As a teacher, Monique Dewar-Dituri sometimes acts as the first line of assistance when a student needs someone to talk to about their problems.
“I am very passionate about the social and emotional health of my students,” Monique, who teaches robotics, engineering, and electronics at Clifton High School, said. “As someone who sees how students interact with one another, and how social media and the instant gratification has changed the way they interact, giving my students a safe haven and a way to express themselves is very important to me.”
With society pressuring different genders to adhere to stereotypical behaviors and attitudes, Monique said students can feel afraid to express themselves or talk about what’s really bothering them.
To encourage them to open up, she facilitated her students creating the “Catching Feelings-Let’s Talk About It Campaign” project on DonorsChooose.org and raised the funds to have a professional photo booth company take photo strips of her students.
Monique and her students then set out to create the “How Are You Feeling?” wall, which consists of pictures of students expressing happiness, sadness, mad, or confused emotions. She said that having students be the ones in the pictures instead of a generic stock photo was especially important for the project to be successful.
“I think seeing themselves in the photos made it more personal,” she said. “Because it was their peers and not just a stock photo of some random person … We had the captain of the football team take photos. We had photos of student leaders, those who just want to graduate, those who are new to this country … Everyone could relate to someone.”
Monique said it was also critical to take photos of students who were of different races, grades, ages, religions, and sexual orientations so that everyone in the school could be represented. She additionally worked to get pictures of individuals from different grade levels, class rankings, clubs, and cliques.
In total, 175 students took photos.
The more students look at these walls, the more they realize they aren’t alone in how they feel, Monique said. The wall has also encouraged students to feel comfortable sharing their feelings with someone, whether that be to a peer, teacher, or counselor.
“It is very difficult for them to talk with someone, but hopefully they see that we care and want to know what is bothering them,” Monique said.
In talking about their mental health, these students are also fighting against the stigma associated with mental health. After the unveiling of the board, Monique’s students began to say that the school is a stigma-free zone, meaning that students should not tease or bully others for their feelings.
“Positive mental health requires individuals to be able to talk about things in a safe environment and to also know that there are many other people who feel the same way,” she said. “My hope is that they see that what they look like is irrelevant in terms of what they can accomplish, and that despite these differences, we are all human beings.”
In addition to building relationships, the “Catching Feelings” campaign has also encouraged students to reflect on their own mental health. With social media, peer pressure, and other school stressors, it’s easy for students to feel overwhelmed or anxious. That’s why it’s so important for the school to provide a safe environment for its students, Monique said.
“If they don’t feel the environment allows them to be safe and secure, which includes their mental health, then they cannot move onto finding self-esteem, belonging, and love. Everyone has issues and problems but it is incredibly important that they know they are not alone.”
To learn more about Monique and her students or to donate to her DonorsChoose.org projects, click here.