‘Top 10 Teacher of the Year’ pushes for more mental health resources for students, educators

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HANCOCK COUNTY, Ind.-- A Mt. Vernon Middle School teacher is catching attention at the state level.

As Deborah Thomas is being recognized for her success in the classroom, she's pushing for mental health to be a focus at the statehouse.

Thomas has impacted lives for 30 years. Her passion is to teach social studies to seventh-graders.

“Working alongside the students is one of the best parts of the job,” said Thomas, “It is one that requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice, but the rewards are endless.”

Thomas’ role goes far beyond her lessons and the Indiana Department of Education recognized that. Thomas has been named a Top 10 Teacher of the Year.

“It’s a wonderful honor,” said Thomas, “It’s something I never expected.”

Mt. Vernon Middle School Principal Ben Williams says Thomas is not only an advocate for her students, but also an advocate for mental health resources for her teachers. It comes after the sudden loss of a teaching teammate.

“It affected so many students, so many of our fellow staff members and it really heightened our awareness to helping people. Not just kids, but as well as educators,” said Williams, “This is not just about her receiving some great award, it really is about the message.”

Thomas says during that time of grief, the issue of trauma came front and center for her.

“Staff members who work with those students who are traumatized are absorbing some of that trauma and that stress and that’s a huge mental health concern,” said Thomas.

This recognition by the Indiana Department of Education is a way to get her message to legislators. She says there’s a need for informed trauma education as about two thirds of students who come to her school have experienced some form of significant trauma.

“It allows us to get training to provide a safe, supportive environment,” said Thomas. “It allows us to build better relationships with students and also to help them manage their own behavior and emotions.”

State Senator Michael Crider represents the Hancock County area. He’s helped push for mental health at the statehouse and says the support from teachers like Thomas is a step in the right direction.

“It really makes sense that schools who have these kids for a majority of the day are involved in this discussion,” said Crider. “As we see more schools become involved and use this system that we will collect enough data it will show us the areas we can focus more on. More financial resources or maybe just as more schools and more families navigate this mental health system, that there are challenges that need to be addressed.”

Thomas is using her message to make an impact not only in her classroom, but across the state.

“I’d like to see legislators propose and support more awareness, resources and training for trauma informed education across Indiana,” said Thomas.

The 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year went to Tamara Markey of Lawrence Township.  To see a list of all nominated teachers for 2020, click here.

The Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation is taking major steps to support mental health with students. Here are a few initiatives listed by the school district.

  • Mt. Vernon High School hosted a "Rise Above It" Mental Health Workshop with interactive sessions on anxiety, addiction, vaping/smoking, sexting, depression/suicide, grief/loss, anger management, social media and more.
  • All teachers are trained on suicide prevention.
  • Each school has a counselor from Community Health Network, in addition to the school counselor/social worker on site.
  • All elementary schools and the Mini-Marauder Preschool teach "Second Step," a social-emotional program to teach students mental wellness.

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