The fight against teen suicide begins in the classroom
Brittni Darras is an English teacher at Rampart High School in Colorado Springs. Following the attempted suicide of one of Rampart’s students, Brittni wrote each of her 130 students personalized cards, earning her worldwide attention, the AspenPointe Hero of Mental Health Award, and the Mayor’s Young Leader Award in the category of Innovation in Education.
A previous speaker at Point of Departure, Brittni is a varsity cheerleading coach and helps plan her school’s annual Bald for Bucks Assembly, in which over 200 students, staff, and community members shave their heads to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Here, we talk about hidden sadness, communicating with teenagers, and embracing creativity.
When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?
I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade, but I always thought I’d be an elementary school teacher. When I was in college, however, I started working as an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) tutor at the high school I attended. By the end of my first semester tutoring, I switched my major from elementary education to secondary education. I loved being surrounded by teenagers and being able to have conversations with them about their jobs, classes, and future plans—I quickly realized that was the right fit for me.
Are there things that young people are dealing with today that adults sometimes struggle to comprehend or empathize with?
Definitely. Many adults think young people have it easy because they don’t have to work or pay bills while they still live under their parents’ roof. What adults don’t realize is that even the young people who don’t have to worry about these things still have other concerns and problems. Trying to be the best in your class is hard. Trying to be the star athlete is hard. It’s hard trying to make people like you when cliques are common and reputations are a big deal. Kids are going through a lot of changes and they have to make big decisions about their future, which puts a great deal of pressure and stress on them.
You managed to make a big impact on your students with a simple, heartfelt burst of communication. What are some ways parents can improve communication with their kids?
Teenagers in particular are at an age when many of them want to establish independence. They don’t always respond well to communication with parents, even when parents have the best intentions. I do think it is important for parents to acknowledge the things their children do well and to let them know they are proud of them. Every child does something well that is worth acknowledging. I would encourage parents to pay attention to and verbally reinforce those positive attributes.
Do school tragedies—particularly Columbine—weigh on today’s students at all?
I was teaching a freshman English class a few years ago and during our hero unit I mentioned all of the first responders who rescued kids and escorted them to safety following the Columbine shooting. I got blank stares from my students. When I asked them if they knew what happened at Columbine, not a single student answered. I realized none of them were even alive when the shooting took place. Perhaps the Columbine tragedy doesn’t have a huge impact on our current students. I do, however, believe that social media and the media in general weighs heavily on them.
Can you tell me about a personal point of departure in your life?
My point of departure was when I found out that one of my students, who appeared to have it all together, attempted suicide and said that she didn’t believe anybody would miss her if she was gone. She was beautiful, intelligent, and kind. She was always surrounded by friends and she always came into class with a smile on her face. At this moment, I asked myself, “If she struggled to the point of wanting to take her own life, how many other students and people do I know who might be facing the same struggles?”
Do you have a favorite TED talk?
Yes! “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by Sir Ken Robinson. In my opinion, he is absolutely correct. We have a responsibility to give children a well-rounded education. Sometimes I feel like the school system treats students like machines that can all be “produced” the same way. It’s important to remember that they are human beings. All of them have unique interests and abilities; it is crucial for schools to embrace that.