June 2019 Honoree
with her student, Branson Blair
Wiliams Elementary School, Jonesville, Michigan
story by: Natasha Friend, Award-winning Author
“Rachel is always researching how to connect with kids who’ve experienced trauma, kids with higher needs. She puts in so much effort to connect with the kids who are shut off. She reaches out for the ones who say, ‘I hate school and I hate you.’”
Brian Playford, Upper Elementary Principal at Williams Elementary School
The first week of March, Rachel Mandrelle’s classroom was under siege. On Monday, five of her twenty-six third graders were out sick with Influenza A. On Tuesday, eight students were out. By Friday, the number of sick children had grown to sixteen.
During one indoor recess, a girl spiked a fever and lay down on a bench in the middle of Mandrelle’s classroom. The nurse couldn’t reach the girl’s parents, so Mandrelle let her sleep. Minutes later, another child, a boy whose grandmother had died over the weekend, curled up on an adjoining bench and closed his eyes. “He wasn’t sick,” Mandrelle says. “His was an emotional tired. But I let him sleep, too.”
As she explained to the remaining children—the ones she had corralled into a quiet corner of the room to play math games while their classmates slept—her job is not just to teach academics, it’s also to take care of them. “The biggest thing I do as a teacher,” she says, “is to make sure everyone’s okay.”
If “okay” sounds like a modest goal for an educator, consider this: in Mandrelle’s class last year, eight of her third graders had experienced discernible trauma in their lives. The issues her students were grappling with—grief over the death of a family member, substance abuse at home, identity questions surrounding adoption—presented a range of behavioral challenges in the classroom.
Not one to shirk a challenge, Mandrelle turned to experts in the field of child psychiatry, like Dr. Bruce Perry, author of The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog, whose book helped her to understand how trauma affects a child’s brain and how that brain can recover.
“I see Rachel reading all the time,” says Brian Playford, Upper Elementary Principal at Williams Elementary. “She’s always researching how to connect with kids who’ve experienced trauma, kids with higher needs. She puts in so much effort to connect with the kids who are shut off, as opposed to the ones who say, ‘I love teachers, I love school.’ She reaches out for the ones who say, ‘I hate school and I hate you.’”
For ten-year-old Branson Blair, Mandrelle has been a lifeline.
“I have been astounded by the lengths to which Mrs. Mandrelle has gone to understand what Branson is going through and to do everything in her power to help him succeed in school.”
Courtney Lynn Raymond, Branson's Mother
The two first met in 2014, when Branson was in pre-K and his older brother, Brennan, was in Mandrelle’s class. That was the year Mandrelle gave birth to her fourth child. She missed the first trimester of the school year to stay home with her baby. She returned from maternity leave, and she had barely known Brennan a month when she received word that Brennan and Branson’s dad had committed suicide over Christmas break. Mandrelle was at a family party when she heard the news, and she told everyone she had to go. She left the party and went straight to the funeral.
Brennan and Branson handled their dad’s death differently. Brennan wrote songs and poems and drew pictures to cope with his grief, while Branson expressed his pain outwardly. Mandrelle and Branson’s pre-K teacher were in constant contact. Sometimes Brennan would be called out of his third-grade classroom to comfort his brother.
Through the years, Brennan would bring Branson to visit Mandrelle after school. She kept balloons in her room to use for her static electricity unit, and if Branson had an angry day, he would come to her room and pop balloons. Whenever Mandrelle saw Branson in the hall, or whenever he got called into the principal’s office for his outbursts, she would stop and say hello and ask how he was doing. Because Mandrelle and Branson had already established a relationship, when it came time for third-grade placement, Branson’s mom requested her as a teacher.
At the beginning of the school year, Mandrelle told Branson and his classmates what she tells every new crop of third graders: “I will not treat you all the same. Please do not expect that. You’re all different.”
Mandrelle takes pride in knowing exactly who her students are, where they come from, and the makeup of their families. Because Williams Elementary School serves a mix of rural farm kids and professors’ kids from neighboring Hillsdale College, she cannot take a cookie cutter approach to teaching. “Some students come from a home environment filled with rich vocabulary and books from the time they’re born,” Mandrelle explains. “And then we have the ones who could tell you everything about a farm but whose houses aren’t filled with books, and they don’t have anyone who reads with them at home. I have to meet the kids where they are.”
For Branson, third grade began with a lot of angry days. Although he knew Mandrelle already, the trauma he had experienced from his dad’s suicide made trusting people difficult, even those he had known for years. Transitions, like leaving the classroom for specials, were particularly difficult. The first few months of school, Mandrelle spent a lot of time working with Branson one-on-one. Many of her prep periods were spent in the classroom with him while he screamed and lashed out at anyone and everyone. He would always cycle back to the same place: “I miss my dad.”
Because of her research—because she understands the science behind trauma—Mandrelle has been able to explain to Branson that his brain is there to protect him. She has described to him what the amygdala is and how it operates. She has worked with him on strategies for calming down. “When the amygdala goes,” she explains, “his frontal lobe shuts off. He can’t see right, he can’t read, he can’t think, he can’t speak correctly because he’s gone into survival mode.”
Mandrelle has described this phenomenon not only to Branson, but to her whole class, because she wants every student to understand how the brain works. She also wants the kids to know that when any of them loses control, she is there to help.
“If someone gets mad,” one girl in the class explains, “Mrs. Mandrelle helps us calm down. She never yells. She gives us what we need.”
“Rachel knows how to differentiate, not only instructionally, but also behaviorally, emotionally, and socially. She meets the individual needs of every student, all twenty-six of them, and that is a really difficult thing to do. Most people could not do what she does.”
Ryan Grimm, K-2 Principal
The hardest part about teaching, Mandrelle says, is preparing mentally for each day. “You never know what a child is coming in with. Sometimes they come in happy and excited. Sometimes they come in sad or angry. I need to be prepared to be joyful with them or to give them extra time.”
For Branson’s angry days, Mandrelle has established a five finger countdown, beginning with the directive, “Name something you see.” If he is in an emotional space where he isn’t ready to do this, Mandrelle begins for him. She might say, “I see a book bag. It’s green and it has things spilling out of it. I bet there’s a lot of cool stuff in there.” Then she might ask, “Can you name one?” If Branson doesn’t respond, she will keep going, naming things she sees in the classroom, slowly, calmly, until he is ready to join in. They move on to things they can hear, things they can smell, things they can touch, things they can taste. Usually, by this point, Branson’s frontal lobe has re-activated and Mandrelle has him back. She can talk to him about his behavior.
December is always a hard month for Branson because the anniversary of his dad’s death looms. Right before Christmas break, Branson’s behavior was particularly off. One of the books about trauma Mandrelle had been reading recommended implementing a visual schedule to decrease anxiety. Knowing what was coming in his day could help Branson anticipate transitions and prepare for them emotionally. Every morning, Mandrelle and Branson would sit down together. They began reviewing the schedule and discussing any changes that might arise that day. She built in breaks for him, like drawing time, which he loves. He doesn’t always take the breaks, but he has the option if he needs them.
Mandrelle is in constant contact with Branson’s mom, Courtney, and his stepfather, Thomas. That communication helps Branson. He knows that his teacher and his family are on the same team.
“I have been astounded,” Courtney says, “by the lengths to which Mrs. Mandrelle has gone to understand what Branson is going through and to do everything in her power to help him succeed in school. A lot of teachers would say, ‘He’s just going to have to get used to how things are,’ but Mrs. Mandrelle says, ‘No. I want to get used to how he is and make things work for him.’”
Making things work for Branson includes calling up the youth football coach and explaining that Branson had been too nervous to try out for the team, but could he please have another chance? Making things work for Branson includes knowing that he loves sports, so instead of making him read about mountains, finding him a book about Michael Jordan. Making things work for Branson includes setting aside a space in the classroom for when he is having a tough day. He—or any child in the class—can go to that spot and chill out. “If Mrs. Mandrelle notices that Branson is getting irritated and needs a break,” Courtney says, “she gives him that break, that breathing room. She’s made learning possible for him.”
At the beginning of the school year, Branson’s test scores were low, but that was not Mandrelle’s concern. “I didn’t focus on academics for the first few months, honestly,” she says. “I didn’t ask him to do everything his classmates were doing. I didn’t choose to fight those battles. I focused on his emotional needs.”
Establishing trust, building a connection with Branson, has resulted in more than just calmer days in the classroom. There have been academic changes, too. Just ask his mom. “Every one of his midyear test scores,” Courtney says, “—reading, math, science—has come up and surpassed the grade level.”
Ryan Grimm, the K-2 Principal at Williams, is not surprised. “Mrs. Mandrelle has always been someone who goes way above and beyond in the classroom. She knows how to differentiate, not only instructionally, but also behaviorally, emotionally, and socially. She meets the individual needs of every student, all twenty-six of them, and that is a really difficult thing to do. Most people could not do what she does.”
“Experience has taught me that my relationship with my students is more important than anything else.”
Lucky for Mandrelle, her four children—ranging in age from 4 to 12—and her husband, who is also an educator, understand and support her passion for teaching. On a road trip to Wyoming, the family drove hours out of their way to unearth some fossil butte for a third-grade science unit.
That extra effort is not just about rocks, Mandrelle says, it’s about connection. It’s about the story she will tell her class when she gets home from her trip. Just as she wants to know her students, she wants them to know her, too. “I’m not afraid to share what’s going on in my life. We started our division unit in math, and I told them about my son and daughter going out to our garden and picking cherry tomatoes to make a salad for dinner, and how they had to make sure that they divided the cherry tomatoes equally. That connection, the fact that my students know me, they know about my life, isn’t something I make up. It’s real.”
For Branson, his relationship with Mandrelle boils down to one simple fact: “She loves me, and I love her.”
For Mandrelle, the feeling goes even deeper. “Experience has taught me that my relationship with my students is more important than anything else. Teachers can be such powerful agents of change. What other job do you have where you can affect the trajectory of a kid’s life? I want Branson’s next teacher to know that he is a great kid. And he’s smart. Holy moly is he smart. He has so much to offer. I think he’s going to be okay.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741, or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Photography by Jennifer Geer
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According to the National Center for Health Statistics, suicide is at its highest rate in 30 years.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.