“Never in a million years did I think something like this would happen to me.” This sentiment pretty well sums up the reaction of IEA and Lakeland Education Association member Stacie Lawler after a surprise ceremony where she was named the 2020 Idaho Teacher of the Year. A physical education teacher at Timberlake Junior High School, Lawler was floored as a procession of dignitaries and well-wishers entered the gymnasium with balloons and flowers.
“I saw my sister, who lives in Mississippi, and I knew something was up,” she says. “Then I saw my husband crying, which is unusual for him.” Her husband, Shawn, also a P.E. teacher and IEA member, was actually in on the secret and had made arrangements for Stacie’s sister, brother, father, and daughter to be in attendance for the surprise ceremony.
Stacie Lawler is in her sixth year at Timberlake, her thirteenth in the Lakeland Joint School District, and her seventeenth as a teacher in Idaho. She has also been active in coaching throughout her career and started the cross-country program at Timberlake. Junior high students are what it is all about for Stacie, who made the jump from the elementary level when her own children moved up to junior high school. “I started to identify with the older kids and also realized that was where I could have the most impact,” she says. “I just love this age and I will work with junior high students the rest of my career.”
Mental Health Issues Hit Close to Home
As a health and physical education teacher, Stacie had more exposure to mental and emotional health issues than most educators. Then came a call from her son, Keegan, who was attending Boise State University. “He called home and told me he had a plan to commit suicide,” she says. That call was an eye-opener for Stacie, who suddenly and surprisingly felt unprepared for how to handle the situation. “That really brought it home and helped me identify with those who are struggling.” She later learned that Keegan had been struggling with depression since junior high school.
Not long after that, Stacie’s daughter, Keelie, shared that she was dealing with severe anxiety issues. A standout basketball player, Keelie started having panic attacks during practices and games. Her fierce competitive nature forced her to face her struggles head-on. Ultimately, she went on to earn all-state recognition four times and help Timberlake High School win two state championships.
The good news is that both Keegan, now 23, and Keelie, now 20, are doing very well and are managing their mental health issues. Keegan graduated from the University of Idaho and is pursuing a master’s degree at Western Washington University. Keelie is a junior at Montana Tech University.
The further positive outcome is that Stacie used her family’s issues as motivation to raise awareness and build resources to help others. The Sources of Strength message she and others at Timberlake share pivots on reminders about the multitude of supports available to those struggling with mental health issues or emotional trauma. The “safety net” includes positive friends, family, medical help, spirituality, physical activity, and mentors, among other threads.
Stacie co-wrote a grant for the Sources of Strength program and received funding from the Idaho Lives Project for the 2018-19 school year and recently got the news that they will also receive funding for the 2019-20 school year. Currently they have four leaders and 46 students using the program to change the school culture and prevent suicide through the power of peer social networks. “It’s really inspiring to see these students take the lead in looking out for each other,” she says.
In conjunction with district Superintendent Dr. Becky Meyer and community partners, Stacie is also heavily involved in the Life Awareness Community Coalition, which has provided critical training for all teachers in the Lakeland Joint School District. The trainings are based on the QPR principle, which, helps educators reduce suicide risk through Question, Persuade, and Refer techniques.
Above all else says Stacie: “we have to teach our kids that it is OK to not be OK.”
Raising Awareness Will Be Part of Her Platform as Teacher of the Year
As Idaho’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, Stacie will have ample opportunity to share her message about erasing the stigma surrounding mental and emotional health. In addition to working with the IEA on outreach, she is likely to be invited to speak to the education committees during the upcoming legislative session and will serve as an ambassador for Idaho educators. She also becomes the state’s nominee for National Teacher of the Year honors and will visit Washington, D.C. along with other state Teachers of the Year.
“The lack of resources and funding is the major roadblock to providing mental health awareness and help for students,” Stacie says. At Timberlake Junior High they have a social worker who comes once a week to meet with students, but that barely scratches the surface of what is needed. “Honestly, I wish she could counsel full-time at our school,” says Lawler.
Making sure that health education is being taught at all levels and having widespread access to QPR training for educators would also be very helpful in efforts to improve student mental health. Reducing the stigma associated with mental health is another key factor. “There is no band-aid or cast to see when someone is struggling.” Stacie says. “Someone who struggles with mental health issues may have no visible sign, but their pain is just as real.”
Stacie passion for student mental health mirrors a growing awareness and concern among professional educators. The issue of mental health and student behaviors is being raised by individual educators, local education associations, administrators, and school districts. It was also important enough to the K-12 education task force that they included providing additional resources and professional development for educators, so they are better prepared to help students with social and emotional issues, including trauma and mental illness.
You can join Idaho Teacher of the Year Stacie Lawler and the IEA in helping address the issue of student mental health by Standing Up and adding your voice to this important and vital issue.