Teachers must have connection to students - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Teachers must have connection to students

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Erin Sponaugle Erin Sponaugle
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Erin Sponaugle is the 2014 Highmark West Virginia Teacher of the Year.

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
— President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Earlier this year, I became the face and voice of the education profession in West Virginia. I have the opportunity for the next year to represent the 23,000 teachers in our beautiful state and the interests of its students. It’s an exciting time in my life, but I realize that, along with the tremendous support and recognition I have received since this journey began, I have a great responsibility to share myself with others. Not just my views on education and classroom strategies — those are undoubtedly important, but great teaching cannot occur without a human connection to your students. This year, West Virginia is my classroom — and I hope to not only share how to best reach our children academically, but to meet their social and emotional needs as well. I can only do that if I share with you my story.

When I was 10, I experienced my first panic attack — in the Christian Light Bookstore of the Valley Mall in Hagerstown, Maryland. If you haven’t experienced what it feels like to have a panic attack, it’s a cross between feeling as if you’re being suffocated and having a heart attack. The experience left me terrified, and I lived in fear that it would strike more than once. And it did — time and time again, at home, recess, school, restaurants — no place, no time was exempt from the oppressive terror that would flood my thoughts in an instant. I became a prisoner to my own body.

I was embarrassed when it happened in class — and when my mother had to be called to come pick me up from school when I was reduced to sitting in one of the stalls in the girls’ bathroom. I avoided my peers, not wanting to answer the dreaded question “What’s wrong with you?” Who wants to be friends with someone who thinks she’s dying all the time anyway? I became incredibly quiet when in school and out in public. While my silence appeared on the surface to be shyness or a well-behaved student (“She’s almost too good,” teachers would jokingly tell my mother at parent-teacher conferences), it masked something much more serious. Part of it was anticipating another panic episode, but much of it was the result of an eroding self-esteem. I was ashamed of myself for being unable to control my emotions and the spectacle I felt I created every time it happened.

By the time I was in high school, I was very depressed. I had been through cycles of counseling, emergency room visits (when I was convinced that something was truly, absolutely medically wrong with me), medications that left me wide awake or fatigued, but the fact remained that I still could not control how I responded when I experienced a panic attack. The roller coaster of emotions that I had been riding left me exhausted and frustrated. Thankfully, schoolwork, especially writing and playing piano, were my releases — and escape from having to deal with reality. I also had my aunt, Dawn Mose, a first grade teacher, who I admired and loved. To me, she was a hero for just accepting me, but when she passed away suddenly when I was 15, I learned that she was so much more to the students she had taught over the 35 years of her career. She had changed hundreds of lives in the classroom by being the same compassionate, loving soul to her students.

Her death made me start to think about my own future. Who would I become? What could I contribute to the world? How could I rise above the beast that I fought daily to stay calm and productive?

I am the West Virginia Teacher of the Year, but 10 years ago, you never would have thought that could be possible.

Yes, I represent 23,000 teachers this year, but I also represent 40 million people in the United States that have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. One in eight children will have an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Our students are faced with countless environmental and social stressors in their childhoods, be it divorce, poverty, illness or violence, to scratch the surface. It’s enough to break anyone, much less a young, developing boy or girl simply trying to grow up. We can’t turn on the television or get online without hearing and seeing what happens when teens and young adults feel hopeless or unaccepted. This year, I will share my classroom with you, my ideas, and ways I feel we can make learning come alive for the students in our state. Equally important to any of those conversations is how we recognize the emotional state of our children and give them the coping skills to be successful in life.

Today, I am called successful and well-spoken. I used to be called quiet and weird — and perhaps I still am. When this year is over, maybe years down the road, I hope someone calls and says, because I shared this, I changed or saved a life.