As always, this year’s Girls’ Health and Science Day included an Adult Track, a chance for teachers and other adults to do what the girls do: share their experience, encounter new ideas, and reflect on the experience of being a girl in today’s world. I caught up with 5-year GHSD veteran Katie Cahnmann to get her take on this year’s event.
Elsa Rodriguez: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your job? What has been your experience working with youth around issues of health and wellness?
Katie Cahnmann: I am the Social Support Coordinator at ACE Technical Charter High School. I have been providing social and emotional support, counseling, and advocacy to the entire student body for the last 5 years. My most important objective is to support the students, families, and faculty – making sure everyone’s emotional health is stable and helping guide our students towards making positive, healthy life choices.
ER: What challenges have you faced in your work with youth? What are some strategies you have used to address those challenges?
KC: As the primary provider of social emotional support to my students, I face all types of challenges every day. Some of the biggest areas of concern stem from identity confusion, low self-esteem, lack of healthy coping skills, etc. I don’t so much struggle with working with the students as I do in working with the adults and helping them understand what these children are going through. Although society has progressed tremendously in becoming much more accepting, it is still extremely difficult for individuals who live lifestyles outside of what the majority considers the norm to feel fully accepted. There is still a significant amount of prejudice displayed towards the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community. I find some of my biggest struggles come from adults not being comfortable with the whole concept of being transgender. The challenge comes from trying to educate adults who are quite set in their ways and who not only don’t understand much about transgender identity, but who are uncomfortable with just the thought of it. My goal is to always support my students and ensure their human rights are not being violated.
ER: How many times have you come to Girls’ Health and Science Day?
KC: This was my 5th year participating in the GHSD program and I love it so much. Obviously, that is why I keep coming back and bringing new students every year. I truly enjoyed the adult track this year and was excited to talk about new topics, especially mass media and social media and the impacts of both on society today. It’s always a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere for the adults to learn as well as to support each other. It was nice having some younger female adults lead some of the discussions and really help the adults see things from a girl’s perspective.
ER: Why is it important for teachers to come together and discuss issues of student health and wellness?
KC: Although one person can make a difference, we are much stronger as a team. I believe strongly in the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” We all need to be on the same page and working together to best support our youth. When we unify, we are that much more powerful. As educators in various schools, we are all dealing with similar concerns but never really have the opportunity to discuss those concerns as a team and share our ideas and strategies with each other. Everyone needs support, and I think it is so important to share knowledge. If something is working great for someone else why wouldn’t you want to tell others about it so they can try it, too? Or maybe someone is facing a challenge and not sure what steps to take to solve it, and then here we are all coming together and one (if not more than one of us) is bound to have some possible solutions. We are all working towards the same cause, it would be so nice to see us come together more often.
ER: Shannon Sullivan’s presentation to the Adult Track was about creating safe spaces for young people’s identities. Why is this a particularly important topic to discuss among educators?
KC: Children are so skeptical and guarded, and if they don’t feel safe they are not going to speak up or out. And if they feel they have to be silent then that can lead to other problems, often fatal outcomes, including suicide. Adolescence is a really tough time in general for most, so when you are struggling with your identity it becomes that much more difficult. This is why it is incredibly important to have “safe” spaces where you won’t be judged or condemned or belittled in any way. As educators, it is even more important to be accepting of all, and equally important for students to know that their teachers and administrative staff support them regardless of their identity. Any sense of hesitation, concern, or disdain towards a child’s identity can severely interfere with their learning, which is not only unfair to those children but it is also a violation of their basic human rights. We are here to educate our students, not judge them. Therefore, it is essential that we provide safe spaces for these kids.
ER: How would you characterize the role of mass media in the lives of your students? How does their relationship to/consumption of media affect their wellness and senses of self?
KC: I think sense of self gets lost – the entire movement of mass media, including social media, interferes with one’s own personal self-identity. We live in a different world today, where technology has taken over. Communication, self-image, and so much more have been greatly affected by it. I look at how some of my students are representing themselves, based on what they see in the media, and I am appalled, to say the least. The style in which they communicate… What happened to speaking and writing proper English without the use of profanity? What happened to dressing appropriately and not showing off your entire body to the mass public? I think media and technology allows individuals to hide behind a façade – it’s like few people really know who they are anymore, or who they want to be – and young people don’t realize that the choices they make today will impact their futures tomorrow.
ER: Anything else you want to add?
KC: Programs like GHSD are so vital to the growth of our youth, but we need to also offer a BHSD, too! Both our young women and young men need all the support they can get. They need to be educated on topics that are seen as taboo, controversial, inappropriate, etc. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk to our kids about life – dating, sex, self-identity, be confident to be themselves, drugs, choices, consequences, etc. We need to be real with our kids. And trust me when I say they appreciate that so much. And also trust me when I say if we don’t talk to them and educate them they will figure out another way to learn and get the info that won’t be as accurate, safe, etc.
I love what Project Exploration is doing and continue to look forward to what PE has in store for the future. Thank you so much for this opportunity!
Read more about Girls Health and Science Day from a student’s perspective