Kat Locke-Jones wants to know if there are any nappers in the room. She’s asking her 36 seventh graders, all stuffed in a small classroom, how they get rid of negative thoughts and feelings after a bad day. Her tonic is apple juice and a nap.

One boy says he puts all his emotions into pitching a baseball, leaving everything on the field. Another one of her students escapes with music, and a third says: “I love to write down my feelings.”

The 11-year-veteran educator’s assignment is to teach 107 seventh graders at Hampstead Hill Academy to analyze literature, write well and fill in any gaps she sees in their world knowledge along the way.

But, on a spring morning at the school near Patterson Park in East Baltimore, she covered none of that. Instead, Locke-Jones — nicknamed LoJo by her students — set aside English for the day to do a mental health lesson.

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Teachers everywhere were told after the pandemic to put the social and emotional health of their students before their lessons. But teachers have often said they found it difficult to balance the need to catch students up academically and attend to their mental health.

The Baltimore teacher of the year has managed to find that balance. Locke-Jones said she is preparing students for their lives ahead and perhaps in the process to be healthier and better able to learn. “Feelings are like weights if we don’t release them,” she said to her class.

Kat Locke-Jones said she wants to be “a place where they [students] can come when their voice quivers.” (Jessica Gallagher / The Baltimore Banner)

What happens when you keep all the feelings repressed, she asked her students. Do they go away or grow stronger?

Locke-Jones comes to these lessons following her own deep suffering after her younger brother took his life in 2018. Sean Locke was an outgoing person and athlete at the University of Delaware.

“Sean was my best friend. We talked on the phone all the time. He was like the person you call when you’re bored, and you’re like, doing a chore,” she said. She believes he buried his feelings, essentially masking his pain from the world. “I didn’t know the signs of depression or anxiety, and sometimes I look back. ... Was he trying to tell me something and I didn’t give him the space?” she asked.

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She now creates a space inside her classroom for students not only to feel safe but to bravely express what is bothering them. “Sean’s death made me reflect as a teacher. I need to be a place where they can come when their voice quivers. ... If my brother was wearing a mask, what are the things that my students bring into the classroom every day?” she asks herself.

Growing up in a family of six children, Locke-Jones was assigned to be the homework helper to her younger siblings. The 33-year-old now imagines all the children in her classroom as a large family. At the beginning of each school year, she has every student write and share their own personal history. She does hers as well. It is a way to build a feeling of family.

She hopes her students return home each day to tell their families about the funny things their teacher did that day or the things they learned.

“Family is at the value of my class,” she said. “I want to feel like an extension of their home.”

Locke-Jones has her own family table as well. She and her husband, also a schoolteacher, have three boys, and she is pregnant with a girl.

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Locke-Jones said she understands teachers’ reasons for worrying about teaching all of the material in the curriculum.

“I think a lot of times people don’t make space for conversations,” she said.

But those lessons on semicolons can wait, she said.

Locke-Jones’ students have the third-highest pass rates on the seventh grade English Language Arts state assessment, according to her principal, Matt Hornbeck. The city’s pass rate on English for seventh graders was 29%, the state’s was 47% and Locke-Jones’ pass rate is 82%, according to state data.

In addition, more than a quarter of her students scored at the advanced level, and she has nearly closed the achievement gaps between Black and Hispanic students and white students, as well as between those who are economically disadvantaged and those who aren’t.

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She’s done this at a diverse school where 39% of students are economically disadvantaged and 18% are immigrants learning English.

Student Maria Fernandez finds expressing herself through writing helpful. Locke-Jones gives students a lot of individual attention, she said. “It makes me feel part of the classroom. I am really in her classroom, whereas with other classes where I am there but not really there,” the 13-year-old said.

What Hornbeck says makes Locke-Jones a standout is her ability to teach children to write, giving them easy-to-follow instructions. “This is someone who is so far outside of the standard,” Hornbeck said. She knows how to motivate and cajole. She speaks up to students rather than down to them. She plans her lessons with precision. “She knows exactly what she wants to do with every kid,” Hornbeck said.

Locke-Jones was driven by her brother's death to refocus her teaching on mental health. (Jessica Gallagher / The Baltimore Banner)

Locke-Jones will compete with 23 other teachers of the year from other school systems to be the Maryland State Teacher of the Year. Hornbeck is betting on her to win.

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Locke-Jones said her focus on mental health has extended into her work with the foundation her family set up after her brother’s death, called SL24. Sean’s jersey number was 24.

The family held a basketball tournament to raise money to give to the foundation. But the tournament raised enough money to buy the house Sean had lived in when he was a college student. Sean’s House is a place where students go to grab coffee, do homework and have conversations with other students. “One of the programs we’ve had at Sean’s House is training high school and college students to have courageous conversations with their peers,” Locke-Jones said.

The house and the annual fundraising allowed her to do something with the love and grief she had for her brother, she said. “Great grief just means that there was great love, and you need a place for it to go.”

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