well-being of our young people and join the crusade to make this a healthier world.

This book was my way of turning a personal loss into a blessing. Things happen for a reason, and I believe I developed cancer and an extreme sensitivity to chemicals ten years ago in order to become aware of environmental issues in the schools that I could share in this book. I might never have noticed these factors if I hadn't been dealing with my own health challenges.

Our young people are precious, and spending time with them was a privilege. They were my inspiration, and I hope this book will empower them and serve as a catalyst for change so that no child will get left behind.

EW: How did you decide which stories to use?

Kiernan: After I left my school counseling position, I wanted to do something to make me feel connected with students in order to minimize my sense of loss. That's when I sat down at my computer and let the characters lead the way.

One after another, the students came to life on the screen and shared their world, presenting the major educational, environmental, health, and social issues that affect their ability to learn and meet with success in our schools.

"By reading this book, teachers will hear the type of stories that counselors routinely hear in their office. Then they will understand why many of their students are feeling overwhelmed by situations that are often beyond their control."

Each story is a composite sketch of thousands of stories I heard, and the situations I personally witnessed and/or experienced, when I was working in the schools. Through these animated characters, and thought-provoking questions and messages, I strive to give readers new insights.

EW: What was the hardest part of writing this book?

Kiernan: The most difficult part of writing this book was when the project came to an end. That's when I experienced a great sense of loss.

I felt as if I had given birth to something and now it was time to let go -- time to let go of a project that gave my life meaning and made me feel connected with students and those who had contributed a message to part two.

This book was a bridge from my past to the future, and I wasn't sure where the new path would lead. I hadn't quite figured out what I was going to do for the next chapter in my life.

It was also difficult letting go of the book because it represented me, and I wasn't sure how others would view it. Publicly revealing my opinions and values makes me feel vulnerable and insecure.

EW: How can teachers use this book?

Kiernan: Teachers can use this book for professional development and as a tool in the classroom with intermediate and high school students.

With the heavy emphasis on academic standards, teachers don't usually have time to focus on a student's emotional state or family situation. They are usually under extreme pressure to cover a prescribed curriculum within a certain period of time, working in overcrowded classrooms, where the emphasis is on academics.

By reading this book, teachers will hear the type of stories that counselors routinely hear in their offices. Then they will understand why many of their students are feeling overwhelmed by situations that are often beyond their control. They will realize that it's truly a miracle that their students come to school each day.

Teachers often told me that if they had known what a student was going through they would have shown more compassion. My response is, 'Why not show more compassion even if you don't know their story?' Just assume that every student in your classroom is hurting. That they are all feeling vulnerable, insecure, lost, and alone. Make believe that every single one of them is in pain and needs to be treated with love and empathic understanding."

Due to confidentiality in the counseling relationship, which is essential for gaining a student's trust, teachers are often unaware of a student's personal issues. Therefore, this book will give teachers a glimpse into many of the issues facing their students.

Dr. Anthony G. Picciano

Aside from professional development, this book is perfect for the classroom. It is written in a manner that appeals to young people and can be used as the basis for enriching class activities.

Ideally, students can act out the parts in the stories and then change roles so that they can see things from a different perspective. There are also thought-provoking questions inserted at critical points in the story, and at the end of each story, that will lead to lively discussions.

The rest of the book is ideal for further discussions, research, class projects, and personal growth.

EW: How much, and how, do some of these issues students face affect their schoolwork?

Kiernan: All of the educational, environmental, health, and social issues presented in this book have a direct impact on a students' schoolwork. By highlighting these issues, I am hopeful that changes will take place so that all students have an equal chance to succeed.

It is virtually impossible for optimum learning to take place when students spend time in overcrowded, noisy, unsafe, and unhealthy environments.

Good indoor air quality is essential, especially for those with certain health conditions. I never would have been able to last as long as I did if it hadn't been for the air purifier and plants that I had in my office.

Quiet surroundings also are essential, especially for those with certain disabilities who are unable to screen out distractions. It is impossible to focus on schoolwork when landscaping equipment, construction projects, idling delivery trucks, and other major sources of noise are present while students are trying to learn.

My book is filled with countless other health hazards I personally witnessed in the schools, including the stress factor. Between all the schedule changes that take place at the beginning of the school year in order to balance class sizes and maintain the maximum number of students in each classroomand the extreme pressure to keep up with standards, everyone has reason to be stressed.

"Teachers often told me that if they had known what the student was going through they would have shown more compassion. My response is, 'Why not show more compassion even if you dont know their story?'"

Our future, and theirs, depends on the kind of help we offer children today. [That should include guaranteeing that]

  • all children have their needs met; the basic needs for shelter, nutritious food, a healthy environment, safety; and a sense of belonging, self worth, and love.
  • all children -- and their families -- have access to professionals who can help them achieve, and maintain, their physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well being.
  • all young people attend schools with a safe and healthy environment.

In addition, all students need access to

  • counselors at school who devote 95 percent of their time to providing direct counseling services, not counselors who spend most of their time on clerical and administrative tasks, ground supervision, countless meetings, and other non-counseling duties.
  • social workers at school who are available for family and community outreach, and who make home visits to give parents and guardians the parenting skills they need to maintain a healthy, safe environment for all members of the household.
  • nurses and qualified health professionals at school every day who, in addition to providing direct student health services and screenings, will proactively share health-related information with students, staff, and families. The nurse should also have input into environmental and nutritional practices at school to ensure that they promote health.
  • psychologists at school who will assess at-risk students for special education services, and make recommendations to others involved in their education and well-being.
  • mental health professionals who are available on a consultation basis, to provide assessment and follow-up services to students and their families, when there are more serious and pervasive mental health issues.
  • private or small group tutoring services that are available to those who are struggling and don't have anyone at home or in the neighborhood who can help them.

Until our nation invests in these professionals, and allows them to practice what they were trained to do, there will always be some students left behind.

EW: What sort of behavior should teachers be looking for to determine if a student is in crisis?

"Teachers see students every day and are in the best position to notice changes that might indicate a crisis or some other situation that needs to be addressed. Follow your intuition."

Kiernan: Teachers probably learned in Educational Psychology 101 that students who have an abrupt change in mood or behavior, or are unusually withdrawn or acting out, might be in crisis. Or perhaps there is a change in motivation or performance.

If you notice any of these factors, I would recommend sharing your concerns with the student. However, since students who are in crisis usually turn to their peers before they will trust an adult, it's best to also share your concerns with a helping professional so they can follow up.

Teachers see students every day and are in the best position to notice changes that might indicate a crisis or some other situation that needs to be addressed. Follow your intuition and confer with the appropriate school personnel.

EW: What do you hope students take away from reading this book?

Kiernan: Just like the characters in my stories, I know that many young people are hurting and feeling alone. They are struggling to find answers and to plan for the future. Some of them are feeling so overwhelmed that I'm amazed if they make it through another day.

But no matter where they live, no matter what their circumstances, there's hope. They are young and there is still time to help them make healthy choices that will lead to a quality life.

Every student I ever met had an inner drive to gain acceptance, recognition, and love; and how they met those needs had a great effect on the rest of their lives.

Growing up was never easy, but in our fast-paced, high-tech society it is more difficult than ever before. Many young people are trying to find answers on their own because they don't feel as if there is anyone they can trust. They are trying to figure out how to make it to high school and to make it through another day!

By listening to the students in Behind the School Wall, they will realize that they are not alone! There are young people in similar situations and others who care very deeply about what happens to them.

This book was written to empower young people and I hope it will build their confidence and give them the inspiration, information, support and insiders tips they need to make positive changes in themselves and the world around them!

Ideally, young people will share Behind the School Wall with their parents or guardians so they can discuss critical issues and gain their support to help them reach their goals.

EW: What about educators?

Kiernan: After almost three decades inside American schools, I have seen things in recent years that make me fear for our children's mental, physical, and spiritual health and well-being.

Hopefully, this book will raise awareness and inspire educators to speak out and encourage them to join together with others who are trying to make this a healthier world.

Educators are very powerful! Rather than suffer in silence, or watching your students suffer, I hope my book will give you the courage you need to share your concerns with your teachers union and the community.

Let others know if your school environment is unhealthy or if it lacks professionals and extra services to deal with critical student issues. Our students' mental and physical health, and America's future, depends on your willingness to speak out.

This e-interview with Barbara J. Kiernan is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World


Originally published 04/04/2007; updated 08/09/2011