About Janna Miller & Chris Brownson

Chris Brownson is a former corps member (LA '93) and a licensed psychologist. After his two years teaching, he promptly returned to his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, to pursue graduate work in counseling psychology. He received my Ph.D. in 2001 and is now a licensed psychologist in the State of Texas, the director of the University of Texas Counseling & Mental Health Center, and the National Mental Health Consultant for TFA. Janna Miller was a 2007 corps member in the Mississippi Delta region. She taught 4th grade during her two years in the corps and then stayed in Mississippi a third year and taught 5th grade ELA. Before joining Teach For America, she majored in psychology. After teaching, she joined the doctoral program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Extra Help: How to Find a Mental Health Professional

(Photo credit: Sara V.)

(Photo credit: Sara V.)

Making the decision to see a mental health professional can be difficult. Sometimes people are unsure whether they are truly in need of help; other times, the stigma attached with seeking help can make people fear that they might be “crazy” or that others will look down on them. The truth is that seeing a professional can dramatically improve your quality of life, because there are times when all of us could use some extra help in order to feel like ourselves again.

Finding the right counselor for you can be a tricky process, so here are some helpful points to remember during your search:

  • There are many different types of mental health professionals, so finding one can be confusing. They are, in short: 1) psychiatrists—medical doctors (MD) who primarily prescribe medication for treatment.  Some, but not most, also engage in talk therapy; 2) psychologists—usually a doctoral-level provider (PhD) who provides counseling, psychotherapy, and assessment, but typically does not prescribe medication (this does vary state-to-state, however); 3) licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed professional counselors (LPC), and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), all of whom have a master’s degree in their respective area and provide counseling and psychotherapy; and 4) primary care providers, who, while not actually a mental health provider, often prescribe psychiatric medications.

Cultivating Happy Habits

(Photo credit: Elizabeth M)

(Photo credit: Elizabeth M)

If you are reading this post, it means that you didn’t let my cheesy headline deter you. I realize that it could have—I mean, how lame does the phrase “happy habits” sound? But I’m hoping you’ll soon understand that cultivating happy habits can actually be a very useful and powerful practice.

To give some background: as part of my training program in counseling, I participate in various field placements that give me the opportunity to conduct therapy in a variety of settings with a diverse set of clients. Currently, I am working with the U.S. Department of  Veterans Affairs. As part of my experience with the VA, I’ve helped lead a group that provides an introduction to mindfulness. Our group provides the group members—veterans who have often experienced trauma and are now dealing with subsequent anxiety and depression—with tangible things they can do to achieve improvements in their lives. One thing we encourage is the mindfulness practice of developing happy habits.

So what are these habits? Happiness researchers such as Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, have found that certain routine practices have been shown to literally improve one’s level of happiness in a rather short amount of time. Achor suggests a set of five simple things you can do every day that will make you significantly, noticeably, measurably happier:

My Struggle with Standardized Testing

(Image credit: Oliver Tacke)

(Image credit: Oliver Tacke)

You don’t need me to tell you how obsessed educators often become with state tests. At my first placement school, we held pep rallies to inspire confidence and excitement in students. At the next school I worked at, an after-school club produced a music video devoted to the state test (check it out—it’s pretty amazing). Entire school days were devoted to taking practice tests.

Even though I hated many of the things about the state test, it was very easy to get caught up in my schools’ energy and become completely consumed by testing. I found myself spending hours creating questions that mirrored those that students would see on the tests. I made sure every lesson had some connection to testing.

Then one Monday, I got my wake-up call. My school had devoted the previous Thursday and Friday to practice testing. These practice tests would serve as one of our school’s final gauges of student preparedness and what still needed to be accomplished before the real tests were to take place. I cheerily entered my principal’s office to greet him and find out how my students had done. He handed me my class’ scores. My heart sank. My students were nowhere near where I expected they would be, where they needed to be. I burst into tears. It was unlike me to display such emotion in front of a colleague (or this early on a Monday morning), but I couldn’t control it. I had been placing so much weight, importance, and expectations on these scores. It felt like all my hard work was wasted.

In Search of Perfection: Part II


(Photo credit: Marco Sama)

In my last post, I discussed the pernicious effects of perfectionism, which, when left to its own devices, can wreak all kinds of havoc in our relationships and on our emotional state. At this point, you may be asking yourself how this applies to you and your role at TFA, but I assure you that it does. Even those of you who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool perfectionists will bump up against events in your life that will test your ability to accept and let go. In the classroom and in many areas of life, you very likely feel that you are in control of most things that occur on your watch. But one of your challenges at TFA (and in life) is to learn where your power is and where it isn’t. If you find yourself not being in control all of the time, this does not necessarily mean that you’re failing. In fact, if you can give yourself a little leeway by not getting too invested in things turning out a certain way, you may be surprised at the outcome.

In Search of Perfection

(Photo credit: Vestman)

(Photo credit: Vestman)

We have all encountered some version of perfectionism within ourselves. But while perfectionism and its outcomes may have some benefits, there’s a downside to its allure.

On the positive side, striving for flawlessness can often mean that you are thorough and scrupulous when approaching projects, which can be a useful skill. In fact, it is a close cousin to “relentless pursuit.” It means working tirelessly and unremittingly until you reach a goal. There is no question that in order to make significant gains in much of life, a level of relentlessness and even perfectionism must be present. You might have seen this in yourself when, after decorating and arranging your new classroom for the first day of class, you spent another half hour rearranging the desks in an effort to maximize student interaction. Some level of perfectionism might even be partly responsible for your acceptance into TFA in the first place: a great resume, excellent grades, a well-thought-out lesson sample, and perfect interview responses. This all contributes to the success that you have achieved thus far. Like I said, being a perfectionist can come in handy.

Anxiety: How Much Is Too Much?

(Photo credit: Herry Lawford)

(Image credit: Herry Lawford)

Unfortunately, anxiety is an emotion I am all too familiar with. I’ve battled anxiety throughout my life, watching it wax and wane depending on my life circumstances, engaging in an ongoing process of learning how to cope with my anxious feelings. During my time as a corps member, my anxiety was particularly bad. It even got to the point where I experienced a panic attack—a really scary experience that I didn’t fully understand at the time.

I’ve been out of the corps for several years now, and have begun training in a counseling psychology graduate program. Through my training, I’ve learned some helpful things about anxiety that I wish I’d known back when I was a CM.

How to Cope with Disillusionment

(Photo credit: blameless-eyes)

(Photo credit: blameless-eyes)

During my first year of TFA, our principal enjoyed lining the kids up before school and berating them before they started the day. One morning in particular stands out: she paced back and forth, told the students that they acted like animals in a zoo, and explained that it was no wonder that “those schools in Beverly Hills don’t want you.” She went on to compassionately explain that her parents had the decency to raise her in a neighborhood where there weren’t gunshots at night, unlike the parents who were raising them. As they stood there, forced to listen to her racist and offensive ranting, I thought, “How in the world am I supposed to be effective with these kids when this is the tone that is set from our administration?”

At this point in the school year, it is normal to feel disillusioned. All of the plans, dreams, and good intentions that you carried forward into your classroom crash up against the realities of broken systems, economic disparity, unsupportive colleagues, discouragement, difficult administrators, and more.

So now what? When you’re having a particularly low day, remember these points:

Understanding Your Students’ Mental-Health Needs

(Photo credit: Nickolai Kashirin)

(Photo credit: Nickolai Kashirin)

We’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing your well-being, but there may be times you have questions about the well-being of your students. They likely face challenges that could potentially tax their resilience and their ability to function well in school: cyberbullying, other forms of relational or physical violence, extreme poverty, or lack of resources in the home. You may wonder how to recognize when your student is struggling with a mental-health concern, or how to know when to get involved in the mental-health needs of your students.

First, here is a strong resource to help guide you: the National Association of School Psychologists has an excellent resource library that lists topics alphabetically and provides a ton of materials for working with a variety of mental-health and interpersonal concerns in school settings. But if you need some quick tips, here’s a cheat sheet on how to know if your student is struggling—and when to intervene: